Channel 13 Sports Memories
by Pete Johnson
Pete Johnson with Sherry Taylor, Andy Hardy,
and 'The Dean of Florida Sportscasters,' "Salty Sol" Fleischman
Of all the sports personalities we interviewed over the years, including the Buccaneers, the major league baseball stars and the Rowdies (pro soccer), none were more entertaining nor stirred the most reaction from viewers than the pro wrestlers. We’d get the highest amount of response from viewers' phone calls and mail, most of it positive. But some "sports purists" in our TV audience would complain that they were changing the dial to go to a real sportscast. As the most watched news, weather and sports station in the Bay area, we had those same people changing the dial quite often.
Because it was considered more entertainment than pure sport, we tried to stop publicizing the Tuesday fights or giving the results on those nights. The viewers’ flood of calls and letters changed our policy and for many years to come you could count on us winding up the Tuesday night sportscast with results of three or four of the matches.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Tampa was the training ground and the circuit for a number of the top and soon-to-become name professional wrestlers. For a brief time, Channel 13 taped the weekly Championship Wrestling from Florida hour-long shows in the big studio, and then for many years at the Sportatorium. This run-down building had bleachers for a small audience, a ring, a common dressing room for the wrestlers, both good (called BabyFaces in the business) and evil (called Heels) and a set positioned behind Gordon Solie, the long-time voice of the "sport."
Andy with Andre the Giant
We had the opportunity of interviewing the big names of the day and becoming friends with many of them. One was Andre the Giant, a huge 7’ 4" wrestler who was truly a gentle giant. Andre, who spoke only French, came in with his interpreter to be part of a parody on his name and size. The idea was to use special effects and have Andy 'sit' on Andre's shoulder while interviewing the giant. His interpreter would be on the other shoulder. To accomplish this, one camera shot a medium close up of Andre, while the other camera focused on Andy and the interpreter as they sat spaced a few feet apart on a blue cubes against a blue Chroma Key background. When the two cameras were mixed in the control room it appeared that Andy was sitting on Andre’s right shoulder and the interpreter on his other shoulder.
Andre spoke very broken English but you could tell he loved it, especially as he looked at himself on a nearby monitor. Andy asked questions to Andre through the interpreter and at a certain point Andre would become "offended" by Andy’s question about how much he eats, and despite the interpreter’s "reluctance" to ask and "warning" Andy of Andre’s "temper" Andre was asked the question. Andre acted as if he was offended and reacted by "blowing" Andy off his shoulder, with Andy falling back on a hidden mattress. Looking at the monitor out of the corner of his eye, Andre then reacted with a genuinely hearty bellowing laugh as he watched Andy "fall of his shoulder." As I recall we did it in one take and Andre was still laughing as he left the studio.
Another time we had Andre visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice to possibly try out as a lineman. It was more of a gimmick and I don’t believe Coach John McKay appreciated it, although the Buc’s probably could have used Andre’s size to help block during their losing seasons.
Speaking about the Bucs, there was another time when I teamed up with John Brill, another sportscaster at Channel 13, to film a bit with one of the Berosini trained orangutans, a popular act from Las Vegas. Brill was the interviewer and the placekicker as one of the orangutan kicked the ball over the goal post. It was always a love-hate relationship with McKay, whose weekly show appeared on Channel 13. He didn’t appreciate the sports department making a monkey out of the Bucs.
Andy mixes it up with wrestler Gene Kiniski
Another memorable night, Andy was interviewing a very gruff and tough Gene Kininski, a world heavyweight champion of the day. Off-camera, Andy had prepped Gene with the tone of the questions (that wrestling was fake) and once the interview started, you would have thought Andy was not going to get out the studio alive. Both played their parts so well that the cameramen, the floor director, Hugh Smith and even Salty Sol thought it was real and no doubt were wondering how they would be able to separate the two. Even as Sol was closing out the sports segment with the last 30 seconds of briefs, you could hear Gene and Andy fussing and fuming off-camera. When we went to commercial, laughter broke the icy moment, to Sol’s relief. Again Andy had gotten the best of Sol!
Andy and Eddie
On a rather slow Tuesday night for sports, Andy’s mind was leaning over the edge a bit and he came up with a very humorous way of reporting the results of the weekly wrestling matches.
With our NASA astronauts circling in space "wanting to know the wrestling results from the Tuesday night bouts at the Armory in Tampa," Andy and one of the floor directors had rigged up a "special state-of-the-art communications device" in the lighting grid over the sports set. When it came to that report, Andy explained we had a special link with the astronauts. A thin rope with a Dixie Cup at the end came floating down to Andy’s position on the sports set, and he announced the results of three or four matches. No word if the astronauts got the message, but everyone on the set (and hopefully the viewers) loved it.
One viewer, however, was rather offended by Andy’s spoof and paid the sports department a visit the next afternoon. Just as Andy arrived at the station, up walked the bleach-blond trussed wrestler and promoter Eddie Graham, who got behind Andy and put him in some wrestling hold that had the 140 pound 5’ 7" sportscaster flopping around like a marionette, gasping for air. Salty Sol came to Andy’s rescue asking Eddie to "please put Andy down" and promising that the sports guys wouldn’t mock the Tampa wrestling operation again. That promise lasted all of a few days when Andy and I resumed collaborating on other ways to get under Eddie’s craw.
Sol, Andy and Big George Zaharias
Another lovable character who would pay us a weekly visit was Big George Zaharias, a retired pro wrestler from the ‘40s and ‘50s who had married golfer and track star Babe Didrickson, the female athlete of the half century. The Babe had passed away years earlier and Big George, complete with cauliflower ears from his battles in the ring, would come by and sit in Sol’s office and talk with us about the latest events in sports. George was a major benefactor of children’s golf in the Tampa Bay area and we did many stories on the program. But Andy also liked to tease the big man. Sol had a 10-inch metal ashtray with the Mack truck bulldog logo in the center. But the thing that made this ashtray really unique was that when it was struck by a certain writing pen, the clang would sound exactly like a bell used in wrestling and boxing matches. This was the stimuli that would set Big George off! He reacted like he was about to step in the ring for another match. Realizing that he'd been had, George probably would have liked to get Andy into a headlock! When George returned for future visits, he’d grab the ashtray and guard it from the mischievous Andy.
What a team! Andy Hardy and 'Salty Sol' Fleischman
Sol and the pelican
Seabird Sanctuary is a rescue mission located on the beach for coastal wildlife. We had their director, Ralph Heath, as an interview guest one memorable night. Ralph brought over a pelican that they had named 'Salty' in honor of Sol. The pelican had a broken wing and was a resident of the shelter. The bird appeared very docile when it was brought into the studio, and during the commercial break before the interview, was still rather lethargic. Ralph had it on a long leash and we positioned it between Ralph and Sol’s interview chairs. During the two-minute commercial break Sol sat down and talked with Ralph. The bird remained calm. But just as soon as we went back on the air and Sol started the introductions, the pelican, still with a lot of slack in his leash, went berserk attacking Sol in a very tender region of Sol’s ample body. Sol was literally climbing over the back of the chair he had been comfortably seated in moments before, trying the escape the pecking of the now feisty pelican. For weeks we teased Sol that we had never seen a 64-year-old man move so fast. He especially took a ribbing the following year when Heath brought in a turtle on the set. The sea turtle, unlike the pelican, made his feelings known right from the start, snapping at anything that stood in front of him. Needless to say, Sol kept his distance on that interview.
"Big 13" thanks Pete Johnson for his sports memories, and for being one of the earliest, most enthusiastic supporters of this web site!
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