Arkansas Forgotten Famous – Danny McShain
The Forgotten Famous
by Thomas Kroepfl
Buffalo, New Yorkâ??s Memorial Auditorium is filled with smoke from thousands of cigarettes and cigars. A haze has risen over the room as spectators shift in their seats in anticipation of the coming match. It has been a rough night so far for the competitors, but the crowd did not come here to see them; they were here for one man. His opponent, Donn Lewin, stands in the ring readying himself with stretches; testing the ropes, making certain they are secure. The ring announcer straightens as the spotlight hits him and the house lights go down. He announces Dangerous Danny and the crowd explodes with boos and jeers. He struts to the ring through the mob, unaffected by their taunts and curses; his full-length robe has his name stitched on both lapels. His cigar is tilted up to the sky. He stands in the middle of the ring ignoring his opponent Donn, his arms stretched out so all can see: he is the king of the world.
In the crowd sitting with her girlfriend is Sallee Lewin, Donnâ??s sister. They had snuck off to the matches to see her brother wrestle. Donn makes a good showing of himself against Dangerous Dannyâ??s Double Foot Stomp his favorite move, against forearm smashes, and wristlocks. Both men exchange hip tosses, and headlocks, arm drags and body slams. Unfortunately, in the end, Donn Lewin loses to Dangerous Danny and walks away with a broken nose. His sister in the audience sits shocked and horrified at the brutality of the man who just defeated her big brother.
Later that week at the Lewin home, a maroon Town and Country Chrysler convertible with wooden sides would pull to the curb across the street. A man Sid Lewin had met earlier in the week at his Jewelry Store and had fixed a watchband for was invited to dinner at Sidâ??s home. Sid took a liking to the dapper man with a pencil thin mustache. The owner of the car strutted to the front door wearing green suede tasseled loafers and a cream colored Bermanâ??s of California slack suit. Sallee recognized him immediately through the window and announced to her mother she would not be eating at home but would instead find a date and dine out. No date was found, and Sallee Lewin found herself at her father Sidâ??s table eating with the man who broke her brotherâ??s nose earlier in the week. A man she would later marry.
In this modern day of big lights, billion-dollar promotions, global broadcasting, and manufactured personalities, few today recognize what a true superstar is made of, and one such superstar shone from Arkansas. A man who, at the height of his career in the 50â??s, was the equivalent of Hulk Hogan in the 80â??s. He was a country boy from outside Parkdale, going toward De Bastrop in Ashley County, a place that was little more than a spot in the road along highway 165 in 1912 when he was born. He went on to become one of the most famous Professional Wrestling villains of all time. His name was Danny McShain.
His wife Sallee McShain said that once, while visiting Dannyâ??s mother for the first time, Danny had told her not to dress up, but it being her introduction to Mrs. McShain she wanted to make a good impression. Dressed in her Sunday best, hat, gloves and high heels they left Little Rock and drove down highway 165 to Parkdale on paved roads; then they turned down a gravel road and eventually stopped the car and walked down a dirt road that was still soft after a recent rain. â??I felt so foolish, walking down this dirt road in high heels.â? Sallie said in an interview. When they got to the house Dannyâ??s mother was smoking a corncob pipe. A pipe she smoked till she was placed into a nursing home where they took it away from her with a fight.
Standing at 5â??11â? and weighing in at 205 lbs, Danny McShain, sometimes called Irish Danny McShain or Dangerous Danny McShain, was a stocky. handsome man with Hollywood looks that had him often compared to Clark Gable or Leo Carrillo, and placed him in several Hollywood films. Dannyâ??s shining career started in Little Rock, Arkansas on October 30th, 1930 a match he promptly lost. McShain would then go into the Navy where he held the Navyâ??s Light Heavy Weight Championship several times in boxing. But wrestling was Dannyâ??s passion. Shortly after his first match in Little Rock, his family moved to Glendale, California, which he called home for most of his life, and where he started his climb to superstardom. Later, he and his wife would move to Alvin, Texas where he would live the rest of his life.
In the early years of modern professional wrestling, the country was split into territories with each territory run by a promoter who had his own â??stableâ? of local talent. Each territory had a local belt, and the biggest star in the territory held the belt or local championship title, eventually marking him as the number one contender for the bigger champions such as the World Heavyweight Champion or the Tag Team Champions who traveled from territory to territory. The traveling championsâ?? main job was to come into a territory and make the local population think that their local champion or hero had a shot at winning the title and becoming the new World Heavy Weight Champion. Most of the time the champion never lost to the local hero, and if he did, in the rematch he always reclaimed his title the next week before moving on to the next territory. There were also those rare individuals who may not have held a title when they came into a territory, but their job was very similar to the champions. Their job was to make everyone hate them and want nothing more than to see the local hero beat the snot out of them. These men were the Heels and Danny McShain was one of the best. So much so, they gave him the World Light Heavyweight Championships eleven times to defend, as he traveled around the country in a career that lasted almost 30 years in the ring.
Danny walked with confidence, a strut that made him seem cocky, better than all around him, and â??A strut that made you want to kill him.â? Said Donn Lewin, Dannyâ??s brother-in-law. â??When you called Dannyâ??s name and if you were to the side of him he would turn his whole body to look at you with his chin held up a little like he was saying â??and who are you to talk to me?â?? but the truth be told he didnâ??t have any peripheral vision and his neck was kind of stiff so he had to turn like that. But it still pissed you off to see him do it.â? Said Ted Lewin, Dannyâ??s other brother-in-law.
Over the course of Dannyâ??s career, he managed to win several titles. Starting in 1937 Danny beat Wild Red Berry at Hollywood Legion Stadium in California to win the NWA World Light Heavyweight title. He would go on to hold the NWA Louisiana Light Heavyweight title, the Texas Light Heavyweight title, the World Light Heavyweight Tag Team Titles, and countless other titles over and over again. His athletic skill and movie star good looks soon had Hollywood calling.
â??I donâ??t care what happens or who is Texas champion. All I can see is that here is another Mexican with a mask and I challenge him to face me and see if he can keep that mask on his grotesque head or not.â? -Danny McShain.
In 1948 Hollywood called Danny McShain to appear in Danny Kayeâ??s The Inspector General. Kaye portrayed a wandering snake-oil salesman who is misidentified as an Inspector General coming to examine a little corrupt town. Zaniness ensues, focused on Kayeâ??s performing talents rather than the town’s corruption.
In one scene of the movie, Kaye goes into a gym and ends up wrestling Danny McShain and Joe Blanchard for some great slapstick action. It would not be Danny McShainâ??s only venture into the movies. The wrestler would appear in almost all of Danny Kayeâ??s movies, and the two would become close friends. McShain would also appear in other movies when the studios needed someone to grapple with their stars.
Danny would become great friends with Toshiyuki â??Haroldâ? Sakata, better known to the world as the James Bond Henchmen Oddjob from the movie Goldfinger. Sakata, a Japanese-American born in Holualoa, Hawaii, won a silver medal at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. He later went into Pro Wrestling where he meet Danny and often wrestled him under the name Tosh Togo. In 1951, Danny and Sakata were both part of Tokyoâ??s Torii Oasis Shrine Club charity event held in Japan for the purpose of raising money for crippled children. The event featured American wrestlers, was one of the first of its kind in the world, and managed to raise $50,000 for the kids.
In that same year at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee, Danny McShain defeated Junior Heavyweight Champion and future Hall of Fame inductee the legendary Verne Gagne, making him holder of both the NWA Junior and Light Heavyweight titles.
In 1950 Danny married Sallee Lewin, sister to Mark, Ted and Donn Lewin, whose nose he had broken years earlier. As Donn describes the announcement, Danny had talked him into driving out to California to wrestle. Donn and his wife were in one car, Danny and Sallee in the Chrysler Town & Country. At one of the many stops along Route 66, Danny got out of the car and flatly announced, â??Weâ??re gettinâ?? married!â? â??At least youâ??re not shackinâ?? up before hand,â? was all Donn could reply to the cocky Danny.
Bill Mercer, the former Dallas Cowboy play-by-play broadcaster wrote in his book Play-by-Play: Tales from a Sportscasting Insider that when he started his radio career in the early 1950â??s, he was also assigned to cover pro wrestling as a commentator. “I didn’t plan on being a wrestling announcer, but the radio station management at KMUS in Muskogee, Oklahoma said it came with the sports broadcasting package. This was my first big job as a sportscaster, so why not?â?
Not knowing much about wrestling, he was given the chance to learn about the business when the local Oklahoma promoter assigned â??Wildâ? Red Berry, Danny McShain, and the Fabulous Moolah, the Woman Wrestler Champion and future Wrestling Hall of Famer to be Mercerâ??s teachers. They took Mercer into the ring and placed hold after hold on him. â??They demonstrated the hammerlock, full and half nelsons, head locks, plus a few of their own inventions.â? “They used me as a guinea pig, laughingly putting on enough pressure that I understood the significance of each hold. I had no idea about the preplanning of the evening’s various matches. I wasn’t aware that the winner and loser were pre-planned.”
Pre-planned indeed, as the saying goes in Professional Wrestling, â??The matches are fixed, not fake.â? Once Danny had a publicity photo taken of him in his wrestling gear. And around the photo there were listed all of his injuries up till that time. It was intended to show the crowds that he was a tough guy who was till standing strong, and whoever he was facing didnâ??t stand a chance. The list of injuries read as follows: Seventeen stitches head and eyes, two cauliflower ears, nose broken six times, jaw broken, shoulder dislocated twice, broken chest bone, broken arm twice, twelve ribs broken, both hands broken, torn cartilage both knees, broken leg, both ankles sprained, broken toe, and broken ankle. Over the course of his career, this list of injuries would grow, but Danny would hardly slow down. Danny was also what is called a juicer in the business, or a bleeder; one who would cut themselves on the forehead to bleed during the matches, making them gory and bloody. Danny was one of the forefathers in this area of the wrestling arts.
Pain and suffering is the way of a pro wrestlerâ??s life. In a short interview with Red Bastien, a life long friend of Dannyâ??s, he said he has had so many concussions from the business that he no longer has a good memory. Saying he has a woman who comes in to help him go about his daily life and every day he recognizes her, but he has to ask what her name is, every day. He also said he is perfectly healthy and goes to the gym every day, sees friends, recognizes themâ?¦ but cannot recall their names. He knew who Danny McShain was, but could not remember anything about him.
â??Iâ??ve heard these guys talk before and Iâ??ve shut them up before, and Iâ??ll shut this one up too.â? -Danny McShain
Don Lewin, Dannyâ??s brother in law, pro wrestler, and a Marine who was involved in the taking of Iwo Jima said, â?? As a Marine I hardly got a scratch, as a wrestler I got all busted up.â? In an interview talking about Danny, Donn said, â??Danny and I had maybe only two or three matches together; we never even wanted them. The promoters were wanting it and wanting it, because we were brother-in-laws, and we were both good.â?
â??We never hung out together. It wasnâ??t because I didnâ??t like him; I would just rather hang out with girls, and there were a lot of girls.â? Danny didnâ??t want to hang out because he thought it looked bad wrestling in a match, then hanging out together. Back then you just didnâ??t do that.â?
Interviewer: Did Danny throw a lot of potatoes? (real fists)
â??He sure as hell did, he didnâ??t give any quarter and he didnâ??t expect to take any. He was an all-out fighter. When you got in the ring with him you had better be ready for a fight, â??cause he was coming at you.â?
Interviewer: Do you regret your time in the ring?
â??Hell yes, in 32 years I have had 2 knee replacements, 2 hip replacements, a pin put in my neck so my head donâ??t fall down and 3 back operations. Years ago a friend of mine said, â??Donn Iâ??ll pay for law school, put you through it and in the end put your name on my door,â?? I said what, are you crazy? Iâ??m an athlete. I regret those words every day since.â?
Probably the most devastating action that can happen in pro wrestling is the death of another wrestler due to injuries caused in a match. Danny killed two people in his career, Terry McGinnis, and Canadian wrestler Alex Kasaboky, both after applying the piledriver move in the match. Two hours later after each match, both men died. After the second death, Danny almost quit wrestling forever.
Arrested in Mexico after a match, mainly for his own protection, Danny was locked up for a few hours till the crowds calmed down and went home. â??During a riot that broke out after his match,â? Said Ted Lewin wrestler and brother-in-law, â??probably in Cincinnati, people stormed the ring. Danny picked one guy out and using his boxing background, knocked the guy out. One punch to the jaw, he later showed me the â??Sweet spotâ? on the chin for knocking a man out. It came in handy.â?
Danny was brought in front of the Texas Gaming Commission for unsportsmanlike conduct when, after a match he had lost, covered in his own blood, he slipped on his robe, strutted around the ring and spit tobacco juice onto his opponent from his cigar. The action so enraged the crowd that they stormed the ring and Danny was arrested.
In 1953 Danny was in the first Brass-Knuckles match against “Wild” Bill Curry. Held in Houston, Texas, Danny lost to Bill Curry. The match was so popular there that it came to be a Texas Brass Knuckles Championship till 1968. The match is exactly as it sounds; both opponents pummel each other for the opportunity to grab the brass knuckles and the man who gets his hands on them gets to use them in the match. It was one of the forerunner gimmick matches that are seen today in pro wrestling akin to the tables, ladders and chairs matches.
In 1952 Danny became a part of a U.S. Department of Justice Investigation into the National Wrestling Alliance. The details of the investigation are a little confusing, but centered on a territorial dispute between promoters Dory Detton and Avery McGuirk. Detton had booked an event with several big name stars Danny McShain, “Gorgeous” George, and Lou Thesz among others. The problem arose in a match Danny had against Henry Harrell, the Chattanooga Southern Junior Heavyweight champion. Danny was giving him a shot at his World Junior Championship. The two-out-of-three-fall match was â??scriptedâ? for Harrell to win in an aggressive match, meant to boost Harrellâ??s credibility. The first fall Danny was a count out by the referee. Harrell, however, was being uncooperative in the match and not following the â??scriptâ?. The second fall Danny was disqualified. The referee declared that the title could not change hands on a disqualification. Danny wasnâ??t about to give the title to someone who wasnâ??t ready for it. Several titles exchanged ownership without sanction of the event by the National Wrestling Alliance or their authorization. By the time the investigation was over and the matter laid to rest, Danny was officially recognized as World Junior Champion. It was the first time the â??rulingâ? that a championship cannot change hands due to a disqualification was ever used. It didnâ??t become officially adopted by the NWA until April 1953, and has been a part of wrestling story lines ever since.
Probably the single greatest contribution that Danny helped give to athletes from every sport came in 1952 when promoter Ed McLemore’s TV show “Texas Rasslin” from Dallas, Texas was syndicated nationally. The wrestlers were feeling that their appearance on television was hurting the money made at the gate of the arena events and, by extension, their paychecks. Ed McLemore refused to pay them any more money, so the wrestlers went on strike, refusing to appear on the television show. In San Antonio several wrestlers refused to go into the ring unless the cameras were turned off. With the crowd growing impatient, the promoter relented fearing a riot. A few weeks later Danny McShain and tenother wrestlers, among them Gory Guerrero and Wild Red Berry, wrote to McLemore to say they would not appear in matches that were televised or filmed unless they were compensated beyond their regular payoffs. After the matter went in front of the State Labor Commission of Texas in a public hearing, the wrestlers won their argument and were given an extra $5 apiece for appearances that were televised or filmed. Say thanks to Danny for those multi-million dollar athletic appearances the next time you watch a game.
Speaking about the career of Danny his brother-in-law, Don Lewin had this to say: â??The greatest Wrestler of my time was Buddy Rogers; he had the east coast territories. He was big, he was the man. He had a lot of color, very different. He had a lot of color, him and Lou Thesz. But Buddy was the man to beat. Danny was the same way. The difference is that Buddy worked mostly the East Coast territories and Danny the West Coast territories from California to Texas, and Arkansas. The big name guys did that, they worked the territories either East Coast or West Coast. And all the local guys had to beat them. Danny was the same as Buddy on the East Coast, if you were going to be somebody you had to beat Danny on the West Coast. Plain and simple.â?
But the professional man and the private man were two different people, sort of. â??I used to tell him, â??thereâ??s no door big enough for you to fit through in this house.â?? He would be so full of himself. He was cocky all the time. But he was quiet too, a little bit of a loner. And he had a bad habit of leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor where everybody would trip over them. I used to yell, â??Pick up your damn shoesâ? Sallee Lewin goes on to describe her husband as a gentleman who would always offer to do dishes after dinner, feed and take care of the dogs, not a drinker but he loved his cigars. A gentleman to women, he was never a womanizer and the women wrestlers loved him. He always paid them attention in a business where for the most part they were invisible. â??He would remember their birthdays and bring them flowers, or remember anniversaries. He was always polite.â? She said. â??I was never impressed with his wrestling, it was just how we made a living.â?
Danny was known as the â??Silver Foxâ? in his later years when he refereed. He often got himself involved in the matches physically, never hesitating to place himself between two wrestlers who were getting too aggressive with the rules. But it was not something he enjoyed doing in his duties as a referee. â??Hitting a man is not refereeing,â? said McShain, â??the hallmark of a good referee is getting men to do what they should without laying a hand on them. I try to do that; itâ??s the right way and the hard way, but no referee can enforce the law physically in every match. Itâ??s impossible.â?
On July 14, 1992 Danny was taken out of a nursing home and brought to his house for his birthday party. He had been sleeping most of the day, sitting there in his wheel chair among the crowd of well wishers. One of the men their to celebrate Dannyâ??s 79th birthday was Tiger Conway Sr. a young wrestler Danny had taken under his wing years earlier and taught the business. Danny woke up briefly saw his friend Tiger and asked, â??Where we working tonight, Tiger?â? â??Weâ??re off tonight, Danny.â? said Tiger. â??Thatâ??s good because Iâ??m tired.â? Danny lowered his head slowly and he passed away.
Danny McShain, a country boy from Parkdale, Arkansas along Highway 165, went on to become one of the worlds biggest personalities and best villains. He traveled the world with a Hollywood style he was born to. He walked with an attitude that made fans know wherever he appeared, whether it was Little Rock, Arkansas or the Olympic Arena in Los Angeles, California, Danny was going to give his best and he did for over 30 years.