Captain Lou Albano Gone At 76: Link Between Old And New Lost
They say that professional wrestling isn’t so much about in ring ability and big moves, as it is the ability to sell a character, and tell a story.
In these days however, it’s not so much about selling the story, as selling a look. Charisma has gone the way of the dinosaurs, cast aside for a series of muscle bound clones that, if you put a mask on them, would be as indistinguishable from one another as hamburgers from McDonald’s. The big names of the past, who helped turn professional wrestling from a regionalized attraction in a worldwide phenomenon, are no more a fixture in the business now than high flying maneuvers and weapon shots were back in the 1950s and 60s.
The wrestling industry lost another link to that past this week, as Captain Lou Albano, one of the most flamboyant and successful managers in the history of professional wrestling, passed away at home while under hospice care at the age of 76.
Albano started in the business back in 1953, when he defeated Bob Lazaro in a match in Montreal. For the next 42 years, the squared circle would be his office, different venues his traveling bases so to speak. Albano was as recognizable as the Michelin Man, Ronald McDonald, or any other national icon. Known for his garishly loud Hawaiian shirts, the rubber bands that would be in his goatee and his cheeks like piercings, Albano was one of the first group of charismatic managers, like “Classie” Freddie Blassie and Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who could rile up a crowd as much for the company they kept as managers, as they could with what they would do to try and help their talent win matches.
Over the course of his managing career, Albano took The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff to the most prestigious title in wrestling, the WWF Heavyweight Championship belt, dethroning Bruno Sammartino in 1971. He also led Don “The Rock” Muraco, Greg “The Hammer” Valentine, and Pat Patterson to the WWF Intercontinental Championship, not to mention an astonishing fifteen different tag teams to the tag gold.
Outside the squared circle, Albano was best known for being the father in Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” video, where he’s seen lecturing Cyndi until she spins him against the wall and puts him in a hammer lock. That appearance really sprung Albano, and brought the music and wrestling industries into play together.
“When the Captain hit the screen with the video, it gave us a whole new audience,” said “Irish” Davey O’Hannon, a professional wrestler who knew Albano since the 1970s. “When that came out, let me tell you, it just rocketed.”
Albano did some work behind the mic at the announce table, both for Rock ‘n’ Wrestling, which was thought up by Vince McMahon after the success of Albano’s appearances in Lauper’s videos, and later in the UWF, a fledgling fed run by Herb Abrams, where he had his infamous “Captain Lou is talking to you” segment. During that, he’d talk to UWF “superstars” and I use that term loosely, because the majority of the roster were retreads and no talents. Sure you had Paul Orndorff and Dr. Death Steve Williams, and even a young Cactus Jack, but come on…Spitball Patterson? Wild Thing Steve Ray? Sunny Beach? These were top names?
I don’t know if there would be room in today’s world of professional wrestling for someone like Albano. He was short (5′10), hefty (somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 pounds until becoming a vegetarian in the 1990s helped him drop nearly 150 pounds after a health scare.) He wasn’t a pretty boy (the images will attest), nor was he a powerhouse in the ring, built like Hulk Hogan, or any of the top names of today. What he was, however, was a quintessential storyteller. Albano could sell ice to Eskimos.
When he first started managing in the WWWF, his target was longtime champ Bruno Sammartino. He was reviled for trying every trick in the book for his henchmen to wrest the crown from the babyface Sammartino. Koloff took it from him in Madison Square Garden in 1971, but after Sammartino regained it, Albano’s group couldn’t get it back from him throughout the 70s. Albano’s henchmen were famous for carrying the WWF through the Bob Backlund reign as champion, in a time when interest in the sport seemed to wane a bit.
Albano would be inducted to the WWE Hall of Fame in 1996, along with Pat Patterson, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, and Killer Kowalski among others. It was Albano’s separation from Snuka in the early 1980s that pushed Snuka face and arguably was the springboard to the most successful years of his career in WWF and then on into the AWA. By that token, Albano was the driving force behind making household names in the business.
In this day and age when managers have almost disappeared from the landscape in lieu of “valets” and eye candy instead of actual managers that added panache and excitement to a match, either by distracting the ref, pulling the ropes down, sneaking a weapon in or a cheap shot, anything to add to the angle, to sell the story. The days of epic promos, of long lasting storylines, angles and feuds, of title matches being a rare attraction, and of cards being more about matches and action then a bunch of tired rhetoric, cheap pops and overhyping of the same faces that the fans have tired have long faded into oblivion.
In recent years, connections from the past, the charismatic, colorful characters that made wrestling what it is, one by one, have faded away. Killer Kowalski, Gorilla Monsoon, Curt Hennig, Bruiser Brody, Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Wahoo McDaniel, Big John Studd, and Andre the Giant, among others, all have passed on too soon. Even the flamboyant Jesse “The Body” Ventura has mellowed, to the point he won governor of Minnesota, shaved his head and called himself “The Mind” for a period of time. He’s not as outspoken as he once was, and his work with Monsoon at the broadcast table was legendary.
We wish Albano’s wife, children and family our condolences during this time of sadness and grief. A great man, a terrific manager and a class act, Captain Lou Albano, gone at age 76. Wrestling fans everywhere should wear a rubber band somewhere as a reminder of what Albano did for and meant to, the industry he loved.