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Will Dunham has everything a man could want. He’s got a good job, a loving family, and a pro-wrestling show.
It’s Sunday night, and the 15th-anniversary rendition of that show, Inside the Squared Circle, is being taped in the basement of Dunham’s Arlington home. The weekly program, which can only be seen on the access channels of cable television providers in D.C. and Montgomery County, is Wayne’s World incarnate, only with rasslin’ instead of rawk.
Balloons, crepe-paper streamers, ratty tinsel from Christmases past, a tarted-up sheet cake from Giant Food, and assorted cheap decorations lie around the makeshift soundstage to remind viewers that this isn’t just another episode of ITSC. (It’s a wrestling show, so “the” rates a spot in the acronym, just as Vince McMahon’s former federation WWWF gave “worldwide” two Ws.)
“Seven hundred shows, 1,200 hours of garbage, coming into your homes!” Dunham, in his TV persona of nerdy wrestling MC Will the Worm, rails into the untended camcorder. He then introduces a montage of highlights from the ITSC morgue.
The clip reel includes several brawls (wink wink) that have taken place between hosts and guests in the various basements and spare bedrooms that have served as ITSC’s studio over the years. And it ends with hilarious promos for the program done by pro-wrestling stars during appearances at local venues. There’s Jerry “the King” Lawler, best known for breaking Andy Kaufman’s neck with a piledriver, dressed unironically in a silly robe and telling viewers, “You must have too much free time on your hands, because you’re watching Inside the Squared Circle!” And Jesse “the Body” Ventura, after shooting his ITSC promo and therefore ostensibly out of character, bragging to the show’s hosts about how competent he is at shooting promos. “You know what they call me at NBC, don’t you? ‘One-Take Jesse!’” says the future governor. And Ric Flair, the greatest interviewee in the history of the ring, capping off the promo with his trademark “Whooooooo!,” which wrestling fans swear Howard Dean stole in Iowa.
By the end of the reel, it seems Vince McMahon must be the only guy in the country to have a ring show as old as Dunham’s. Then again, McMahon’s living comes from that work. Dunham’s real job comes covering the Department of Defense for Reuters. The gig kept him at the office late last Friday chasing down the latest records dump regarding George W. Bush’s National Guard career. The show itself has always been the only reward Dunham, now a 41-year-old father of two, gets from ITSC. And after 15 years, that’s still a satisfactory wage.
“I can’t really explain why I still do the show,” he says during a break in the taping. “I don’t know how long I’ll do it. I never thought I’d do it for this long. I have no excuse.”
Those who were there at the beginning are in awe of his endurance.
“You look at Will, and this doesn’t make sense,” says Rich “Dirty Dick” Daniel, who founded ITSC with Dunham and “Fearless” Fred Sternburg in 1989. “Everything about the show has changed over the years—except Will. He’s the one constant. And if you know him as a writer, as a friend, as a guy with a family, there’s no explanation for this. Sometimes in life, you just have no idea what you start.”
The show spent its first four years on radio, at WMET, a now-defunct Gaithersburg-based AM station. Dunham was then the D.C. sports editor for United Press International, Daniel was a producer for the sports department at WJLA-TV, and Sternburg was in sports public relations for the downtown firm now known as Brotman-Winter-Fried. They always talked pro wrestling when they ran into each other at sporting events around town, and after a couple years of going to WWF events together at the Capital Centre, they decided to do something fun with their shared affinity.
“The intent was to make this a tongue-in-cheek McLaughlin Group for wrestling,” says Sternburg on the phone from Louisville, Ky., where he’s serving as Mike Tyson’s media liaison for a pay-per-view bout this weekend. “We never pursued any sponsors and did everything as cheap as possible. The WMET signal was so weak, my parents used to get in the car and drive around the Beltway just so they could hear me. It was real guerrilla radio.”
Around the time the show left WMET for cable access in 1993, Sternburg cited work and family obligations (he’d done a live call-in to ITSC from the delivery room while his first son was being born) as his rationale for jumping off the roster. His place was taken by “Charmin’” Chuckie Williams, a longtime listener to ITSC, who agreed to let the show be taped at his residence.
At the anniversary taping, Williams fondly recalls the brouhaha from the 1993 Thanksgiving episode of the program. Charmin’ Chuckie got “hit” in the head with a cornucopia loaded down with a dumbbell. The blow left his character unconscious and sent him face-first into a pumpkin pie.
“And since it was at my house,” Williams says, “I had to clean up.”
Daniel gave up his host post in 1996, when Dunham’s basement became the taping place. But Daniel is happy to reprise the Dirty Dick character for the reunion show. For the shoot, he’s sporting an old pair of mirror sunglasses and a hat with 8-year-old chocolate-pudding stains from yet another all-hands brawl on the set.
Sternburg has phoned in a message to be used for the taping, in which he takes all the credit for the show’s founding.
“I wish I could have been there,” Sternburg says later. “I hadn’t talked to Will in years, but when I heard about the [anniversary] show, I called him up and we reminisced about all the good times. I mean, we had so much fun doing that, just making fun of ourselves. I really wish I didn’t have so many distractions and could still do the show. It’s one of those things I wish I’d done earlier in life. And Will always was the heart of the whole thing. He still is. I miss him, and I miss it.”
What Sternburg is missing by working on the Tyson fight instead of showing up at the anniversary taping is Dirty Dick announcing (again!) his retirement from the show and…another brawl. As the rest of his family sleeps upstairs and the camcorder rolls, Dunham again finds himself rolling among falling chairs and bodies in the basement as ITSC guests and hosts go at it, following the loose script for the show-closing scene.
When the shoot is finished, Dunham beams as he congratulates everybody on the set for a fine show. His smile briefly disappears, however, when Daniel points out that nobody has gotten smashed with the sheet cake. —Dave McKenna