A black hexagonal table sits on a raised platform in the middle of the Logan Square Auditorium‘s cavernous ballroom, illuminated by a spotlight. A gangly referee in aviator sunglasses and tight spandex shorts checks to make sure the handrails at the table’s edge and the elbow pads at its center are fully secured. Next to him stands “Rockke L. Squelch,” mistress of ceremonies. In a white dress that leaves almost nothing to the imagination, her brown hair curled and piled high on her head, Squelch sashays across the stage and belts out a blunt command in a mild eastern European accent: “Let’s get this motherfucker started!”
Chi-Quita Flores is defending champion of the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers (CLLAW) and one of 14 wrestlers competing in the single-elimination tournament on Saturday, March 8. Her face is partially shielded by a sparkly eye mask and a gold bowler hat wreathed with blue and yellow feathers. She’s accompanied by her managers, two women dressed in life-size banana costumes. Her first opponent, Bust Her Bluth, climbs up the other side of the ring. Like her namesake, the Arrested Development man-child, Bluth dons a red-and-blue striped polo shirt and a hook on her left hand. Neither of these 25-year-old women has had extensive hand-to-hand combat experience—the former, nee Emilia Garcia, staffs the records department at a pediatric clinic, while the latter, nee Avery Ferguson, works in the art department at a television and commercial production company.
The match takes about three minutes. It starts with a tussle, as Bluth’s manager (and “sister,” stage name Lindsay Bluth) parades up the stairs and stuffs a treat from Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana into Flores’s grill. It ends as many of Flores’s clashes do, with her ripped right arm gradually forcing her contender into submission. The Bluths are apoplectic. Flores turns to the rowdy crowd and stunts, flexing and shaking her head defiantly. When it’s over, Welch grabs her microphone and wastes no time. “Who is up next?!,” she bellows into the auditorium’s balcony.
Like any serious stage production, CLLAW is rigorously choreographed—while still leaving some space for performers to experiment. The need for order has grown with the expanding audience, which hit 675 people during February 2013 and approached that number this past weekend. “If you don’t pay attention,” says Jeff Ruckes, a veteran referee, “it can derail really quickly.”
At a pre-event meeting last week, Squelch (aka Karie Miller) ran through a minute-by-minute schedule for the March 8 match, debriefing volunteers and her two floor managers, women who would later wander around the auditorium wearing mustaches and navy janitorial jumpsuits. Organizers passed around medical liability forms and talked through safety regulations (“Code Eagle” for an in-fight injury, “Code Raven” to monitor potential harassment).
“This event is not the type of thing they teach you in theater school,” Miller says. “Every time we did it, we’d figure something else out about large-crowd maintenance.”
“It’s a little bit of a cockfight, it’s a little bit WWE, and it’s a variety show. . . . It was completely bizarre.”—Brian Wimer, codirector of the documenatry CLAW: The Collective of Lady Arm Wrestlers
Miller, 32, is an actor and director with West Town’s Sideshow Theatre Company. In July 2008, a friend asked her to stand in as her “manager” at a ladies’ arm wrestling event in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Miller had just earned an MFA in acting. The Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers, then just five months old, had been created by Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, a new mom and newer widow who threw herself into elaborate art projects as a way to grieve the recent death of her husband. Her idea was straightforward: modeled loosely on professional wrestling, CLAW would feature women competing in arm wrestling tournaments, in character, with all of the proceeds—including cash that spectators use to bribe the referees or bet on the outcome—benefiting a woman-initiated charity. The wrestlers battled in a battered wedding tent in the parking lot of a diner. “It’s a little bit of a cockfight, it’s a little bit WWE, and it’s a variety show,” says Brian Wimer, a documentarian who codirected CLAW, a feature-length film about the sport that will screen on Friday, March 14, at Music Box Theatre. “[Tidwell] was inventing a new art form. It was completely bizarre.”
At her first match Miller had loads of fun vamping in front of strangers. When she moved to Chicago three weeks later to join the ensemble at Sideshow, she floated the idea of the company hosting its own bout. The nonprofit storefront theater would keep half the money and give the other half to a community partner. (The recipient this time around is the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a north-side advocacy organization.) After calling in favors from friends and securing Tidwell’s blessing, CLLAW put on its inaugural show at the Spot in Uptown five years ago last month, in front of 55 paying customers.
Six of the initial eight wrestlers were improv comics, fearless and expressive performers who stayed in character for hours at a time. More actors have since joined their ranks, developing complex backstories and intricate costumes. Nationally, the chapter is well known for its outsize theatricality; Miller spent several minutes explaining to me the biography of Squelch, a no-nonsense mail-order bride and world-renowned “upper body athlete” from Russia. Sabrina Pratt, a former CLLAW champion, originally wrestled as a teddy bear until she doused herself with honey onstage, trashing her homemade fur suit in the process. (She returned as Armageddon, a villain “who was a little less messy.”) Hillary Rod-Arm Clinton lost in the opening round on Saturday, though not for a lack of creativity. In a torn, sleeveless business suit, holding a coffee mug with her own face on it, Clinton circulated through the auditorium introducing herself to prospective “constituents” as her two managers—secret service spooks with matching earpieces—kept potential assailants at bay.
CLLAW members commit themselves thoroughly to the conceit of the show, and many take the physical side of the performance seriously, bingeing on Internet instructional videos and hitting the gym to bulk up. Since Miller branched out from Charlottesville, women in nearly 30 cities have established local leagues. “There’s something psychological that happens when you put on a costume,” Wimer says. “All of the sudden you have superpowers.”
Miller says that getting up on stage every few months makes her feel stronger—and not just in a physical sense. “CLLAW for me has been a lot about owning my body and empowering my body and celebrating it,” she says. “I cross all the boundaries in my CLLAW persona that I cannot cross in my daily life.”
Throughout the night, duels unfold with varying levels of competitiveness and comedic flair. One match ends with a safety infraction, another in a tie-breaking dance-off. The Rock, dressed as a gray boulder, hurls ground-up stones at her opponent while the crowd honors her with chants of “Nothing . . . beats . . . Rock!” Chi-Quita Flores upends a past champ in the semifinals; three beefy men celebrate ringside by raising giant stuffed fruits over their heads. Following her first-round exit, Bust Her Bluth is voted back into the tournament by her fans and storms through to the finals, setting the stage for an epic, unexpected best-of-five rematch.
The house lights dim. Pulsating metal music kicks on in the background. Bluth stalks around the stage. Flores points directly at her, then shakes her right hand in front of her own throat. A brutal two-second KO leaves Bluth reeling. She jumps up in disgust, taking a slug of her favorite drink—”juice” from a box of Franzia wine. The pair trade victories in the middle rounds. In the fourth, Flores stakes out an early lead, but Bluth hangs tough, feeding off the fans and recovering from an impossible angle, inch by inch, wrist flexed and bicep shaking, until she topples her taller adversary, tying the score at two apiece.
In the fifth and deciding match, Flores digs and digs as the referee’s timer clicks away. With about three seconds to spare, she pounds Bluth’s hand into the board with one last herculean bang. “That’s right!” she screams, pumping her fists high in the air, the plumage from her hat waving. A bedazzling boxing glove, the CLLAW trophy, is hers.
Garcia hasn’t decided whether she’ll defend her title at CLLAW’s next Chicago contest, tentatively scheduled for July 25—summer is the busiest season at her pediatric clinic, and she’s trying to balance those responsibilities with physical therapy school and her social life. Still, she’s certain that Chi-Quita Flores will climb back into the ring before too long. “You have your friends there cheering you on, and you’re also terrified at the same time,” she says. “It’s one of the best feelings you can have.”