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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, Aug. 23, 2014

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In Sports

Ernst Scharpegge found a firm footing in Milwaukee's German population.

German-born wrestler Ernst Scharpegge found fame on Milwaukee mats


Constance and Ernst Scharpegge were German-born siblings who emigrated to the United States and won wide acclaim in the performance arts. She was an opera singer in New York City who sang frequently on the radio and achieved sufficient prominence in her field for The New York Times to report her death in 1932.

Her brother settled in Milwaukee because of its dense German population, and when his virtuosity moved audiences to the heights of rapture, instead of "Bravo!" they screamed, "Twist der kopf out, Ernst!"

Keeping his head attached to his neck might have seemed like a dicey proposition for someone caught in Scharpegge's dreaded "facelock," but exhaustive research has failed to turn up a single opponent who was actually decapitated when the 6-foot-3-inch, 240-pound German ruled the professional wrestling scene upon his arrival here in 1924.

Professional wrestling may be opera bouffe, but it left a Bigfoot-sized imprint on the state and local sports landscape in the 20th century. Two wrestlers, Marshfield's Fred Beall and Nekoosa-born Ed "Strangler" Lewis, are members of the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.

Ernie Scharpegge wasn't in their league, but after a heart attack dropkicked him into eternity in 1940 the Milwaukee Sentinel credited Scharpegge for the "lightning-like rise of big time wrestling at the Auditorium 10 years ago" and noted that "a sellout crowd was almost always assured when 'der Ernst' was billed for the top attraction."

Such a testosterone-drenched destiny seemed beyond the pale when Scharpegge spent three childhood years abed with infantile paralysis. Upon recovering, he resolved "to be a strong man, no matter what rotten start I had." He came to America at 14 and worked as a logger and dockhand, and ended up in Hollywood flexing his muscles in silent pictures. Impressed with his size and strength, some wrestlers he met trained him in their own theatrical specialty, and the story goes that Scharpegge earned his first mat fame as "Bill Lundeen, the Big Swede."

He reverted to his true identity after settling in the large Teutonic community here, where in addition to wrestling Scharpegge operated a succession of popular watering holes (ostensibly serving only soda until Prohibition was booted in 1932) on West Cherry Street and West North and North Teutonia Avenues.

In his first-rate 1995 autobiography called "Hooker: An Authentic Wrestler's Adventures Inside the Bizarre World of Professional Wrestling," Lou Thesz (one of the best legitimate grapplers ever) wrote that "The reality, or substance, of professional wrestling is the ability to perpetuate a fantasy."

By that standard Scharpegge was an artist supreme, as many of his matches ended when fans got so carried away by the fantasy that the cops had to intervene to prevent real mayhem.

"Riot Ends Mat Bout in West" was the headline on a story in the Syracuse, N.Y. Journal on Jan. 3, 1930 reporting Scharpegge's match at Milwaukee's Gayety Theater with John Friberg. "With Scharpegge holding the edge his opponent was seen to hit him on the jaw," said the newspaper account. "Scharpegge retaliated, but just then a big chair hurtled into the arena and the riot began. Several squads of police were needed to restore order ..."

It was another busy night for the riot squad a year later when the "Pride of Cherry Street" and heavyweight boxing contender-turned-wrestler George Godfrey squared off at Borchert Field in what the Wisconsin News called "one of the worst, and yet one of the most exciting, grin and grunt affairs in Milwaukee." Twice the blue-suited peacekeepers had to invade the ring when the crowd started to overheat.

When Big Ernst lost on a foul to "Billy Goat Gus" Sonnenberg (whose specialty was ramming opponents in the gut with his head) at the Auditorium on March 26, 1931, the referee's verdict incited what the Journal's Oliver Kuechle called "a near riot" by Scharpegge loyalists who afterward "celebrated far into the night with their zithers and harmonicas in Scharpegge's stronghold at 16th and Cherry Streets."

A rematch a month later at the Auditorium brought out the biggest crowd for a wrestling match in Wisconsin up to then. The 8,000 fans, reported the Journal, included "scores of industrial and society leaders." They were orderly but disappointed when, according to sports editor Manning Vaughan, Sonnenberg "grabbed the 230 pounds of Teuton brawn, weinerschnitzel and home brew, tossed it over his head and sat on der Ernst's handsome face until the Saxon's shoulders touched the mat."

Scharpegge's most famous match wasn't on the mat. On the morning of April 21, 1932, he just happened to be passing the popular newsstand on North 3rd Street and West Wisconsin Avenue as an out-of-town wrestler called Frank "Man Mountain" Leavitt just happened to be looking through periodicals with his wife. "There goes the big Dutchman," pointed out Mrs. Leavitt, to which her husband responded by blowing a raspberry in Scharpegge's direction.

"Did you mean that for me?" inquired Scharpegge in such a manner, Leavitt later testified, that indicated "he was planning to put his facelock on me." Leavitt punched Scharpegge, Scharpegge punched him back, and within seconds an excited crowd of 500 spectators was cheering them on. A mere 160-pound traffic cop named Walter Smith broke it up and arrested the brawling mastodons for disorderly conduct.

"Were they obstructing traffic?" asked Assistant City Attorney John Megna of Officer Smith at the trial two days later. "How could they help it?" answered Judge George Page, who fined Leavitt $5 for throwing the first punch.

A month later, Scharpegge and Leavitt met in the Auditorium ring, and when the Milwaukeean won the match in 12 minutes, wrote Jim Delany in the Wisconsin News, "he was given an ovation that few wrestlers have received in the Kilbourn Avenue hall. The cheers for wrestlers usually are sprinkled with old-fashioned raspberries, but last night's crowd showed it was with Ernie until the last pretzel was bent."

Scharpegge retired from wrestling in the mid-1930s, but then promoted matches at Bahn Frei Hall on West 12th Street and West North Avenue. Just 42, he died on March 11, 1940 upstairs from his tavern at 2363 N. Teutonia Ave. Gus Sonnenberg came for the funeral, and Scharpegge was buried at Pinelawn Cemetery on Highway 100 and West Capitol Drive.

It'd be a stretch to call Scharpegge's absence from the state Athletic Hall of Fame a glaring injustice, but the fact that no headstone marks his grave qualifies as one. Surely there are wrestling fans out there who'd kick in to rectify that. Nothing gaudy, but big enough to include the war cry that galvanized the city three-quarters of a century ago: Twist der kopf out, Ernst!

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