Bucky Palermo Packs Them In For Tales Of Wrestling Animals, Bears As Well As Penguins & Steelers
October 20, 2016
by Trapper Tom, Ring Announcer/Wrestling Journalist
“It was my job to upset the fans,” said Bucky Palermo. “I did it well for a long time.” The standing-room-only crowd packed the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Lawrenceville Branch, on Wednesday, October 19, 2016 to hear stories of the legendary boxer, referee and cobbler. Attendees stood four deep at the doors to hear the soft-spoken, yet gregarious Palermo.
“Bucky Palermo: A Life in Leather,” was presented by the Lawrenceville Historical Society, which holds monthly lectures at the library.
Palermo, described as living his entire life in Lawrenceville, explained that he maintained a shoe and sports equipment-fixing business for 68 years at three different locations on Butler Street. It officially shuttered on New Year’s Eve last year; however, he often talks as if he’s still fixing the wrestling boots, football cleats and ice skates that have made him a Pittsburgh institution since Harry S. Truman was in the White House.
When Palermo’s resume was read, it detailed his years as a prize fighter, Studio Wrestling mainstay and state Athletic Association official. The biggest applause came when he was acknowledged for his 10 years as Chairman of the Holy Spirit Parish Fish Fry.
“When we started in 1947, Lawrenceville had two movie theaters and two parks,” he said of his early days as “Palermo Brothers Shoe Repair. “You couldn’t park a car” on Butler Street. He said that the neighborhood deteriorated and he left the 9th Ward within the city of Pittsburgh to the nearby 10th Ward. “People didn’t do that,” he said. “I was the first.”
At one time, Palermo serviced the shoes for 140 different schools. Then schools made student athletes by their own footwear. The move nearly sunk the business.
Somewhere along the line, Palermo picked up business with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Penguins. He also did some work for Pittsburgh Pirates players, but found them not as desirable as the other two sports.
After his days of pugilism were over, Palermo because a boxing referee. When Studio Wrestling began on what was then WIIC TV Channel 11 in 1959, Palermo was one of the “legit” referees that were appointed by government leaders. It’s the stories he shared from those days that rapped most of those in attendance. At least one member of the audience worse a Bruno Sammartino T-shirt, while another looked as if he rummaged through the Grand Wizard’s prop closet.
“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize there’s a difference between being a boxing and wrestling ref,” he remarked to an understand laugh from the crowd, which included current Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) Head Referee David Fedor and long-time in-ring authority Shawn Patrick. “But you have to be alert for either one.”
Palermo told tales about getting punched in the stomach while trying to break up a boxing scrum and how he watched an up-and-coming future champion named James “Buster” Douglas tenderize a foe well before upsetting Mike Tyson for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
He relayed 45-year-old memories of matches starring Bruno Sammartino, Dominic DeNucci, Professor Tanaka and a wrestler he believed was Professor Tanaka (some observers believed his timeline was incorrect) from Johnstown. “Bruno got the first fall,” Palermo recalled. “Tanaka got the second. And when Tanaka got the third and final pinfall, 5,000 stood up (at the Cambria County War Memorial).” The incendiary crowd then started tossing cups and at least one chair into the ring. At that point Sammartino looked at Palermo and said, “How are you going to get out of here?” A near riot ensued as Palermo held close to “The Champ” as he made his way to the locker room.
Palermo touched on how his youngest son, Eugene, used to go to the WWF matches with him. “He wasn’t supposed to be in the locker room, but the guys said it was okay.” He went on to say that Sargent Slaughter was the first wrestler to instruct Eugene (who has Down Syndrome) to run his ring-props from the ring to the locker room. Eugene Palermo would become dependable in that role for 15 years.
He told another story about refereeing a six-match card in Oil City where a “little old lady with a cane” was steamed that the “bad guys” were winning that day. He said something to her that infuriated the woman. When Palermo and Eugene tried to leave, the elderly fan and “two giants” were waiting outside of the dressing room. After a tense moment, the “giants” told Palermo that they took their mother to the matches so she could “let off some steam” and they wanted to make sure no one got hurt.
Palermo worked with all of the stars, from Sammartino to Johnny DeFazio, to Hulk Hogan and Nikolai Volkoff (who admits that he got his start as Bepo Mongol in Pittsburgh back in the early 1970’s.) Palermo fine-tuned the story of how he and George “The Animal” dealt with a wrestling bear in 1971. Steele was supposed to take on “Terrible Ted,” on Friday, September 17, 1971 at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh. The promoter told Palermo that he was refereeing the contest. When Steele bolted the ring as soon as the bell rang, Palermo was the one who had the black bear rest its snout on his chest. When the action moved to Johnstown the next night and Altoona on Sunday, Steele still bolted and the bear still rested, albeit with a heavier lean each match. When Bucky asked the trainer what was going on, he said that Terrible Ted should be in bed and he was tired.
[A detail was cleared about one of Palermo’s favorite stories. It turns out that Terrible Ted was not the 600-pound bear that a few years later mauled the trainer’s girlfriend, described by Palermo as the man’s wife. In 1978, Terrible Ted’s companion bear Smokey got out of its unlocked cage and fatally attacked his owner’s girlfriend.]
Palermo touched on painting Steeler great L.C. Greenwood’s gold-colored high tops, Jaromir Jagr’s gloves, and how he helped prepare Mario Lemieux for his improbable comeback in late 2000. Palermo was asked to improve the tongue on for the retired Hall of Famer’s skate. He soon caught on that he was helping Super Mario resume his spectacular career.
Through the years, Palermo also helped stitch up, re-sole and otherwise improve boots for local professional wrestlers “Nasty” Nick Crane and Lord Zoltan, both of whom were in attendance at the lecture. Palermo was inducted into the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance (KSWA) Hall of Fame in 2013, along with “Luscious” Johnny Valiant, who wrestled locally in the 1970’s under his given name, John L. Sullivan. Since 2008, Sammartino, DeNucci, Steele, Baron Scicluna DeFazio, Bill Eadie, Bobby Hunt, and Frank Durso (who was a late scratch from the festivities), Bill Cardille and other Studio Wrestling stars have been inducted into the de facto Pittsburgh Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. This past March, Eugene Palermo became the first “second generation” wrestling personality to be inducted in the KSWA Hall of Fame.
Palermo pointed out the "wrestlers in the room," including Lou Martin, Lord Zoltan and "Nasty" Nick Crane. The 86-year-old referee then finished the 70-plus minute lecture by attempting to acknowledge his ailing wife Kathleen, but emotions stopped him short. The crowd responded with a sympathetic and warm round of applause.
Also among those in attendance was famed Western Pennsylvania Ring Announcer and Professional Wrestling Historian Hank Hudson.