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The 1980s was a golden age of wrestling on television.
Different parts of the country had their own regional federations, where wrestlers squared off in the ring.
Consolidation started to come in the form of Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Federation and Ted Turner's World Championship Wrestling swallowing up the smaller groups.
But one wrestling series still attracts attention today: a syndicated show called "Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling," or "GLOW."
"GLOW" was shot at the Riviera here in Las Vegas and was the first show centered around female wrestling.
It originally aired from 1986 to 1990, but Netflix recently aired the first season of a show based on those wrestlers, also called "GLOW."
One of GLOW's competitors went by the name Susie Spirit.
She's still living in Las Vegas by her real name – Lauri Thompson.
When you went to college, surely, professional wrestling wasn't part of your long-term goals?
When I first went to college, I thought I was going to be an attorney. I was headed to law school. I started performing in college. I was working with Pioneer Theater Company [in Utah] and Ballet West. I ended up graduating with my degree in fine arts. I was planning to go to law school after that. I got a chance to go out to Mississippi to an international ballet competition, and was dancing with the Jackson Ballet Company in Mississippi for a season. I got a call to come out to Las Vegas because they were looking for dancers for Jubilee – the new show. It was at MGM at the time. They were looking for dancers from out of state. That's what brought me out of state. So, no it wasn't professional wrestling.
How did you find yourself in this new TV show "GLOW?"
I wanted to do more television and film, and it was kind of limited [in the '80s] in Las Vegas. Because I was doing six days a week [at Folies Bergere], I couldn't really leave. So, I was looking for opportunities in town. My dance partner and I had just done a show called "Star Search" and we literally had to fly out to Los Angeles
This is the Ed McMahon "Star Search?"
Yes! In '84 or '85 was the finals. We had to fly out tape the show, fly back do the Folies Bergere, fly back the next day and tape the next show, and fly back. We did this every other week for seven or eight weeks. So, I was looking for opportunities here in Las Vegas and I saw that there was an interview for a new television show here at the Riviera Hotel.
So, I went over to do my interview expecting it to be a regular television show, playing some kind of character. No details. The producer and the director were there and they showed me a video of Japanese women wrestling. They were very acrobatic, phenomenal gymnasts.
My jaw kind of dropped and I stood up and shook their hands and said, "I'm so sorry. I'm an actress and a dancer. I've done some singing, I do comedy. I'm not a wrestler." So, I walked out the door and they chased me down said, "Wait! Wrestling is going to be kind of our hook. We think the time is right for women to get into wrestling and we're going to use it as a hook for this television show, but we're building a comedy. We're looking for actresses who want to help us build it. We're building the characters around the people we hire. We're going to have them help us with building the stories. So, whatever you can do – we'll shoot!"
How did your mind change towards the project?
It's kind of a business mindset that says "Mm, I can create anything I want to create and have some input on the show. I can film it here in Las Vegas and not have to travel back and forth on the same day to do the Folies Bergere."
So, when I sat back down, I said, "Okay, I need three things. Number one: I'm the principal dancer in the Folies Bergere and I need to do that show every night… Number two: I want to use this for spinoffs. I'll learn to wrestle and do your show, but I want to do some spinoffs for some other types of shows. I want to be a host or a character on a sitcom. The third thing that I want is I want to learn the television industry. I want to be able to shadow you guys and see how to produce a television show.
And the good thing is, they said "Yes!" I really learned so much going through this experience, not only as a performer but also how the television industry works.
How did your training as a dancer impact your efforts to learn how to wrestle?
I showed up for the first day of rehearsal to learn how to wrestle and with all my background – it was hard! I was a little scared. I saw other ladies with me that didn't have that background and they were going for it too and I thought, "If they can do it, then I certainly can!"
Walk us through the first trip to the ring at the Riviera?
The first episode was taped in front of a live audience… I was surprised that it wasn't the typical "Star Search" audience, where they sit there quietly. These people aren't expecting a live taping of a TV show – they're expecting a live brawl! All of our matches were taped in front of a live audience but everything else we did was taped elsewhere.
At the Folies Bergere, I had 800 to 1,000 people in the audience every night, but they sat there, sipping their drinks. These people didn't sit there! They get into it. I think one of the biggest shocks for me was that my mother came to the first show. It's very physical. If someone grabs your hair and pulls it, there are ways to do that, but they're still pulling your hair and you're still going to hit the mat. And she's cheering, instead of saying "Oh No! Don't hurt her!"
Were you a "good girl" or a "bad girl"?
The way it works is, we all got together when we were first hired and explored what our characters could be. You gotta go with what you have. So, for me, being a gymnast and a cheerleader, and wanting to have a positive character for spinoffs, I started coming up with the idea of being a cheerleader. That's when I came up with being Susie Spirit.
I had been doing these cheerleading demonstrations. My parents call me Susie – my middle name is Sue. I thought that will work. But [the director] said, "No, that won't work because there's never one cheerleader. They come in a group or at least in a pair. I'll tell you what: I'll let you do Susie Spirit if you find yourself a partner."
So, I found Ann Lebree, who had been in Folies Bergere as an acrobat, and talked her into coming in. She became Debbie Debutante and we were The Cheerleaders.
On the show's popularity:
You had to remember in the 80s, we all of the sudden opened up the bandwidth. There were only three television stations – four if you count PBS. And it really did allow for more content to be available on TV.
Meshulam Ricklis [the owner of the Riviera] was taking advantage of that, because these new stations had to broadcast for so many hours in order to keep their license. So, what he was thinking of was, let me put together this really inexpensive show. It was only about $100,000 an episode, [and he] put [his] commercials in it [to] give it away – barter is what it's called in the industry. And he didn't expect it to catch on like this. And this show caught on with children, with college students, with guys in jail. They had to pick their one show and it was "GLOW." It became a more important syndicated show.
I think it's the combination of being able to see more content on TV and crossing so many demographics that the show was a hit! Go Figure!
You were seriously hurt in a match against the Headhunter. What happened?
I dislocated my arm. In front of 700 people… It was a shock for me.
Looking back on it, I think I made the first mistake. I dove over the Headhunter. It was one of my signature moves, where I dive over the top in a giant forward roll, grab my opponent, pull my opponent and we do a double roll backward. It ends up in a pin, where I end up pinning my opponent.
I think I ended up reaching on the wrong side of her leg. She fell over and pinned my arm down and it dislocated by tearing the ligaments off the insertion and it sounded like celery breaking in my head.
So, immediately you start thinking: Okay – there are 700 people watching. My arm is lying on the mat. I can't finish the match. So, I'm going to have to do something. I had to pick it up and I went over to the rings to leave the match and my manager was standing there. Jackie Stallone played my manager –Sylvester Stallone's mother. Quite a character, beautiful lady.
And she's standing there in all her '80s glory. She says, "Get back in there Susie! You're not a quitter!' I had to whisper to her, 'Jackie my arm is broken. I can't finish the match."
You have to carry on like this is reality?
You have to! This is a really interesting type of entertainment where you really don't want the audience to be thinking about an actress playing a part. You want the audience to be thinking about a character. So, what are the issues the character has from a broken arm?
You were with "GLOW" for two seasons. What led you to leave?
I was still performing in the Folies Bergere and "GLOW" decided to go off and do live arena tours. And I couldn't be part of that tour… but having broken my arm, I'm not sure I wanted to wrestle for 700 people in an arena. I think I only want[ed] to wrestle for a television show that can be shown over and over and over again to millions of people.
We did pitch three spinoffs and none of them got picked up. We did a circus show… we did a sitcom with Susie Spirit and the Farmer's Daughter.
I had been invited to be a guest star on a couple of sitcoms. I did "Married with Children." I wrestled with Al Bundy as Susie Spirit. I did "We Got it Made." And I was going on "Mama's Family," and I got a note from the new producer who was doing the tour that said I didn't have the rights to do my character if I wasn't staying part of "GLOW."
Here's the irony of that. The contract says anything that the performers create will be owned by the producer… I didn't read it clearly enough in my contract before I started. I just assumed that since I helped create Susie Spirit, I owned the rights. But now, I write that in my contracts when I work for producers.
How often do people recognize you?
I did surprise my husband when we first started dating. We went to Disneyland and all these kids ran up to me and said "Susie Spirit! Can we have your autograph!" And he looked and me and said "Susie Spirit?" At the time, we met I was still working at the Folies Bergere and had started my production company and going to law school. He didn't realize I had other skills.
What do you think of the new Netflix show?
Looking at the characters on the Netflix show, they're kind of an exaggeration of what it was like behind the scenes. I don't know if it was that extreme behind the scenes but some of it [was]. Showing up and trying to figure out who the characters are going to be and how they're going to work into a story line.
And having David McLane in his background in wrestling. He wanted it to be more wrestling – real wrestling. And Matt Cimber being the television guy saying, "It's all about the story."
Some of that is very real, but it's almost on steroids – like [the new] "GLOW" was where they're going to the extreme with it. I think they have the same opportunities we did. I think they're a little more narrow in their demographics. It's not for children. But I'm excited to see them succeed.
(Editor's note: This interview originally aired in July 2017)
Lauri Thompson (aka Susie Spirit), GLOW
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