Penny Banner Was Original Diva

Penny Banner

Penny Banner

By Mike Mooneyham

July 25, 2004

She was a diva before the wrestling world even considered such a term. In her day, the business was all about wrestling, not sports entertainment.

Long before names like Sable, Stacy and Trish provided eye candy for a generation of new wave wrestling fans, a drop-dead gorgeous blonde bombshell named Penny Banner combined looks and skill.

She was pretty enough that Elvis Presley wooed her and invited her to Graceland for nights of serious smooching. She was talented enough that she was widely regarded as one of the greatest women wrestlers of her era. And she was tough enough to have survived a stormy 35-year marriage.

Banner has chronicled her story in a recently released self-published autobiography titled “Banner Days.” She also has a starring role in “Lipstick & Dynamite,” a documentary which looks at the pioneer era of women’s professional wrestling.

To say the least, wrestling was an entirely different business back in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and women grapplers played a very subservient role in the profession. Although the girls were a major attraction, women’s rights hadn’t yet made a dent in the wrestling business. It wasn’t an easy life, says Banner, but the women who blazed the trail were strong and persevered against a number of adverse circumstances.

Banner spent the first few years of her career on the road, driving day and night, wrestling in practically every state of the continental United States and in Canada. In many cities and some states, women were even barred from wrestling.

“It wasn’t easy being a woman wrestler in those days,” says Banner, 69, who retired from in-ring competition in 1977 after a 23-year career. “You were alone a lot on the road. We didn’t even have air conditioning in those days. And there were guys on the road who’d try to flirt.”

Since women were less likely than the men to spend considerable time in one particular territory, they spent even more time on the road.

“There were only 40 or 50 girl wrestlers at that time,” says the longtime Charlotte resident. “We’d go from one town to another. We never even had time to talk. Nobody told us anything.” Banner readily admits that her fellow grapplers were no “goody-two-shoes,” more than willing and able to claw the eyes out of each other’s head to thrill and entertain the crowd.

One thing she never lost was her femininity. A true “queen of the ring,” Banner was a beauty and the heartthrob of thousands.

“I never looked at us as being eye candy to the matches; it was more like goulash the way I felt from being in the ring,” says Banner. “We weren’t treated right. We weren’t paid like the men were paid, but we were always a big draw. The fans loved to see the women.”

AN UNLIKELY CAREER

Banner’s foray into the world of wrestling occurred largely by happenstance. She was working as a part-time governess and a part-time lounge waitress when venerated St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick offered her $50 a week to give wrestling a try. The quick money was appealing, though she wasn’t a fan nor had she ever taken it seriously. She was naturally athletic, having taken tumbling and judo classes along with playing basketball and volleyball in high school.

More than anything, wrestling was a chance for 19-year-old Mary Ann Kostecki to leave the projects of St. Louis and see the world.

There were no more than 50 women wrestlers in the entire business at the time, and work was limited. But she used her natural athletic ability to breeze through initial workouts, and so impressed infamous women’s wrestling promoter Billy Wolfe that he booked Banner for her first match two weeks later against a grappler named Kathy Branch. She jokes that she “started out on the right foot” by borrowing a pair of boots from Ella Waldek. Her opponent, who didn’t wear shoes and also was new to the business, broke her ankle when she took a body slam the wrong way.

The 5-8 Banner bleached her hair blonde, took a ring name based on a character Charlton Heston played in a movie, and was well on her way to being one of the top heels (villains) on the distaff side.

“I could have been the Buddy Rogers of women’s wrestling,” says Banner. “I’m the first girl who started wearing two-piece bathing suits in the ring. I always tried to do something to be memorable and different – something more than just flying mares and dropkicks.”

Banner paid her dues by losing more matches than she won early in her career, but her flair for the business was obvious to everyone who watched her perform, including then-women’s world champ June Byers, who kicked Banner around the country for those first three years.

Banner, however, quickly ascended to the top of the women’s wrestling game. She won the U.S. and Canadian tag-team titles with Bonnie Watson (who later married ref Stu Schwartz), Betty Joe Hawkins (who later married Brute Bernard) and Lorraine Johnson (who later married Nick Roberts and was the mother of “Baby Doll” Nickla Roberts). Banner defeated Nell Stewart in 1963 for the Texas women’s title. The creme de la creme, though, was when she became the first AWA women’s champ on Aug. 26, 1961, in Angola, Ind., after winning a battle royal.

THE KING AND QUEEN

Banner was paying Wolfe, who booked their matches and controlled the girls like a sultan rules his harem, 40 percent of her pay when she left him to go to Tennessee to work for Nashville promoter Nick Gulas. It was there that a mutual friend who sold Elvis Presley souvenirs got her a ticket for an Elvis concert back in her hometown of St. Louis. A ticket was left at the press gate of the Kiel Auditorium where she bought a pair of binoculars for a buck when she couldn’t even see the stage. A number of officers summoned her and told her they were ordered to take her backstage.

She recalls being escorted past a bevy of beauties when she and Elvis exchanged smiles. She watched his performance from the side of the stage. He later invited her to the Chase Hotel where she met his backup band, The Jordanaires, before he took her up to his room. They talked and kissed all night long.

“I spent the night with him. We both fell asleep in the bed. I got up at 7 in the morning and went home. Thank God my mom was still asleep. I never told her anything.”

The king of rock ‘n roll later would become a regular for Banner’s matches in Memphis and would invite her to Graceland, his home, after the shows.

“We’d kiss all night long while the guys (the ‘Memphis Mafia’) played pool,” recalls Banner, who dated Elvis sporadically over a three-year period.

Banner says she was heartbroken when she heard the news of Elvis’s death years later. She had just earned her real estate license when she got in her car and turned on the radio and heard the news.

“I felt like the sun had disappeared. They said he died in his bathroom, and I have a perfect picture of his bedroom and his bathroom. I can see it so clearly even today. It was such a sad day.”

AN UNHAPPY CHAPTER

The man she did eventually marry, Johnny Weaver, was a referee when the two met during the late ’50s in the Kansas City area. By the time the two wed in 1959, Weaver was an up-and-coming star in the wrestling business.

She points to signs throughout the marriage – even before the marriage – that foreshadowed an unhappy ending. Even their wedding plans had to be switched around at the last minute when her Catholic priest refused to conduct the ceremony since Weaver had been married before and hadn’t gotten final divorce papers.

To make matters worse, Weaver informed his wife they were going to Charlotte. And with The Fabulous Moolah (Lillian Ellison) ruling the roost in Jim Crockett’s Mid-Atlantic territory, the few times Banner and Ellison did wrestle, neither were billed as champs.

She and Weaver, who was one of Crockett’s most popular stars during the ’60s, made a pact that she wouldn’t work a territory that he didn’t. With Weaver firmly entrenched in the Mid-Atlantic wrestling office, Banner’s career was largely limited to dates in the Carolinas and Virginia, working with a select number of women.

And since Weaver was a babyface, Jim Crockett asked Banner in 1962 to work as a fan favorite as well despite the great success she had enjoyed as a heel for the previous six years. Since she was married to Weaver, she had no choice. Banner waited a year before mustering the strength to write the book’s final chapter about their rocky relationship. She says although it was gut-wrenching to recall the many incidents in which she claims her husband was unfaithful, the marriage did produce a wonderful daughter, Wendi.

The marriage ended after 35 years when she left her husband – for the final time – 10 years ago. Although not officially divorced, the two have been legally separated since 1994.

“I’ve had it, and that’s it,” says Banner, who has long since moved on with her life.

Banner says she tried her best to make things work, often immersing herself in things to get her mind off her troubled marriage. She took guitar and clogging lessons. She even put a wig on and went out dancing with the wives of other wrestlers when her husband was on the road. She was petrified of horses, but she learned to train them and to rodeo. She was president of all the 4-H clubs in Charlotte.

“I always had such a problem with Johnny. I tried my best to believe him … I had to do something to make me happy.”

LIFE IS GOOD

Banner first got the idea for writing a book about 15 years ago when Ric Flair’s late mother, Kay Fliehr, volunteered to write it. At the time, though, Banner wasn’t ready to put words to paper. “It’s a good book about good things that happen to somebody that doesn’t ask for it.”

Several years ago she decided the time was right, and she’s glad she did. The book has allowed Banner to take a close look at her life. And, for the most part, she likes what she sees.

“So many good things have happened to me that I didn’t ask for. I’m so green about so many things, but I’ve been so blessed.”

One of those good things was her friendship with former tag partner Betty Jo Hawkins.

“Betty Jo had a wonderful life after (husband) Brute was gone,” says Banner, referring to Brute Bernard, who died from an alleged accidental gunshot wound in 1984 on his ranch. “Brute and I once had a big fight at the Avery Hotel in Boston. He slapped Betty Jo, and I jumped his back like a monkey. After that I would only go see Betty Jo when he wasn’t home. But our kids played together.”

“She lived in a pigpen when he was alive,” says Banner. “Betty Jo was crippled and she had rheumatoid arthritis. She lived her last four years in heaven (after Brute died). I got her six acres, and my daughter’s husband built a deck out back. She could watch the horses running. She was so happy. She had the best last four years of her life. I loved Betty Jo. I could hardly cry when she died because she had been in so much pain.”

Banner retired in 1977 making $21 thousand a year working twice a week. She was making $17,000 to $19,000 when she was working every night of the week. It wasn’t bad money, she says, considering her first new car, a Ford convertible, in 1956 cost $1,700. She and her husband built a house for $17,000 in 1959. Hotels cost $6 a night and restaurant food cost a buck and a half.

Banner and others from her era scoff at today’s female TV wrestling stars for allowing themselves to be treated not as “athletes” but rather as eye candy following a script. She jokes when recalling how she and other lady wrestlers from her generation had to sew elastic around the legs of their suits to be sure their cheeks didn’t hang out. “Now, anything can hang out,” she laughs.

Banner, who says she never fully realized her worth during her wrestling days, wouldn’t trade a minute of her mat experience.

“I would do it all over again. I wish I would have known I was good. But we never talked wrestling. If I had known I was good, I would have really put on a show. I would have been like Buddy Rogers. I was also scared and nervous. I would have gotten confidence. I never thought of me as being good. I guess I always wanted to be a perfectionist.”

Banner, who lists June Byers, Nell Stewart, Kay Noble, Bonnie Watson and Ethel Johnson as the top five in the business during her era (“Johnnie Mae Young obviously was very good because everyone said she was”), worked with Moolah eight times. “She beat me the first time using the ropes, and other time it was by countout or disqualification, since the title couldn’t change hands on a disqualification. I think she’s a survivor. A lot of good wrestlers came out of the school she and Buddy Lee had. She could have been a better champion. After June Byers, I never looked at Moolah as a champion.”

It wasn’t until after her daughter was born in 1960 that Banner fully understood what had been planned for her. In a letter from Billy Wolfe, the promoter told Banner that had she not left his troupe three years earlier, he had plans to make her “the greatest of all women champions.”

“He had been priming me to beat June Byers for the title all along. I wish I had known … Back then I never really thought anything about what he said. But as I read it again today, I can see the ‘big picture’ he had secretly planned for me.”

Banner, who has worked in real estate since 1977, finds joy in many facets of life these days. She joined the Senior Olympic Games at age 56 and took up swimming to help her lungs. After finding out 14 years ago that she had a touch of emphysema after 43 years of smoking cigarettes, she threw them away. Along with a shelf full of medals and trophies to show for her efforts in the Senior Olympics, she also loves singing karaoke with her friends.

“I haven’t been this happy since before I got married,” she says.

Resilient in nature, she sees her life as rolling along on a tumbleweed, picking up this and picking up that. She keeps an open mind to it all.

“It was a great life. I loved it. I never asked for it.”

For more on “Banner Days,” co-written with Charlotte Observer columnist Gerry Hostetler, see the book’s Web site, www.bannerdays.com.

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at [email protected] He is the co-author of “Sex, Lies and Headlocks: The Real Story of Vince McMahon and World Wrestling Entertainment.” For more wrestling news, check out www.mikemooneyham.com.

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