KDKA – Pittsburgh and its sister station (the CW), aired an edited (and limited commercial) version of a Bruno Sammartino documentary that remains years in the making. This was a two hour broadcast, which is a labor of love on various levels, mostly surrounding Bruno and his mother (Emilia) but also highlights his five decades of marriage to his wife Carol. This was hosted and narrated by KDKA TV/Radio personality Larry Richert, who went with Bruno on the trip to Italy where they filmed at Valla Rocca. It was produced by Kenny Brown, who does stellar work for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Reviewing a TV show like this is mostly retelling the story, and the hardships of the Sammartino family, with father Alphonso ‘stuck’ in America due to the war, his wife (well into her forties) caring for a family that already saw the deaths of two children, and their home town of Pizzoferrato taken over by the Germans (worse yet, a SS Division).
Much of the townspeople headed out for the desolate region, and a large mountain called Valla Rocca.
They, and many others, suffered and survived through winters, with Emilia often sneaking back into the village to take back stores from the cellar to her children. They endured bombs, shooting, and the harshness of nature, fearful of wolves & bears, the evil of Nazi soldiers and the sickness and battles that raged around them.
At one point Emilia was captured, escaped the back of a truck (“none of the others were seen again”) and was shot. At one point, the Nazis found the hiding spot of scores of Italians and lined them up. Luckily some partisans saved them all, but the poignancy of Emilia’s fearless protection of her children is well portrayed.
I remember talking to Bruno before and after his visit to Italy, one of his last, one that he really never wanted to make, but for the documentary and the film, the crews had to do it, and Bruno has never been one to avoid those situations.
As he says later in the airing, there’s nothing that compares to his mother’s plight during that war, and obviously a tractor ride and tramping through those terrible steps one more time is hardly the same some 70 years after the nightmare.
But I know from his own descriptions about how those memories haunted Bruno. Reliving that time wasn’t easy. Watching this edited documentary should explain a lot about what drove Bruno to become a Champion.
We learn about Bruno’s siblings that never made it, about how his Mother vowed that she would not lose another child, and we hear and see about the atrocities, the horrors of war and the miracle of the Church at Pizzoferrato, where bullet holes were sprayed across the walls, but never touched the Crucifix.
That Bruno and his brother and sister survived is tribute to his mother’s determination.
But that wasn’t all.
The documentary talks about his battle with sickness. He suffered from what would much later be diagnosed as Rheumatic Fever, and the only doctor available gave up on him. His mother didn’t. One of the quotes of the airing is the telling of how the doctor called using leeches “illegal” and how his mother could care less, since it saved her son.
Bruno’s weakened health prevented the reunion of the family in America, in Pittsburgh. By the time they met Alphonso, Bruno himself was surprised by what looked to be an old man.
Ironically, Bruno’s father lived over thirty years longer, to see his less than 100 pound son become a weightlifter, a professional wrestler (despite misgivings of Alphonso himself and newlywed (by a month) Carol) and then a Champion.
While the story is rightly focused on family and struggle, it is also fascinating for wrestling fans, it learning the background of one of its greatest champions (sorry, Bruno, but I have to say that) and the dedication he learned from his mother.
But family is the focus, from lots of photos of Emilia & Alphonso, Long talks with Paul and Mary (and footage of her husband, who filmed a lot of great stuff), glimpses of David, the twins (who ironically get to tell about some troubles and how their father intervened…
The same Bruno who earlier in the airing explained how he got caught taking apples and was punished…. But those and many other stories are better enjoyed by watching the documentary, or in a book setting, and not just to be relayed by internet cut-and-paste.
This documentary is personal, very emotional (Bruno says the worst day of his life was when his Mother died) and the content is simply awesome.
About the only complaint is the weird image of Dominic Denucci superimposed over an audience of wrestling fans, talking about strange fans while he himself looks a bit strange.
But it is not strange to listed and see Bruno’s story on Mother’s day, and I was quite happy to be sitting at my mom’s home, watching it and learning things about Bruno and his amazing life and the amazing story of his Mother.
There’s a lot going on with the documentary, and the movie is still a possibility, but much of it cannot be discussed. Hopefully wrestling fans will get to see the full length documentary soon enough, as do I, for the enjoyment and for other purposes.
Joe Babinsack can be reached at [email protected]. Ironically, I watched Terry “Sabu” Brunk on Kayfabe Commentaries earlier today, and who knew there were so many similarities between the Living Legend and the king of Extreme… but more about that later.