Growing up in rural Maryland (firmly within WWF territory), it was a monthly ritual. I’d walk into my local newsstand and smell the Captain Black pipe tobacco. I’d walk past the rotating comic book display, checking to see if the new issue of Sgt. Rock had arrived yet. Eventually, I’d find my way to the magazines. My pre-teen eyes would ever so briefly scan the so-called “gentleman’s magazines.” I wouldn’t dare attempt to pick one up for fear that Mrs. Bunting, the sales clerk, would notice and tell my mom. But then my eyes would focus on the true objective of my mission: the newest issue of The Wrestler.
Back in those halcyon days of the spring of 1977, Elvis was living out his Last Days holed up inside Graceland, Billy Beer was about to take the nation by storm, Superstar Graham had just won the WWWF (yes, back in those days there were 3 w’s in the promotion’s name) Championship, and a copy of Bill Apter’s The Wrestler sold for a buck. I’d get out my money (always in loose change—mostly dimes, nickels and pennies) and plunk it down on the counter. Mrs. Bunting would always have to gently remind me, “There’s sales tax on this, hun.” I’d dig out an extra nickel to cover it. My first experience with taxes! She’d put my newly acquired source of wrestling wisdom in a nice, neat brown paper bag that was just the right size for magazines; those came in handy when someone purchased one of those “gentleman’s magazines” and didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with it.
Once I got home, I’d quickly clear my schedule (which for a 9-year-old meant forgoing the afternoon’s Gilligan’s Island reruns) and breath in that “new magazine” smell. Quickly, I’d be immersed in the world of professional wrestling. Publications such as The Wrestler, Inside Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Illustrated have all since collectively become known as “the Apter mags” amongst classic wrestling aficionados. This is because legendary wrestling writer/photographer Bill Apter was usually listed as the “Managing Editor” for these publications.
The great thing about the Apter mags was that they filled in gaps left by the weekly TV matches and monthly house shows. If you missed a recent house show in your area, the “correspondent’s reports” section of these magazines might clue you in on what had happened. There was also a rich development of storylines that went way beyond what could be done during the Saturday morning TV matches. With sensational headlines, such as, “Why Bob Backlund Can’t Escape the Curse of Jimmy Snuka,” the Apter mags helped develop the psychology of the feuds which enhanced the fan’s enjoyment. They also reminded fans that wrestling existed throughout the nation. That was news to those of us living in WWF territory because that promotion often acted as if professional wrestling only existed on the I-95 Corridor from DC to Maine, rarely if ever mentioning promotions such as the AWA or NWA. Until I started reading the Apters, I had never even heard of such stars as Rick Flair, Harley Race, Nick Bockwinkel, or Dusty Rhodes.
But one of the best things about the Apter mags was the total commitment to kayfabe. They approached professional wrestling as a sport, not as “sports entertainment.” There was never even the slightest hint that anything was predetermined or scripted. What’s more, the heels and faces maintained their personas inside the pages of the magazines. There was never a hint that a guy like, say, Ernie Roth (Aka “The Grand Wizard of Wrestling”) was a nice guy outside the ring (which he in fact was). Nope. The Heels were all guys who would trip the elderly crossing the street and the Faces were all guys who would volunteer at their local homeless shelter. This, of course, was always one of the great lures of the pro wrestling of this era: the ability to simplify the complex, to make every feud a clash between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil.
Of course, in each month’s issue, there was always a bonus too. The ads were almost as interesting and entertaining as the wrestling content. The cure for baldness, a lucrative career as a “certified lock smith,” the keys to success with the ladies, and your own personal “hovercraft” could all be had between the pages of the Apters. My personal favorite was the World War Two Era Army Jeep that you could allegedly buy for fifty bucks.
My original collection of Apter mags got thrown out decades ago but I have since rebuilt it via the magic of eBay. To my delight, I have been able to reacquire many of the exact issues that I recall purchasing as a kid. Now, the pages are yellow; the “new magazine” smell has been replaced with a musty kind of odor, and many of the featured stars have gone to that Great Wrestling Ring In The Sky.
But they can still transport me back in time—to a simpler time. A time when Good and Evil were so very clearly defined for us through the melodramatic prism that was pro wrestling. A time when my greatest worry was whether Buddy Rogers would be able to save Jimmy Snuka from the “mind control” of Captain Lou Albano. Or whether Mrs. Bunting saw me glancing at those “gentleman’s magazines.” Lord, I wish life was still so simple!