"The MSG Curtain Call": A Conflation of Front and Backstage in Professional Wrestling

Curator's Note

May 19th, 1996: Madison Square Garden, New York City: Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel and Hunter Hearst Helmsley are in the ring together after the main event, hugging and raising their arms in celebration. At the time it was the last WWE (then known as WWF) performances for Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Ramon (Scott Hall) before leaving for the competing product, World Championship Wrestling.

A curtain call is an expected part of theatre routine, as second nature as the actual performance. The actor leaves the role of the character and becomes his or her real self. By accepting accolades and acknowledgement from the audience, the actor temporarily conflates front and backstage. An entire ensemble may also appear and celebrate onstage together.

However, curtain calls were almost unheard of in professional wrestling. Faces (the heroic protagonists) and heels (the villainous antagonists) weren’t supposed to shed their character to show respect and admiration for each other in public, much less "onstage" (i.e. the wrestling ring), even after their performance had concluded.

"The MSG Curtain Call"  was precedent in that the wrestlers chose to allow the audience to see their real backstage friendships. In the video, the audience gives a roar of approval and exhilaration for this unscripted moment. The child, his voice filled with surprise and enthusiastic acceptance, recognizes there is more at stake than the usual "show".  I had been in attendance on that night and his reaction mirrored my own.

It was also an unauthorized action with dramatic repercussions, namely the temporary demotion of Helmsley. A planned prestigious win at the 1996 King of Ring tournament instead went to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was on the cusp of gaining massive popularity. Austin’s mainstream appeal contributed largely to WWE regaining top status over WCW by mid-1998.

Fans had long ago learned the secret "F-word" regarding professional wrestling. However, they were increasingly exposed to moments such as the curtain call that served to blur and to conflate the boundary between front and backstage during the "Attitude Era" of the late nineties.

Curtain calls are no longer provocative rebel yells in 2010, but rather pre-approved or otherwise innocuous celebrations, such as "Nature Boy" Ric Flair’s retirement ceremony. Still, it is in these moments that the audience comes as close as possible to witnessing the wrestlers’ real emotions and reactions, as opposed to the ones they are supposed to perform on stage.

Comments

Bryce McNeil's picture

ECW Was a Bit Ahead of its Time in This Way As Well

As I recall, ECW did a few "curtain calls" from the roster in its day; which segues to a worthy discussion about the value of wrestling characters vs. the *ensemble* of characters.

Tod Gordon in defending ECW once said (this is *heavily* paraphrased) "we never wanted any one wrestler to be more over than the promotion so that if anyone left, we’d still sell out the building.  When you heard the ‘ECW’ chants, that meant the promotion was over above everything else."

Jim Cornette derides that logic and states that it’s insipid for wrestlers to bleed and do high-risk moves only to put the promotion over rather than a character because then the crowd isn’t getting behind anyone in the match, only some vague ideal of the entire promotion.

Of course, one needn’t assume that the concepts need to be mutually exclusive.  This MSG curtain call was essentially the "Clique" acting on the idea that it *wasn’t* mutually exclusive; that the performers could make you cheer or boo them individually but then applaud them collectively at the end of the night. 

But again, that brings us full circle to the first post of the week and "heat."  If the fan is able to separate those reactions, is wrestling really drawing "heat" anymore (which old-schoolers would certainly differentiate from any reaction to typical fiction) or is just another movie?  If it’s the latter, one would think that wrestling has finally hit the plateau Vince McMahon always envisioned ("we make movies," he said in "Beyond the Mat").  

Ari Berenstein's picture

Thanks Bryce for the history

Thanks Bryce for the history lesson on ECW—having missed some of the early years I wasn’t aware that ECW had done curtain calls. I do recall that there was a huge curtain call for Paul Heyman at the only ECW show I attended, which happened at the Hammerstein Ballroom in late 2000. The fans chanted voiciferously "Thank You Paul" as he stood at the top of the entrance stage. It would be the equivalent of a theatre crowd thanking a director or producer for putting on the play they had just seen. Those fans recognized they were at a "show" and voiced their satisfaction. Although of course, at times I have wondered about the very strange mass group think that overtakes large crowds such as that one.

As far as generating heat, its interesting to note that it is still possible to pull even the "smarter" fans out of their hyperawareness of the pro wrestlings’ "sports-entertainment" conventions. As was noted in another column, the need to have a suspension of disbelief is still fundamentally crucial in successfully providing this genre of entertainment. Ring of Honor fans in particular love to cheer for great moves and the performance of sequences with high degrees of athletic difficulty. They want to cheer the match and the performance itself—exploding into louder cheers when they understand they are watching an "epic encounter". However, even they, like WWE and TNA fans, can be made to lose themselves into a match if an event takes place in front of them that has enough high-drama or emotion. A great example would be the Ring of Honor versus Combat Zone Wrestling crossover feud, where fans were so invested in their home promotion winning that they forgot about what was fake or real and simply concentrated on the dislike they had for the other side. That would be generating heat. Its similar to what is happening now with the Nexus angle in WWE (if a bit more one-sided in that fans support the WWE side and boo the Nexus group). Fans, even the ones who clamor for insider news and information, can still "mark out" when provided the proper stimulus.

Shane Toepfer's picture

Where the Heat Comes From

 

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Thanks for a tremendous entry Ari as the MSG curtain call gives us an opportunity to look at one of the most famous/infamous moments in recent wrestling history to explore these themes of realism within wrestling.  I particularly love this clip because of its presentation from the perspective of a fan in the audience.  The vantage point both allows for wrestling’s unique mode of presentation to take center stage, if you will, as well as lets the emotions and reactions of the audience upend the actions in the ring.  The joyful acclaim of the most vocal fan, maybe more than anything else we have seen this week, represents something truly real.  I am fascinated by the fact that what has made this fan, and the entire audience so joyful, is the breaking down of the proverbial fourth wall – the glimpse of performers ending the performative component of the spectacle and theoretically being themselves.  These real actions and emotions are mirrored by the fans, and this makes for a truly special moment.

I also like that you mentioned in your response that these curtain calls can pull in even the smartest wrestling fans – the ones that rarely suspend their disbelief fully and “mark out” for wrestling matches/events.  This gets me wondering, though, as to what we can make of the presence of curtain calls and unscripted moments in the contemporary wrestling/media landscape.  Are we such a wrestling/media literate audience that it takes these moments of “conflation” between the backstage and the performance itself for us to lose ourselves, rather than the actual performance?  Have backstage narratives replaced the performance/matches as the real source of heat in wrestling?

 

Ari Berenstein's picture

Conflations of Front and Back in Storylines

I believe that it is these moments that conflate reality and storyline that create these moments of true and deep suspension of disbelief. The old school method of building wrestling programs did sometimes use these sorts of conflations—think of Roddy Piper’s attack on Cyndi Lauper and his comments about Mr. T. that led into Wrestlemania I or Jerry Lawler’s comments about the ECW Invasion in 1997.  Piper and Lawler have gone on record as saying they really did not like Mr. T and ECW, respectively. These were "real" moments, or as close to a simulacrum, incorporated into storylines in order to sell the drama and make people want to see (in these examples) Hogan or ECW get their revenge.

On the other hand, it was easy to "write out" Hogan during the months where he would be filming No Holds Barred or Suburban Commando—but it was not so easy to suspend disbelief that he was truly injured by Earthquake and was "out of action" during that time. I knew even then that Hogan wasn’t really injured and it didn’t really shed any light on who Hogan was as a person when he returned to fight Earthquake at Summerslam or in 1991 when he decided to "fight for America" against the Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter. These were moments that were simply too broad and even though it incorporated a real event (Operation: Desert Storm), it was not a revelation at all about Hogan, Slaughter or anyone else involved. They were simply playing roles and telling a story.

I think back to some of the moments over the last ten years where I personally "marked out" or fully engaged in a storyline and in  these were moments there was signifcant blurring of front stage and back stage. The WCW and later ECW Invasion in 2001 was very special because of the broad knowledge of both WCW and ECW folding and WWE buying their creative assets.  Paul Heyman and other ECW wrestlers were going to work for WWE as were WCW wrestlers. The ECW Invasion was a huge moment of conflation because for a few moments it seemed as if Paul Heyman could have really orchestrated an ECW revival, bringing about backstage events to the frontstage.

This was demonstrated  even more powerfully when ECW was actually brought back first for its One Night Stand reunion in 2005 and then as a seperate brand in 2006. There isn’t much doubt in my mind that it was Rob Van Dam the person and not the character who was talking from the heart at One Night Stand in 2005 about how much it meant to him to be the one to engineer that particular revival, but also how much it hurt him not to be able to wrestle that night because he was injured. I’m sure several of the WWE wrestlers who were there as antagnoists (including Eric Bischoff and John Bradshaw Layfield) were also speaking their real thoughts about ECW through their derisive promos.

Shane Toepfer's picture

Reality In Its Many Forms Within Wrestling

I agree that most of the moments where I "mark out" and fully suspend disbelief are these instances that are based in some form of reality outside of wrestling’s diegtic universe/scripted narratives.  The ECW invasion in 2001 is a perfect example, as you mentioned, and so is the clip featured here.  There seems to be some form of authenticity to these conflations of backstage narratives with what we see on camera or what is part of the show.  They stand out from the more obviously scripted elements.  Taking this back to the notion of "heat," I wonder if the fact that they do stand out as more real has a harmful effect on the rest of the performance.  If this part is real, then by extension the rest of what we saw is fake or inauthentic, which would never work in the realm of other media.

I also love your example a couple posts above about Ring of Honor fans chanting for the quality of a match.  While certainly not exclusive to ROH, there seems to be a parallel level of aesthetic evaluation going on within professional wrestling that may also have ties to realism.  We can have both conflations of backstage and on camera narratives stand out as real or authentic.  And we can have matches that are so realistic that in that moment they also feel authentic.  In both cases, the closer they are to some reality outside of wrestling’s artifice seems to be what stands out.  And as I type this, exceptions (Chikara, The Undertaker, etc.) to these cases seem to stand out as well, which is quite fantastic.

Sam Ford's picture

First of all, great example

First of all, great example and analysis of it, Ari. A few things that I was thinking about as I have caught up on this discussion:

 

1.) We need not forget that the Clique chose to do this in Madison Square Garden. While it wasn’t done on television, this has been the WWE’s home base since the promotion was launched by Vince Sr., and the idea that they would break the fourth wall in the middle of the Garden probably led to the particular anger from company management at the time.

2.) Wrestling always has this struggle between being a set of characters all of whom are competing with one another in the narrative and the reality that they are a "family," a traveling troupe who spend all their time together. As wrestling has become more open about what happens backstage, we’ve seen that tension play out more heavily. Is the WWE a family or a set of competitors where everyone is in it for themselves? Both in the fictional world and in the real lives of the performers, the answer is, "Both."

3.) Regarding marketing out and the blend of real and fake, the moment that I remember particularly capturing me is the night that Vince McMahon decided to challenge Steve Austin for the title. That was the night my friends and I were calling each other back and forth, feeling that we were somehow watching something "more real" as Vince finally gave into what we knew all along: that he secretly desired to be the star of his own promotion. And, perhaps consequently, I believe that’s the night that WWE finally ended Nitro’s 83-week Monday Night Wars winning streak…

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