CHICAGO — The ’70s were a golden era for local wrestlers like “Dick the Bruiser” and “Yukon Moose Cholak,” who’d take down opponents at the International Amphitheater on the city’s South Side.
But few of the wrestlers were quite as big as their announcer, Bob Luce.
Luce could draw thousands of people to wrestling bouts years before organizations like the WWE created a national audience on TV. With a big personality and colorful outfits (he once dressed like a Christmas tree), Luce became a celebrity in the city for his performances at the wrestling ring — and on the TV.
“Bob was years ahead of his time,” said Chet Coppock, the Chicago sports talk personality who was a child when he first met Luce but would go on to become friends with the famed promoter. “He was flamboyant, he was outrageous, he was colorful. His laugh was above-and-beyond infectious. He was devoted to the wrestling business.”
Luce would promote wrestling matches and provide play-by-plays during the bouts. But where he was “exceptionally shrewd,” Coppock said, was on television.
Luce’s journey to local TV fame started in 1971: Coppock, then a sportscaster, was working for channel 44 when Luce spotted him on a show. Luce called up Coppock, looking to get in on the action.
“Kenny, baby, I’m seeing what you’re doing, man, and you look so cool,” Luce said, according to Coppock. “You look so out of sight. What can you do for your buddy Bob Luce? Can you get me on?”
That was all it took. The fast-talking, dazzling Luce was soon on TV, hosting a show where he’d preview wrestling bouts and being paid to appear alongside his famed wrestlers for commercials.
Here’s a taste of Luce’s show: During a preview for a bout with wrestling manager Mark Manson, Luce said he was concerned Manson’s “voodoo cane” was “affecting my show.”
Luce: “A voodoo cane has no place in wrestling!”
Manson: “Hey, baby! Now, look, hey, you went too far! If the cane don’t come on the show, I don’t come on the show, Luce!”
Luce and Manson then burst into giggles in a rare moment of breaking character.
Surviving commercials show the energetic Luce speaking a mile a minute, laughing and smiling as he touts the latest Chicago-area businesses — and never once losing his trademark announcer’s cadence.
At the end of a commercial for Al’s Italian Beef, wrestler “Moose” Cholak tells Luce he needs more hands because two of Al’s trademark sandwiches are “just never enough.”
“Moose, you’re just too much, even for Al’s No. 1 Chicago’s Italian beef!” Luce announces as he steals a beef and bites into it while growling (Cholak murmurs “nom nom nom” as he nibbles on his own sandwich).
In one spot for One Stop in North Kenwood, Luce has boxer Leon Spinks growl into his microphone.
“That’s it, daddy, give it again, there!” Luce cries as Spinks growls again.
In another commercial for the food and liquor store, Luce and wrestler Bobo Brazil claim to grab spare ribs by the 30-pound boxes.
The commercials weren’t scripted or rehearsed, Coppock said, and they were pure “cornball” in their humor. The ads would be shot in a “very small studio” with one camera, Luce and his wrestlers standing in front of the lens without a script, Coppock said.
“I used to go and watch Bob’s TV tapings and I would just keel over laughing,” Coppock said. “You look at [modern] commercials and they’re so smooth and they’re so finite and they’re boring and you know they’ve been rehearsed 300 times. And there’s Bob and his over-the-top sport coat, blurting out about Ben’s Auto Sales and One Stop Liquors and Candor Electric.
“What made them funny was it like nobody in the world, nobody in North America … was doing commercials anything close to what Bob was doing. Bob played by his own rules, and those rules, for him, worked extraordinarily well.”
Luce’s wrestling show had more than its share of funny moments, too: His colorful Chicago wrestlers would bicker and threaten each other before bouts.
Luce, who remained popular throughout the ’70s and ’80s and died at 78 years old in 2007, became a “big deal” in Chicago, Coppock said. He was “immensely popular” and became close with celebrities, politicians and businessmen. And though Luce also worked in boxing for a time, he was always committed to wrestling and “never, ever admitted it was a … gag,” Coppock said.
At a dinner in 1975, Coppock asked Luce, “Bob, do you realize you’re more popular than 80 percent of your wrestlers?”
“He didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no,” Coppock said. “He knew he was more popular. And the reason why was Bob Luce was every man. But that doesn’t do him justice. He was every man with a mind that was beyond fertile.”