One of the great villains of professional wrestling from the mid-'60s through his 1994 retirement, Minnesota's
Baron Von Raschke terrorized opponents with his German-accented roar, scowling swagger, and signature move, a punishingly painful head-grab known as "The Claw." Outside the ring, though, he's Jim Raschke, a quick-witted, gentlemanly, and surprisingly humble schoolteacher and father. The two sides of Raschke both get their due in a new stage play, The Baron. The comedy, playing at St. Paul's History Theatre through May 20 and narrated by the Baron himself, covers the Baron's career from neophyte to king of the ring. The A.V. Club's Twin Cities editor sat down to chat with the Baron, wife Bonnie Raschke, and playwright Cory McLeod.
The A.V. Club: You started wrestling under your real name, and it wasn't until later that the Baron character was created. How did that happen?
Baron Von Raschke: Vern Gagne [promoter and owner of the American Wrestling Association] started me in professional wrestling. I was a little man on the totem pole in the wrestling world and one of my jobs was to set up the ring for TV at the Calhoun Beach Club [in Minneapolis]. Every Saturday, I'd it set up, and part of my learning was to watch what was happening from a control booth. Anyway, this one guy I'd never seen or met before poked his head in the room, looked at me and says, "You'd make a good German."
AVC: And that was Mad Dog Vachon, who wound up being your partner?
BVR: Yeah. We got to be pretty good friends, and then he says, "Why don't you come up to Canada and be my partner?" Which was a big honor to me because I didn't know very much. My hair was receding anyway, and I'd met Bonnie and we were married by then, so I shaved my head and packed up our goods. Up to that time I was very shy and reticent about everything–meeting people, for sure–and I was, "backwards" is probably the word. But when I became The Baron, which happened in Canada, I started to have interviews in my German accent to a mostly French-speaking crowd, who knew I talked funny but they didn't know [in what way].
AVC: So it was a good way to practice the character and get it right?
BVR: Perfect it, actually. It got to be good enough where I was almost immediately comfortable speaking with this accent, like this mad Teutonic terror type person. I got very comfortable with the character. Maybe that's the real me, I don't know.
AVC: You're famous for ending interviews with the catchphrase "And that is all the people need to know!" The story is that you invented that by accident.
BVR: I was being interviewed here in the Twin Cities [for a TV broadcast]. [AWA announcer] Marty O'Neil was interviewing me–he's such a great interviewer, always had the right thing to say, and he's a smaller guy so all the wrestlers would look down on him. It was good contrast, since part of what we were selling is the size. Anyway, the promos are usually two minutes long, so I'm out there expecting to do a two minute interview. I said what I'd had to say and I thought I'd stretched it out long enough, but as I was starting to walk away, Marty shouted, "wait a minute, Baron," and he asked me one more question. And he just caught me off guard. I didn't know what to say, I didn't have an answer, so I looked at him and I looked at the camera and I said, "That is all the people need to know!" And I got furious and I marched off. Marty got this big kick out of it. He just laughed and laughed. He says, "you've got to have that guy do it again," so every time I did an interview I had to say it. I didn't know if I wanted to, but after about two weeks everyone expected me to say it so I had to say it.
AVC: Most of the interviews were improvised, right?
BVR: Oh, yeah, the way we did it. That's why this [play] is so different. I haven't done this much memorization since the Small Catechism.
AVC: The special hold everyone associates with you, of course, is The Claw.
BVR: It's more of a show hold than a real hold, but it can be made to work in the right circumstance. Like a lot of the fancier holds it takes a lot to get into, but it worked great for me.
AVC: Why is The Claw so agonizing?
BVR: Heh. Well, it's a nerve hold. It causes pain to run up your medulla oblongata. It's a very painful hold when done properly, and you have to be really careful with this one. It's a nerve hold, that's all I can say. I quit! You want to know everything! All my secrets!
AVC: What were the effects of being known as a villain in the ring on the way people treated you in real life?
BVR: Sometimes it could be a little strange, but by and large, I'd put on a hat and try to get by fairly unnoticed. For a while, I tried to wear a wig to disguise myself. I was better off just going with my glasses. [Laughs.] Because everybody recognized me when I had the wig on.
Bonnie Raschke: That shows how good that wig was. [Laughs.]
BVR: Away from the arena I always behaved myself, and most people did, too.
AVC: Professional athletics can be physically punishing; did professional wrestling cause any lingering physical problems?
BVR: I have a lot of joint problems. I've had my two shoulders recarved–what do they call it when a pitcher has a bad arm?–I've had that operation twice, once on each arm. I've had three knee surgeries, and then I had my knees replaced five years ago. So, I've had both knees replaced, two carpal tunnels, and a bone taken out of my wrist, which was crushed somehow, because of wrestling. I don't know how. Actually, I do know how, but I kept doing what I was doing.
AVC: It wasn't The Claw, was it?
BVR: Actually, it was The Claw.
AVC: Cory, what are some of the challenges of writing a play about a person who is also collaborating on the show with you?
Cory McLeod: You want to be funny and entertaining, yet truthful towards them. I think any sort of celebrity has been burned in some way. There's always been that reporter or something that wants to get the inside scoop, and kind of subverts them.
BVR: What I think is really beneficial is that Cory got into the research. I told him stories. He also got them from other people. The same incidents, but a different perspective.
CM: They were very intense conversations. And great conversations. Wrestlers are storytellers. They're very interesting, eccentric, multifaceted people. I'm interested in that contrast, the dynamic between their in-ring personality and their everyday personality. Someone like Mad Dog Vachon, he's always Mad Dog, he stopped being Maurice Vachon a long time ago. Jim is such a fascinating story because the juxtaposition between his everyday personality and The Baron is huge. I followed Jim around in Delano [Minnesota] one day at the fair, and sometimes people will go up to him and start talking very trashy, because they think that's how wrestlers are. And you can see that brief moment: "No, that's not me! You're talking to the wrong guy!" [Raschke's son] Karl warned me, the first time we met: "Listen, don't swear, okay? My parents really don't like that."
AVC: Doing this play lets you show a different side of yourself. Was there anything that you wanted people to find out about you?
BVR: Yeah, that I can't act!
CM: [Laughs.] It takes actors a long time to learn to communicate with an audience. The timing, and when to give a certain look, when to do this or that–Jim has the instincts of British actors [I've known] with, like, 200 years of stage experience. When he speaks about performance, he uses the same kind of language to describe how an audience is reacting, how he's connecting to them. It's kind of scary, actually.
BVR: Now I'm Benny Hill, is that it?
CM: Yeah! And that's the kind of instincts you only get from working really, really big crowds. Very few actors get to work in front of thousands of people.
AVC: Playing the villain has got to be a lot of fun.
BVR: For me it always was. I enjoyed being not myself, and kind of nuts. I don't really know what The Baron is. What is The Baron?
BR: Just a lovable villain.
BVR: Once you get to know him.