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"Minnesota Wrecking Crew" Original Returns To Charlotte!
Mention the name Anderson to a wrestling fan, and chances are good that the conversation will quickly turn to one of the greatest tag teams in the sport's history. Few names have such a rich heritage in the wrestling business. The Anderson Brothers represent tag-team royalty, and set the bar high for duos that would follow and try to emulate their style and success.
The Andersons were rugged and brutal, but their strategy was simple. They would methodically wear down their opponents - often working over one particular part of the body - before finally pinning or making their victims submit. And when their foes would attempt to make a tag, the Andersons would employ their patented blocking technique to prevent it.
Most fans will remember the latter and more recognized Anderson Brothers version of Gene and Ole. The original "Minnesota Wrecking Crew," however, was composed of Gene and Lars Anderson, with Ole eventually being introduced as a third member. Years later Arn Anderson, a fictitious nephew/cousin, would be brought in as a member of the extended family and would team with Ole as part of the legendary Four Horsemen.
Lars Anderson, now 74, will be a featured guest at the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest to be held August 1-4 in Charlotte. Anderson, whose real name is Larry Heiniemi, has many fond memories of working in the Carolinas-Virginia territory during the '60s. It was a special time, he says, and he's hoping to catch up with some of his old colleagues at the August event.
"I'm looking forward to it because that's where we got our first big break. I'm also looking forward to talking to the fans. It always took two to make it all work out."
The event will mark Anderson's second Fanfest and his first time back in Charlotte in more than 30 years. He attended the Atlanta Fanfest in 2011 and got to reunite with Ole for the first time since 1982 in that same city. "Ole's had some major issues, but his mind is still there. It was good to see him ... he's pretty mellowed out," says Lars.
He's also excited about a Mid-Atlantic wrestling documentary that will be filmed during the event in August. "It should be very interesting. I'm sure going to contribute what I can to it."
Lars is humbled that the Anderson name is still revered in pro wrestling circles. "I feel very good about that. I'm known either way ... as Larry Heiniemi or Lars Anderson. I run into people in various places, and they know me from somewhere."
His career, he notes, has come full circle. "It's just amazing how time flies."
The Anderson dynasty took root in 1965 when AWA owner Verne Gagne put together Gene Anderson, a state high school champion who had wrestled at North Dakota State for a year before turning pro in 1961, with Heiniemi, an ex-college standout at St. Cloud State and an AAU champion.
Within months of teaming, Gene and Lars Anderson would be headlining shows in the Carolinas and Virginia. At that time the area boasted some of the top tag teams in the country. "It really was the hotbed of tag-team wrestling," says Anderson. "If you didn't have a tag partner, you didn't get past the second or third match on the card. It set the tone for my career as a tag-team wrestler. The style that we created there nobody ever really duplicated."
Anderson is far removed from the days when he and Gene wreaked havoc throughout the Mid-Atlantic area. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota native now makes his home in Nevada City, California, about 50 miles from Lake Tahoe, Nevada.
"I love it here," Anderson says from his office where he is running and financing his youngest son's company. "I own the thing 100 percent, but it's his company," he laughs. "He's on vacation diving in the Philippines right now."
Anderson has vast experience in the business world. He's been a successful entrepreneur for a number of years, dating back to his time in the wrestling profession. It was, indeed, nearly 47 years ago when "The Minnesota Wrecking Crew" was born.
Anderson, an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team in 1964 in Greco-Roman wrestling, graduated from St. Cloud State University in 1965 following a stellar collegiate career. It was at St. Cloud State where Anderson, known at that time under his real name, Larry Heiniemi, met up with another future "Anderson brother." Alan Rogowski had attended the University of Colorado, but landed at St. Cloud State.
"Ole was more into the fraternity thing, and I was a jock," says Anderson, who also played defensive end and defensive tackle on the football team. "The way it worked out was that he would do these interviews imitating The Crusher. He didn't play football, but he did try out for the wrestling team. One of the highlights was a wrestling match between the fraternity and the jocks. It was a pretty intense setting. I wrestled him, and that's how it all started." The two struck up a friendship that wouldn't end in college.
With Gagne constantly scouting quality amateur talent, it wasn't long before Heiniemi found himself in the pro ranks. Helping Gagne and Eddie Sharkey with the training was Gene Anderson. "Verne sent him to work out with me. That's how the Anderson Brothers started."
While the pro style was different from what Heiniemi had been accustomed to in the amateur ranks, the transition wasn't difficult. "It was Gagne's influence there. Although it's a totally different game, it (amateur experience) gave me a different sense of things."
Adapting to the fans, he says, was an entirely different matter. "I remember shortly after I first started, I worked as a babyface against Gene in Peoria, Illinois, and we were working a professional match. Fans were saying stuff like, 'Why don't you go back to college and learn to wrestle?' I said what is this?" Anderson laughs at the fact that fans were unaware of his amateur background.
"This was show biz, but you had a base. Because of it I had a more confident attitude."
In a matter of months Gagne sent the pair packing to Tennessee to work for promoter Nick Gulas. It was there that they introduced the Anderson Brothers moniker. Their first match as a team was in a losing effort to Karl and Eric Von Brauner on March 17, 1966, in Chattanooga. "It didn't work out in Tennessee. It was horrible," says Lars.
The disgruntled rookie made a call to Gagne, who in turn contacted Charlotte-based promoter Jim Crockett Sr., and the Andersons soon found themselves in a new territory. It was in the Carolinas where Gene, who had worked for Crockett Promotions several years earlier, and Lars would hone their tag-team skills.
"The promoter there, old man Crockett, said he had been pushing The Missouri Mauler and The Great Malenko. He indicated that it would have been much better to have pushed us, since they weren't drawing. We were there for about six months and then went to Atlanta."
The Andersons made a big splash in Georgia, winning that territory's version of the NWA world tag-team title, and selling out venues for their bouts with Enrique and Ramon Torres. "We were on top in Atlanta, and we stayed there for about six or seven months before returning to Charlotte. The rest is history."
Gene and Lars, now established heels with a proven track record, hit their stride when they returned to the Carolinas in May 1967. The tag-team competition was intense, and the Andersons wasted little time in making their presence known.
There were top babyface duos such as George Becker and Johnny Weaver, Nelson Royal and Paul Jones, Haystacks Calhoun and The Amazing Zuma, Abe Jacobs and Luther Lindsay, along with fellow heel combos such as The Mauler and Hiro Matsuda, Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson, Aldo Bogni and Bronko Lubich, and Billy and Jimmy Hines.
One of the Andersons' favorite teams to work with was the popular brother combo of George and Sandy Scott. "We sold out with the Scott Brothers in Greenville 28 weeks in a row," boasts Lars. "They were enjoyable and easy to work with. We had the match down pretty much. We had a particular style that we created, and it was difficult for other teams to copy that style because it was a recognizable style that only we did."
Some red-hot angles on Raleigh TV had made the well-oiled twosome the most hated wrestlers in the area. A blazing feud with Nelson Royal and Tex McKenzie was set up when Lars delivered his feared knee drop from the top rope onto the throat of McKenzie. The big Texan was hospitalized, and when he finally returned, the two teams sold out arenas throughout the territory.
With Gene's stiff style in the ring and Lars' strong mic ability, the duo found just the right chemistry. Along with Gene, says Lars, the two would create most of the Anderson Brothers' famed repertoire. "Gene and I got along very well. But he didn't have any camera presence. He couldn't project and had really never made any money in the industry. He had the work down more, but he couldn't handle the microphone. I could handle the microphone back in those days. It just all came together."
Lars has many fond memories of working in the Mid-Atlantic area. He recalls one particular match teaming with Gene against Becker and Weaver at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium.
"As a young bump-taker, I'd try to take higher bumps than the other guy. I remember taking this backdrop in Spartanburg. The ring was a flat, old, hard boxing ring. I took a hellacious bump trying to outdo Gene, and when I came down, blood started coming out of my mouth." Gene, regarded as one of the toughest grapplers in the game, was unfazed. "I told Gene I had to go to the hospital. He said, 'Ah, kid, you'll be OK.' I did go the next day and have an X-ray, and I had ruptured something. I thought I was dying actually."
As hated heels, the team also experienced some narrow escapes, including a post-match incident in Roanoke, Va., where fans tossed chairs at the duo as they tried to make it back to the dressing room. "We got chased out of Roanoke with chairs flying," laughs Anderson.
The next chapter of the Anderson Brothers was unveiled in 1968 when they brought in a third, younger "brother." Lars' college acquaintance Alan Rogowski had enlisted in the Army prior to breaking into the pro ranks in 1967. "I had seen him wrestle in Minneapolis, and later I suggested him for the third brother gimmick. That's when we brought him in," says Lars.
Not much thought, however, had been given to what the new Anderson brother's first name would be. "He got off the plane in Charlotte and asked me what's his name," says Lars. "I said, 'Ole.' He said, 'Ole!' I said yeah, you're Ole Anderson."
"I thought it was a rib, so I just laughed it off," Ole would later say. "I didn't know they really meant it until I got into the ring and the ring announcer introduced me."
Lars, who is of Finnish descent and had cousins named Anderson, says the name Ole sounded like a Swedish name, so it made sense.
Bringing in Ole didn't change the dynamic of the team, says Lars, it only strengthened the unit. Sporting their trademark maroon and gold striped boots (the school color of the University of Minnesota), they all looked the part of brothers despite the fact that none were actually related. And while the hard-nosed Gene looked years older than Lars, only a year separated the two.
"Gene didn't wear well," says Lars. "He looked older in his mid-20s. He must not have slept well at night. I don't know what it was. He always had that nervous tick. But he was an excellent teacher and was very patient."
Gene was the mechanic of the team, taking most of the bumps, says Ole. Damage to his neck caused him to constantly twitch. "He was never in a frame of mind to get the doggone thing looked at by doctors, so he suffered with it all of his life," he says. "He had a lot of problems. Like all of us, he had taken a lot of bumps and had done a lot of damage to himself as a result. Being a heel was tremendously tough on the body. He just ignored everything; he was just a tough son of a gun."
Ole recalls once listening to a report on the radio listing the three most harmful things you could put into your body: chocolate, caffeine and cigarettes. He looked over at Gene, who was eating a box of chocolate doughnuts, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette. "What else could you possibly do to shorten your life any more," he asked.
The threesome clicked inside the ring and worked a series of six-man matches with George Becker, Johnny Weaver and Sailor Art Thomas that popped the territory. In another notable six-man bout, popular Nelson Royal went to the drastic lengths of teaming with hated rivals Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson in an attempt to exact revenge against the even more hated Anderson trio.
But it wasn't long before Lars began thinking about entering a new phase of his career. "Ole was there about six months when I decided I wanted to go back to Minneapolis and work as a single."
But Anderson wouldn't forget that the Mid-Atlantic area was the territory that put him on the wrestling map. Nor would he forget the man that ran that territory. "Jim Crockett Sr. was excellent. I really liked the way they ran the office at that time. When you went to the office, you had to have a suit and tie. He was a very nice guy to deal with. He was a true gentleman."
The most surprising thing about Gene and Lars Anderson's stint in the Mid-Atlantic area is that they never claimed the tag-team title. (The Southern tag-team belts were once held up for several weeks before being returned to Becker and Weaver). Lars only chuckles at that notion. "That office ... it was a hard nut to crack."
The office at the time was run by George Becker. "The guy was like ... I don't know old he was when we were there. He must have been 60."
Fans still turned out in droves in hopes of seeing the veteran Becker, with his much younger partner Johnny Weaver, turn back the hated Andersons. "Taking bumps for George Becker put me in training for Dusty Rhodes," Ole would later joke.
When Rogowski replaced Lars, the team didn't miss a beat. Like Lars and Gene, Ole was a Verne Gagne trainee and a polished amateur. Eventually adding even more luster to the Anderson team was the addition of a young Ric Flair, another Gagne product from Minnesota who Ole brought in as an Anderson "cousin."
Ole had known Gene since his high school days in Minnesota. While Gene was a grade ahead and three years older than Ole, they competed against one another in football, wrestling and track.
They were the consummate heel team. There was no canned crowd heat when the Andersons hit the ring. Whether working as bad guys or in a very rare babyface role, Gene and Ole commanded respect. There were no catch phrases. They spoke volumes by working the most believable, realistic matches this side of Johnny Valentine.
"We just did one thing better than anyone else - we wrestled," Ole would say. "We tried to make wrestling as real as we could make it. Gene used to say that we want to shoot, but we don't want to hurt anybody. Beat the hell out of the guy, but try not to remove any teeth. We didn't get quite that bad, but in some cases we did. When we did, there were some guys who said they didn't want to hang around for this. On a couple of occasions, guys packed their bags and we never saw them again."
With Lars out of the picture, Ole, who had been in the business for less than two years, had an offer to move to Georgia and form a team there with the talented Paul DeMarco. "I liked Paul, and he was a pretty good performer," said Anderson. "He was cocky, and that fit my criteria."
Before Ole could make a decision, however, the more subdued and low-key Gene gave him an offer that he couldn't refuse. "All he had to say was, 'Well, what do you want to do? If you want to stay and be partners, we can just stay and be partners.' Paul DeMarco was far flashier, but Gene was going to be the solid guy. He thought the world of me ... maybe not that first year and not even the second year, because there were times he wanted to kill me in between. But he knew that I could do the talking and carry my end of it, he could do the rest, and we'd make money and everybody would be happy."
Ole was right. It was a perfect wrestling marriage, and that fact didn't escape the elder Crockett, who knew a good thing when he saw it. The Andersons realized their real worth when Crockett brought them into his Charlotte office in 1970 and told them: "You boys can stay here as long as you want."
By the late '60s Lars returned to his home area of Minnesota where he was now billed as "Luscious" Lars Anderson and teamed with veteran Larry "The Axe" Hennig. The "Luscious" character, which now encompassed bleached blond hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, was a radical departure from the crewcut and rough-edged Lars Anderson. "I am luscious. It came naturally," he jokes.
Anderson, who held the AWA Midwest singles title, enjoyed a nice run with Hennig as his partner. "He was pretty decent to work with," says Lars, who shared the AWA Midwest tag-team title with Hennig. "We had good matches working with the Bastiens, and Crusher and Bruiser. We had a good time up there."
He also enjoyed working for his trainer and promoter. "I liked working for Verne. It was home. The trips were a little bit long there, so I got a pilot's license and started flying myself to various towns. It was better than driving the Porsche 120 miles an hour down the road."
Lars would form a top team working in San Francisco with Paul DeMarco during 1972-73. "A little flighty, but very underrated. A hell of a worker, a good interview," he says of DeMarco, with whom he held the San Francisco version of the NWA world tag-team title. "We had good matches out there with Rocky Johnson and Pepper Gomez. Pat (Patterson) was a little difficult to work with ... difference in philosophies I guess."
Lars would later bring in Les "Buddy" Wolfe, another Gagne-trained performer, as a partner back in Minnesota. The two had wrestled and played football together in college. "He was actually playing football in the Continental League for the Neptunes. Gene and I had broken him in in North Carolina. We did pretty well. Not as well as Larry and I did, but we had the same sort of concept and style as the Anderson Brothers."
Lars retired for a brief time in 1973 and, while living in Aspen, operated a successful chain of T-shirt stores with Wolfe. Serving as president of Shirt Shack International, he became the first person to introduce and franchise T-shirt stores to the mall industry. "I had the first national T-shirt store company and the first store in New Orleans, Atlanta, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago," says Anderson.
The partnership, though, eventually dissolved. The two also would market an abdominal exercise device called the "Tummy Twister."
But the lure of wrestling eventually brought Anderson back. "I had sort of retired at that time. I had turned in my pink card in Minneapolis in '73. I just decided to get back into the wrestling business," says Lars, who eventually dropped the Anderson moniker and began wrestling under his real name.
Lars Anderson would continue wrestling throughout the '70s and even into the '80s, but never seemed to attain the level of success he had as a member of the famed Anderson Brothers, or as "Luscious" Lars Anderson or Larry Heiniemi.
He had a stint with the ill-fated IWA (International Wrestling Association) in 1975 followed by an unsuccessful attempt to start his own Georgia-based promotion called the Universal Wrestling Association. "That's when the friction actually started when I stopped working for the mainstream wrestling group (Georgia Championship Wrestling). People thought I was trying to steal the territory. The program was on Satellite Program Network - the same earth station that Ted Turner's programming went out on. But the other group was tough to deal with."
Anderson would return to GCW in 1977 and would reform his old team with Georgia booker Ole Anderson.
A dispute between the two erupted, however, when Ole sent Lars to Detroit to work a show. "I went to Detroit for one night. I called Ole up and told him this was BS because I didn't want to work in Detroit." Lars left after one match and went to New York where his wife was living at the time. "Ole told me I was now unemployable. I told him fine."
Two days later, says Lars, he got a call from the Florida office. "They wanted somebody to work Johnny Valentine's gimmick ... beat up on people and do hour and 45-minute matches. So he was the booker. So I went and put my boots and my stuff in the locker room. So I said, 'What do I do now, Johnny?' I did hour matches. I did a two-hour match with Pedro Morales in Miami where I lost 18 pounds."
Lars spent only a few months in Florida, but was able to win the Florida heavyweight title on two different occasions from Dusty Rhodes while there.
"I was sort of going on my own at that point," says Lars. The differences with Ole, he adds, were strictly business. "Ole and I got along pretty well at first, but when he started booking in Georgia, it was a little different go-around. But he was running a business, and he had to run it the way he wanted to run it."
Lars would return to Atlanta in early 1978 and resume his partnership with Ole. The two would win the Georgia tag-team title several times over the next couple of years before engaging in a bloody feud of their own in late 1980 that included Lights Out matches, No DQ matches and even boxing matches. In an August 1980 bout, Gene and Ole joined forces to defeat Lars and partner Stan Hansen.
The following year saw Lars compete briefly for the Atlanta-based International Wrestling League run by Thunderbolt Patterson in competition with the NWA Georgia office.
Anderson spent the final years of his career wrestling in Hawaii for Polynesian Pro Wrestling. In 1983 he took a job in Hawaii as booker for Liv Maivia's promotion. "I bought into the promotion over there. We did promotion in Samoa, New Zealand, the Philippines."
The relationship with Maivia, widow of wrestling great High Chief Peter Maivia and grandmother of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, lasted for several years until Polynesian Pro Wrestling folded. Anderson says the partnership went well until he suggested that the group begin running major outdoor events.
"The concept of doing Aloha Stadium came from when the Anderson Brothers were in the Carolinas," he says. "We used to go to places like Roanoke and do about $3,500 or $4,000 houses indoors, and then we'd go outside at the stadium and do a $12,000 or $14,000 house. I told them we should promote Aloha Stadium. That's where the concept started."
That's also when, he claims, the heat was put on him and "they tried to kill me. When they saw what the potential was, one of the other stockholders or one of the Samoan employees said we'll get rid of this guy. They actually tried to kill me. I got hit from behind. I woke up in the hospital being sutured on. I asked them what was I doing here. The doctor said, 'Yeah, what are you doing here?'"
He says he still believes he was set up in the attack. "They're a little heavy-handed over there. The laws the way they are in Hawaii ... you eventually have to kill someone. You get a slap in the hand."
In 1996 Anderson resurfaced to form the short-lived World League Wrestling.
Quite the entrepreneur, Anderson mixed a variety of business ventures with his wrestling career.
For 21 years he was an executive salesman for Acura of Honolulu. It was the first Honda dealership in the country, and he consistently set sales records and was named top Executive Sales and Leasing Consultant.
These days he serves as CEO of a business called Shield N Seal. The family company, founded in 2011, produces specialized vacuum food-saving sealer machines, along with patent-pending technology sealing bags that serve as protection for food preservation. The products, says Anderson, were created for gardeners, hunters, fishermen and indoor gardening enthusiasts who increasingly expressed the need for a better way to preserve their goods. "We do quite well in northern California, but we also are in Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota and Michigan. I try to keep ahead of the game."
Anderson looks back at his wrestling career with fond memories. He was only 27 when he first arrived in the Mid-Atlantic, and that seems like a lifetime ago for Anderson.
The tough-as-nails Gene Anderson died of heart failure at the age of 52 in 1991.
The always outspoken Ole Anderson, now 70, has suffered from multiple sclerosis for the past decade.
Despite his close association with his wrestling brothers and other partners over the years, he admits that he never really got close to anyone in the business. "I guess it's the Finnish ancestry," he says. "This doctor once did a dissertation. He went to a number of bus stops around the world. In Finland the closest he got get to a stranger at a bus stop was about 10 feet. I really don't know what it is, but they seem to hold their distance."
Lars, who turned 74 in March, has six children. A daughter, Lora Elizabeth Heiniemi, is better known as lead singer "ralo" of the band Mantra Truck.
He has remained active. "I work out three days a week. I go skiing. We're about 45 miles away from ski area. I've been skiing since I was 3 years old. My grandfather used to make my skis for me when I was a kid."
An admitted loner during his days in the business, yet one who had a successful career with a place in history, he gives a positive response when asked if he would do it all over again. "Actually I would," he says without hesitation. "But I'd probably do some things differently."
-Mike Mooneyham, a writer and editor with Charleston's The Post and Courier since 1979, is one of the nation's foremost authorities on professional wrestling, and his weekly wrestling column has been in continuous publication longer than any other in the country.
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