As you’ve probably read from me here in the past, Friday Night Wrestling from the City Auditorium in Houston was big back in the late 1949 and early 1950s earliest television era. Tuesday and Friday nights both were the big days for watching TV back then. If you didn’t have a television set, you found a way to worm your welcome into the home of a neighbor who had one on both of those special nights. Tuesdays were the days for watching comedian Milton Berle; Fridays belonged to announcer Paul Boesch and Houston wrestling. Either way, both shows were can’t-miss cultural taste buds on the palates of Houstonians waking up to the joys of passive electronic amusement.
Thanks to friend Harold Jones, I’ve just finished a month of browsing a neat little comprehensive reference book on the actors of professional wrestling by a fellow named Harris M. Lentz III. called the “Biographical Dictionary of Professional Wrestling.” Published by McFarland Company in 2003, this second edition contained information on every wrestler I could think of – plus thousands more that I’d never even heard of outside the Houston and Hollywood television markets.
We were big time back in the days prior to the coming of the coaxial cable and live national TV in Houston from July 1952 forward. Before the cable, we had live wrestling from Houston on Friday nights and kinescope-copy wrestling from Hollywood on another variable evening. It was Hollywood that introduced us to local-boy-made-good Milby High School alumnus Gorgeous George.
My favorite Houston villain was Duke Keomuka. Duke was from Hawaii, but he basked in the recently rising sun of Japan’s fairly recent run in World War II as the “Asian Evil Empire.” Duke fought dirty, even using soap as an eye-rubbing act of irony in his unclean efforts to win at any cost. He also introduced us to some iconic weapons we had not previously seen.
Long before Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris came along to show us these moves on film, Duke Keomuka introduced Houstonians to the “karate chop” blow to the necks and other vulnerable areas of his opposition. Many Houston fans really enjoyed it when Duke later took an All American fist to the face in rageful good guy retaliation. It was all pretty racist back in the day. Asian wrestlers were always “bad guys” in the days that followed the end of World War II because wrestling promoters staged what sold best to the crowds they attracted. In that respect, hispanic wrestlers were always “good guys” and white wrestlers could be either good or bad guys. There weren’t any black wrestlers in Houston during the segregated era of the 1950s. So much for the purity of the good old days. Racism and segregation, plus racial profiling, stank it up pretty bad on many levels.
We kids just weren’t into that crap. We liked what the Duke taught us. Karate chops became an aspirational weapon that we tried to use in the daily struggle for agreement with our peers, but we simply lacked the kill or right will for its successful execution. Using a karate chop in a real fight often led to some pretty banged up fingers in the attempted assailant.
Duke’s other big move was the “sleep hold,” a move that stopped short of strangulation and left an opponent either unconscious or asleep on the canvas or East End sidewalk. It’s a wonder we didn’t kill each other with all the visual information we got from TV wrestling and then tried to use in our daily discourses with each other.
At any rate, since I need to return Harold’s book today, here’s what I learned factually about my all time favorite bad guy, Duke Keomuka:
Duke Keomuka was born in Hawaii as Martin Tanaka in 1921. Over a wrestling career that covered all of the 1950s and most of the 1960s, Keomuka teamed with Danny Savich in 1951 to take the NWA Texas Tag Team Title several times over. DIrty DOn Evans, another of my favorites, was a frequent tag team partner in other title pursuits in the later 1950s. In 1961, zDuke teamed with Sato Keomuka in Cleveland, Ohio to take the U.S. Tag Team Title. Duke took several other team titles with different partners in Florida and elsewhere. His son, Pat Tanaka, also grew up to become another popular wrestler.
In the 1980s, an elder Duke Keomuka became an NWA wrestling promoter in Florida. He died of heart failure in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 30, 1991.
Long live the spirit of the Duke – the inscrutable actor who didn’t really almost choke all those people to death with the infamous sleep hold as he slipped a little melodrama into our daily lives.
If you are an old-time wrestling fan, try to get your hands on a copy of Lentz’s wrestling book. It will keep you awake for hours.