The Brief, Bizarre Pro Wrestling Career of Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman.
Andy Kaufman.
Joan Adlen Photography, Getty Images

For a period of time in the early 1980s, the most hated man in Memphis, Tennessee, was a comedian from Long Island.

Andy Kaufman had spent years as a stand-up comic perfecting his own peculiar brand of antagonistic performance art, inciting anger among audiences by reading verbatim from The Great Gatsby, pantomiming the theme song from Mighty Mouse, and taking naps onstage. Even as he enjoyed mainstream success with a prominent role as Latka Gravas on the popular sitcom Taxi, Kaufman still yearned to stir discontent. He was, in the vernacular of professional wrestling, a “heel”—someone who draws attention by riling up crowds.

In 1981, Kaufman decided to adopt a heel persona where it would be best served: in the ring. With little athletic ability, no experience, and relatively little money to be earned, he became a professional wrestler and one of the biggest attractions the Memphis area had ever seen.

He did this by challenging and wrestling women.

 

Kaufman had grown up on Long Island and perfected his craft in unpaid appearances in comedy clubs before garnering attention for his guest spots on Saturday Night Live. Taxi followed, as did a successful tour, where Kaufman would do anything from impersonate Elvis Presley to escort 2000 fans out for milk and cookies after performing at Carnegie Hall.

As a child, Kaufman had been a fan of professional wrestling and an admirer of “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. He once saw Rogers grapple with Bruno Sammartino at Madison Square Garden, with Rogers—the villain—drawing boos from the crowd. It was this memory that probably came calling back to Kaufman when, in 1977, he began issuing challenges to women in the audience. If they pinned him, he said, he would give them $1000.

Andy Kaufman’s wrestling memorabilia on display at New York City's Maccarone gallery.Jack Szwergold via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Estimates on how many times Kaufman wrestled with a woman range from 60 to more than 400. Though some matches may have been staged, Kaufman did appear to be engaged in real physical contests with many of the volunteers. While it had the expected result for his audience—they were alternately amused and confused—Kaufman wanted to do it on a larger stage. He made his proposal during an appearance on Saturday Night Live on October 20, 1979, wearing his now-familiar wrestling outfit of black trunks over white long johns. Kaufman explained that he wasn’t interested in wrestling men because they might beat him, but he would take on any woman who dared.

A pregnant woman volunteered, but Kaufman refused to wrestle her. Instead, he faced Mimi Lambert, a dancer and Lacoste sportswear heiress, who was pinned after several minutes. For no apparent reason, a triumphant Kaufman then challenged Olympic swimmer Diana Nyad to a match, with $10,000 on the line if she won, before clucking like a chicken.

 

Andy Kaufman returned to Saturday Night Live several more times that year to continue his challenges, at one point even “threatening” host (and future Golden Girl) Bea Arthur.

Finally, Kaufman found an opponent in Diana Peckham, the daughter of Olympic wrestling coach James Peckham, and wrestled her on the December 22, 1979 episode of SNL. Though Kaufman had childhood hero Buddy Rogers in his corner, he was unable to beat Peckham and the bout was declared a draw.

Kaufman then began phoning wrestling promoters, including prominent New York promoter Vince McMahon Sr., and told them he had crowned himself the World Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion and was willing to defend his title against all comers. He was undefeated, save for one loss to six women at once at a Chippendales club in Los Angeles.

As usual, Kaufman was ahead of his time. This was in 1981, years before McMahon’s son, Vince McMahon Jr., would elevate the business with spectacles like WrestleMania and celebrity appearances by Mr. T, Cyndi Lauper, and Liberace. In a short while, he likely would have been welcomed into the fold. But McMahon Sr., a wrestling traditionalist, wasn't interested.

Dismayed, Kaufman turned to friend and wrestling journalist Bill Apter, who recommended the comedian get in touch with Jerry Lawler, the most popular wrestler in Memphis. With partner Jerry Jarrett, Lawler ran the region's Continental Wrestling Association, or CWA. Lawler was intrigued by the proposal and suggested Kaufman come to Memphis. While he had no real in-ring ability, he was recognizable and his male chauvinist persona was likely to draw attention.

For months, Kaufman sent in tapes taunting the locals. On October 12, 1981, Kaufman finally appeared at Tennessee's Mid-South Coliseum and wrestled three women in a row. On November 23, he took on four women. The fourth, Foxy Brown, managed to wrestle Kaufman to a draw. Both Lawler and Kaufman knew a rematch with Brown—with Lawler in her corner—would be a success.

It was. Kaufman defeated Brown convincingly on November 30, 1981, which led to Lawler jumping into the ring to confront Kaufman for his unsportsmanlike conduct. It was at this point that Kaufman and Lawler realized they had something special. Lawler, the Memphis hero, was standing up to Kaufman, the Hollywood outsider who had no respect for women. The crowd’s response was electrifying to Kaufman, who saw an opportunity to take his admiration of Buddy Rogers one step further and actually wrestle a man.

 

For months, viewers of local pro wrestling programming in Memphis watched as Kaufman sent in more videos heckling them. “I’m from Hollywood!” he said. He taught them how to use soap, a skill he insisted they lacked, and played into offensive Southern stereotypes. He insisted women “belonged in the kitchen” and that their time was best spent “scrubbing potatoes.” If Kaufman were to ever walk down the streets of Memphis unescorted, it could have been a problem.

Finally, Kaufman and Lawler squared off on April 5, 1982. Roughly 11,200 fans showed up to the Mid-South Coliseum eager to see Lawler silence Kaufman, invested in the outcome even though a portion of them probably realized the two were playing roles. (They had even rehearsed moves at referee Jerry Calhoun’s house two nights prior.) The bout lasted less than seven minutes, with Kaufman spending much of that time avoiding Lawler and offering little offense beyond a simple headlock. Finally, the wrestler got his hands on the comedian, sending him to the mat with consecutive piledrivers.

It was far from the end of the show. Kaufman spent 15 minutes in the ring, legs twitching, before insisting Lawler call for an ambulance. (Lawler told him it would cost $250 for the real thing to arrive. Kaufman promised he would pay for it.) He was hauled off on a stretcher and spent the next several days giving interviews from a hospital bed, insisting he had suffered real injuries in a legitimate contest. While Kaufman told Lawler the piledrivers had hurt him, it was unlikely the injuries were severe enough to require a three-day hospital stay.

Yet Kaufman's testimony was apparently enough to mislead The New York Times, which reported on his convalescence as being legitimate:

“[Lawler] insisted the bout be a real thing. It was, too … As a result, said George Shapiro, the comedian’s manager, Mr. Kaufman suffered cuts on the top of his head, strained neck muscles, and a compressed space between the fourth and fifth vertebra. Hospital officials listed him in good condition yesterday.”

In a 2012 piece for CNN, author Wayne Drash recalled being a kid in Memphis and going to school the day after the bout. A child who was convinced Kaufman was really hurt suggested the class pray for him. He was booed.

 

Though their rivalry had seemingly reached a conclusion, Kaufman and Lawler believed they could continue their feud on a larger stage. On July 28, 1982, the two were booked to appear on Late Night with David Letterman, which had only been on the air since February of that year. During the interview, Kaufman—sporting a neck brace—continued his vitriol against Lawler, which led to the wrestler slapping him across the face while a bewildered Letterman watched.

As with Kaufman’s “injuries,” the mainstream media was slow to recognize that the incident was orchestrated. Kaufman helped legitimize it by filing a $200 million lawsuit against NBC, insisting he would soon take it over and make it an all-wrestling network. The bouts with Lawler continued to draw crowds in Memphis as well as Indiana and Florida, which prompted Vince McMahon Jr. to later tell Lawler that he was jealous of the Memphis wrestling territory. It had master heel Andy Kaufman at its disposal.

Kaufman never lost his taste for wrestling. He appeared in 1983’s My Breakfast with Blassie, a parody of the chatty 1981 character piece My Dinner with Andre, alongside famous wrestler “Classy” Freddie Blassie. He also played a ring referee in Teaneck Tanzi, a Broadway musical about a woman (Deborah Harry of Blondie fame) who wrestles the men in her life. It opened and closed in one night.

Kaufman succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 35 on May 16, 1984. Had he lived, he would likely have continued to climb between the ropes. Recalling their time together, Lawler once said that Kaufman expressed a wish. If only he could quit acting, he said, he wanted to wrestle full-time.

 

Additional Sources:
Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Overexposed: A History of Fotomat

Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
Fotomat locations promised speedy photo processing in the 1970s.
George, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Like the Golden Arches of McDonald’s that came before it, the familiar gold and pyramid-shaped roofs of Fotomat locations acted as a beacon. Instead of hamburgers, Fotomat was in the photography business, offering tiny huts situated in shopping plaza parking lots that were staffed by just one employee. Men were dubbed Fotomacs. Women were known as Fotomates, and management required them to wear short-shorts, or “hot pants,” in a nod to the strategy used for flight attendants at Pacific Southwest Airlines.

Cars pulled up to the Fotomat location and dropped off film they wanted processed. After being shuttled via courier to a local photo lab, it would be ready for pick-up the following day. And aside from selling film and a foray into renting videocassette tapes, this was all Fotomat did.

The idea, which was originally made popular by wealthy aviator Preston Fleet, was almost deceptively simple in concept and execution. At the height of Fotomat’s success in the 1970s and early 1980s, there were more than 4000 of the tiny kiosks located across the United States and Canada. But even with extremely low overhead—the little huts didn’t even have bathrooms—and a widespread love of photography, Fotomat fell victim to its own success. Its legacy even grew to include a former company president who became a federal fugitive from justice.

 

In the 1960s, Americans were fond of Kodak Instamatic cameras and film. People submitted the familiar yellow spools full of images from weddings, birthdays, trips, and other social events to photo processing labs, which might take days to return prints.

That’s where Preston Fleet saw opportunity. Fleet was a wealthy aviation enthusiast. His father, Reuben Fleet, had founded the Consolidated Aircraft Company—later known as Convair—which manufactured aircraft for World War II. Born in Buffalo, New York, Fleet moved with his family when the airplane business was relocated to San Diego. On the West Coast, he met Clifford Graham, an entrepreneur well-known in La Jolla, California, for his multiple business pursuits. Graham also had a reputation for carrying a gun and leading investors astray with questionable business practices.

Fotomat, however, was no hustle. The concept of a kiosk where people could easily drop off and pick up film that would be ready overnight originated in Florida, where Charles Brown opened the first location in 1965. After buying Brown's stock shares and arranging for a royalty, Fleet and Graham founded the Fotomat Corporation in 1967, with Graham president and Fleet vice-president. The concept grew quickly, boasting 1800 sites in its first 18 months of operation. Owing to its color scheme, people often thought Kodak operated the business, which led to complaints from Kodak as well as lawsuits. (Fotomat changed its design in 1970 to avoid confusion.)

While it was relatively easy to slot in a Fotomat hut in a parking lot, a business operating as an island surrounded by traffic had its problems. Remembering an old Fotomat in New Dorp on Staten Island, residents on Facebook recalled plowing into the kiosk or backing into it. (Most notably, terrorists destroy a Fotomat lookalike hut in the Twin Pines Mall lot in 1985’s Back to the Future.)

There was also the matter of bathrooms: They weren’t any. Employees often made arrangements to duck into local supermarkets or other stores when nature demanded it.

Hot pants and a lack of lavatories aside, Fotomat performed so well that Fleet and Graham decided to take it public in 1969, with each man holding stock worth $60 million at one point. But Graham’s controversial business practices made him a short-timer. In 1971, he was ousted from Fotomat over allegations he was misusing funds for his own personal gain, including his political interests—Graham was a supporter of both Richard Nixon and football player-turned-congressman Jack Kemp, who became an assistant to the president in the Fotomat corporation and referred football pros to become franchisees.

 

By the early 1980s, Fotomat—now minus Fleet, who had sold off his shares, and Graham—had opened over 4000 locations. That was both impressive and problematic. Fotomat had far overextended itself, sometimes opening kiosks so close to one another it cannibalized sales. There was also a growing number of pharmacies and grocery stores offering photo development services.

Fotomat locations were usually found in parking lots.David Prasad, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The real death blow for Fotomat, however, wasn’t over-expansion. It was the emergence of the one-hour minilab.

For an investment of $50,000 to $100,000, existing stores could install labs that could process photos in as little as one hour while customers shopped. Minilabs exploded from just 600 locations in 1980 to 14,700 by 1988. And since film never left the sites, it was less likely to get lost. It decimated Fotomat and its copycat businesses, with Fotomat moving from an impressive 18 percent market share in the photo processing industry to just 2 percent by 1988.

The company tried to recalibrate, converting home movies to videotape and even offering VHS rental during the VCR boom of the 1980s, but it wasn’t successful. Mass layoffs and closures followed. (Minilabs would have their own reckoning, both due to the rise of 35mm photography and digital photography.) In 1990, Fotomat was down to just 800 locations.

Fleet, who had exited Fotomat years prior—the company had been sold to Konica—was no worse for the wear. Prior to his death in 1995, he authored a book, Hue and Cry, which called into question the authenticity of works attributed to William Shakespeare. He was a founding director of the San Diego Aerospace Museum in 1963. He also helped popularize Omnimax, an immersive theater experience owned by Imax, installing a screen at the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater and Space Museum in San Diego in 1973.

Graham’s future after Fotomat was far more colorful. Promoting a bogus gold mining operation he named Au Magnetics, he promised he could turn sand into gold. Instead, he was accused of fleecing investors. When a federal grand jury handed down an indictment that included charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and tax evasion in 1986, Graham was nowhere to be found. Nor would he ever be located. Associates speculate he either successfully eluded authorities or was possibly killed by an investor who was unhappy with losing money.

As for the Fotomat locations themselves: Following the company’s collapse, many were repurposed into other businesses. Some became coffee shops; others morphed into watch repair kiosks, locksmith huts, windshield wiper dealers, or tailors. Presumably, none of the owners who took over mandated their employees wear hot pants.