While some mothers may frown upon their children becoming involved in the world of professional wrestling, Thelma “Mama” Cornette was the driving force behind her son entering the business.
Born on October 21, 1933, in the small town of Duckrun, Kentucky, she was the first in her family to graduate high school. She moved to Louisville in the early ’50s and worked as a secretary at the Louisville Chamber of Commerce where she met her husband who was an executive at the Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times.
“My mother is the reason I ever saw my first wrestling match,” explained Jim Cornette to SLAM! Wrestling. “I was around nine years old, and my mom happened to be sick one weekend. She was up late at night. Once channel three in Louisville went off the air that night, she turned the channel and discovered she could get a decent signal from Bloomington, Indiana, which was the Indianapolis market. It used to show Dick The Bruiser’s wrestling program. There was wrestling on the air in Louisville at the time, but I didn’t know it. I was reading comic books — that was my first love. Anyway, she started watching the show, and it had Bruiser and The Crusher on it.
“For all intents and purposes, it could have been the same kind of wrestling she saw when she moved to Louisville,” continued Cornette. “Bruiser and Crusher were in the business in the early ’50s for goodness sake! She happened to make a comment to me the next day. ‘Jimmy, I saw wrestling on TV that looked like what I used to watch 20 years ago when I first moved to Louisville.’ I said I would like to see that. She said ‘well maybe I’ll let you stay up next week so you can see it.’ I bugged her enough so I could watch it, and I loved it.”
Professional wrestling was love at first sight for young Jimmy, and the love affair only intensified as time went on.
“Ms. Christine Jarrett had just opened up the Louisville territory in June of 1970. The Jarretts’ TV show was on the air here in Louisville so I started watching. It was a studio show, so it was different, but I liked everything related to wrestling from that point on — even on family vacations. If I went to my aunt’s house in Cincinnati, I could see The Sheik’s TV show from Detroit. If I went to my uncle’s house in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I could see the Crocketts’ show from North Carolina and Southeastern Wrestling from Knoxville.”
His mother would also purchase a variety of wrestling magazines for her son such as The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling. After making a deal with his mother, she accompanied him to his first ever wrestling event.
“The Louisville Gardens was running every Tuesday night,” recalled Cornette. “However, my dad had passed away in 1968, and she didn’t want to go downtown at night alone with a little boy. I read the Apter magazines that she would buy for me, and I saw the pictures of the San Francisco and Los Angeles battle royals. I got her to promise me if they ever had a battle royal live, she would take me to see it. Well, a battle royal was scheduled for May 15, 1974 at the Louisville Gardens. I called her on it, and she kept her promise. Once we got down there and found out that it wasn’t a dangerous place, parking wasn’t bad and I loved the matches more than a sick man loves penicillin; I was in the Louisville Gardens to see wrestling for the next eight years.”
Cornette’s early break into the wrestling business came as a result of a conversation between his mother and long-time wrestling promoter Christine Jarrett.
“Thelma approached my mother one night at Louisville Gardens to ask that Jimmy be allowed to take pictures at ringside,” recalled Jerry Jarrett. “She explained that wrestling seemed to be Jimmy’s life and the matches at Louisville had become a major part of their lives. My mother and Thelma got to know each other and over time became friends. My mother related to me that she felt a connection with Thelma because she and Jimmy were so close and the similarity between our families. My mother began a campaign for me to allow Jimmy to come and take pictures.”
“I had a Kodak Instamatic camera,” added Cornette. “I became good at predicting the matches such as how the bumps would go, which allowed me to take decent pictures. Some of the fans began asking for copies of the pictures. So, I went back to my mom and bugged her to get me a better camera for my birthday. For my fifteenth birthday, she got me a 35-millimeter Canon camera with a nice flash. When I started taking pictures with it, the wrestlers began to take notice. That’s also where Ms. Jarrett came in. We got to know her because she would talk with all of the fans. The fans didn’t really understand the concept of promoter then. Of course being Jerry Jarrett’s mother, she was a star anyway. I asked her for an autograph, and she was really nice to us. She saw some of my pictures and wanted to buy some for the souvenir stand. When the souvenir stand got swamped, my mom would sit in and say ‘Here are Jimmy’s pictures, would you like to buy one of them?’ She became the co-seller of merchandise at the Louisville Gardens. She and Ms. Jarrett became close. For example, if Tuesday night was Louisville, Wednesday night was Evansville and Thursday night was Lexington; instead of going all the way back to Nashville from Evansville, Ms. Jarrett and whoever was driving her would just follow us back, stay at our house and then go to Lexington to save miles.”
Even after receiving his driver’s license, Mama Cornette continued accompanying and assisting her son over the next few years until he became a manager.
“By the time I was 20, Jerry Jarrett asked me if I wanted to be in the business,” stated Cornette. “He came up with the idea to use the old ‘Playboy’ Gary Hart gimmick. When Hart started out, he had a rich mother and came from a wealthy family. Everybody in the territory had seen my mother and I together since I was a little kid. So Jerry gave me the old Gary Hart gimmick in that I was a rich snotty nose kid and my mother was financing my way to get into wrestling. Apart from being a genius as a booker, Jerry always wanted credibility and logic. It worked because people had seen all of the background. My mom stayed home because it didn’t fit the picture for her to be around and be nice to people.”
“I recall having Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton as a team and realized that they were very good wrestlers, but made terrible interviews,” said Jarrett. “I was sitting in the break room at the television station having a cup of coffee and listening to Jimmy talking nonstop about something going on in his life. Every other word was ‘My mama this’ or ‘My mama that’ and I thought this kid can make you dislike him just overhearing his conversation. A light went on in my head at that moment, and I still remember it like it happened last month. I asked Jimmy if he would like to try making an interview on television.”
Cornette was more than eager to fulfill both the request and a lifelong dream.
“Eager is an understatement,” added Jarrett. “Jimmy asked what role I wanted him to play. I told him to just play himself. I also told him to just tell the people the truth that his mama would back him in anything he did and money was no object. I suggested he stick with the truth that the wrestling business was his life and now he had the opportunity to apply his skills to the management of Dennis Condrey and Bobby Eaton. Almost instantly, Jim Cornette had as much heat as Jimmy Hart and more than all the other managers combined. Condrey and Eaton went from being a very good tag team to being the top heel team in our territory.”
Although she was no longer making the trips with her son, she still helped to continue the mystique of her son’s character.
“She told me that a couple of times she would see people around town that knew her from the matches,” said Cornette. “They would go ‘What in the world happened to Jimmy? He used to be such a nice boy.’ She would kayfabe for me, she never smartened anybody up. She would say ‘Well it’s the pressure of being on TV and around all of those crazy people. Sometimes he says things he shouldn’t.'”
Jim Cornette then made his way to Bill Watts’ Mid-South Wrestling territory where the popularity of his gimmick surged.
“When I went to Louisiana, Bill Watts took it to the next level because he was all about realism. Here comes this 22-year-old wimp talking about his mother into this territory of giants such as Ernie Ladd, Junkyard Dog and Hacksaw Jim Duggan. The Midnight Express and I almost got killed on a weekly basis there because it was hot. The first time I main evented the Superdome, I flew my mom down to New Orleans. We actually had to have the Mid-South office personnel sneak her into one of the Superdome skyboxes because I wanted her to see the match; however, the heat was such that I couldn’t be seen with her because I was afraid people would figure out who she was and kill her. So, she’s in the skybox watching Bill Watts and the Junkyard Dog rip my clothes off, dress me in a diaper and feed me a baby bottle. She loved it!”
Even after Jim Cornette departed WCW to form Smoky Mountain Wrestling in 1991, he knew he could depend on his mother for support.
“She knew it was a risk, but she was happy because she knew how miserable I had been at WCW. She saw me beating my head against the wall in an industry that was going south fast. I guess that was the worst five years wrestling has gone through in the past 100 years.
“There were a couple of times where money was tight, and we were struggling along,” continued Cornette. “Once again, even when I was 30, I could call mom and receive $5,000 for a couple of weeks to pay the TV station, allow me to straighten out the conflict. She was not poor, but she was not rich by any means. As a result of growing up in the Great Depression, she was very careful with her money and lived a very modest lifestyle.”
Both Mama Cornette and her son came full circle when Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW) was formed in Louisville.
“When we did our first big show at the Louisville Gardens, she came down to run the meet and greet. She was also at a number of our big shows because it was home. Now, I was the wrestling babyface legend around town and there was no heat. Everybody was happy to see her again. Even if people didn’t like me, no one disliked her.”
Just like her son, Mama Cornette was known not to take any grief from anyone and willingly voiced her displeasure.
“There is about 30 acres of woods across the street from where we lived. Sometimes hunters would go over because the area had deer, rabbits and various animals. Well, one day she is in the kitchen and she is looking out the front window down at the road. There was a car parked there. This guy with a rifle just fired up the fence roll at something in between our house and a neighbor’s house. She went out on the front porch and said, ‘We don’t allow hunting around here.’ I could have been playing in the yard and been shot. He said ‘Go to hell’ and she leveled a rifle right between his eyes and said ‘That’s where you’re going if you’re not off this property in five seconds.’ The people in the car screeched off, and the guy with the gun had to run and jump in the open door while it was moving.”
Sadly, Thelma Cornette lost her battle with cancer on July 22, 2002.
“She had received a complete physical around Christmas of 2001, and they found nothing wrong,” recalled Cornette. “By March, they diagnosed her with cancer. She was still living here by herself two weeks before she passed away. My girlfriend Stacey and I took her to one of her doctor’s appointments for some routine tests. They told her she was developing a blood clot, and she was going to be sent to the hospital. Here is a woman that was living by herself, and we were visiting every day; however, she was doing good and was on medication. They put her in the hospital and eight days later she came home. She had to have a hospital bed and be on oxygen. She didn’t live six more days. To be honest with you, she was so independent. After she went to the hospital, I think she realized she was going to have to be dependent on people and probably felt she was going to be a burden to people. Subconsciously, I think she said ‘check please, let’s go’ because her death was that quick.
“When she passed away, there were so many emails to our website here at OVW,” continued Cornette. “It also made Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I put a binder together of around 300 condolence emails and website stories, which I gave to my cousin Gail. She really resembles my mom, and they were pretty close. She just broke down and cried because she didn’t realize that many people had heard of Mama Cornette.”