Pile-driving, gut-busting, back-breaking theater

The History Theatre gets old local favorite ‘The Baron’ to turn their stage into the squared circle

Matt Graham

Professional wrestling has long been the black sheep of the entertainment world. Patrons of the fine arts critique it for its over-the-top melodrama, while fans of “real” sports rag on wrestling for being fake.

It is fake, right? Right?

“The Baron”

WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, now through May 20
WHERE: The History Theatre, 30 E. 10th St., St. Paul
TICKETS: $25-$32, twenty $10 tickets on sale for students 10 minutes before every show,
(651) 292-4323

That’s the question at the heart of The History Theatre’s new production, “The Baron.” The play consists of a series of vignettes performed by a crew of improv actors in a fake wrestling ring examining the olden days of pro wrestling by recounting the life of Jim “The Baron” von Raschke, who also stars in the production.

Pro wrestling wasn’t always the fireworks-and-steroids laden display that the WWE presents every week on cable television. The craft began as a traveling hustle perpetrated by carnies that gradually evolved into a series of territorial promotions. Every region in the country had its own promoter with his stable of local stars, and the business was run by a series of unwritten rules whereby promoters would loan each other their top performers for the weekend in exchange for a guarantee that they would be left free to keep a monopoly on their respective areas.

Few regions had better reputations as wrestling hotbeds than Minnesota, home to Verne Gagne and his AWA. The AWA gave such wrestlers as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair and Jesse Ventura their first shots at stardom before the bigger promotions came and lured them away in the 1980s. But one of the most beloved stars the company ever produced (or hated, as the case may be) was The Baron.

The History Theater’s show contrasts the real Jim Raschke – a terribly shy champion amateur wrestler from Nebraska, who worked for a time as a biology teacher – with his stage persona of “The Baron”; a goose-stepping Prussian who screamed at the crowds and could stop a man dead in his tracks simply by squeezing his temples in the infamous “Claw” finishing maneuver.

Raschke began his career as a “babyface,” an all-American apple pie good guy who always followed the rules, and also put crowds to sleep. When fellow wrestler “Mad Dog” Vaschon (a French Canadian “heel,” or bad guy, popular in these parts) repeatedly suggested to him, “You’d make a good German,” The Baron was born.

Raschke narrates the production by switching back and forth from Jim to the Baron while the four improv actors recreate scenes from his life with the help of participation from the crowd, stopping to explain the ins and outs of pro wrestling. Props are due to Joe Kudla, whose enthusiastic, snarling representation of Vaschon delivers most of the productions’ biggest laughs.

But while “The Baron” puts on a happy face through most of its two hours, it’s not all fun and games. Near the end, Raschke narrates how Vince McMahon came to take over the world of professional wrestling after buying the then-WWF from his father. McMahon, based in New York, was the first promoter to make large-scale use of cable television, and was able to establish his stars by virtue of the new medium in regions where they never performed. When he started touring his company nationally, it was a simple matter of using his ad revenue to buy up other promoters’ top talent.

While Gagne and the old guard emphasized highly-technical in-ring action and “protecting the business,” McMahon went after muscle-bound brutes like Hulk Hogan, people who looked good on MTV but whose skills at putting on entertaining, realistic matches left something to be desired. And unlike Gagne, who kept wrestling close to its carnie roots, McMahon was eager to let the fans in on the business’ great secret, even referring to wrestling as “Sports Entertainment,” a term that’s hard to use without giving a wink and a nudge.

In this, wrestling mirrors all the rest of the media of the 20th century, where regional productions have consistently given way to national franchises. “The Baron” goes out of its way to vilify McMahon and his entertainers, but if McMahon didn’t do it, surely someone else would have.

Still, “The Baron” is a fun, nostalgic look at times gone by, and by the end, one cares little whether wrestling is real. Yes, the matches are predetermined, but you’re fooling yourself if you think tossing your body around a solid ring night after night is an easy or comfortable way to make a living – one look at Raschke’s disguised but noticeable hobbling puts that theory to rest. “The Baron” seeks for wrestling to be recognized for what it is: one of the remaining bits of Barnum and Bailey Americana, a cartoon world of good-and-evil entertainment with performers that give it everything they have (and then some), and where the behind-the-scenes stories are often every bit as entertaining as the stuff that goes on at center stage.

Considering the recent offerings we’ve been given to choose from, is that really any sillier than what goes on at the Cineplex or the Metrodome?