There was a time, a few decades ago, when pro wrestling thrived in New York City, whether at Madison Square Garden, or in high school gyms.
Al Vass, with his striped shirt and referee’s whistle, presided over it all as perhaps the premier referee in the city, from 1961 through 1991.
Mr. Vass’s flowing locks are gray now and his once-burly body a bit creaky (he was a wrestler before becoming a referee). Today he circles a much more subdued venue as a security guard at the St. George public library branch in Staten Island, not far from the ferry terminal.
He’s the amiable guy in the sweater vest and slacks standing near the library entrance on Central Avenue. Mr. Vass, who was known during his wrestling days as Samson, is regularly recognized by library users who remember the great body-slamming, bite-the-turnbuckle days of Gorgeous George, Andre the Giant and Bruno Sammartino.
“The library users know my wrestling background and they don’t mess with me,” said Mr. Vass, who — ever the showman — will not reveal his age.
Mr. Vass has been in the ring with a constellation of wrestlers, big names and unknowns, and has the photos to prove it. A sampling: Antonino Rocca, the Graham Brothers, Haystacks Calhoun, Skull Murphy, Jimmy (Superfly) Snuka, the Valiant Brothers, Chief Jay Strongbow, Karl von Hess a k a “the Nasty German,” from Metuchen, N.J.
Once library staffers discovered that Mr. Vass kept an extensive collection of quirky local wrestling memorabilia, they urged him to exhibit it at the branch. A small cabinet of some items is on display now, but upon request, Mr. Vass will break out dozens of other photographs from his wrestling days, which provide as good a history as any of local pro wrestling when, as he puts it, there was a show every night somewhere in the five boroughs.
Mr. Vass is a fixture in these photos, with gallant mustache and ceremonious bow tie. There he is, standing next to the wrestler Big John Studd, who is seated on a table in his tights as a doctor examines him, in Weissglass Stadium in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island.
And there he is with Captain Lou Albano, and Tom (Crusher) Townsend at the Staten Island Roller Rink. He stands next to Andre the Giant who sits, with his impressive sideburns and without a shirt, playing cards in a dressing room in the Sutter Gymnasium at Wagner College with Swede Hanson, another wrestling legend.
There is a good between-the-ropes shot of him with Ivan Koloff, “the Russian Bear,” and holding aloft the arm of a victorious Ivan Putski. There is Mr. Vass, refereeing Tony Cosenza who has the Masked Destroyer in a high fireman’s carry at the Rainbow Arena in Staten Island.
Wait! That picture of Gorilla Monsoon seemingly choking Tony Morello from behind. Come on, ref! That’s illegal.
“Nope, as long as his hands are not directly on the throat,” Mr. Vass declared.
Also legal, apparently, was George (the Animal) Steele’s habit of feasting on the turnbuckle, as shown in another photo.
“With him, it was like being in the ring with a pit bull,” Mr. Vass said, shaking his head.
Mr. Vass tenderly fingered a small snapshot of himself shaking the hand of Bruno Sammartino, who is wearing green briefs and a championship belt.
“Bruno would always request that I ref his matches,” he said, adding that he once officiated when Sammartino and George (The Animal) Steele faced each other inside a steel cage at Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Vass juggled his wrestling work with his 40-year career as a supervisor for a local gas company. He grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and moved to Middle Village, Queens, and married and had two children.
A bodybuilder, he was named Mr. Brooklyn in 1960. While working out at Vic Tanny’s gym in Forest Hills, Queens, he was spotted by Abe Colman, the legendary Hebrew Hercules of pro wrestling fame. Mr. Colman, alternately known as the Jewish Tarzan, put him on televised matches.
Mr. Vass became one half of the Samson Brothers tag team, with Cosenza. They mixed it up in Madison Square Garden and in places like the old Sunnyside Gardens, where a fan named Hairpin Mary used to run out of the stands and provoke the wrestlers by jabbing their posteriors.
“I wrestled Gorgeous George in Sunnyside Gardens,” he recalled. “He was spraying perfume all over the ring for five minutes.”
Mr. Vass moved with his family to Staten Island in 1965 — “before the bridge was built, so that makes me a native.”
Wrestling on Staten Island dates back at least to the Great Depression. Mr. Vass picked up a copy of an advertisement in The Staten Island Advance in 1932 for a wrestling exhibition at the Miller Field Theater, augmented by a 40-piece band. The featured wrestlers included Hebrew Champion, Choctaw Indian and Sailor.
Mr. Vass was in an arena when Cowboy Bill Watts punched out a fan and fled the locker room before the police arrived. There was the time Haystacks Calhoun went to Staten Island, only to be prevented from wrestling because of high blood pressure.
“The promoter was yelling, ‘But that’s my big star,’ ” Mr. Vass recalled.
Mr. Vass lives in the Great Kills section of Staten Island. He worked as a referee, from 1970 to 2000. He says he obtained his New York State Athletic Commission license through a Republican Party committee member who pulled some strings in Albany.
“I had to tell him I was going to become a registered Republican,” he said, with a laugh. “The fix was in already.”
His main job was to make sure the wrestlers did not get hurt. In his day, wrestlers worked on real mat skills, he will tell you, while today’s wrestling is “all hype.”
“Today, it’s all about hitting guys with chairs, bottles over the head,” he said. “That’s not professional wrestling. For me that’s a carnival.”
“Today, everything is scripted and follows a story line,” he added. “The way we did it, we only knew the finish. The promoter decided who would win, but the rest of the match would be ad libbed.”
Mr. Vass said he would talk with wrestlers in the dressing room before a match about what they were planning to do. “One guy would say, ‘I’m going over,’ which means, ‘I’m going to win,’ ” he recalled. “They might say, ‘We’re going down Broadway,’ which means they’ll wrestle for 30 minutes to a draw.”
“On the mat, the code word for the final pin would be, “Let’s go home,’ ” he said. “Then you’d have the final move — body slam, drop kick, airplane spin, bulldog headlock, whatever.”
“Today, the referees wear an earpiece and are told by the producer and director what to do,” he said. “I never wore no earpiece.”