An Interview with Barry Owen
ZENK IN THE PACIFIC NORTH WEST
Until PNW's closing in 1992, it was one of the longest-running family owned sports promotions in the country.
As was the fashion in the early 1900s, local sports' promoting primarily dealt with boxing, and the Owen family's promotion in Oregon was no different.
"My grandfather, Herb Owen, was a boxing and wrestling promoter. The legendary Jack Dempsey even boxed in his federation! Later, he became strictly a wrestling promoter, " stated Owen. And before George became Gorgeous, he wrestled for the Owen's promotion. "George was wrestling for PNW and married a girl in the area. She started sewing his outfits and spent a lot of money and time on them. George didn't want to just throw them over the ropes, he wanted to fold them properly to protect the outcome of his wife's labor. The crowd got annoyed with his fussiness and began badgering George to hurry and start the match. This became his gimmick. He took longer and longer, and the outfits got gaudier and gaudier. Then came the hair. Before long he'd acquired the nickname 'Gorgeous.'"
He was not to be the only wrestler who gained fame during or after their time in PNW. Sergeant Slaughter got his start there, Lou Thesz, Jesse Ventura, the Funks, Briscos, Rick Martel (twice PNW champion), Mad Dog Vachon and Billy Jack Hayes were more names that started out, or made their way into, the PNW.
Other than Tom Zenk, "Two guys that really stood out in my mind were Ric Flair and Roddy Piper," reminisced Owen. "Flair was the greatest there ever was for his showmanship and ability. And Roddy Piper was one of the best talents that ever came through. I remember he drove clear to Pendleton one week with a ripped thumb and never complained." So loyal to PNW was Piper that he made a rare appearance at a wrestling card to present Don Owen with a plaque commemorating Owen's decades-long career in the sport on Feb. 18, 1995. (PWI's 1997 Wrestling Almanac)
"My dad, Don, and his brother, Elton, used to wrestle and referee for PNW. Both of them promoted in the '50s. Together, they ran a big territory in Oregon, Washington, Vancouver and even Hawaii. I grew up in this business. Setting up rings, putting out chairs, selling tickets, I did it all working my way up. I saw the fun and downside of this business, like getting sued everyday for something. I came into the management end of the business when Uncle Elton retired in 1982."
wasn't long after that when another young and promising star made his way
into PNW. Tommy Zenk "248lbs from Chicago," became a favorite among the
fans and management alike. "Tommy had a good work ethic, was honest and
showed up to do his spots. He was a man of his word, not a troublemaker.
And he could wrestle...and talk (during the interview segments)."
A 'typical' work week for the 15 or so stable of wrestlers in PNW in Zenk's time was anything but typical. "We would have worked the guys 7 nights a week if we could have. They were all anxious to work, and we worked them long and hard hours. Some would work 5-6 nights a week, others 4-5, but we tried to keep them busy all the time! Plus, the crowds loved to see the feuds escalate from the TV show! They would turn out to see a feud and we'd carry that angle all week in the different towns. And that's what was great about PNW. The wrestlers were able to hone their crafts by working so much. They could go to the gym during the day, then hit the road at night."
There were about 10 towns in PNW's federation area that were covered weekly. "Medford was the longest distance from Portland, and that meant that I would travel with the guys and break up the trip with an overnighter so they wouldn't have to drive all night back home. It's funny but many of the wrestlers came from the south and had never seen ice and snow, much less drive in it. There were some accidents. A few guys would take off and get in the mountains with snow and didn't know how to drive in it or put on chains and that caused some problems," recalled the younger Owen.
"We tried to hit Eugene, Salem and Tacoma every week and Seattle and Portland every two weeks. Many towns were smaller and we did quite a few fund-raisers in these areas. I remember Hermiston had a county fair area and we'd wrestle there." They would have to hose down the rodeo area to keep the dust down, or remove some of the livestock remains.
And the Sports Center in Portland was a converted bowling alley. "We needed a place quick and with a few renovations, it fit the bill. But there were many nights I worried about the wrestlers hitting the lights with their boots when they were put in supplexes!! But Portland was where the Saturday night TV shows were done...live, starting in 1948! That's something certainly not done today! We'd go from match to interview with a wideshot covering the lull in the action. If a wrestler was a no-show, we'd scramble to fill up that slot with another match, while figuring what to do next. That kind of thing really threw a wrench into my hard thought booking plans! For graphics, we'd have a menu board set up with the next week's card. It was great fun," Owen remembers.
guy's salaries was a percentage of the house. If they didn't wrestle, they
didn't get paid. The pay depended on the house money, some houses had 500
fans, others up to 3,000 so every town was different. The guys worked hard
and a lot of them made good money. My dad and I tried to treat the guys
fairly. We tried to work with them and help out if they needed it. We were
like a family and we tried to treat them all well." This fair dealing by
the Owens would come into play in the years ahead.
end of part one