If you were a kid growing up in the early to mid-1980’s, you probably got caught up in the whirlwind of pop music.
Let’s face it: you watched MTV a lot.
And if you were an MTV kid, you probably saw the video to Cyndi Lauper’s “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun”. Not only a great song, but a fantastic video for its time.
Not only did Cyndi Lauper become a nationwide sensation, but the fellow who played her father in the video increased his visibility as a pop culture icon.
That man was Captain Lou Albano.
Before the WWE (first called the WWWF, then shortened to WWF in 1979) became an international powerhouse, it was pretty much a regional organization. From the 1950’s to about early 1983, they only ran in the Northeast. The main cities they ran in were New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Providence, Rhode Island, and many small cities and towns throughout the Northeast. Every week, they would broadcast their wrestling show out of the old Philadelphia Arena, and then later on, Allentown and Hamburg, Pennsylvania, respectively. The promotion was owned by Vince McMahon Sr., the father of the current WWE kingpin.
The premise of the promotion for almost two decades was to have villains challenge Bruno Sammartino for the WWWF belt. They would get a run with the champion throughout the major arenas throughout the Northeast. Rulebreakers like Killer Kowalski, Ivan Koloff, Spiros Arion, Stan Hansen and Ken Patera would try to wrest the title off of the Italian Strongman from Pittsburgh.
Part of Vince McMahon’s booking philosophy was to put a manager with the villains. And he had some of the best talkers in the business who did just that.
“Classy” Freddie Blassie, a longtime wrestler who was a huge star in the Los Angeles area in the 1950’s and 60’s, retired from the ring in 1973, and started managing Russian powerhouse Nikolai Volkoff. With his styled white hair, and flashy outfits, he was truly one of the greats.
“The Grand Wizard”, aka Ernie Roth, was a longtime radio announcer and wrestling play by play guy who suddenly changed his image in the mid-1960’s, donning a colorful cap that looked like something out of the Shriner’s group. He also wore sunglasses, and nice slick suits. He started managing The Sheik in the Detroit territory, and brought a lot to the Sheik’s entertainment package. In late 1971, he moved over to the WWWF, and started managing “Beautiful” Bob Harmon, Jimmy Valiant, and the dastardly duo or Professor Toru Tanaka & Mr. Fuji. He also lead “Superstar” Billy Graham to the WWWF title in 1977, and “Magnificent” Muraco to the Intercontinental Championship in 1981.
Rounding out this trio of heel managers was Lou Albano. Originally a wrestler, he competed in territories across the United States and Canada. In the early 1960’s, he formed a tag team with Tony Altimore, and they won the NWA Midwest Tag Team Championship in Chicago. They called their team “The Sicilians”, and made references that they might be possibly connected to the mob. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one day, the mafia came to an arena where “The Sicilians” were wrestling, and asked if they could tone down their act, and to drop the black gloves they wore to the ring.
Throughout the 1960’s, Albano stayed busy, competing in the tag team ranks, and also wrestling single matches. Despite the fact that he was an athlete in his early years (he was a pro football player at the University of Tennessee in the 1950’s), Albano’s in-ring acumen left a lot to be desired. He mainly relied on his brawling tactics, and had a knack for cutting a pretty good promo during interviews.
WWWF Champion Bruno Sammartino saw this, and took note.
“As a wrestler, he was mediocre”, Sammartino told the Baltimore Sun in 2009. “As a manager, I don’t know anybody who could argue the fact that he was the best. And I say that sincerely; he was absolutely the best”.
On the recommendation of Sammartino, Vince McMahon Sr. made Albano a manager. Quickly, he made his impact, taking on the services of the #1 contender for the WWWF Championship, Ivan Koloff. Albano’s influence was immediate, as Koloff defeated Sammartino for the belt at Madison Square Garden in New York in 1971. Although Koloff lost it three weeks later to Pedro Morales, Albano had made wrestling history.
After the loss to Morales, Albano shifted his focus to tag teams. In 1972, he managed Baron Mikel Scicluna and King Curtis Iaukea to the World Tag Team Championship, downing international stars Karl Gotch and Rene Goulet. Scicluna’s brawling tactics, mixed in with Iaukea’s surprisingly agile arsenal (he weighed over 300 pounds), teamed with Albano’s loud promos, made them a unique tag team combination.
What also made Albano unique was his appearance. Realizing that he needed to stand out and make wrestling fans take notice, he started dressing unusual. He started wearing denim jean shorts, a mixture of buttoned shirts with his face and name on them, and also he grew out his hair, beard, and started piercing rubber bands to his cheeks.
“He’d put safety pins on his face and on his nose the rubber bands. He dressed weird and had the long beard,” said longtime wrestler and trainer Johnny Rodz in Newsday. “That was the way he presented himself to draw the attention of the crowd.”
Albano continued to manage the top tag teams in the 1970’s, like the Valiant Brothers, the Masked Executioners (Killer Kowalski and Big John Studd), and the Yukon Lumberjacks. He also managed single wrestlers like Ken Patera, Blackjack Mulligan, and “Cowboy” Bobby Duncum.
As the 70’s drew to a close, and the 1980’s came in, the now-named WWF had big plans for national expansion. They needed colorful characters to help build their brand name. And one of the colorful guys that would help bring the WWF to the masses was Lou Albano.
In 1982, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka made his way into the WWF, and had “Captain” Lou as his mouthpiece. Immediately, Snuka became one of the biggest stars of the early 1980’s, challenging WWF Champion Bob Backlund for the title, and Intercontinental Champion Pedro Morales. Despite the fact that Snuka was a villain, deep down inside the fans wanted the “Superfly” to break away from the clutches of Albano.
During a late 1982 episode of WWF Championship Wrestling, during the interview segment “Roger’s Corner” (hosted by legend Buddy Rogers), Snuka was shocked to find out that Albano had taken more than this contractual percentage. As a matter of fact, Snuka was broke.
“I’m sorry Jimmy, but your money’s gone, all gone”, Rogers told Snuka.
“I’d appreciate it Buddy if you would become my manager”, Snuka responded, as the fans finally got to cheer their hero.
This led to a feud between Snuka and Albano, where the Captain would enlist the services of grizzled veteran Ray Stevens, who then would precede to piledrive Snuka on the floor. This led to many matches between Snuka and Stevens, and even a few grudge matches between Albano and the “Superfly”.
Then MTV hit.
In the early 1980’s, during the embryonic stages of cable television, one channel that had made major noise was MTV. It basically was a visual version of radio, with VJ’s (many of the best radio DJ’s across the U.S. were enlisted as the initial MTV DJ’s), and the channel played music videos of some of the biggest stars of that era like Journey, Blondie, Rick Springfield and Pat Benatar.
In 1983, a new pop sensation had taken over the radio airwaves and MTV. Her charisma and beautiful voice had made her debut album “She’s So Unusual” was a huge hit.
That pop sensation was Cyndi Lauper.
In her music video, “Girl’s Just Wanna Have Fun”, her father tries to prevent her from having too much enjoyment. Her father was played by none other than “Captain” Lou Albano.
Pretty soon, Lauper started showing up on WWF television, after Albano made claims that he was Lauper’s real life manager, and without him, she would still be singing in small clubs in New York. Infuriated by these false accusations, Lauper severed ties with Captain Lou, and started managing hot new female star Wendi Richter. As a matter of fact, Lauper was in Richter’s corner when Richter defeated then Women’s Champion Fabulous Moolah.
This pretty much kicked off the Rock and Roll Connection.
Throughout the rest of 1984, despite the new found fame as Cyndi Lauper’s on-screen dad, Albano remained a villain, leading Greg “The Hammer” Valentine to the Intercontinental Championship later that year.
Although the fans still hated Albano, new WWF owner Vince McMahon Jr. decided to do something that had never been done before.
Turn Lou Albano into a good guy.
For most of the year, Albano had struck up a friendship with the new lead villain, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. As a matter of fact, these guys were like father and son.
In December of 1984, “American Bandstand” host and entertainment mogul Dick Clark came to Madison Square Garden to honor Cyndi Lauper and Lou Albano. All of a sudden Piper comes out of nowhere in what seemed to be a congratulatory gesture towards Albano, but it was all a setup.
He then preceded to smash Albano over the head with a platinum album that was given to Albano by Dick Clark. Then Piper took Cyndi Lauper, and preceded to kick her away. He then took Lauper’s real-life husband David Wolff, and powerslammed him.
The roof was raised at the Garden that night.
Years after being one of the most hated men in wrestling, Lou Albano was now one of the most loved. People who usually booed him, knew he was captivating on the microphone, and wanted to cheer him. Now, with the Piper as the main heel, they had a reason to.
Pretty soon, Albano became the manager of the tag team champions Barry Windham and Mike Rotundo, and also guided Andre the Giant, George “The Animal” Steele (who had just turned good himself), Hillbilly Jim, and also would sometimes accompany then WWF Champion Hulk Hogan to the ring.
“Captain” Lou Albano was now a major pop culture superstar.
1985 and 1986 would continue to be big years for the Captain. He guided the British Bulldogs to the tag team belts at Wrestlemania 2 in Chicago over Greg Valentine and Brutus Beefcake. He also appeared in Cyndi Lauper’s music video “Goonies Are Good Enough”, made for the hit movie “The Goonies”. Captain Lou also had a role in the 1986 comedy “Wise Guys” with Joe Piscopo and Danny Devito. As a matter of fact, Devito and Albano were friends way before the Captain became a pop culture phenomenon.
It was entertaining way to go out for the Captain.
After the WWF, Albano continued to act, and appear in commercials. In 1989, he appeared as the lovable plumber (and my favorite video game character of all time) in the “Super Mario Bros Super Show”. I loved wrestling and Super Mario Bros., so I made sure not to miss a single episode.
Realizing he probably needed to stay in wrestling, he also appeared on UWF Wrestling, hosting an interview segment, and made occasional color commentary appearances alongside Herb Abrams and Bruno Sammartino.
In 1994, after longtime managers Bobby Heenan and Jimmy Hart made the switch to WCW, McMahon brought back Albano as a manager. Looking just a smidge older, but definitely healthier (he had lost a bunch of weight and became a healthier eater), he helped lead The Headshrinkers to the tag team belts. However, his tenure was short, and despite making occasional appearances for the company, he left the WWF in 1995.
In October 2009, the wrestling world lost one of the true greats when Captain Lou Albano passed away at the age of 76. Wrestling fans around the world were saddened by the news. As a matter of fact, ESPN Radio did a tribute to him, which displayed what kind of star he was in the 1980’s.
The legend of Captain Lou Albano lives on. You can view many of his classic interviews on You Tube, and there is a special feature of him on the 2006 WWE DVD release, “The World’s Greatest Wrestling Managers”. There is a great interview Eric Gargiulo from Camel Clutch Blog.com did with the Captain in 2001 on our sister site, Pro Wrestling Radio.com. If you get a chance, check it out. It’s definitely a must hear.
Wrestler. Manager. Actor. Humanitarian. Just a few roles Albano played throughout the years. He made such a mark on the wrestling business that he will be remembered forever.
In the words of the late, great Gorilla Monsoon, he was definitely “a classic”.