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The local broadcasting scene just witnessed an odd landmark. A real odd landmark.
Will Dunham hosted the 20th anniversary rendition of Inside the Squared Circle. This weekly roundtable on pro wrestling began as a radio show in 1989 on WMET-AM, a very low-watt station in Montgomery County, and moved to cable access television in 1993.
The wrestling industry over that period has enjoyed a boom and suffered through a bust and now sits somewhere in between.
But ITSC started small and stayed there: The program now can be viewed only via cable systems in Montgomery County and D.C.
That ITSC can still be viewed at all says a whole lot about Dunham’s dedication to the program, or maybe his inability to give anything up. He’s been there from the first episode on. He says he’s only missed “maybe” two ITSC tapings in the show’s 20 years.
“We started the show thinking we’d come up with a great way to get free tickets to wrestling shows,” says Fred Sternburg, who founded the program in 1989 with Dunham and local TV producer Rich Daniel. “It was just three of us wrestling fans in this little dump of a station in Gaithersburg, going to interview has-been wrestlers at VFW halls and armories. It was so much fun, and I wish we could have taken it to another level back then, but that never happened. But Will has kept this going. Now it’s 20 years? That’s amazing.”
Sternburg says he and his family gave their all to the show in the beginning. The WMET signal was so weak, Sternburg’s parents would leave their Bethesda home and get in the car on show nights to drive to a spot where they could hear their boy talk rasslin’.
“This is true: I called into the show from the maternity ward and was on the air when my son was born,” he says. “I gave the kid a pile driver as soon as he came out.” (Others confirm Sternburg’s maternity ward call-in; the pile-driving-the-newborn part of the tale, like so much of what you hear in wrestling interviews, did not really happen. But the kid born during an early ITSC episode is now a sophomore at Colorado State.)
But, Sternburg admits, his allegiance to Inside the Squared Circle is no match for Dunham’s. Sternburg left the show in the early ’90s and relocated to Colorado to pursue a career in boxing publicity. He’s as big as they come in that field now and is currently flying between his Denver home and Hollywood to help promote the upcoming megafight between Miguel Cotto and Manny Pacquiao.
At ITSC’s creation, Daniel, who grew up in Poolesville and remembers meeting Bobo Brazil at Uline Arena while attending his first pro wrestling card, adopted the character of “Dirty Dick,” a guy who might give a disagreeable fellow panelist a head shot with a chair. Daniel backed off his weekly appearances in the mid-’90s when his other TV job, as a news producer, demanded more time. He’s now general manager of the D.C. Divas, the women’s football juggernaut. But for very special shows, Daniel will make an appearance in the ITSC studios, which double as the basement of Dunham’s Arlington home. (For the anniversary shows, ITSC was taped at the Montgomery County cable department, the first time since the radio days that the crew got to use professional equipment.)
“I don’t know that anybody was doing what we were doing when we started,” says Daniel. “There might have been a show somewhere or a couple wrestling newsletters, but covering the business side of the wrestling business, that wasn’t done. These guys have depth, and you find out that there’s a lot more going on than just the turnbuckle shot and the flip when you talk to them. But nobody was talking to them back then, and I think the wrestlers really enjoyed coming out of character to talk to us back then.”
Yet Dunham, 46, has never strayed. To put it in perspective, he’s hosted ITSC longer than Jay Leno had the Tonight Show, and longer than Tim Russert met the press on Meet the Press. As Sternburg says, “Only The Simpsons has been on that long.”
It’s not as if Dunham’s plate is otherwise empty.
When ITSC started, Dunham was a sports editor for United Press International, the nearly departed news service. These days, during the work week, he’s an editor and writer in the D.C. office of Reuters, and in just the last several days his duties with the foreign news giant had him working on stories about the Honduran political squabbles and Iran’s hunger for nuclear power. He has a wife and two kids.
But come Sunday nights, Dunham goes back to being “Will the Worm,” the nerdy MC who aims to be the John McLaughlin of rasslin’. (ITSC hardcores will point out that Dunham’s character was initially called “Waxahachie Will” for no reason other than alliteration.) Over the years, the Worm has delivered the ITSC audience news on, say, the WCW/WWF squabbles and wrestlers’ hunger for steroids as if those stories were as momentous as, well, the Honduran political squabbles and Iran’s hunger for nuclear power.
And Dunham’s seriousness isn’t all feigned.
“We’re not covering war and peace,” he says. “but within the context of the fun we try to have, we do try to take the issues very seriously. We named a lot of wrestlers who have died since we started [Eddie Guerrero, Ravishing Rick Ruud, Owen Hart, Eddie Gilbert, Chris Benoit, among others], and we only talked about a quarter of the names we could have, so there’s a serious undercurrent to a lot of this. Chris Benoit was on the show, and in 2007, after he killed himself and his wife and young child, along with the drugs, they discovered he had suffered serious [wrestling-related] brain damage that might have contributed to his actions. We’ve done too many shows about what has killed another star.”
Not to give the impression that seriousness carries the night on ITSC.
“We once had storyline with a food fight on the set,” he says. “I remember there was pudding involved, because I was cleaning chocolate pudding out of my ears for a week.”
To keep the show going, as Sternburg and Daniel moved on, Dunham filled the seats on the panel with fans of the show. And his sticktuitiveness has been contagious. Massive Mike Mahoney was first invited to appear on ITSC in 1995, after being a regular caller to the show’s audience feedback line. Mahoney’s rarely missed a basement taping session since.
Nobody’s ever made any money from the show; Dunham named the outfit that produces it “No Budget Productions” for a reason. Neither D.C. nor Montgomery County’s cable systems provides ratings for the access channel, so Dunham has never had any idea how many people even watch the show.
So, as a senseless death might, the endless life of ITSC inspires one big question: Why?
“I’m not under any illusions that what we’re doing is class television or even good television,” Dunham says, laughing. “There have been many, many weeks when it would have been easier to have just thrown in the towel, and it’s occurred to me that that may have been the wise thing to do a decade ago. But now, it’s the monster that wouldn’t die. And with all we’ve done to keep the momentum going this long, I really think it would be a shame to put a stake in its heart now.”
But, Dunham says, if somebody else, like officials at the cable systems that now broadcast ITSC, decide that the show should go away, he’d survive. He’s got interests away from the ring. Dunham, in fact, just returned from a vacation in Iran. And during the trip he swears he didn’t ask anybody during the trip about the Iron Sheik.
Is Dan Snyder Breaking the Law?
After Dan Snyder’s douchwellian attempts to ban all fan signage at Monday night’s game against the Eagles, I called J.P. Szymkowicz, a local attorney and Redskins fan, to ask for a legal opinion on the Redskins’ behaviors. Szymkowicz was the lawyer who sued the Redskins for the ban on pedestrians that was put in place in 2000 so ticketholders would have to pay Snyder’s inflated parking fees. (He won.)
Szymkowicz says that one media report of security guard thuggery, if accurately described, “presents a good case for tortious battery and conversion.” Getting even more lawyerly, Szymkowicz cites Nelson v. Carroll, 355 Md. 593, 600 (1999), where a court held that a “battery occurs when one intends a harmful or offensive contact with another without that person’s consent.”
Also applicable, he says, is Darcars vs. Borzym, 379 Md. 249, 262 (2004), where the court held that the “gist of a conversion is not the acquisition of the property by the wrongdoer, but the wrongful deprivation of a person of property to the possession of which he is entitled. Nor need there exist a forcible dispossession of property to constitute an act of the defendant a conversion. A conversion may consist of a wrongful, tortious or unlawful taking of property from the possession of another by theft, trespass, duress, or fraud and without his consent or approbation, either express or implied.”
And the situation where guys were thrown out for wearing anti-Snyder T-shirts, Szymkowicz asserts, “presents a case for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing that ticket buyers have with the Redskins and vice-versa.”
Szymkowicz cites Telesaver, Inc. v. United States Transmission Systems, Inc., 687 F. Supp. 997, 1001 (D. Md. 1988), where the court ruled: “In every contract there is an implied covenant that neither party shall do anything which will have the effect of destroying or injuring the right of the other party to receive the fruits of the contract; in other words, in every contract there exists an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.”
I’m guessing Snyder and “good faith” are never mentioned together other than in legal contexts.
Read Cheap Seats Daily every weekday morning at washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk.