Wrestling fans adored one of the Steel City’s biggest stars

PITTSBURGH — He was one of those one-name performers. Bruno.

One name suffices. Roberto. Franco. Mario. Bruno.

Back in the day, there was a wrestling show every month at the Civic Arena. On those Friday nights, the phones in the Post-Gazette sports department would ring constantly from people who couldn’t wait for the main event result.

Danny Palmer, the clerk who answered the phones, made the task easy.

“I say ‘Bruno won’ and I hang up,” he said.

That information was almost always accurate.

Bruno Sammartino wasn’t the champion because he could beat everyone else. That didn’t matter. He was the headliner for nearly 15 years because promoters knew he would draw crowds and make money for them.

When Sammartino died on Wednes-day at 82, a real piece of Pittsburgh’s sports history was lost, even if pro wrestling wasn’t really a sport.

Saturday evening’s “Studio Wrestling” was the most accidentally watched TV show in town. Everybody knew what happened, but nobody admitted they watched it.

It was always, “The kids had it on and I overheard it” or “My grandmother likes it and I watch it with her.”

People watched because it was an entertaining show, and it was built around Sammartino. A former construction worker, he hit it big after promoter Rudy Miller spotted him on a TV show performing feats of strength.

The wrestling business has traditionally shoveled up tons of background fiction about its performers. The most compelling story of all was Sammartino’s, and it was true.

He barely survived World War II after the Nazis occupied his family’s village in Italy. Sammartino’s father was already in Pittsburgh, working a mill job to earn enough money to bring the rest of the family to America.

The Sammartinos fled to the mountains after the troops landed. His mother would sneak back to the house at night to take as many jars of canned food as she could carry. Then she would carefully ration the food, bean by bean, to keep her family alive.

When they finally got to Pittsburgh, kids bullied Bruno, who was malnourished and struggled with English. A teacher steered him to a weightlifting gym and it was love at first sight.

Soon the weakling was a beast. He started as a bodybuilder, then turned to wrestling. Three years after he entered the business, he was the star attraction for the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which operated in all the big cities in the Northeast.

He remained on top because he sold tickets. It was a bonus that he did things the right way. He wore a suit to the arenas. He wouldn’t even have a glass of wine with dinner for fear someone would say they saw him drinking. He stayed away from the bars and the groupies who populated them. He was a gentleman.

When he wanted out of the business, they stalled him for a year and a half because they feared what would happen without him. When his replacement disappointed, the WWWF begged him to come back. He wisely used that leverage for a sweet deal, unprecedented for the times.

When Vince McMahon killed the wrestling Bruno knew and replaced it with steroid-fueled and R-rated “sports entertainment,” he protested bitterly. Otherwise, he led a quiet life in the suburbs, lifting weights in the afternoon while he listened to either radio talk shows or his beloved opera music.

He would do autograph appearances and hear the same story a million times — “We used to watch you every Saturday night.” He would smile, offer thanks and say, “A long time ago.” He seemed to be genuinely surprised that people remembered him.

His uncommon charisma allowed him to connect with fans, who cheered his entrances because it was Bruno, not because fireworks were exploding and music was blasting.

In fact, a lot of people were convinced that wrestling was fake, “except for Bruno’s matches.”

That doesn’t make any sense, but it does tell how people perceived him. Even when they knew wrestling was make believe, they were certain Bruno was real.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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