Revisiting the heyday of department stores and five-and-dimes

Remembering Capt. Lou Albano

He was the maker of champions. The Guiding Light. Often imitated, never duplicated.

He was the greatest professional wrestling manager that I have ever seen.

Capt. Lou Albano, who died this morning at 76, was one of the most recognizable and over-the-top characters in the business during his heyday in the WWWF and WWF in the ’70s and ’80s.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that Albano played a major role in WWE becoming a pop culture staple. As the story goes, Albano met ’80s pop star Cyndi Lauper on an airplane and the two became friends. He played her father in the video for her big hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” and he later brought her to the WWF for an angle that led to a match between The Fabulous Moolah (managed by Albano) and Wendi Richter (managed by Lauper) live on MTV. The Rock and Wrestling Connection was born and it wasn’t long before Mr. T came on the scene and Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper became mainstream celebrities.

My first exposure to Albano occurred while watching the WWWF’s syndicated show on a Saturday afternoon in 1973. Being 6 at the time, I found the wild-eyed, boisterous, gravely-voiced, slovenly manager to be a frightening individual. My earliest memories of Albano are of him being interviewed by a young Vince McMahon, and Albano yelling about how his charges were going to destroy the likes of Bruno Sammartino, Chief Jay Strongbow and Pedro Morales.

Albano, who had rubber bands sticking out of his face and usually had his shirt unbuttoned to expose his bulbous belly, was hands down the top heel in the company, and he transferred his heat to the men in his stable as well as any manger ever has. You bought a ticket to see the top babyfaces of the day beat Albano’s men simply because of your intense hatred for Albano.

Of course, it was even better when Albano donned the tights himself and got his comeuppance. Albano, who was a member of a mid-card tag team known as The Sicilians in the ’60s, was far from a great worker, but after he made a name for himself as a manager, his matches were must-see events.

I had the privilege of seeing Albano wrestle on quite a few occasions at The Baltimore Civic Center. From the moment he made his way down to the ring, the heat for the match was off the charts. The atmosphere was electric, as chants of “Albano is a Bum” filled the arena.

Every Albano match was pretty much the same. He would beg off and avoid locking up before the babyface eventually got his hands on him. After being on the receiving end for a bit, Albano would gain the advantage with the aid of a foreign object. The babyface would make a comeback, take the object from Albano and use it against him. Albano would blade – usually in full view of everyone without any attempt to conceal it – and then run to the back, losing via count-out.

Albano was such a despicable figure that even some of the heels didn’t care for him. In the angle that turned Pat Patterson babyface in the early ’80s, The Grand Wizard sold Patterson’s contract to Albano, but Patterson – who was a low-life heel himself – wanted nothing to do with The Capt. because he was “a fat slob.” Albano also was involved in the famous angle in which Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka turned babyface and became the most popular wrestler in the country before being supplanted by Hogan.

Albano’s initial claim to fame was that he was the manager of Ivan Koloff when “The Russian Bear” ended Sammartino’s title reign of nearly eight years in 1971. Albano was best known for being the manager of numerous tag team champions, including The Valiant Brothers, The Wild Samoans, The Blackjacks, The Moondogs and The Executioners.

Even though he was nowhere near as clever or smooth on the mic as managers such as Bobby Heenan or Jim Cornette, Albano cut highly entertaining promos. He would yell and scream and what he said usually was nonsensical. He also used the same phrases over and over, such as saying that if you put (insert babyface here)’s brain into a parakeet it would fly backward. As much as you hated him, you had to laugh sometimes at Albano’s antics.

One frequent target of Albano’s insults was Strongbow, who passed himself off as a Native American but in actuality was a guy named Joe Scarpa, an Italian just like Albano. The first wrestling angle that I remember involved Albano and Strongbow. For months Albano wore a cast on his arm, claiming that Strongbow had attacked him and broken his arm. The Chief always denied it. Finally, during a TV match involving Strongbow, Albano bludgeoned him with the cast and revealed that it had all been a ruse. That set up a series of heated matches between the two.

In the mid-80s, the unthinkable happened, and the man fans loved to hate became the man fans loved. Albano turned babyface, going from a sleazy, maniacal character to your fun-loving, crazy uncle. In typical campy fashion, it was revealed that Albano’s bad behavior all those years was because he had “a calcium deposit on the medulla of his oblongata.” Once doctors performed “surgery,” Albano underwent a transformation and began using his wrestling acumen for good instead of evil, managing the likes of George “The Animal” Steele and The British Bulldogs.

Albano parlayed his celebrity status from the ’80s wrestling boom into an acting career, as he got a part in the 1986 movie “Wiseguys” along with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo, and also made appearances on a number of TV shows. In the late ’80s and early ‘90s, he played one of the Mario Brothers on “The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.”

The word on Albano was that he could be as much of a loose cannon off camera as he was on. He had the reputation of being a hard drinker and wrote in his autobiography that Vince McMahon Sr. fired him on a number of occasions but always quickly changed his mind and brought him back. Albano also has said in interviews that he and Vince McMahon Jr. had their ups and downs.

I never really had an opportunity to interact with Albano except for a very brief conversation at the WWF Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Philadelphia in 1995 (Albano was inducted in 1996).

During the ’80s, I attended several tapings for the WWF’s Tuesday Night Titans show when Albano was a guest. For those too young to remember, TNT was wrestling’s version of “The Tonight Show,” and it took place in a small TV studio in Owings Mills, Md., before a live audience. Albano, who was a babyface at that point, would come into the audience during breaks and crack us up with his off-color humor and bad jokes. It was great watching McMahon, who was the host of the show, sitting behind his desk and rolling his eyes at Albano much the same way he would when interviewing Albano back in the day.

Those were good days. Rest in peace, Capt.

Note: A private wake will be held at Balsamo-Cordovano Funeral Home in Carmel, N.Y., from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday, according to a release from A funeral Mass will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday at St. James the Apostle Church in Carmel.

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