By Mike Mooneyham
Aug. 1, 2004
I can’t help but think about Henry Marcus whenever driving past the old County Hall on King Street.
Now an affordable housing complex known as the Palace Apartments, the building is long removed from the days when it was the place to be on Friday nights, wrestling was the ticket and Henry Marcus was the ring master.
To thousands of wrestling fans in these parts, he was as much the building as the mortar that held it together. He was a promoter extraordinaire who dabbled in everything from the Royal Canadian Ballet to the Ice Capades. But pro wrestling was his bread and butter. It’s what endeared him to mat fans throughout the state for half a century.
The news of his passing last Sunday at the age of 93 leaves a void not only in the wrestling business, but also in the rich cultural fabric of our town, which counted Marcus among its unique group of engaging and colorful personalities. A master storyteller who was gifted with razor-sharp wit and an amazing sense of recall, he was the last of the old-time promoters.
BORN TO PROMOTE
I first crossed paths with Henry Marcus in 1964. It marked my indoctrination into the soap opera gone mad known as professional wrestling. By that time he had been in the promoting business for more than 20 years. What I first noticed about him was that he stood in stark contrast to the burly behemoths who worked on his shows. With thinning hair swept straight back over his head, thick glasses and trousers hitched up to his belly button (which earned him the name “High Pockets”), the nattily attired promoter was not an imposing physical presence by any stretch of the imagination.
One thing, though, was for sure. This was his show. You’d see him handing out tickets at the box office. You’d see him taking tickets at the door, with his “Hold your own ticket!” refrain providing a familiar backdrop for the bustling County Hall throng. He’d occasionally do the ring announcing, giving the festivities just the slightest sense of decorum and an added dose of legitimacy. And, what the fans normally didn’t see, was the promoter working the backstage area, making sure the performers showed up on time and going over the intricate details that fill out a wrestling card.
Back in those days, County Hall was a mecca for wrestling in this area, and Marcus brought them all to his mat shrine. From Jim Londos to Gorgeous George to Lou Thesz to Ric Flair, they all graced the hallowed hall at 1000 King Street. Henry Marcus was the common thread that tied this unique form of entertainment to the Lowcountry, although the man was about much more than professional wrestling.
Like any promoter worth his salt, Marcus knew how to relate to people, which included the largely blue-collar wrestling audience. Whether holding a dinner in honor of Jack Dempsey at the old LaBrasca’s restaurant across from County Hall, or dining with Irving Berlin at the old Lindy’s on Broadway, Marcus always found a comfort zone.
“He was probably the smartest person that never graduated college you’d ever meet, anytime or anywhere,” Eric Marcus would say about his dad.
The son of a railroad man who died when the Hartsville native was only 3, Henry Marcus was a familiar figure in Columbia and Charleston, where the storyteller routinely held court with local businessmen, politicians, newshounds and practically anyone who appreciated his unique gift of gab. His scope of acquaintances, however, extended far beyond the Lowcountry and the state, as he rubbed shoulders with the likes of actor Tyrone Power and President Harry Truman, and was personal friends with such sports figures as boxing greats Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis, and basketball coach Frank McGuire.
LUCRATIVE LEFT TURN
Marcus got into the promotional field purely by accident. As he would tell the story, he was headed on his way to the post office when he made “a left turn instead of a right one,” and ended up bumping into a sports editor at The Record newspaper in Columbia who offered him a job writing publicity for the local wrestling shows for $3 a week. The relationships he forged with building managers led to Marcus’s entree into the promoting business, and he was doing it full-time by 1944, eventually expanding his entertainment repertoire to ice shows, stage shows, athletic events and everything in between.
Marcus promoted his first wrestling show in Charleston around 1950, a decade after he began in his home base of Columbia. His primary promotional lesson was simple: The customer is always No. 1.
While the wrestling business was Marcus’ forte, there wasn’t much he didn’t promote. “From the Royal Canadian Ballet to wrestling,” as he was wont to say, he dabbled in a little bit of everything. Boxing stars Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jimmy Braddock, Jack Sharkey and Primo Carnera all worked for him. He brought in such big-band greats as Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Xavier Cugat. Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” fame emceed many of Marcus’s rock and roll revues.
He liked to tell the story about when he booked the late George Reeves as “Superman” at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, and nearly 3,000 children showed up for the matinee.
“Lois Lane came out singing torch songs with her dress split up the side,” he’d recall. “All the children wanted to see Superman fly, and they had to sit through nightclub entertainment beforehand. When Reeves finally appeared, the kids still only yelled, ‘Fly, Superman, fly’! Well, I knew Superman couldn’t fly, and Superman sure knew Superman couldn’t fly. But try telling 3,000 screaming kids.”
Then there was the time he had Olympic track legend Jesse Owens race a thoroughbred horse through Columbia’s Capital City Park.
He remembered promoting when wrestling tickets were a quarter. He recalled promoting band and dance shows when entertainers showed up, had a couple of mikes set up, performed for several hours and left.
“Now you have to meet them at the airport and they show up with 18 trucks,” he’d later lament.
Marcus was a jack of all trades, but what he was first and foremost was a promoter.
THE CHANGING TIMES
“Knowing a man like Henry Marcus is one of those things that people like me keep in their minds forever. He’s one of the famous people that I know,” said Dave Spurlock, former athletic director at St. Andrews High School, who helped give Marcus a place to hold his wrestling shows when County Hall closed down in the mid-’80s.
Spurlock said he was more than happy to bring wrestling to the then fairly new gym at St. Andrews. “Not only did I have a chance to make some money, but I got to actually see wrestling on a weekly basis,” said Spurlock, a lifelong wrestling fan. The school would get the concessions money along with a cut of the gate, while Spurlock received $80 at the end of the night for being the “key man.”
He can’t help but smile when talking about the time Marcus let Spurlock’s young son and his friends come in for free for a birthday party.
“We had my son’s birthday party right there at the wrestling show, and the kids got to meet some of the wrestlers. They had a blast. We still have pictures in our old album.”
“I learned a big part of promotion from him,” said Sandy Scott, a former wrestling star who worked with Marcus in the office during the ’70s and ’80s. “When he told you something, you could take it to the bank. He was an ace of a guy.”
“Henry was a wonderful promoter to work for,” said Rip Hawk (Harvey Evers), who was a headliner for Marcus during the ’60s and ’70s. “He was a very nice man and could take a heckuva rib. “Swede (Hanson) and I used to rib him like crazy. He really and truly enjoyed it, though, and he could come back with some pretty good shots of his own. We had a lot of fun with him. I’ll guarantee you he was a legend down there.”
Attendance and business dropped for the aging promoter with the decline of Crockett Promotions during the late ’80s. Times had changed, and Marcus wasn’t part of the new WWF empire that Vince McMahon had built, nor did he fit into Ted Turner’s plans for a national wrestling company, which had absorbed the Crocketts’ NWA operation. A terse, two-paragraph letter written in November 1989 commended Marcus on his contribution to the sport over a 50-year period before informing him that the company was terminating its agreement with him. It wished him well in “future endeavors.”
It certainly wasn’t the way Marcus had envisioned going out. But he was realistic enough to know that the industry had passed him by. It was changing fast, and he didn’t like that it had become more of a pay-per-view spectacle than a show that passed through all the towns on a regular basis.
He would promote his final show in 1990 for the short-lived North American Wrestling Association.
TAKING IT HOME
His retirement years, which basically didn’t begin until shortly before his 80th birthday, were punctuated by times of both great joy and great sadness. He and his wife, Marguerite, moved to a beach home in Cherry Grove, near Myrtle Beach, which proved to be a refreshing change of pace from their many years in Columbia. (The two lived in the Hickory Hill subdivision of Charleston for a brief period during the 1970s, but moved shortly after they were robbed at gunpoint after a wrestling show).
A special ceremony – titled “The Night The Legends Return: A Tribute to Henry Marcus” – was scheduled in honor of the promoter on May 30, 1998. Tragedy, however, struck when his wife of 48 years died suddenly of a heart attack a month before the event. Twenty years his junior, she was 67, and her passing hit the promoter hard.
“Marguerite was Henry’s life from the day he laid eyes on her at the restaurant where she was working. From the day he saw Marguerite until the day she died, she was his life,” recalled Valerie Warren of Charleston, who along with husband Earl and daughter Patty, attended Marcus’s wrestling shows at County Hall beginning in the early ’70s.
The promoter was crestfallen and canceled plans to attend the event. Without her, he said, it wouldn’t be the same. A number of friends and former colleagues from the wrestling business, however, convinced him that she would have wanted him to be there. He acquiesced and attended the show.
Fittingly the tribute was held at the former King Street Palace and the site of the old County Hall. Also quite appropriately, it was one of the last events ever staged at the building, and Marcus was there to see it for the final time. After all, as some reminisced, it was “the house that Marcus built.”
The Rev. Andy McDaniel, who helped organize the event, called the promoter an important influence in his life.
“He was part of my childhood. Wrestling was part of my life, and Friday nights at County Hall was a special time of bonding between my father and myself … When he did the event in 1998, it was truly an honor for us to honor him. It takes on even more significance now.”
Into his late 80s Marcus was traveling around the world by himself. He made visits to Israel, Egypt, Canada, China, Italy and the concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
He passed on walking The Great Wall of China, preferring to view it from a tour bus. His get up and go had got up and gone, he’d laugh.
He loved his visit to Israel, the land of his ancestors, and was delighted when a soldier visiting one of the pyramids in Egypt recognized him from his promoting days in Columbia. The soldier once had been stationed at Fort Jackson, and had been a regular at the promoter’s Tuesday night wrestling shows at The Township. “It really is a small world,” the promoter would say.
He loved his family, which included sons Eric, Jerry and Barry, and eight grandchildren. He loved his close friends and his faith.
And he loved his independence. Even in his advanced years, he’d drive his car to Charleston, pick me up and we’d go out to dinner at some of his old haunts, where invariably he’d recognize veteran restaurant patrons, proprietors and even some of the waitresses. He could crack a joke without cracking a smile. If he didn’t have an answer for everything, he certainly had an opinion.
But when he lost total vision in one eye nearly two years ago and was no longer able to drive a car, the world as he had known it was gone. A fall in early 2003, when he was 91, led to another more serious fall several months later that resulted in a broken arm and rib. At that point basically bedridden with little more left than his mind, which remained amazingly sharp, the old promoter knew that the finish was near.
His final six months were spent rotating between the hospital and a nursing home. A lethal combination of a viral infection and double pneumonia spelled the end.
“If it had been boring up there for anyone lately, it got real interesting Sunday morning,” said son Eric. “They’ve got a real card up there now to keep them in stitches.”
We said our final goodbyes when I visited him a year ago in Sumter, where he had been living with his niece and her family since his wife’s death in 1998. I thanked him for the years of wonderful memories he had given me, and for his unfailing friendship over the years. He asked me again, as he had in the past, to write his obit when that day came.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Henry Marcus that some might not have known was that he had a heart of gold. Beneath the gruff exterior of an outwardly crotchety old-time promoter who could drive the hardest of bargains was a kind-hearted soul who quietly touched the lives of many.
“He was so kind and generous,” recalled Valerie Warren. “There was a restaurant in Columbia where there was a young waitress who was raising children by herself. Henry ate there often and always left a very good-sized tip for her because he knew she needed help with her children. But that was Henry.”
Eric Marcus probably summed up his father best.
“There aren’t many people like that in this world these days.”
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.