Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Gorgeous George

(March 24, 1915 - Dec. 26, 1963)

May 1, 2010 -- Milton Berle wasn't the only entertainer who had families crowded around their television sets in the 1950s. He wasn't even the first.

Wrestler Gorgeous George combined the arrogance of Muhammad Ali, the "bad boy" image and sense of danger of a rap singer, and the wardrobe of Liberace to create a character who was more well-known than the president of the United States. He was the first big name in professional wrestling -- and still one of the biggest -- and a true television pioneer.

Beginning his career in the late 1940s, Gorgeous George was the first celebrity of professional wrestling, and he deserves all the credit –- or blame -– for transforming the sport from a simple athletic competition into entertainment, spectacle and everything else it has become, from the choreographed theatrical combat to the costumed characters and rabid fans screaming for their favorite hero -- and screaming even louder at their favorite villain. Before Buddy "Nature Boy" Rogers, Gorilla Monsoon, Killer Kowalski, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Vince McMahon, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and WrestleMania, there was Gorgeous George. And they owe it all to him.

Before Gorgeous George, wrestlers were just wrestlers. There were no "good guys," and no "villains." Fans cheered for a good match, and rooted for their favorites. Then Gorgeous George entered the ring, with his long, curly, platinum-blond hair held in place with gold-plated pins, sometimes adorned with an orchid. He would wear one of his collection of frilly, sequined, lace-and-fur-trimmed, floor-length dressing gowns. He would be escorted by one of his "ring butlers," who would spread rose petals in front of him and spray the wrestling mat with perfume, while "Pomp and Circumstance" played over loudspeakers. (His ring butlers even carried candelabras into the ring, until wrestling officials, fearing a fire hazard, made them stop. Gorgeous George claimed that Liberace stole the candelabra idea from him.)

Before the match, Gorgeous George would stroll daintily around the ring, preening and fussing with his hair. He would sneer disdainfully at the crowd as he pranced around the ring, calling them, "Peasants!" And, once the match started, Gorgeous George would break every rule in the book to gain an upper hand against his opponent. He was the first true "villain" in professional wrestling and, even though wrestling fans booed and screamed for his opponents to tear him apart, golden lock by golden lock, they couldn't get enough of "The Gorgeous One." He was the man the audience loved to hate.

Long before he became known as "The Human Orchid," "The Sensation of the Nation" and "The Toast of the Coast," Gorgeous George was born George Wagner in Seward, Nebraska, and his family moved throughout the Midwest, eventually settling in Houston, Texas, where George caught the wrestling bug, and also cultivated his desire to be noticed. "Even as a boy, I didn't want to look like anyone else when I walked down the street," he once said. "I wanted people to notice me. I used to wear knickers so the other kids would tease me and pick a fight."

George started wrestling at the Houston YMCA. When he was 17, he wrestled at a carnival, and was paid 35 cents. When his wrestling coach found out about the payment, he told George that he was now a professional, and kicked him out of the wrestling class. So George became a professional wrestler. He won his first title -– the northwest middleweight crown –- in 1938, in Eugene, Oregon. In the next few years, he added the Pacific Coast light-heavyweight title and the world light-heavyweight title.

Along the way, George was also indulging his desire to be noticed. Relatively short for a wrestler -– he was only 5-foot-9 -– he grew his hair long, dyed it platinum blond, and started wearing fancy robes and wrestling tights. According to legend, a woman sitting near the ring saw him and commented, "Isn’t he gorgeous?" The ring announcer heard her, and introduced the wrestler as "Gorgeous George Wagner." He started using the name professionally in 1941, and had his name legally changed to Gorgeous George in 1950, though friends called him, "G.G."

Gorgeous George transformed his ring entrance into a theatrical spectacle that would sometimes last longer than the actual wrestling match. He was the first wrestler to use special entrance music, and he walked into the ring on a red carpet, illuminated by a purple spotlight, while his "ring butler" held a silver mirror for him to admire himself.

Gorgeous George realized early on that the key to his success was based more on his showmanship than his physical ability, and so he transformed himself into a skilled and successful showman. And, in the late 1940s, Gorgeous George and television were made for each other. Wrestling was one of the few spectator sports the early television cameras could capture -- the limited area didn't require multiple cameras or complicated preparation; just point the camera at the ring -- and Gorgeous George was a dream come true for the new medium. With his theatrics and high drama, fans watched in record numbers. Even people who would never consider attending a wrestling match tuned in to watch the spectacle of this perfumed fop in the sweaty, violent world of wrestling.

Gorgeous George's first television appearance was on Nov. 11, 1947 -- an event recently named by Entertainment Weekly magazine as among the top 100 television moments of the 20th century.

People bought television sets just so they could follow his antics. According to the Wrestling Hall of Fame, "Gorgeous George single-handedly established the unproven new technology of television as a viable, entertaining medium that could reach millions of homes across the country. Pro wrestling was TV's first real hit with the public, the first programs that drew any real numbers for the new technology and Gorgeous George was responsible for all the commotion."

George reached his professional peak when he won the American Wrestling Association World Title in 1950. By the mid-1950s, in addition to his title belt, Gorgeous George also owned 127 flamboyant dressing gowns, and was making more than $150,000 per year -- the highest-paid athlete in the world. He wrestled for another 10 years before being defeated in one of his last matches by a young Bruno Sammartino.

After his wrestling career ended, Gorgeous George retired to the role of "gentleman farmer" on his 195-acre turkey ranch in Beaumont, Calif. He also owned a cocktail lounge in Van Nuys, Calif., which he called "Gorgeous George's Ringside Restaurant."

Gorgeous George suffered a heart attack on Dec. 24, 1963, and died two days later at the age of 48. The free-spending Gorgeous George lost most of his money he had earned in the ring, but still had enough to be buried in an orchid-colored coffin at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, Calif. -– flamboyant to the very end.

In March 2010, Gorgeous George was inducted into the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame. "Gorgeous George was a pop-culture innovator who took risks pushing the social envelope and did things that no other performer had ever dared to do," said WWE CEO and Chairman Vince McMahon. "He was a cultural tour-de-force who set the standard that many in the world of sports and entertainment still emulate today." WWE Studios has optioned the rights to Gorgeous George's life story for a major motion picture, which is scheduled to begin production in early 2011.

To see a typical Gorgeous George wrestling match, click here.

To see a video tribute to Gorgeous George before his induction to the WWE Hall of Fame, click here.

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