Roscoe Brumbaugh aka Sputnik Monroe, Memphis wresting icon of 1950’s and ’60’s, passed away Friday at the age of 79.
From Smokebox.net :
There were many aspects of Sputnik’s persona and character that set him apart from his wrestling peers. Early in his fighting career, he had been beaned on the head by an opposing pugilist using a wooden chair as a weapon. When the wood splinters were removed from his scalp, a patch of white hair grew around the wound. Sputnik beat out the punks for colored hair by a good twenty years.
Sputnik was a mean brawler. His self-definition of his wrestling style was “scientifically rough.” When asked to elaborate on this, he explained, “Win if you can, lose if you must, always cheat, and if they take you out, leave tearing down the ring.”
But Sputnik Monroe’s most important contribution to Memphis’ society was the fact that he single-handedly desegregated the wrestling spectator community. Like all wrestlers, Sputnik would seek the approval of the audience once he had destroyed his opponent. Just as the surviving Roman gladiators would strut their stuff to governors, patricians and other assorted Roman gentry in the arena, Sputnik would perform his victory romp, exhorting praise from the crowd. But unlike any other white wrestler, Sputnik would not focus his attention on the front rows, nor the women, nor the box seats, nor the predominantly white on-lookers. Instead, he would turn to the small black audience, segregated away in the upper rafters of Ellis Auditorium, and it was from them that he received kudos.
Sputnik was fast becoming a draw card and the promoters and wrestling money people knew this. He was able to use his notoriety to exact changes in the wrestling establishment. He recalls, “There used to be a couple of thousand blacks outside wanting in. So I would tell management I’d be cutting out if they don’t let my black friends in. I had the power because I’m selling out the place, the first guy that ever did, and they damn sure wanted the revenue.”
The way the business people would limit the black audience was by counting the number of black people allowed entrance into the auditorium, knowing exactly the seating capacity of the “blacks only” section. Sputnik would bribe the employee, who counted black people, to lie to his boss, giving the boss a much lower number of attendees than there actually were. So, when the overseer would demand numbers, the door guy would say something like “thirty” when there were really five-hundred or more black folks in the building. Jim Dickinson, a well known fixture of the Memphis music scene, remembers, “Finally, the audience got so big and heavily black that they had to integrate the seating. There’s no other single event that integrated the audience other than the wrassling matches and Sputnik paying the guy to lie.”
Sputnik’s one-man campaign had ripple effects all across Memphis, not only in the black community, but also amongst young white kids. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Sam Phillips had already opened the valve, releasing emotions in young white people that caused grave concern for the enforcers of the status quo. And here was this upstart wrestler, not just playing with young kids minds, but messing with the gas that fueled how things ran in Memphis, namely racism. Another fan of that era, Jim Black says “I went through my whole twelve years at school having never been able to share an experience with a black, and I was starting to resent this, because I was also listening to radio and Dewey Phillips, and hearing all these great black records and realizing that these were some talented artists, this was another culture. Where, at first, we’d gone to the matches hoping to see Sputnik get beat, we started to realize that he was pretty fucking cool. He had his audience, and he never played down to ’em, never talked down to ’em. He became a role model.”
He even went as far as announcing himself as a candidate for sheriff. “People thought prostitution and incest would flourish, ‘motherfucker’ would become a household word,” he said. “I could have run for mayor, and made it. I could have blackmailed the city. I could have done anything I wanted. I was general of a little black army.” Johnny Black recalls, “If you would have had some kind of election about who was the best-known face in Memphis at that time – Sputnik, Elvis or the mayor – Sputnik would have been real close to Elvis.”
(2001 NPR interview with Monroe, Real Player required)