Leroy McGuirk was famous in Oklahoma.
He wrestled in college at Oklahoma A&M and in 1932 decided to make the ring his professional office. People who know wrestling say McGuirk, competing as a junior heavyweight with the National Wrestling Association, held the association’s world junior heavyweight title from 1939 until 1950.
Tony Vellano knows wrestling — and he’s going to help Leroy become famous in Amsterdam. On Saturday, May 17, Vellano will be in Johnstown, as Amsterdam’s Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame conducts its 13th annual Hall of Fame Induction Banquet.
Vellano, 63, who lives in Rotterdam, runs the hall — a two-story, brown-and-cream-colored building at East Main and Chuctanunda streets in downtown Amsterdam. This year, in addition to McGuirk, the hall is inducting Stu Hart, Bruiser Brody, Don Muraco, Sherri Martel and Lord Alfred Hayes, and five other wrestlers will receive plaques in Amsterdam.
Vellano, a deputy commissioner with the New York State Athletic Commission overseeing professional wrestling and boxer, often hears the question: “Why is the wrestling hall of fame in Amsterdam?”
He’s always got the answer. Several sports have their shrines to athletes nearby; he says there are more than 20 halls of fame in New York State.
“Why Amsterdam? Then you have to say ‘Why Cooperstown’ for baseball, ‘Why Canastota’ for boxing, why long distance runners are in Utica,” he said. “You go to Saratoga, you’ve got horse racing and dance. You go over the line to Springfield, you’ve got basketball.”
The Amsterdam hall is not affiliated with pro wrestling organizations, but is designed to recognize men and women who made a living entertaining fans around the world. Most are retired; some have passed away. Vellano also likes the idea that while John Cena, Triple H and The Undertaker remain big draws for high school kids and rabid fans, the hall salutes sort-of-forgotten guys like McGuirk, who died in 1988.
The hall was first based in Schenectady, at 123 Broadway, from 2001 until 2004. The building was sold — the site eventually became the spot for the Bow Tie cinema complex, and in 2005 Vellano moved his collection of dressing gowns, boots, championship belts and photos to Amsterdam. The current space is inside the building that once housed the Whelan drug store and Tenzer’s Furniture. Vellano and hall operatives put on the new roof, installed a new furnace and completed other repairs and upgrades. The not-for-profit hall pays an annual, nominal rent to the Amsterdam Industrial Development Agency.
“I run it as a business,” Vellano said. “We exist on grants, scholarships, donations and whatever events we put on.”
And Vellano knows Vince McMahon, the main man in the mega-popular World Wrestling Entertainment world, has the WWE Hall of Fame. “But it’s not a bricks-and-mortar hall of fame,” he said. “Our rings are better. Our plaques are better.”
The wrestling exhibition is open weekends, free of charge. Vellano said the induction days are his biggest days of the year, even though some events are held outside the city. A Saturday wrestling convention, with dealers selling memorabilia, will be held at the Johnstown Holiday Inn from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. A “meet and greet” with wrestling stars will be held at the inn Saturday from 1 until 3 p.m., with advance tickets selling for $50 each. No tickets will be sold at the door. The induction banquet will be held at the Holiday Inn during the evening. A wrestling exhibition will be held Friday, May 16, at Amsterdam’s Inman Center.
Vellano is proud of the materials assembled in the hall. Wrestlers — in some cases, wrestlers’ families — have donated photos, clothing and other memorabilia. “We just have to agree not to put it on eBay,” he said. Mick Foley’s “Dude Love” tie-dye shirt and the Dude’s white boots are on display at the hall. So are costumes from Foley’s other famous wrestling characters, the Western-garbed “Cactus Jack” and the psychotic, masked Mankind.
Vellano has a collection of photos from wrestling champ — and later longtime Schenectady County Court Clerk Carroll “Pink” Gardner. He’s also got one of Pink’s championship belts.
Dressing gowns and suits from athletes such as Paul Orndorff, “Mr. Wonderful,” and Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka are on display. Photos are all over the place — Strangler Bob Wagner, Jim “Goon” Henry, Mildred Burke, Glens Falls’ “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Penny Banner, Chief White Owl and Lillian Ellison are on the walls. Ellison was better known by her wrestling name, the “Fabulous Moolah.”
Vellano said when Ellison died in 2007, her surviving family members began throwing out a lot of wrestling memorabilia. Vellano had people around the Ellison home in South Carolina, and “rescued” souvenirs from Moolah’s career. “I had them go into Dumpsters and get as much as they could,” he said.
The hall’s library is named after Ellison. Vellano said he’s always glad to see fans, especially when the hall hosts periodic autograph sessions with wrestling greats. “We sponsor a lot of things here,” he said.
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.