By Mike Mooneyham
Aug. 12, 2003
His father created the Sertoma and Roundball sports classics. His brother and sister created the philanthropic Charitable Society of Charleston. All Bill Thrash did was help create one of the most successful characters in the history of sports entertainment.
“I came up with The Undertaker’s name and designed his costume,” says Thrash, who served as creative director for World Wrestling Entertainment (at the time known as the World Wrestling Federation) from 1989-94.
“It’s kind of like my claim to fame, since almost everyone has heard of The Undertaker, even if they’re not a wrestling fan.”
Neither was the Summerville native when he interviewed for the job 14 years ago. But with a name like Thrash, he seemed a natural for the wrestling profession.“I didn’t know anything about wrestling. I had heard of guys like Ric Flair and Wahoo McDaniel out at the old County Hall, but I never knew much about it.”
Thrash doesn’t understate his initial lack of knowledge concerning the business. When he first interviewed for the job at the company’s lavish headquarters in Stamford, Conn., he was introduced to WWE owner Vince McMahon, universally recognized as the most powerful man in the wrestling industry.
“I shook his hand but didn’t recognize him,” admits Thrash. “He seemed kind of amazed that I didn’t know him.”
Thrash, though, obviously made a favorable impression with the mat czar. He was called in for a second interview a week later and was immediately placed in charge of a staff of five art directors, along with a number of associates and freelancers. Since computer graphics was still in its infancy, there was a great deal of hands-on work, he says.
In addition to creating personalities and designing costumes for wrestling characters, his responsibilities included creating and designing television graphics, spots and sets, corporate brochures, national magazine and television ads, trade show booths, billboards and logos. He also directed studio and location photo shoots, and configured a 34-station Macintosh and SiliconGraphics computer system network.
It was pretty heady stuff for a 31-year-old, Southern-born, Southern-bred artist with limited wrestling knowledge. But Thrash took to it like a duck to water.
“There was a great rapport among the staff,” Thrash says. “Every time we did anything it was very competitive. Everyone was very talented, and there were a lot of egos.”
BACKGROUND IN BUSINESS AND SPORTS
Bill Thrash grew up in a close-knit Summerville family that had sports and business as a backdrop.
As owner of T&T Sports of Charleston, Thrash’s father, Rosser, was a successful businessman and a bona fide sports fanatic. He was the architect of several area sports-related ventures, including the Palmetto Touchdown Club, the Sertoma Football Classic and the Red Cross-Rotary Roundball Classic. The annual basketball tournament, which began in 1993, has evolved into a spotlight event, raising thousands of dollars for local charities and garnering national attention for area athletics. The Sertoma event, which has raised well over a million dollars for area charities, is celebrating its 33rd anniversary this month.
“It’s amazing how well both of them have done,” says Thrash, who has spent literally thousands of hours working to develop the events that have become Lowcountry traditions.
It seems that sports has always been a big part of the Thrash family.
“One of the happiest times of our lives was watching the kids when they were participating,” he says.
Bill, the eldest of four siblings, agrees that sports has served as a strong family bond.
His younger brother, Ben, played on four state championship teams in baseball and football at Summerville and earned a gridiron scholarship to The Citadel. His oldest sister, Kit, was a cross-country star, and his youngest sister, Mari, was a standout swimmer. Bill’s uncle, Pat, was a local sports hero in Columbia who went on to become a three-sport star at the University of South Carolina before establishing the T&T sporting goods business in 1948 in the Midlands.
Rosser bought an existing store in Charleston in 1961 and moved to the Lowcountry to run it six years later. At one time, he owned six branch stores in addition to the main store at Rivers Avenue and employed more than 70 people. Today’s streamlined operation includes one store and half as many employees.
“But business is better than it’s ever been,” according to Thrash, who retired nearly two years ago and turned over the operation to son Ben.
Bill also had his moments on the athletic field, although it was established at an early age that art would be his ticket.
“He’s been drawing since he was 2 or 3 years old,” says his dad. “When he was 3, my wife, Betsy, gave him a pencil and some paper, and he drew a picture of a man sitting down in a chair. It was unbelievable. We started giving him lessons early, and he’s pursued it his entire life. He took a correspondence course, and we had teachers in Summerville work with him.”
The Summerville High School graduate pursued his interest in art in the Air Force, taking a job as a graphics specialist, and eventually earned his degree in studio art at the University of South Carolina. In 1989 he moved to Westchester County, New York, where he did graphic artwork for various marketing firms. A headhunter (professional job recruiter) hooked him up with the Connecticut-based wrestling juggernaut. Thrash started his new job with the then-WWF in December 1989.
“Just in time to go to their Christmas party,” he recalls. “It was a big soiree out at some big hotel in Greenwich. I got to meet all these colorful people and all the execs. It was quite the kickoff for the job.”
“It was quite a shock to me when he took the job,” admits Rosser Thrash. “I’m not a big (wrestling) fan. I told him I hoped it was a good job, and it turned out to be. He got a lot of good experience and got to go a lot of places and meet some famous people.”
Thrash’s first major campaign with the company was a lofty one, as he was assigned to help fashion the promotional machinery for Wrestlemania VI featuring Hulk Hogan vs. The Ultimate Warrior on April 1, 1990, at the Toronto SkyDome.
THE UNDERTAKER IS BORN
Less than a year after taking the job, Thrash was called into a meeting with McMahon and a group of front-office assistants that included Pat Patterson, J.J. Dillon and Bruce Prichard. The goal was to develop a new character that would be portrayed by Mark Calaway, a towering, talented Texan who had just come off a stint in rival World Championship Wrestling under the name Mean Mark Callous, and had played an alien in a movie called “Suburban Commando” that starred Hogan.
“This was actually kind of a fluke, because most wrestlers already had gimmicks or names,” says Thrash. “There were a couple that we massaged or worked on as a creative team. This one was going to be special.”
The character initially was to be managed by Prichard, who doubled as the Jimmy Swaggart-based televangelist Brother Love. Realizing that the gimmick needed to fit the religious tract, Thrash said he thought the darkest angle to that would be the funeral home or mortuary, along with, of course, an undertaker.
Although Thrash had not yet had an opportunity to meet Calaway, he had seen photographs and tried to develop a visual picture of the character.
“They exaggerated on stats for a lot of the talent, but not Mark,” Thrash says. “He was a legit 6-8 and weighed 340 pounds. He was a huge individual.”
Conjuring up images of legendary character actor John Carradine playing the part of an Old West undertaker, Thrash blurted out at the meeting, “How about Undertaker!'”
As Thrash recalls, everyone seated around the conference table placed their hands on their chests. After chewing on Thrash’s suggestion for a few seconds, McMahon slammed his hand on the desk, declaring, “That’s it. That’ll do it.”
The next step, says Thrash, was to work on character traits and attitude. The following day, after doing some rough sketches, he designed Taker’s costume – black trench coat, silver and black ascot, Amish-style hat, gauntlet gloves, high boots, along with zombie-style makeup. To give it that extra touch, Thrash ripped the sleeves off with a razor. A fashion designer would later sew the costume after researching the needed materials.
What Thrash didn’t anticipate was a lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.
“We got sued later because there was another tag team at the time called The Undertakers wrestling for some small independent organization. They were sort of punk rockers, while our Undertaker was different, with the original character looking like he came from the Old West. I was a little nervous at the time, but I guess the suit must have gotten tossed out because we proceeded soon after.”
The rest of the character development, says Thrash, fell into the hands of the television production staff, which brought “The Dead Man” to life, embellishing the gimmick, utilizing props and creating storylines. Thrash gives the bulk of the credit to the powerful promotional machinery of WWE.
“Most of the promotional aspect could be attributed to the TV studio and the producers. They more or less massaged the character. And, of course, J.J., Pat and Vince were all doing the scripts. They’d bring out this big script book, and they’d have everything planned.”
Prichard, however, didn’t last long as The Undertaker’s manager. Bill Moody, a real-life licensed mortician who doubled as a wrestling manager named Percy Pringle, was brought in to take Prichard’s place. The fit was a perfect one as Moody, with his squeaky voice, dyed black hair and heavy make-up, perfectly complemented The Undertaker’s grimly dark persona. Moody, now billed as Paul Bearer, accentuated Calaway’s character by giving him an urn and creating a segment called The Funeral Parlor. The two would enter the ring via funeral march-like theme music aptly titled “The Death March.”
Thirteen years and several transformations later, the character still survives, having taken its place among the most successful in the history of the business.
WRESTLING WITH SUCCESS
Although Thrash didn’t work directly with Vince McMahon, he found him to be an alluring character himself. The thing that struck him most about McMahon, he says, was “how together he was.”
“Who could forget him? Barrel-chested with that vest underneath, Vince had a killer handshake and was very personable,” Thrash recalls. “He was very serious, very charismatic. His character on TV was in no way indicative of how he was in real life. He’s a little more easygoing than he appears on TV. He was very open-minded about all the wild stuff we would do. He was totally on top of all situations and was great to work for.”
Thrash also vividly remembers the extravagance.
“Vince had an executive office that overlooked Long Island Sound. It had a great view. His office – not the conference rooms attached to it – had leather walls and was simply awesome. We had a cafeteria, and the first couple of years we got a free lunch if we stayed in the building. He tried to get people to work more than they already were.”
There was little time for anything else, says Thrash.
“There was always something going on. I’d have to come to the office for meetings on Sunday. I cooled down my work schedule after I left. But it was quite the experience.”
Most of Thrash’s ideas met with unanimous approval from the WWE hierarchy. McMahon, especially, liked his work, especially the intensity it conveyed.
“They were off the wall. I came up with this one creative where all the guys were rushing head to head, in sort of a comet stream. It was quite different.”
“This is perfect,” said the WWE owner. “I want everything to look like this from now on. That’s exactly what we’re all about.”
Thrash recalls one idea in particular that he thought would have been a success, but he was unable to sell McMahon on it.
A meeting to discuss the introduction of Yokozuna, a 600-pound Samoan playing the role of a Japanese sumo champion, was held at McMahon’s executive office suite. As a two-hour discussion ensued at the conference table, Thrash had a thought, then exclaimed, “I know… every time he speaks we do a voice-over that’s not synched to his lips, like the Japanese Sci-Fi’s, every time he speaks … You know, we get that voice. You know the one – that fast, staccato, monotone kind of voice.”
“There were a couple of I love it’s’ expressed,” says Thrash, “and then we turn to Vince at the head of the table. He’s chuckling, and then leans back in his chair, puts his thumb and forefinger to his chin, grins and then glances to the ceiling.
“Nah, I think we want him more serious than that … It’s gotta be more serious,” said McMahon, all the while smiling.
Thrash also had a big hand in the launch of the WBF (World Bodybuilding Federation), McMahon’s failed foray into the bodybuilding world and an ill-fated attempt to set up another pro bodybuilding group which would rival the more-established IFBB (International Federation of BodyBuilders).
“I don’t really want to claim that one,” jokes the 44-year-old Thrash, “but it was really very exciting and we did a lot of serious promotional work with it. We came up with characters for the guys just like they were wrestlers.”
Thrash, who helped groom the bodybuilders and set up their personas, even went on surveillance to Weider events (named after bodybuilding gurus Joe and Ben Weider) and got thrown out of one when he got caught in the wings taking pictures. McMahon and his associates had initially denied they had any designs on creating a bodybuilding federation, saying that they proposed only to produce a magazine called “Bodybuilding Lifestyles.”
One of Thrash’s favorite projects was a booth that he built from scratch. The ICOPRO (Integrated Conditional Programs) booth made the rounds at a number of WBF events and nutritional supplement trade shows, including the three WBF championships held in Atlantic City, N.J., Long Beach, Calif., and Düsseldorf, Germany, along with the Arnold Classics in Nashville and Las Vegas, the Terminator’s annual paeans to pumping iron.
The WBF was a bust, however, and the costly venture lasted only 18 months – from January 1991 to July 1992.
“We were going to take better care of the talent and make it more competitive and entertaining. But there was just no battling the Weiders,” says Thrash.
With the collapse of the WBF and McMahon and his company in the midst of a steroid scandal and impending trial, Thrash says he thought he could see the writing on the wall.
“It looked like it was all coming down, and things weren’t going to be very good. They (the federal government) were coming after him big time, and my job security appeared in jeopardy.”
Any regrets the senior art director might have had about leaving were buried in the waist-deep snow of Connecticut.
“It was a great experience. I liked the people and I liked the work, but it was time to move on.”
RETURNING TO HIS ROOTS
The walls of Thash’s downtown Charleston studio apartment are decorated with striking samples of his elaborate handiwork.
There are plenty of promotional posters and artwork from his wrestling days, with figures such as Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and The Ultimate Warrior striking various dramatic poses.
Life isn’t quite as hectic now, nor does it seem quite as exciting for Thrash, nearly a decade removed from his experience on the fringes of a business best described as a soap opera gone mad. But that’s not altogether a bad thing, says Thrash, who has settled back into a Lowcountry lifestyle that seems to fit like a glove.
He returned to the area in 1995 to work for a Mount Pleasant-based marketing firm, later taking a job in the family sporting goods business while teaching courses at Trident Technical College.
“He’s really exceptional,” says Rosser Thrash. “I don’t know that there’s a better graphic artist in South Carolina.”
Thrash takes pride in the fact that he comes from a community-minded family.
The Charitable Society of Charleston, the brainchild of brother Ben and sister Kit Thrash, was a spin-off of another fraternal club Ben and some friends started called “Top Twenty.” The club morphed into a fund-raising organization that has given away more than $425,000 and provided 19,000 hours of volunteer man (and woman) hours to 172 charities in the last 10 years. It has created a $70,000 endowment with The Community Foundation that charities can tap for emergency needs.
Thrash is currently working on his master’s degree in advertising design from Syracuse University, which boasts one of the top advertising graphics programs in the country. He is still teaching graphics design as an adjunct professor at Trident Tech, and works as a freelance graphics artist for a number of Lowcountry firms and organizations.
He’s usually reluctant to bring up his wrestling past to new students. Most, he says, simply roll their eyes when he throws out that bit of trivia, tending not to believe that he once rubbed shoulders with monsters of the mat.