In 1952, the very Catholic-Italian, Angelo Poffo, married the girl of his dreams, Judy Sverdlin, a nice Jewish girl. They had met at at DePaul University in Chicago and both were Physical Education majors.
But the degree Angelo earned, aiming for a career as a teacher, wasn’t put to immediate use.
Angelo was a dedicated athlete who set a world’s record with 6,033 push-ups in the Navy in 1945 and then took up professional wrestling. Based in the Mid-West, he impressed a few influential trainers and promoters – in particular Fred Kohler in Chicago – and slowly built a career as a hated wrestling champion in the heyday of Dumont network and syndicated TV wrestling in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Away from the ring, Angelo and Judy had one son, Randy, and then another, Lanny, born in Calgary on what was then Dominion Day and is now celebrated as Canada Day, July 1. Angelo was working for Stu Hart’s Alberta promotion that eventually became Stampede Wrestling, and Judy and Stu’s beloved wife Helen were each expecting around the same time; all became lifelong friends.
Intermarriage in that era was frowned upon and often newlyweds were shunned, but that was not the case for the Poffos – and as a result their children had rich cultural and educational experiences in family settings.
And Judy’s family was a keystone to that foundation, as I learned in an exclusive interview done three years ago, that was recently recovered from my audio archives.
Lanny was first of the boys to enter the professional wrestling ring in 1973 while Randy pursued professional baseball as a minor league catcher for a short time before he too donned the tights.
After wrestling alongside their father around North America, Angelo and Judy set up their own version of a family business – the wild and wooly International Championship Wrestling promotion out of Lexington, Kentucky, in the 1980s. Their sons, as ‘Macho Man Randy Savage’ and ‘The Genius’ moved on from ICW and soon became World Wrestling Federation superstars during the WWF Rock N’ Wrestling era. They starred in matches attaining record-setting gates and TV ratings.
Fast forward to 2019: Lanny Poffo had the opportunity of a lifetime – to celebrate his birthday in the country of his birth.
He agreed to lace up his boots again for a week-long tour with Winnipeg-based Canadian Wrestling’s Elite, which often presents stars of the previous generation as an added attraction to their cards. The final CWE event of the tour was presented for the Canada Day celebrations at CFB Shilo.
Before his match in front of a packed armory crowd of 600, Lanny, in his renowned baritone, was happy to tell TheJ.ca about his pride in being from Jewish stock.
“My Zaidy came from Lithuania in 1918 (age 28) and entered World War 1. That’s how he earned his citizenship. My Bubbie was from Belarus – white Russia near Chernobyl). Harry Sverdlin and Rebecca Swett,” Poffo said.
Randy and Lanny enjoyed holiday celebrations with both the Italian and Jewish sides of their family, explaining, “Although we didn’t learn Hebrew, we learned the culture. For Passover seders I’d grab my yamulkah (at the house).”
Watching the relatives gab and have small talk after Chanukah menorah lightings and Passover Hagadah readings, Lanny described how he learned that no matter what the mishap or malady, another relative would always say, they had it even worse. “It’s like they were all bragging about how sick they are!” laughed Poffo, “Oy!”
It was part of a full education in life that Angelo’s career facilitated.
“Travelling all over and all that kind of stuff, every couple of months moving. Like our boys say, they enjoyed every bit of it,” Judy told SlamWrestling.net in 2010. “They went to foreign countries, they met many people. I probably, if I had not travelled with Ang, would never have been out of the state of Illinois.”
Those travels and experiences almost never happened, but for the encouragement of wrestling’s first TV star, a few years into the marriage.
“In 1952, my father was the designated driver for Gorgeous George, working for Al Haft in Columbus Ohio… my brother was about to be born. My father told Gorgeous George he was thinking of quitting the business,” recalled Lanny. “The double paychecks of my mom and him would be a good life and a safer life. And George says, ‘You’re out of your mind, you have charisma. You can make it in this business, you haven’t given yourself a chance.’”
After his wrestling career waned, Gorgeous George fell on hard times and lost his businesses, compounding his alcoholism.
“When my father found out that George had died, they couldn’t bury him, he was destitute. So, my father paid for the funeral of Gorgeous George.” Angelo told Lanny, “The reason I did it was because if it wasn’t for Gorgeous George, I would have quit the business.”
“Nobody knows this, but I’m telling you. And I want posterity to know,” Lanny told me.
Angelo and Judy retired to Florida, but Angelo’s health deteriorated with the onset of dementia, and he passed away in 2010. A year later Randy died after suffering a heart attack while driving with his wife Barbara, about a week after their first anniversary. As Lanny explains, after Randy died, he brought a rabbi to offer comfort to Judy.
“He talked to my mom and everything… and I explained that I was raised Catholic. He said, ‘Well. I’m still going to give you a bar mitzvah.’” The rabbi helped Lanny put on T’fillin, and led him through the brachas, which Lanny repeated after him, “and then he explained to me what the words meant. My mom was very happy that you know, I finally had a bar mitzvah, but we didn’t invite Madonna or everybody.”
Lanny also related how his daughter, gracing him with grandchildren, questioned what the kids should call their grandfather – “Do you want to be Zaidy, or do you want to be Nono?” But to Lanny, “If I’m Zaidy I think of Harry Sverdlin, and if I think of Nono, I think of Silvio Poffo… so I said, I want to be abuelo, which is Spanish for grandfather.”
A few years later, Judy Poffo passed away at age 90 in 2017, still very much aware of her surroundings and the love of her family.
In reflecting on his parents, Lanny spoke of how he inherited a love of Broadway musicals from his mother, and how his parents sacrificed to be able cater to his every interest, perhaps to excess: “My father was very, very, very thrifty because he was raised in the Depression, and he wanted to make a good life for my brother and I. My father was raised in scarcity, my brother and I were raised in abundance. I said violin and I got an imitation Stradivarius. I said photography I got a Nikon F with five lenses and a Durst M-600 enlarger.”
“Well, you know how kids are, I had to go up to my parents and say, ‘I’m no longer interested in the violin or in photography,’” Lanny recalled, switching to a Yiddish accent to imitate what their reaction was – “and this is the thanks I get?”
Born in Canada, raised in America, Lanny Poffo is now retired and lives in Ecuador.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this column was first published in TheJ.ca.