Last month, SmackDown!, the long-running wrestling serial, broadcast from the MCI Center. Viewers saw Stephanie McMahon-Helmsley, daughter of Vince McMahon and the chief villainess in the WWF, pushing 92-year-old D.C. resident James Dudley around the arena in a wheelchair, as per the script.
McMahon-Helmsley had been banned from the arena because of her feud (wink wink) with new WWF honcho Ric Flair, and she hoped that by using the elderly gentleman in a wheelchair as a sympathetic prop she could weasel her way past security. Her ploy failed (wink wink).
In the real world, Dudley prefers getting around under his own power. “I figure I’m better off if I keep doing things myself,” he says. So as soon as his TV scene was finished, he got out of the wheel chair and walked to his seat inside the giant hall.
The next day, wrestling chat sites on the Internet were abuzz with questions about who the old dude on SmackDown! was. That’s because Dudley, who has 37 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren, and 16 great-great-grandchildren, has outlived most folks who would be aware of his wrestling bona fides.
The McMahons, however, remember. They remember that half a century ago, Dudley was working behind the scenes of their family’s wrestling productions here in D.C. and that he was an important cog in the machine that would become the WWF.
In 1994, Dudley was inducted into the WWF’s Hall of Fame, joining ring greats Chief Jay Strongbow (born Joe Scarpa), Andre the Giant (Andre Roussimoff), and Gorilla Monsoon (Robert Marella). (Dudley remains one of the few members inducted under his real name.)
Furthermore, nearly two decades ago, Vince McMahon started sending the already retired Dudley checks twice a month as a token of his gratitude. And that shiny red Lincoln Town Car that sits in front of Dudley’s Petworth residence? McMahon shipped it down to D.C. from Connecticut, when he found out that Dudley didn’t have a car. (Dudley didn’t bother telling McMahon he doesn’t have a driver’s license, either.).
Via e-mail, McMahon said that whatever money, gifts, and assorted kindnesses he bestows on Dudley aren’t about charity. To the much-maligned ring mogul, they’re about loyalty and payback to a guy who has worked for four generations of his family.
“Had there been no James Dudley, the WWF possibly wouldn’t exist as it does today,” McMahon wrote.
McMahon declined a phone interview for this story. It makes showbiz sense that he wouldn’t want much ado made of his relationship with Dudley. In wrestling, image really is everything. And throughout the past decade, McMahon has been portrayed as perhaps America’s most evil pop-culture export. That image has proved a boon to the family business. Perhaps that’s why McMahon, a latter-day P.T. Barnum, has never gone on a PR offensive to unsully his reputation. His caretaking of Dudley would make a fine Exhibit A.
Unlike the media types who have portrayed McMahon as the devil incarnate, Dudley actually knows the guy. So he’s seen the side of McMahon that the wrestling impresario may not want the public to be aware of.
“The real Vince McMahon is a sweetheart,” Dudley says. “Just like his father.”
Dudley’s ties to the McMahon family date back to the early ’40s, when he was briefly employed by Jess McMahon, grandfather of the current ring kingpin and a New York-based boxing and concert promoter. In 1945, Dudley moved to Washington from his native Baltimore to take a job with Vincent J. McMahon, Jess’ son.
Vincent J. McMahon dabbled in his father’s boxing and music enterprise, but his passion was wrestling. In January 1953, he staged the very first card for his own promotion, Capitol Wrestling Corp., at Turner’s Arena, a 2,000-seat venue located at the time near the intersection of 14th and W Streets NW. Three years later, Vincent J. McMahon signed a landmark deal with WTTG Channel 5 to televise wrestling shows from the arena every Thursday night.
Those weekly broadcasts were syndicated to big and small cities from D.C. to New England, turning Vincent J. McMahon’s franchise into a regional monopoly. From his downtown office inside the now-defunct Franklin Park Hotel, he brought in wrestling’s major stars from around the country and cooked up the story lines that would keep fans coming back for more.
“Wrestling was huge in Washington in the 1950s,” says Bert Sugar, the boxing bon vivant and former Ring magazine editor, who attended some McMahon events while growing up in Northwest D.C. “To understand the importance of wrestling at the time, you have to understand that there was nothing else to root for! The Senators stunk, the Redskins were worse, but Washington was the center of the East Coast wrestling universe, all because of [the elder] Vince McMahon.”
Dudley manned the Turner’s Arena box office on show nights when he started with Vincent J. McMahon. As his business flourished and his marketing reach expanded, Vincent J. McMahon entrusted more and more power to Dudley. By 1956, he had promoted Dudley to manager of the entire arena, making him the first black man to run a major arena in the United States. (And on nights when the venue hosted the seminal country-music television show Town and Country Jamboree, a program that made national stars out of host Jimmy Dean and local songbird Patsy Cline, Dudley was the only nonwhite on the premises.)
Dudley can’t recall any racial incidents during his years at the arena. He does, however, remember getting ribbed by friends and co-workers at Turner’s who envied his relationship with Vincent J. McMahon.
“They didn’t like that I always said that Vince treated me like I was his own son, and I felt like he was my father,” Dudley says. “One guy finally said, ‘OK, Dudley, you say he’s like your father. So what if you walk into the lobby of the arena and there’s two fights going on: one with Vince, the other one with your real father. Who you gonna help out first?’ Well, I thought about the question a minute, then I told him, “If that happened, first I’d run up to my real father and say, ‘Hold on, Pops! I’ll be back in a minute!’”
Because Dudley ran such a tight ship in D.C., Vincent J. McMahon was able to concentrate on migrating the business to other cities. Dudley would come out from behind the scenes only to serve as “manager” for the black wrestlers that the promoter started bringing into his stable beginning in the late ’50s. The most famous was Bobo Brazil, whose closing move—the Coco Butt—was a head butt that left opponents in a bloody stupor.
In 1958, Vincent J. McMahon’s then-estranged son Vince moved to D.C. from North Carolina and began hanging out at the arena to learn the tricks of his father’s trade. And he saw firsthand the role Dudley played in the operation.
“When I first met the son, I could stuff him in my coat pocket,” Dudley says with a laugh. “He’s a big man now, so I have to remind him of that every now and then.”
Beginning in the ’70s, Vincent J. McMahon began shifting control of his wrestling business, already the most successful in the United States, over to his son. Turner’s Arena was torn down and the family’s events were moved to huge suburban coliseums such as the Capital Centre, which could hold tens of thousands of fans. Vincent J. McMahon retired to Florida, and Dudley’s workload was reduced to next to nothing by the time the son took over total control of the operation in 1980, changed the name to the WWF, and moved the company’s offices to Connecticut.
But even as he eased himself out of wrestling, Vincent J. McMahon stayed close to Dudley. And when the promoter died of cancer in a Miami-area hospital in 1984, Dudley got a call from his ex-boss’s wife that let him know just how fondly he was remembered.
“She told me that before Vince died, he told his son, ‘Whatever else you do, you take care of James Dudley,’” Dudley recalls. “And then three days after the funeral, the son called up and told me he intended to do what his daddy said.”
Within the week, Dudley says, he was told that at 74 years old, he was being put on the WWF payroll. And he’s been on it ever since.
Years ago, McMahon provided Dudley with a toll-free number to his office, along with an order to call if he ever needed anything. Dudley carries that number around in his shirt pocket. And even when there’s no request, McMahon occasionally surprises Dudley with extravagant tokens of his appreciation, such as the Lincoln, and incredibly generous birthday gifts. There are also phone messages, such as the one last month ordering Dudley to be at the MCI Center that night for the SmackDown! broadcast. Dudley didn’t get McMahon’s message until a few hours before showtime, but nothing was going to keep him away from the event.
“Even if he’d told me to be at Madison Square Garden in an hour, I’d have gotten there,” Dudley says. “I might have been a little late, but I’d have gotten there.” —Dave McKenna