On February 22 of this year, I laid on my back in the center of one of the fanciest rooms in St. Louis and stared up at its unearthly light fixtures.
I was at the Chase Park Plaza looking for Wrestling at the Chase. In a sense. The show wasn’t at the hotel that night — and hadn’t been, in its true form, since the early ’80s. But as a 20-something-year-old professional wrestling fan from the suburbs of St. Louis, I had seen nearly every one of my elders’ eyes light up any time I mentioned my fandom. “Wrestling,” they’d say. “Like Wrestling at the Chase?” I was looking for what put that light in their eyes.
I’d huffed through the Central West End’s concrete chill — past the unmistakable Park Plaza tower and the last of the evening rush hour on Kingshighway, then up the exterior stairs of the hotel’s grand side entrance. I went inside to find faint jazz, diamond carpeting, and the heater work, work, working to keep the 398-room hotel comfortable.
Just down the diamonds and behind wooden double doors, the Khorassan Ballroom was set up for a dinner. I peeked around, saw the room’s stage, wide and wood with velvet teaser curtains looping down. I backpedaled into the labyrinthian hotel to find security and confirm it was okay — then peeked around again. Then there was no one in the ballroom but me, horizontal, obscured by dozens of white-clothed tables.
The fixtures: gold rods going this way and that in patterns hard to deduce, bulbs on the ends of the chosen ones. They made the ceiling look like a constellation map — lines from star to star and all. Decades ago, and for over a decade, men much manlier than I laid here on canvas and got this same starry view.
I got up and dusted off in the dustless ballroom. Its air somehow sat still and swirled.
‘The Miracle Hotel In The Miracle City’
In 1920, St. Louis was the sixth most populous city in the United States.
Two years later, in September 1922, the Hotel Chase opened and was billed as “the miracle hotel in the miracle city.” The broad nine stories of brick and cut stone went on to welcome celebrities, presidents, and ballplayers. Famous entertainers performed at its cabaret, the Chase Club, and the gigs hit airwaves nationally on the Saturday Night at the Chase radio program.
A rival hotel, the Park Plaza, went up — and up — next door in 1929. Tiers and tiers of stone, 27 stories high, now peered out over Forest Park. The elegantly furnished behemoth was commissioned by prolific real-estate man Sam Koplar, who eventually purchased the Chase, too. By 1961, Sam’s son Harold had taken over operations and unified the lots into one esteemed destination: the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.
He’d also established KPLR-TV, the city’s fifth television channel.
‘Athletic Theater’ In St. Louis
Professional wrestling in St. Louis, in step with the sport around the country, was growing all the while. It had gone from legitimate competition at the turn of the century, with agonizingly long matches, to — well — something more buy-a-ticket worthy. You know the deal. “Although remaining very physical, it was becoming athletic theater,” Ed Wheatley wrote in his book on the St. Louis scene. And thus professional wrestling went from reliably filling sweaty athletic clubs to places like the 10,000-seat Kiel Auditorium downtown. (And sweaty athletic clubs.)
Sam Muchnick, a man who earned and forever kept a reputation of honesty and fairness, owned the most prominent wrestling company in St. Louis — and for most of the ’50s and ’60s presided over regional wrestling’s governing body, the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). The NWA crowned one world champion, who traveled from region to region, or “territory to territory.”
Muchnick had been promoting wrestling in St. Louis since the ’30s. His St. Louis Wrestling Club, though undoubtedly athletic theater, resonated with fans for its serious, sports-centric presentation and the general respect of its audience. World champions like Buddy Rogers or Lou Thesz packed the Kiel Auditorium monthly. Just about every region of the country had an NWA-affiliated wrestling promotion, but St. Louis became the undeniable epicenter of it all by the mid-20th century.
“Some of the greatest stars to ever come along, from Dick the Bruiser to Pat O’Connor to Lou Thesz — I mean, every big-name player came through [St. Louis],” wrestler Ric Flair, who began his wildly successful career in 1972, told Sports Talk Weekly. “… When I first started, they always said that if you ever wanted to be a marquee guy and be considered a big player, you had to headline a card at the Kiel Auditorium.”
But Muchnick, Wheatley wrote, was initially hesitant to bring his wrestling company to local television. The city’s first TV channel, KSD-TV, already aired Chicago’s Wrestling from the Marigold on Saturday nights, and that was enough. His business ran on ticket sales; if St. Louisans were watching from their living rooms, they weren’t in the arena.
But television’s power soon became impossible to deny. In a public letter, Muchnick acknowledged the medium’s ability to draw eyes to the sport, to make accidental viewers into ticket-buying fans. TV could hook fans in their living rooms and reel them into the Kiel for the big shows. When Wrestling from the Marigold left KSD-TV for another network, Muchnick’s St. Louis Wrestling Club stepped into its place with… Wrestling from the St. Louis House.
The St. Louis House sat — and sits, empty and in remarkable condition — at 2345 Lafayette Avenue. The 60,000 square feet of sturdy brick housed local televised wrestling from 1953 to 1955. For those 2 years, St. Louisans could tune into wrestling with their city’s name on it. And then it lost its sponsors, and local wrestling viewing was once again confined to those in attendance.
Muchnick continued to preside over the St. Louis Wrestling Club and NWA with success.
But his desire to put wrestling on TV remained.
Muchnick, Wheatley wrote, got on a plane with Harold Koplar in 1958. They talked about how local wrestling might find its way onto St. Louis television again. Where the show might take place. The next year, Koplar launched KPLR-TV.
“It looks like we are about to close a deal for a television show,” Muchnick wrote his friend and former champion Lou Thesz in May 1959. “This would be something unique, as it would be in the Khor[a]ssan Room of the Chase Hotel.”
Wrestling At The Chase
In 1960, St. Louis was the 10th most populous city in the country.
Wrestling at the Chase landed in St. Louis-area living rooms the year prior on May 28, and it didn’t leave for 25 years.
The Khorassan Room hosted galas, gatherings of the elite — and then, every Saturday, invited everyone with Channel 11 in for grunts and gutbusters. The socialites in attendance, all dressed to be seen, found themselves standing up from their red-checkered tables, screaming for Dick the Bruiser to let go, for Pat O’Connor to fight back. Families at home did, too. Sweat flew off Gene Kiniski’s back and onto their dinners and Busch Bavarian beers. The second manliest man in the Khorassan inevitably went down to look at the stars.
Sportscaster and former St. Louis Cardinal catcher Joe Garagiola, a sharp local ready to blow up on the national scene at any second, hosted the show and called the matches. He’d crack jokes, name-drop famous and obscure St. Louisans. When a wrestler flung another to the ropes, he’d call out city streets in their path. “Here we go, Kingshighway and Lindell!”
Wrestling at the Chase became a fixture in St. Louis, a fixture in its family routines — mine included, I’ve been told. Two of my great-grandmothers watched (grandmothers are remarkably common characters in St. Louisans’ memories of Wrestling at the Chase). Great Grandma Ortbals, a proper country lady, screamed at the TV with my dad and his siblings on Saturday nights; the kids would all wake up and watch the rerun the next morning. Great Grandma Thiele, another proper country lady, watched in her room at my mom’s house after her husband had passed away. “Now, I don’t know if your mom would like you watching this,” she’d say when my mom peeked in.
“Of course,” my mom told me, “that only made me want to watch it more.”
The matches were taped in the Khorassan until 1971, when they moved to the KPLR studios on the other side of the stage’s back wall. It was a much smaller room that burst to life thanks to the advent of color television. Men like King Kong Brody — a massive but startlingly coordinated man with heavy fists and wild eyes — and an older, now-beloved Dick the Bruiser wrought chaos all over it. Fiery young grapplers like Ted Dibiase and Kevin Von Erich won the affection of the crowd — a less fancy lot of folks in the studio, perhaps, but more die-hard.
By the studio days, Joe Garagiola had moved on. National baseball broadcasts, The Today Show. But his brother Mickey, a restaurant worker in St. Louis’s Italian neighborhood by day, remained as ring announcer and a member of the commentary team. He had an Italian-American accent you didn’t think existed in the Midwest until you heard it; then you questioned if Joe was the one putting on the act. He was less classically charming than his brother but more endearing, and he became “the voice of the fan.”
The eventual permanent play-by-play man was perhaps the biggest fan in the room, Larry Matysik. Sam Muchnick’s right-hand man, Matysik was well-researched, professional, and absolutely devoted to the goings-on. He called matches like a sport but weaved their backstories through seamlessly. He understood the personal issues the promotion had concocted between competitors — and actually wrote pamphlets that explained them, beckoning spectators to see them at the Chase, and more importantly, the blowoff at the Kiel.
This weekly broadcast touched every person who had ever said, “Wrestling — like Wrestling at the Chase?” And those who haven’t yet but will. To this day, for St. Louisans over 50, Wrestling at the Chase is synonymous with a certain kind of wrestling. “Athletic theater,” yes. But also something unique, something special — maybe something that today’s wrestling fans can’t find.
To Be A St. Louis Wrestling Fan
A lot of this I learned through osmosis. To be a wrestling fan in St. Louis is to know about Wrestling at the Chase. You learn it through people like my friend’s father, who’d smile contentedly in his giant recliner every year as the boys gathered for WWE’s WrestleMania. He’d see an old-timer and pipe up with a new and fiery light in his eyes. “Oh, I saw him! I saw him at the Chase!”
The morning after another friend’s wedding reception at the Pere Marquette Lodge across the Mississippi, I heard someone at the next breakfast table over mention that there had been a massive WWE event in St. Louis the night before. “Wrestling,” his dad asked, “like Wrestling at the Chase?”
You also learn a lot talking to Ed Wheatley. I sat down with Wheatley after his presentation at the Missouri History Museum — the day I’d later lay on the Khorassan floor. Wheatley had written a coffee-table book on Wrestling at the Chase, following through on a wish that Matysik, who seemed to absorb and embody the show’s legacy when it went off the air in 1984, expressed before he passed away in 2018.
Wheatley has written books and produced documentaries on the old St. Louis Browns baseball team; he’s the president of the St. Louis Browns Historical Society and an executive committee member of the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. When his publisher approached him about taking the torch on Matysik’s wish, he got the blessing from the Garagiolas, the Matysiks, and the Muchnicks.
The Missouri History Museum, which serves as the north gateway to Forest Park, hosts free events weekly, and this was one I would not miss. I milled around and peered at the St. Louis–centered exhibits on their grand ground floor. The place was full of natural light, even on a wet, overcast afternoon. High overhead hung a replica of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis plane.
I’d milled around too long, so I zipped downstairs.
Wheatley arrived dressed immaculately in a smart blue-and-white suit. He had the air of a man with a very nice, very comfortable armchair. He navigated the auditorium and talked about many of the things you read above. There were no die-hard fans in the room — history buffs, more like — but they remembered all the same. They listened closely, laughed, remembered their city. Wheatley lavished in it. He loves St. Louis.
Lou Thesz’s niece was in the crowd. She raised her hand to speak about how much this all meant to him. How special of a time it was, growing up with these sweet and publicly feared men who stomped through the Khorassan, the KPLR studios, and the Kiel, and sat around the house like members of the family.
Pride Through Memories
Afterward, Wheatley and I sat in an upstairs conference room and chatted about his book, which I’d been devouring. I watched his eyes light up when we talked about the little details he’d uncovered and displayed: the letters, the ticket stubs, and especially the advertisements in local newspapers and sponsorships by local companies.
I listened to him recall watching Wrestling at the Chase with his grandmother, how they’d always watch in the kitchen — a rare spot for a TV at the time — and have root beer floats. One day, he said, his eyes back in time, they ran out of root beer and used 7-Up.
We’d both heard stories just like it, but personal to the teller. “So many people have those special stories. Just that memory of that bonding, if you will, [with] a special person that meant a lot to you.”
I especially noticed him swell with pride at the city St. Louis once was, the importance it held in the wrestling world and the real world. I watched him emphasize that we still are that city, or can be.
“St. Louis, in so many areas, was something special in the world. In 1944 when the Cardinals and Browns played [in the World Series]. The number one movie was Going My Way, and Bing Crosby is the priest, and he’s constantly wearing the St. Louis Browns cap.”
The number two–grossing movie was Meet Me in St. Louis.
“As the world was singing, ‘Meet me in St. Louie Louie,’ everyone had to meet in St. Louie Louie,” Wheatley said. St. Louis started the 20th century at the center of the world, hosting the Summer Olympics and the World’s Fair in 1904. It fielded — and fields — one of the most successful baseball franchises in history, winning nine World Series in the 1900s. The 1891 Wainwright Building is one of the world’s first skyscrapers; the Gateway Arch went up in 1965 and became an instant icon.
“It’s just letting people know there’s these positives about St. Louis and the lives of St. Louisans — because today, especially, there’s not always the best press about our city. … We were the professional wrestling capital of the world. There’s all these other things. We were the center of the universe.
“The Chase was the place. That was the slogan of the Chase Park Plaza Hotel for years and years: ‘The Chase is the Place.’ But more than anything else, the Chase was the place, and it was in the Khorassan Room for Wrestling at the Chase.”
I got the sense Ed was disappointed in the lack of pride in the city. I looked out over Ed’s shoulder and into Forest Park, bigger than Central Park in New York. I felt the Chase and all of downtown to our east, dripping with history.
“Pride is really driven by memories and special meaning. And I think that this has it.”
The End Of An Era
Sam Muchnick called it a career in 1982 at the age of 76. He sold the St. Louis Wrestling Club to partners in the business. It kept running for a while, but like every regional wrestling promotion, the inevitability of the World Wrestling Federation (not yet named WWE) swallowed it.
WWF soon bought Wrestling at the Chase’s timeslot and showcased its increasingly cartoonish characters under its banner. They ran the Chase a few times, and then the Kiel, and then simply went on to conquer new territory. Wrestling at the Chase aired its last episode in 1984.
By 1986, the WWF was the national power and would see St. Louis only on special occasions. And by the early ’90s, the NWA had shrunk to nearly nothing. St. Louis was the 34th most populous city in the United States.
Wrestling And The Chase Today
The Chase Park Plaza is now under the Royal Sonesta banner. It remains a prominent fixture in the Central West End, with three restaurants, a Mediterranean-style pool, and a movie theater. And the Khorassan Ballroom, as striking as ever, still hosts galas and soirees — and also Girl Scout banquets. Everyone can be the elite.
WWE is the global leader in professional wrestling and reportedly considers St. Louis an “A” city on its touring schedule; the event I overheard being discussed at the Pere Marquette Lodge breakfast table drew 40,000 attendees. All Elite Wrestling, a successful upstart, runs shows in St. Louis annually, and several local independent promotions flourish in the metropolitan area.
But I must admit, I haven’t been totally honest. The year before I snooped around the Khorassan, I found Wrestling at the Chase. In another sense.
In 2017, rockstar Billy Corgan purchased the NWA name. He started running events around the country under that historic banner, putting on shows reminiscent of regional wrestling from yesteryear with modern professional wrestlers. In 2021, he brought his brand of wrestling to the Chase for the NWA’s 73rd anniversary.
It sold out quickly. The boys and I got tickets in time. The energy going through that side entrance, waiting on the diamond carpet with wrestling fans young and old is something we’ll never forget. The mass of wrestling fans when we got into the Khorassan took my breath away.
The house lights went down, the bulbs of the light fixture blinked on seemingly one by one. The stars shined on all of us, and the show began. All night, I kept wanting it to feel like a memory — feel like I’d accessed what all my elders had — but it never did. It felt new.
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Author’s Note: Without the works and generosity of the Missouri Historical Society and Ed Wheatley, this article wouldn’t exist. I thank them both.