Somewhere in the Fraser Valley is an aging German immigrant who would be surprised to learn that for many gay men over the age of 50, he was a cherished beefcake image of their wanton youth.
His name is Erich Froelich, and for 20 years he was the famous barefoot wrestler and star of Vancouver’s All Star Wrestling promotion.
In the days before the internet and other electronic or print sources of erotica, a young gay boy in search of beefcake had to make do with very little: the men’s underwear section of the Sears catalogue, the only place in the world where the words Standfield and arousing can be juxtaposed; comic books, with their muscular heroes in their cool nipple-tight outfits; art books and all that Greco-roman statuary; beach movies with Frankie Avalon if you were lucky, Hercules movies with Steve Reeves if you were even luckier and willing to overlook the sheer stupidity of the dubbed dialogue; and television wrestling.
In the early 1960s wrestling was in a lull, its early prime as a television staple behind it, and the glory years of Hulk Hogan still to come.
There was not a lot of money in it; most wrestlers had day jobs as butchers, labourers, longshoremen, bouncers, etc and the television shows had a decidedly homespun quality to them. All Star Wrestling, produced out of Burnaby’s CHAN-TV, was no exception.
A small, dingy-looking studio, a wrinkled ring apron, and a tiny audience that made you understand the truth behind the old joke “What has four teeth and an IQ of 65? The first four rows of a wrestling audience.”
Despite this, the show went into syndication and All Star Wrestling with its avuncular announcer Ron Morier (“And hello to all our shut-ins!”) had a national audience and Froelich a gay following.
Froelich stood out from the rest of the All Star Wrestling stable of wrestlers for four very good reasons: he was handsome and agile, wrestled barefoot, and had a stunning gymnast’s body.
The fact that he nearly always lost hardly mattered since he looked extraordinarily good flat on his back in defeat.
As wrestling reporter Greg Oliver points out, he was also unique for being a real German at a time when only ersatz Germans — all variations of Kaiser Wilhelm goose stepping across the ring — were the rule in the squared circle.
Oliver gives the following facts about our hero: born in Germany in 1937, he left there in 1956 to avoid military service, arriving in December of that same year in Vancouver. Because of his background in gymnastics, he sought out gymnastics clubs around Vancouver, including the UBC squad. During a gymnastics display at English Bay, local promoter Rod Fenton of Big Time Wrestling spotted him.
After some initial hesitation, Froelich accepted Fenton’s invitation to work out with local pro wrestlers because “I couldn’t eat my gymnastic medals.”
When he was ready for his first match in 1961, Oliver recounts, Fenton balked at him using his first name, Udo. Froelich remembers Fenton saying: “You don’t mind if we change your name? That’s Udo, and you don’t know anything about judo. It’s wrestling, right?”
When Fenton’s Big Time Wrestling gave way to Gene Kiniski’s All Star Wrestling circa 1962, Froelich stayed on until accumulated injuries — leading to open heart and open lung surgery, hip and knee replacements — forced him to retire in 1981.
Over two decades later, Froelich remains a gay icon (well, a specialized gay icon) as the following comment posted on YouTube makes clear: “Froelich has incredible legs, especially his thighs. I’d be in sheer heaven if he clamped ’em around my head and began some punishment. WOOF!”
Mr WOOF! might be interested to learn of one quirk of Froelich’s, as remembered by Arthur J Fisher on SLAM wrestling: “I had always loved watching the Barefoot Wrestler when I was a teen in Vancouver in the ’60s. In 1982, I got a job as a bouncer at Smugglers in south Surrey, BC, on 176th St just north of the US border. Lo and behold, who should my boss be but Erich Froelich. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
“The one strange thing I remember was that he would always wash his hands before going to the urinal instead of after. He said he never knew where his hands had been, but did know where his little buddy had been and didn’t want to dirty him up.”
Frankie Avalon never stood a chance.