By Mike Mooneyham
Dec. 10, 2006
Barbara Ellison stands barely 5 feet tall, and loves to talk about gardening and grandchildren.
She’s also pretty good at throwing a fishing line or a softball when she’s not working at the Summerville Lowe’s where she has been a fixture for the past 13 years.
Her Boston accent has been slightly compromised by living in the Lowcountry for nearly half of her 63 years, and the mix has given her a pleasant tone that is assertive yet soothing.
But don’t let her soft, grandmotherly demeanor fool you.
For once upon a time, when pro wrestling was a weekly staple on grainy, black and white television, Ellison – known then by her stage name of Bette Boucher – was a queen of the mat. And although she wrestled professionally for less than 10 years, she carved out a special piece of ring history by winning the women’s world heavyweight championship in 1967.
‘Miss Barbara’Barbara Ellison pauses slightly when reflecting on a wrestling career that spanned a decade and ended more than 35 years ago. It’s as though she’s turning back chapters in a book and revisiting a time that was exciting, challenging and demanding, yet deep into the past.
She recalls the bravado and the flamboyant personalities of the women. She was an embodiment of physical strength and beauty that contributed to a sense of empowerment in a male-dominated profession that was one part theater, one part sport. She and her fellow trailblazers were athletes and rebels ahead of their time who smashed sexist prejudices when feminism was still in its infancy.
Ellison waxes nostalgic as she recalls tales of life on the road and in the ring. She reminisces about former glories with a sense of pride and joy.
But that was then and this is now.
Today she lives in a modest trailer off Miles Road in Summerville, and works as an electrical associate at Lowe’s. She’s worked in almost every department at the store, and was manager at one time but stepped down when her daughter was involved in a serious car accident while seven months pregnant.
Not many people know of her ring days as “Bette Boucher.” Now she’s simply known as “Miss Barbara.”
“You won’t find a better person anywhere,” says Summerville Lowe’s manager Todd Friddle, who adds he wishes he had “a hundred more Miss Barbara’s” in his employ. “She’s an institution here. She has done whatever has needed to be done. She helps people all over the store.”
Ellison turned 63 in July, but still moves around like someone half her age. “I’m proud of my age. I can work circles around most young people that walk into Lowe’s. I’m healthy. Most people say I don’t look 63. I’m not ashamed of my age.”
“She must have been a ball of fire in the ring,” says Friddle. “To this day she doesn’t have an ounce of body fat on her. She could probably still snatch someone up by the ears and take care of them.”
Ellison hasn’t been in a wrestling ring since 1970.
“It’s something I did in the past. I don’t wallow in the past. I still have very good memories.”
Brand new world
Ellison was born Barbara Boucher (pronounced Boo-shay) on July 29, 1943, in Webster, Mass., a small town in the southern part of the state about three miles from the Connecticut line. She had two younger sisters and four older brothers. Both parents were of French decent, her mother from New Brunswick and her father from Massachusetts.
It seemed only a natural progression that she would someday find herself in a wrestling ring. She was an avid fan of the sport as a youth, regularly attending the local shows in Worcester and religiously watching the weekly TV programs that emanated out of Boston and New York.
Born as a Depression-era sideshow, it was in carnivals and on fairgrounds that women’s wrestling started as a novelty act two decades earlier, but the distaff side had taken hold during World War II, boosting sagging attendance and becoming an accessory to its dominant male counterpart.
Ellison, even at a tender age, loved the ladies’ bravado, courage and independent spirit. “I was only 10 or 11 years old, but I just fell in love with it. I knew then that I wanted to do it.”
It was an exciting new world for Ellison, and she loved everything about it.
“I’m going to be one of them one day,” she told her dad on more than one occasion. Her parents, she says, would humor her, not taking her bold statements too seriously.
Ellison, though, was determined. She continued going to the matches and watching on TV.
“I knew there was good money in it, and the traveling was very enticing. I wanted to get out and go. I wanted to see things and do things. All that appealed to me.”
The aspiring grappler became friends with Pat Patterson, at the time an up-and-coming star in the business who later would become one of the top bookers in a multimillion-dollar industry.
“He was a very nice young man,” she says of the French-Canadian who would move up the ranks to eventually become one of Vince McMahon’s right-hand men in the World Wrestling Entertainment juggernaut.
Patterson liked Ellison’s moxie and finally asked her: “Are you really, really serious about getting in this business?”
Patterson said if she was, he would introduce her to The Fabulous Moolah, Lillian Ellison (no relation), who was the most influential woman in the business and trainer of a stable of lady wrestlers based in Columbia.
Patterson made the contact and arranged for Ellison to meet Moolah after a show in Worcester. “She told me what I had to do to try to get into the business. I went home and I was in seventh heaven.” Ellison’s hopes were high, but she realized the chances of making it were slim. At 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, she was seriously undersized and knew the overwhelming odds of small girls getting into the business. She had been very athletic in school and had excelled in baseball and track. And she was determined. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me.”
Moolah, a battle-hardened, cash-obsessed veteran who oozed sultry, Southern charm and once entertained a marriage proposal from country music icon Hank Williams Sr., acquiesced and gave her a date to come to her training school. Ellison, who had just turned 19, hopped a bus in 1962 and headed south to Columbia.
Buddy Lee, Moolah’s common-law husband at the time and later one of Nashville’s most successful music promoters, looked at the new student in amazement. A wrestler himself, Lee didn’t think Ellison stood a chance of making it as a grappler.
“He looked at me like I was crazy. My heart sank,” Ellison recalls.
Lee took her into his office and told his wife that Ellison was too small and needed to go back to Massachusetts.
Ellison, though, was persistent and begged the two to give her a try. Lee was reluctant, but Moolah persuaded him to give Ellison a chance. If it didn’t work out, Ellison assured them that she would be on the next bus north. One workout convinced Moolah that her hunch had been right.
“This kid’s athletic,” she told Lee. “She may be small, but she’s going to be good, and I’m going to personally work with her.”
“In all honesty, I learned from the best,” says Ellison, who was relentless in training. “Nobody was going to stop me from making it. I told myself that I wasn’t just going to make it – I was going to be one of the best.”
Ellison trained about six months before actually getting into the ring. She eventually would help Moolah and Lee train the new girls who came through the camp.
“The ones who stayed were the ones who really had it in their hearts.”
Ellison was at the top of that select group.
A star is born
Wanting to highlight her French surname, Moolah changed her student’s ring moniker to “Bette” Boucher, giving it more of an alluring French flavor.
Ellison started her career in North Carolina working for the late Jim Crockett Sr. Her first match was with heralded veteran Penny Banner. “I got my butt kicked,” says Ellison. “She had more experience, but I got better as time went on.”
It was a sweet homecoming when Ellison got the chance to return to Worcester to wrestle another veteran named Bambi Ball. The rookie won this time, and she was on her way.
“My parents were in seventh heaven. They were big wrestling fans. My dad would always talk about ‘my daughter, my daughter.’ He would buy every magazine with my name in it.”
With a couple of years experience under her belt, Ellison was sent by Moolah to Minneapolis, an AWA-based territory where larger women were the norm.
She remembers sitting in the dressing room when she was approached by promoter Wally Karbo. Karbo, a co-founder of the American Wrestling Association and one of the most powerful promoters of his time, took one look at Ellison and said, “No, no, no, no. You’re way too small.”
Once again, says Ellison, she had to sell herself and convince the hard-boiled promoter that she could do the job.
“Please Mr. Karbo, please let me go out there and prove myself to you. If you don’t think that I have what it takes, I’ll go back to Columbia. I’ll leave tonight,” she told him.
Ellison promptly went out and – in wrestling parlance – “tore the roof off the building.”
The crusty matchmaker had a big smile on his face when Ellison returned to the dressing room following her match. “Honey,” he told her, “I’ll never say that about a small girl again.”
On the road
Wrestling back then, especially the women’s version, was a far cry from today’s slick, big-bucks, sports entertainment spectacle of WWE-laden theatrics, over-the-top showmanship and silicone-inflated divas.
Female wrestlers in Ellison’s era operated on the industry’s fringe, and most of them worked for Moolah. who collected booking fees, sometimes accounting for 30 percent of their paycheck, each time they wrestled. Other hard-nosedly promoters such as Billy Wolfe, whom Moolah took over from when he died in the early ’60s, had pocketed a whopping 50 percent of what the girls earned and made them pay their own travel and lodging expenses. A Svengali of ladies’ wrestling, Wolfe had been notorious for treating his vulnerable harem of women wrestlers like “pieces of meat” while bedding down those who interested him.
Some had gravitated to this sideshow world because it afforded them the chance to escape nightmarish childhoods, unpleasant lives, brutal poverty or abusive husbands. For some, becoming a wrestler was a matter of survival. Wrestling was a world in which they could assume new identities and take on extravagant personas. It was going from town to town, watching the world through a car window, dreaming of a shot at the big time.
These thick-skinned, rough-and-tumble girls, says Ellison, were completely dedicated to the sport and laid it all on the line for every match. It was about guts and endurance, but more than that, it was a sisterhood.
“The women had to stick together because there simply weren’t that many of us. We were all fighting to strive and survive because we were up against male domination. We had to band together and let it be known that this was our profession, too, and we loved it. We just wanted to do our thing.”
These battling dames were certainly not given the huge publicity campaigns now afforded to today’s WWE leading ladies. While the money was decent but not great, the business afforded performers like Bette Boucher the opportunity to visit new places and see the world. She traveled as far as Japan and worked in Australia three times in one year for the late promoter Jim Barnett.
She might make two or three hundred dollars in Atlanta one night, and the next night wrestle in a smaller town for 15 bucks.
“You had to put up with the good and the bad, the big towns with the little. I made good money, but not like wrestlers today. We got a percentage of the gate back then. Now they sign contracts. People like me were the stepping stones. Somebody had to do it,” says Ellison, who once earned a thousand dollars in one night working against Judy Grable at San Francisco’s Cow Palace.
Ellison wrestled most of the top lady gladiators of that period, but says her favorite opponent was Princess Little Cloud, a pretty Native American grappler who started wrestling at the age of 16 and retired six years later.
“We executed so well together. It was a pleasure working with her. We’d have the crowds crazy.”
Ellison was an aerial-oriented wrestler who preferred high-flying maneuvers such as dropkicks and flying head scissors. She patterned her ring style after her idol, the great French wrestler Eduardo Carpentier, a former gymnast who used cartwheels and somersaults in the ring to defeat his foes. Ellison learned to do flips and practiced doing dropkicks on a medicine ball in the ring.
“I think I did a pretty good job. That’s why I was a success … I learned a lot of that aerial stuff because of my size. They believed in the big woman back then. I had to work my butt off to impress the promoters because of my size. And it worked.” Ellison worked in the ring as both a babyface (fan favorite) and a heel (villainess), depending on where she appeared. Her diminutive stature usually dictated that she work as a babyface, although she says it didn’t matter to her and didn’t really affect her style in the ring.
“People loved it either way. When I wrestled in Louisiana and in New Orleans, I wrestled as a heel and the people loved it.”
Women’s wrestling, always controversial, was at one time considered “inappropriate” and banned outright in several territories, including New York City, into the ’70s. Some women were required to wear re-enforced suits lined with surgical elastic so that nothing would unexpectedly pop out during a match – to prevent a Janet Jackson moment.
“They were very strict about the sexual things,” says Ellison. “We had to reinforce the legs on our bathing suits with elastic where it wouldn’t be loose. We had to make it look like a fitting bathing suit where nothing was exposed.”
Ellison was one of the first women wrestlers to perform when California opened its doors to women wrestling. She also went to New York when that state opened and worked at Madison Square Garden against Moolah.
“It was a breakthrough for us. We were the stepping stones to get it really going.”
Some of her wrestling past, she says, is a little hazy. “I guess it comes with age,” she chuckles. But certain moments come to her as quickly as if they happened yesterday.
And while she enjoyed many highlights during her short but marked career, one stands out far above the rest. She defeated Moolah for the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) women’s world title in 1967 in Seattle, Wash.
“It was the highlight of my career. I loved wrestling for wrestling. But that title was the thing.”
Ellison held the crown for only a month, but it’s an achievement no one can ever take away from her. “I had worked so hard. It was very special.”
What made the win even more significant was the fact that she won the title from her teacher, the veteran Moolah, the biggest star in women’s wrestling and one who would have the most longevity, surviving even into the heyday of the World Wrestling Federation and finding a new generation of fans.
The brash and brassy Moolah was 20 years her senior, and had worked her way into the more lucrative side of the sport as a girl-fight promoter and had even surpassed her ex-husband, Lee, after their breakup. With pouty red lips and smoldering eyes and sporting flashy, decadent jewelry, she had begun her career during the late ’40s as a leopard skin-clad valet known as “Slave Girl Moolah.” She quickly climbed to stardom as the most recognized female athlete in the business.
A performer the fans loved to hate, she was a heel of the first order and liked to stomp, choke and gouge her opponents with a spoon handle she kept secreted in her ample bra.
“I have to give her credit,” says Ellison. “She was a top-notch heel. I wanted to be just like her when I got into the business. She had that charisma.”
Ellison’s conquests wouldn’t end there. She also held the Southern states title for three years during the mid-’60s.
And, five years after Ellison broke into the business, a younger sister named Shirley joined her in the ring, adopting the name “Rita” Boucher. The two joined forces as a popular sister team, but Rita left the business after only a couple of years. Having children and being on the road was difficult, and she returned home to Massachusetts.
“She’s always been the more feminine and not the athletic type, but she wanted to try it. I think part of the reason was because I was doing it,” says Ellison, who would sometimes take care of the children while her sister wrestled.
Ellison admits the grind of traveling the road in a succession of one-night stands and hard knocks was grueling. She often wrestled seven straight days. “We had to sometimes to make money.” Sometimes she would be gone for three months at a time. It was difficult for a woman, says Ellison, but it was worth it. Wrestling provided the opportunity to see the world at a time when opportunities for women were limited.
“It was my life. I loved it. The challenge and the travel – I loved it more than the money. I loved it, but as much as you love something, sometimes you get tired of it.”
Rebels and trailblazers
Ellison was a brown-eyed, dark-haired beauty who dyed her locks a fiery red to accommodate promoters’ requests, and had a number of potential suitors inside the wrestling business. But she knew wrestling was not conducive to a lasting and meaningful relationship.
Women wrestlers were expected to present themselves as “ladies” in stockings, high heels, dresses and full makeup – while providing no-holds-barred action in their matches. Their publicity pictures portrayed them as pin-ups, but behind the scenes they were women who made their living being different.
There also were backstage rivalries and financial exploitation by sleazy promoters. Some even endured the casting couch to get steady bookings. Ellison, though, wasn’t one of them, saying she conducted herself “like a lady and wouldn’t put up with any nonsense.”
Some of the male grapplers, she says, looked down on women’s wrestling. And some, like Killer Karl Kox (Herb Gerwig), Wahoo McDaniel and Nelson Royal, became like “big brothers.”
“One of the guys back then had tried to date me for a long time,” recalls Ellison. “I was in the business because I loved to wrestle, not because I wanted to run around with the guy wrestlers. I had a clean reputation and wanted to keep it that way. One of the guy wrestlers kept trying to date me, and I kept turning him down. He said something nasty about me in the dressing room one night, and Karl (Kox) put him up against the wall. He told him if he ever said anything bad about me again, he would break his leg. He told him that I was his little sister, and that I was a nice girl.”
Ellison and her fellow women warriors were expected to perform even when they were hurt. She suffered a few cracked ribs and wrestled with a broken wrist.
“You had to if you wanted to make a living,” she explains. “I wrestled hurt a lot of the time. But fortunately I got out of the business without beating my body up so bad. My health is great. I’m in good physical condition.”
She’d do it all over again.
“I was able to do things most people don’t get an opportunity to do. How can you regret that?”
All good things …
Ellison spent eight good years in the wrestling business. But when it was over, it was over, and she knew it.
She had enough of being body-slammed, having her eyes gouged and getting smacked upside the head with a metal folding chair while earning a paycheck.
“I had done it eight years. I loved it, but I thought it was time to raise a family,” says Ellison, who hung up her boots for good in 1970 to forge a new life after wrestling. She wanted a normal schedule and a normal existence. She knew a stable family life would be impossible in the wrestling business.
Ellison married a Columbia man the year she retired, and stayed home the first couple of years and had the first of her four children. Her husband worked for an affiliate of Dupont called Standard Warehouse off old Highway 52 and was transferred in 1975. He later worked for Alumax.
The marriage lasted 22 years. She has been divorced for 10 years.
Ellison is less than two years from retirement, but she still exudes a youthful energy. She loves to fish and work in the garden, and she loves college football. Her favorite team is Boston College, but says she’s become a big University of South Carolina fan since moving to the state.
Six grandchildren keep her busy, and she makes it a point to let everyone know they’re her No. 1 priority.
“I love them to death. I try to spend as much time with them as I can.” She still gets requests to play senior league softball, but she’d rather be out on the field cheering on her grandchildren as they play T-ball or cheerlead.
“I love it. To me that’s what it’s all about. That’s what grandchildren are for. I love all my babies.”
“The sun rises and sets in her grandkids’ eyes,” says Friddle. “That’s her life now.”
Ellison seems content with the path her life has taken. She’s still spry, remains health-conscious and has maintained her small frame over the years. She learned from a young age the importance of a balanced diet and good nutrition – and what not to do.
“We didn’t have much when I was growing up, but there was always plenty of food on the table. Dad would always say, ‘Eat up, eat up,’ and you grow up eating like that. I looked at myself one day, and said no, you’ve got to do something about that because this is not you. I’ve never been a big person. I eliminated big meals at night. I’ve been doing that for years.”
“Eating the right foods has been important,” she adds. “I love vegetables. I’m not a big breakfast eater. I make lunch my main meal, and I work it off. At night I don’t sit around eating big meals. To me that’s when most people kill themselves with weight.”
Ellison has three daughters and one son ranging in age from 29 to 36. All her children live in the area.
“We’re a very close family,” she smiles.
She’s also a dedicated employee.
Friddle says when he first came to Lowe’s as assistant manager, one of his first moves was sneaking Ellison over to his department, because “she was just that good.”
“She got a personality plus. Her customers love here to death. Everybody does. She’s good people.”
“You won’t find a better employee, a better person for customer service,” he adds. “People come looking for Barbara. They shop with Barbara; they don’t shop with Lowe’s.”
The former Bette Boucher still watches wrestling on TV occasionally, but laments it’s not the same. No longer about wins and losses, the business is now called sports entertainment, a hearty mix of athletics, personalities and soap opera storylines. She says she has no interest in today’s WWE version of women’s wrestling.
“It went downhill. I lost interest. My time is too valuable. I’m not knocking it. It just doesn’t interest me.”
She pauses again to think about the old days and the old performers whose scratch-and-claw demeanors were largely shaped by the rigors of their rough profession. A strange paradox of great physical beauty combined with a savage athleticism, they developed big, wonderfully fearless personalities in the course of making an impact on a hostile world. They were the glamorous wonder women of yore who paved the way for today’s practitioners of the game.
“I’m an old true-blue wrestler. I guess I’m just so old-school. The new stuff just turns me off. I loved the real true wrestling – the knock-down, drag-out type of wrestling. But things change. Like Vince McMahon says, it’s a big soap opera out there.”
Her old teacher, Moolah, loves the spotlight and still takes names and kicks butt for nostalgia’s sake. She plans to still be wrestling when she’s 100. At age 83, the honey-voiced octogenarian hasn’t been mellowed by age, and unlike many old-school wrestlers, she’s perfectly fine with the soap opera-like direction the sports entertainment business has taken.
“When you retire, you might as well get ready to drive nails in your coffin,” Moolah said in a recent interview. “I intend to wrestle until I’m 100 years old, and that’s not too far off.”
Ellison, though, is glad she chose the other route.
“I retired before I had a beat-up body like a lot of the other wrestlers. What good is it to them if their bodies are so beat up? I retired in time not to ruin myself physically. At some point you have to think about your age and think about your body and enjoy your life a little bit because you’re not going to be around forever.” And, unlike her mentor, Ellison hopes to be taking it easy when she’s 83.
“I’m going to take advantage of my retirement,” says Ellison, who is content living in her trailer but has plans to build a house on an acre of land following retirement. “I’m going to build what I want. I want something that’s easy maintenance because I still want to travel some. It’s still in my blood.”
Ellison wouldn’t trade her experience of being part of a unique piece of Americana. One can still detect the passion and bravado in her voice.
“It was a hard life, all that traveling and living out of suitcases, but it was exciting. The thrill of the ring, the competition. I guess I was born to do it.”