Busted Open Interviews Bill Mercer
You’re on that Mount Rushmore of Play-by-Play announcers. You did so much; you called the Ice Bowl, you reported the Kennedy Assassination but I would think World Class Championship Wrestling is what you’re most noted for.
It certainly is at this end of my life. Yeah, it’s been a long years back. There are not as many old Cowboy fans or even early Rangers fans. Yeah, World Class was a fitting climax I guess. I really started out just doing wrestling kind of as a hobby and it took me to Dallas out of Muskogee, Oklahoma. It’s always been kind of a fall back and fun thing to do and I always try to do it as any other sport; as legitimate as it is.
Were you a big wrestling fan growing up?
Oh no, no. I have a vague recollection of my dad taking me to some sort of wrestling venue one time in my home town but that was shady history. No I hadn’t paid any attention to wrestling; I had been busy with other stuff. I was at the University of Denver, went on a debate trip, went through Chicago and we were sitting some place and wrestling was on and that was about only time I had seen it. And I go into college, having come out of the war and was trying to get my life in some semblance of order afterwards and I hadn’t paid much attention to that. But when I went back to Muskogee and got my first real sports job, I moved from one station to another and the new station told me what I was going to do, baseball, football, basketball, boxing, etc. A couple weeks later they said, “Oh we forgot to tell you we do a monthly show at the Civic Auditorium on Professional Wrestling.” And I said well that’s great I don’t know anything about it. “Well,” he said “you can do all this other stuff, you can do that.” So I went down and talked to promoters there and while Red Berry was there, they showed me holds. I wrote them down on a legal pad and went out, broadcasted my first wrestling job looking at a legal pad, trying to assume what the situation was. But I picked it up fairly easily and stayed there for 3 years. They then called me from KLRD in Dallas with the opportunity to do the wrestling live at the Sportatorium on a Tuesday. That was a live show before the networks took it over all air time.
You were a part of World Class at a boom period in pro wrestling. You were able to call the matches of a Hall of Fame family in the Von Erichs. They just recently did a piece on Friday on Sportscenter; a 16 minute piece, which is unheard of for Sportscenter to take that much time on the Von Erich family. Here we are, in 2015, talking about a family that’s hay day was in the mid-80s but it’s still on in people’s minds. It’s still on the minds of not only people in that Dallas area but around the world and especially around here in the US. Talk about that family, talk about that time period World Class Championship Wrestling.
It was an interesting phenomenon. I think of a bunch of the young guys were controlled by their father so heavily that they didn’t do anything else unless he told them too. Now that was Fritz, the father or Jack Adkisson. The boys grew up around him of course, grew up around wrestling and they saw it. They were evidently involved in enjoying it. David came up to the University of North Texas where I was and also Kevin. David came to play basketball and Kevin came to play football but that never panned out. One thing that added to it was Kevin’s legs and knees just wouldn’t allow him to be a football player anymore. David, according to a coach I knew up there, had a real possibility as a basketball player. But then, this was before World Class of course, they were doing a show in Fort Worth in Dallas and the next thing we knew was David is running around being a wrestler, had bouts and won a bout thus beginning his career. Kevin came along a little later but they both evidently had been training and started into this system.
They became rather instant heroes in the Dallas Fort Worth area. Both were good looking; David not with the wrestling physique that Kevin had but David had the charm and the personality and that persona just won over everybody. And so that’s how it started. Later, Kerry came along. Kerry was a track star and went to Houston but gave that up. Fritz said it was because we didn’t go to Russia for the Olympics and he wanted to go to that, so it just built along those lines and nothing seemed to stop it. They just kept building up and building up and became fantastic stars.
It was also an era of drugs and really, it was just an awful situation. Gino Hernandez died, murdered some people say, from drugs. Gentleman Chris Adams had drug problems and went to prison. It was just rampant. That’s part of their legacy. I don’t think David--I never thought David had any involvement with drugs and I doubt Kevin did. I mean Kevin may have but never like Kerry did. And then there was Michael and his brief adventure with his severe illness and then he came back. He was never the same type after that terrible illness he had and then he killed himself. Then Chris, who was not really physical or any other way suited to be a wrestler, killed himself. And ultimately, Kerry killed himself. It was a tragedy of a family. I don’t think you can call it an All-American family because I don’t think that would occur. Maybe it would but it wouldn’t be considered the norm anyway.
It was rife with all sorts of problems and the guys had all sorts of problems. And when David died in Japan, we noticed immediately that some of the resonance of the personality of the whole thing began to fade a bit. David was the top glue, he was going to be the successor to Fritz and maybe run the whole show later on but it was for a very brief time, you know just a few years. 5 or 6 years until it began to fade away. It brought back memories of the Sportatorium; it was an old beat up building, a pretty bad place and just the wrestling, the typical wrestling fans attended. But when David and Kevin and that entire bunch put this together, it became another venue for college kids and radio stations. They would come in broadcast live and it was a huge event. We put World Class on, and that was at the highlight of the boy’s popularity and it took off. It was amazing because they were trying to get up to send it around the country. It was done in Dallas, taped and then syndicated out to other units.
The first thing I realized as far as how popular it was, was when we found out that a friend of mine who went to University of North Texas, who was from Israel, said the whole town shut down when World Class came on and everyone ran to see a TV set. And we got more and more reports like that. It was a phenomenon but it was like a Roman candle that went up, shone brightly briefly and faded away. It was just very sad the way the center heart was destroyed and it then finally just went away.
Would you say the boys had a “Love/Hate” relationship with their father?
Oh yeah. At least when I talked to Kevin later about that. I never talked to David about it but Kevin later; yeah he had that sort of situation. It was as though they were beholden to him and he could do anything he wanted to. Kevin complained one time that he would pay a star coming in to wrestle them and pay them the usual fee that he’d pay the wrestlers. So there were some hard feelings there when those who thought about it; I guess like Kevin, that they were not free to do their life and well he wasn’t. And Fritz really had a strong arm on them. We read about smaller events like that going on in the country and the world but this was 5 boys and they didn’t have a chance really to select something. That was what was interesting to me. They went to Hawaii after Fitz’s death for a long time and Kevin sold all the tapes and material to WWE. He went to Hawaii and I was surprised, I thought I knew him. Well I went out to the ranch and we talked. His boys were good looking kids as was his daughter. I was really surprised. I thought well maybe these kids will go off on their own and do something that they want to do but they’ve all turned out to be interested in wrestling. Now that’s not a bad thing but I just wonder if Kevin is dominating them. I wouldn’t think so.
It is strange you do mention that they are wrestling because you would figure that would be something that Kevin would probably stir them clear from but I think just judging, having talked to him a few times he’s just open to whatever they are interested in and just being supportive to it.
I had a feeling that that was true. That if they wanted to do something, if they wanted to be an Air Force pilot or a doctor or whatever, that he wouldn’t stand in their way. I’m just surprised that--well maybe not--we have football families, we’ve got the same thing and they follow generation after generation. They can be about as badly injured or shortened in their lifespan as wrestlers or hockey players. So when youngsters get involved with the image of something, I’m sure it looks good to them but I just wish the best for them because I really admired Kevin and have all the time. Because he’s not that young anymore, but I wish the best for them. If they decide to give it up and go for something else, well than hooray for them.
Somebody that’s kind of forgotten about in the history of World Class is Mickey Grant. I know he had a lot to do with the production of the TV show. A lot of elements that are used on TV today; just the sound, the mic’ing of the ring and hearing the wrestlers, hearing the sounds, had to do a lot with him. Talk just a touch about Mickey Grant and how influential he was on wrestling television.
When we met at KBIO radio where we were working, I was sports announcer and he was working with Ron Chapman, the disk jockey. We’d sit around and he was interested in film, in drama and he was interested in wrestling. We’d talk about it and he said what can you do to improve it? And we talked about how it was then; a wide-shot, medium-shot, wide-shot, medium-shot. That was about all they had and they didn’t do anything to liven it up. So it was then that he went to Hollywood for a while and came back. He made a picture or two and got the job at channel 39 and was kind of a program director. He called me one day and said you and I have to get together to talk about this wrestling so you can give me something to give to them. So we sat down and the new cameras were out then; the smaller cameras, the handheld cameras, beautiful stuff. So we decided--and it was more his role to do it, that handheld cameras on the apron, more audio around the ring etc, etc, etc, would build the show and it did. Later on, the people in New York told us that we were way ahead of anyone else in creating this new wrestling scene, adding more excitement to it. So that was worth all the time we spent with it for the short time it was on. And Mickey, having the film director’s point of view, could see it and it worked. And it was just amazing to see how much it changed the excitement of wrestling. The guys were a little worried having those cameras so close to them but after they saw how good they looked; those tight shots and the action in the ring, they were excited about it as well.
On The Fabulous Freebirds
Well the Freebirds always invited me to lunch or someplace. Sometimes they wouldn’t allow me to eat or take part. They were so much fun but we were very lucky too that we had the most ideal scenario of actors. They are wrestlers but they’re also actors. Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin, Gino Hernandez; all these people that came together to be the heels, the baby faces and it was a beautiful picture. I can still see it in my mind. I think my goodness how lucky we were to have some unbelievable talent that came to us as far as we were concerned from out of nowhere. And they built the show. We had the idea but they did the work and did the show and they did everything that we asked them to do. All those little features; Gorgeous Jimmy Garvin out on the ranch carrying hay around and all that stuff. So there were a lot of components that made it great. Like any soap opera or great movie, you’ve got to have the components of the story and the people who act it. And I don’t know if the wrestlers would like for me to call them actors but in a sense they are because they are physical actors. They are certainly outstanding athletes. And I never allowed myself to think of it but that way because as a broadcaster, I can see the real excitement of it. I can see the drama, I can see the physical battles and it all played into a beautiful picture and I never belittled it. We were just fortunate to be there at the right time and the good equipment to make an outstanding show.
The biggest event in the company’s history was the David Von Erich Memorial Parade of Champions. And correct me if I’m wrong, but you didn’t announce that. Why was that?
Well, I had a contract. See I was a freelancer really. Mickey worked at the station and he hired me on a freelance basis to do the shows. We were scheduled to do the shows on certain days. Well, I had also been contacted to do broadcasting for that first spring football adventure. So I had a contract with them, which actually paid more than the contract with the wrestling but that didn’t make any difference. That big show out at the bowl came up and I just had another obligation. I hated to miss it but it was just one of those things. That was one of those grand moments in the history of wrestling. 40,000 people were out there.
You’re on that Mount Rushmore of Play-by-Play guys and maybe you weren’t a fan of pro wrestling before but you definitely left your mark on the history of pro wrestling.
Well thank you very much, I’m proud I did. I really tried to work at it. The guys we watch in the ring are the guys who really make us look good, if we can describe it correctly. And I’m still proud of that. Just had a doctor here, I had been coughing like crazy. The doctor said, “Oh my god! I’ve been a wrestling fan since I was a little boy!” Those things are really dear to you in your later years and it’s nice to be remembered by everybody.