Hitting the Ropes: Saturday Night Fever
By David Buckler
“I’m going!” I yelled into the telephone! My buddy Jamie had an extra ticket for that night’s WWF card at the Hershey Park Arena. It was a taping of Saturday Night’s Main Event and I was so disappointed I was going to miss it. I had been to 2 previous tapings of SNME and I knew how important the show was…so when Jamie called with an extra ticket, I didn’t care what it cost. I didn’t care what my parents said. I didn’t care if I had homework to do. I was going to Hershey that night come hell or high water, because on this night in March 1989, Miss Elizabeth was going to make the “decision of a lifetime” and I had to be there!
Whoa! Miss Elizabeth was going to be a neutral corner?!? That blew my mind. After the show I couldn’t wait to see WrestleMania V. Would world champion Randy Savage be able to conquer Hulkamania once and for all? Would Hulk Hogan regain the title? I was so happy to be at that show, which was no surprise because when the WWF was taping Saturday Night’s Main Event in the 1980’s it was a big, big deal.
I learned that first hand several years before.
To this day I still remember the traffic heading to the Hershey Park Arena in October of 1985. There were big delays driving to the arena that night. All the radio stations were reporting traffic jams in and around Hershey, PA. I had been to Hershey before to ride the Super Duper Looper, but the traffic was never this bad. So what could cause this kind of excitement? WWF wrestling and Hulkamania. In 1985 WWF wrestling was becoming a true nation-wide phenomenon. The WWF was expanding and taking over cable television, thanks in large part to their world champion Hulk Hogan.
I had seen WWF wrestling on television before, but this would be my first time seeing it live. And I’ll admit, I am an overly dramatic person, but from the opening match to the final bell, that evening changed my life. I’ll never forget Special Delivery Jones walking into the ring for the opening match. I couldn’t believe the excitement…the lights…the music…the energy in the crowd. I was intoxicated by it all. And since Hulk Hogan was headlining the show, the arena was sold out. The Hershey Park Arena was loud and full of life!
As the late, great Gorilla Monsoon would have said, “people were literally hanging from the rafters!”
The next few hours were fantastic. Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant battled King Kong Bundy and Big John Studd in the main event. It wasn’t a great match but the crowd was on the edge of their seats the entire time. Earlier in the night I fell in love with Miss Elizabeth as she accompanied Randy Savage to ringside for his match against Intercontinental champion Tito Santana. And when Terry Funk used Jimmy Hart’s megaphone to beat the Junkyard Dog I was so angry I couldn’t believe it. Thankfully JYD got his revenge by pulling down Jimmy Hart’s pants and branding him in from of 20,000 people! What a way to celebrate Halloween!
This edition of Saturday Night’s Main Event hooked me, and for the next 6-7 years WWF wrestling was a huge part of my life. I rode the wave as the WWF expanded across the country and became the world’s top promotion. I watched every television show. I bought all of the merchandise. I played with the wrestling action figures WAY longer than I should have (those LJNs are still the best figures ever!) I lived and breathed WWF wrestling. My friend Jamie and I dressed as wrestlers for Halloween. He and I even wrestled in the talent show against our friend, a huge Hulk Hogan mark (we put him over…of course!)
In a related note, I didn’t have a girlfriend at this time. But I didn’t care! I had Miss Elizabeth and that was enough! Vince McMahon, WrestleMania, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, the Hart Foundation, Bobby Heenan, Ultimate Warrior, all of it was great. But Saturday Night’s Main Event was the best of all.
It was so cool to invite my buddy over on a Saturday night, then stay up late, order pizza, hang out, and wait for that night’s show to begin. Don Pardo would come on after the late local news and say, “Saturday Night Live will return again next week…now stay tuned for this pre-recorded entertainment special….Saturday Night’s Main Event”!
Then the preshow interviews would begin.
I remember them all. I can quote many of them word for word. Then the theme song “Obsession” by Animotion got me all pumped up. To this day I can tell you how every match ended. Don’t forget, back then we never saw the big matches except for rare pay-per-views and house shows. Saturday Night’s Main Event was a key storytelling device.
Specific images are burned into my memory: King Kong Bundy breaking Hulk Hogan’s ribs. Bob Orton boxing Mr. T. The Funks barbequing the Haiti Kid. Paul Orndorff fighting Hulk Hogan in a steel cage. Jake Roberts almost killing Ricky Steamboat. Uncle Elmer getting married. Hercules winning the battle royal. Randy Savage beating the Hit Man on one foot. The ridiculous Super Ninja getting squashed by the Ultimate Warrior! I could go on and on.
And honestly, I haven’t gotten over the Iron Sheik and Nikolai Volkoff getting screwed by the British Bulldogs in May 1986. I loved Sheik and Volkoff, and I still believe they won the tag team titles that night in Providence, RI. These highlights make me so angry. This third and final fall is a “miscarriage of justice!”
Through all of these memories Hershey, Pennsylvania was in the middle of everything. I had the privilege of going to 3 tapings at the old arena in the 1980’s. All three were special to me. The first one was the Halloween special in 1985, the third one featured Miss Elizabeth’s big Wrestlemania V decision.
But really it is the one from October 1987, the night that the “Madness Meets the Mania”, that stands above all else. To this day that match between WWE Intercontinental champion the Honky Tonk Man and challenger Randy Savage remains my favorite match of all time (slightly above the night my beloved Glamazon won the women’s title in Baltimore at Extreme Rules 2010…hey, I love Beth Phoenix, leave me alone.)
The set-up was perfect. The Honky Tonk Man was claiming to be the greatest Intercontinental champion of all time. Former champion, the Macho Man took offense to that and started chasing HTM for the gold. Honky’s obsession with Macho Man’s manager, the lovely Miss Elizabeth, only added to the drama.
The actual match was taped on Thursday night September 23, 1987 (remember SNME was not a live show) and it had been anticipated since WWF’s last appearance in Hershey. I remember going to the house show the previous month when they handed out notices promoting this card, which featured Hulk Hogan defending his title against Killer Kahn (which eventually got switched to Kamala, and then to Sika…ugh, who was next? Conquistador #2?) and Randy Savage challenging the Honky Tonk Man. Everybody was excited to see Macho Man tear apart that “dime story Elvis impersonator.”
When the match actually took place it didn’t disappoint on any level.
Even the prematch promos were outstanding. If you can name 2 guys who ever gave better interviews than Randy Savage I’d like to hear who they are. And back then the Honky Tonk Man held his own, helped to a degree by his manager the “Colonel” Jimmy Hart, who was always a great copilot. For this match these two delivered some of their best work, and I can still recite all of the prematch interviews from memory. I was fired up to see why everybody was “super serious in the Danger Zone”!
Once the bell rang they were off and running. Randy Savage always showed incredible intensity, and Honky Tonk’s “cool, cocky, bad” attitude was the perfect compliment. The match featured drama and layered storytelling. There was nothing too goofy: no leprechauns, crazy stipulations, guest referees, or fiery infernos. Just exciting wrestling action.
I really thought the Macho Man was going to recapture the title. In fact I was sure of it. Scratch that. I REALLY wanted Savage to regain the title, but secretly I had no clue what was going to happen. I was really pissed off when the Hart Foundation interfered, but the resulting few minutes were just beautiful. Savage gets blasted with the guitar. The Harts and Honky continue to beat him down until Hulk Hogan makes the save, then Hogan and Savage shake hands, leading to my favorite Vince McMahon line of all time, “We could be seeing the meeting of the Madness and the Mania…YES! There it is!” CHILLS!!
This match was the beginning of the Mega-Powers, one of the strongest storylines in WWF history and the WWF’s focus for the next two years.
That’s perfect. Oh, and I left out the most memorable part – the Honky Tonk Man pushing Miss Elizabeth to the canvas. To say that the Hershey Park Arena was ready to riot is a huge understatement. There was blood in the crowd. It was insane. It was primal. How dare the Honky Tonk Man touch Miss Elizabeth, much less THROW her to the ground!? My friend Harry was yelling that he was going to go down there and kick Honky’s ass. He was 14.
How could a valet create this pathos, this unbelievable sense of collective emotion, from the entire crowd? Hulk Hogan, that’s understandable; he was the world champion and the face of the company. But make no mistake; Miss Elizabeth was beloved in a way I’m not sure we’ve seen since.
As Randy’s valet she always looked spectacular (monster understatement), and occasionally she became the focus of Randy’s storylines, like George Steele’s obsession. But as a manager she never got physically involved in matches and she never actually wrestled. Most of the legendary Divas are treasured for their work in the ring (Trish, Lita, Mickie, Sherri, Moolah, etc,), but not Liz. Even though she was shy and quiet, somehow she became a beaming light to all WWF fans that followed wrestling during that time. I certainly feel she was every bit as important to Randy’s success as his flying elbow drop and shiny robes. After this match in Hershey she became more popular than ever and the heart of the Mega-Powers. Remarkable.
Today’s wrestling fan might not fully appreciate what Miss Elizabeth meant to the WWF in the 1980’s. Her eventual divorce from Randy, her ill-fated run in WCW, and her untimely death have hurt her legacy to some degree. But if you lived through it you will never forget how excited you were when Macho Man’s music started to play because you knew she was accompanying Randy to the ring.
In the late 90’s I met Miss Elizabeth after a Nitro taping in Baltimore and she was very gracious, signing an autograph that to this day I have framed with one of her WWF workout posters. At first I was nervous and intimidated to chat with her, but she was friendly, demure, and pleasant. In a word…lovely.
I was in the Memphis airport when I read about Miss Elizabeth’s death in 2003. It was listed in the small print in the USA Today sports section. It was a total shock. I knew Miss Elizabeth was struggling, but I never saw this coming. I actually broke down and cried in the terminal as I read the story. As much as I was heart-broken over her death, it also was a reminder to me of all of the great times I had as a youth watching wrestling. Of all the tickets I bought to go to the Hershey Park Arena.
Saturday Night’s Main Event extended into the 1990’s, and the WWE even ran a few lukewarm shows in 2006, but they could never recreate the magic of the 1980’s.
That night in Hershey, in 1987, when I got to my seat I realized it would be hard to scoot out to take photos as the wrestlers walked to the ring. I asked the guy at the end of the row if I could switch seats with him, just so I wouldn’t bother him throughout the night.
He looked at me and barked, “I paid for my seat!” He wasn’t going anywhere.
At first I was disappointed but then I sat back and realized, neither was I. Saturday Night’s Main Event from the Hershey Park Arena, it was my greatest pleasure.
Later on, when the “Madness met the Mania”, Vince McMahon yelled into the microphone, “We just witnessed a magic moment in the annuals of sports history!” We sure did, and more than anything it was because of Miss Elizabeth. RIP Elizabeth Hulette. You, like Saturday Night’s Main Event, are gone but certainly not forgotten.
— David B. (@dlb19338), OWW editor-in-chief
PS – I had no idea as a kid that steroids and drugs were everywhere in the WWF locker rooms (hell, I didn’t even know Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth were married). When the WWF was sued in the early 1990’s it was revealed that Hershey, PA was a central location for the drug distribution. That really shook me up. I never suspected that behind the scenes there was such a dark side to this business. I guess today sadly we all know the truth, and I know why the WWF came to town every month.