Bob Calhoun is a big guy, six-foot-three and 300 pounds by his reckoning, with a big voice and a personality to match—several of them, actually. Under his given name he doesfund-raising research and freelance writing. But as Count Dante the 39-year-old is the Deadliest Man Alive—wrestler, rocker, and motivational speaker delivering infomercialesque spiels about his “Kung-Fu Rock and Roll Success Seminar that has transformed millions of worthless losers into martial arts millionaires!”
For much of the 90s Calhoun channeled the Count as performer and emcee for San Francisco’s Incredibly Strange Wrestling promotion, fronting his band the Black Dragon Fighting Society before or after grappling matches between pseudo luchadores like El Pollo Diablo, Macho Sasquatcho, El Homo Loco, Ku Klux Klown, Three-Mile Baby, and the Mexican Viking. In his new memoir Beer, Blood, and Cornmeal, which he’ll read from at Quimby’s this Friday, September 5, Calhoun describes it as a moment where wrestling grappled with surrealism, and surrealism won out with a suplex powerslam—a scene where audience members whipped corn tortillas through the air while watching chickens engaging in less-than-mortal combat with lions, Scientologist boy bands taking on leather-daddies, and racist clowns battling Hasidic Jews.
In high school in San Francisco’s south suburbs, “where all I had were comic book spinner racks and UHF TV to keep me company,” Calhoun grew fascinated with the story of the original Count Dante—a south-side Chicago Irish boy named John Keehan who taught and promoted martial arts here in the 1960s and early ’70s. (You can read my 2006 Reader feature about him and Floyd Webb, the local filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about him, on the paper’s Web site.) After some early success in introducing karate to a wider audience, Keehan fell out of favor with the martial arts establishment. Among other things, he advocated full-contact matches, and one of his students was killed in a rumble with another school. He changed his name to Count Juan Raphael Dante, dubbing himself the deadliest man alive, and ran ads in wrestling magazines and comic books promoting a fighting style called Kata Dante that incorporated “MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYZING and CRIPPLING techniques.” After assorted run-ins with the law and the Chicago Outfit, Keehan died of a bleeding peptic ulcer in 1975, at the age of 36.
Calhoun encountered one of the original Count’s over-the-top ads while writing reviews of old bargain-bin comics for a zine called Obscuria. The ad showed an Afroed, scowling Dante looking ready to scoop out an attacker’s eyeballs with his fingertips. Calhoun was impressed: “I mean, he claimed to have won death matches—death matches!”
The spirit of Dante followed Calhoun into young adulthood, inspiring him in 1996 to name his band after the Count’s martial arts club, the Black Dragon Fighting Society, and assume the Count’s moniker as its front man. He knew nothing of Keehan or his checkered history, but the old ads made it clear the man had been a huckster. So Calhoun’s Count Dante became a fast-talking kung-fu hustler with a little Tom Vu thrown in. “At first we were just going to wear bowling shirts—or whatever people wore in the mid-90s—and play distorted rock,” he says. “But then I got the idea to wear leopard-print kimonos and deliver a success seminar on stage.”
It was inevitable that he’d connect with Incredibly Strange Wrestling. As Calhoun puts it, “If you’re a 300-pound guy running around in a leopard-print kimono, and there’s a weird punk-rock-wrestling show based out of your town, sooner or later you’re gonna end up in that wrestling show.”
ISW was created in 1995 by rockabilly musician Johnny Legend, inspired by lucha libre and Mexican films like Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy. At first the ISW planned to play it fairly straight, with a lineup of actual luchadores, semipro wrestlers, and former WWF personalities. Calhoun says it was when Legend decided to have a wrestler called the Abortionist show up for the second show, wearing bloody scrubs and wielding a coat hanger, that the conceptual side of ISW emerged.
“The Abortionist was really what I thought that a show called Incredibly Strange Wrestling should be,” Calhoun says. “He presented the kind of disgusting envelope pushing that I thought people were looking for from the show.”
ISW caught on with a wider audience, even joining the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, but creative differences and personality conflicts brought it back to San Francisco and caused a split between Legend and manager/promoter Audra Angeli-Morse. Once she took control, ISW became intertwined with punk. Legend had originally booked fellow rockabilly acts to play between matches, but Angeli-Morse enlisted bands like NOFX, 7 Seconds, the Dickies, and the Donnas. The tortilla flinging was also Angeli-Morse’s idea—unlike beer bottles, corn tortillas rarely cause lacerations—and it became one of ISW’s trademarks.
San Francisco hipsters started donning masks and tutus, practicing body slams, drop kicks, and pinfalls on one another before howlingly drunk crowds. A few talented amateurs and semipros jumped in the ring, but most of the acts got by on absurdity, shamelessly hamming it up in not just luchador masks but also team and corporate mascot costumes, karate gis, and whatever they could cobble together from Halloweens past. As Calhoun explains in his book, their “wrestling” techniques were culled from “odd combinations of karate classes we took as kids, judo and jiu-jitsu classes we took as adults, and high school Greco-Roman mat wrestling, with a few ring moves...learned by slowing down videotapes of old WrestleManias.”
Calhoun switched off as wrestler and emcee. Count Dante, the martial arts motivational speaker, was his most frequent character, but he also performed as born-again Dante the Baptist, wrestling the lion managed by Roman potentate Flamius Caesar and winning by pinning his opponents with a giant cross. Another story line pitted Dante against the Poontangler in a custody battle over their alleged love child, El Nino. “You know, my hardest matches were against her,” Calhoun says. “She smacked me around pretty hard....She really went crazy in there.”
When the woman who played the Poontangler was eight months pregnant, she stepped into the ring with her prodigious belly popping out over her warm-up pants and demanded, “Who is the father of the Poontangler’s baby?” The Count and local shock jock Dennis Erectus then tangled to prove/disprove their paternity. The crowd ate it up.
ISW’s gay-friendly atmosphere made local heroes of wrestlers El Homo Loco and the Cruiser. But good taste took an extended holiday with characters like Uncle NAMBLA (his tagline: “Don’t tell anyone where I touched you!”), who wrestled/groped the schoolboy character Lil’ Timmy before “chloroforming” him and dragging him back to the locker room for a bad-touch session. In the book, Calhoun confesses to playing Uncle NAMBLA , but less than eagerly.
“I only did Uncle NAMBLA twice, but that was more than enough,” he explains. “I really laid down all integrity for showbiz there.”
ISW was typically a cooperative sport, with matches based on unwritten scripts and hand signals. But some wrestlers forgot that it was performance art. “One wrestler never got the concept—he was always breaking peoples’ noses,” says Calhoun. “Some guys got obsessed with the violence and started to become their character, wanting to become Bruce Lee and Mike Tyson mixed together, even though he’s playing a chef who’s fighting a guy in a chicken suit.”
Calhoun and the other wrestlers lived double lives. ISW luchadores were local celebrities, but that didn’t pay the bills. Super Pulga was a schoolteacher. El Homo Loco worked at a biotech firm. Devil Chicken ran a document delivery company. And the Cruiser was a Web designer and animator (and not gay, says Calhoun, though he gamely remained in character right down to the celebratory tongue-kissing). Calhoun wrote for Salon and worked as a medical librarian and newspaper archivist. In some ways, ISW evolved into an incredibly strange fight club. “The more time we spent at computers in our working lives, the more we wanted to hit each other with steel chairs in that ring,” he says.
But eventually he found it to be more work than fun.
When ISW took the show outside of San Francisco again, the crowds could get nasty, not understanding that the gay characters were the good guys and racist heels like the Oi Boy were intended as satire. In 2003, after a wrenching few weeks touring Europe, Calhoun decided to retire from the ring.
“Some of my best friends in the show had left, and there was bad blood with those that were left in it,” says Calhoun. “You can’t do a show for almost seven years and not end up with that kind of baggage, I guess. I mean, even the Beatles broke up, and the record label had to force Metallica into group therapy just to keep them together, right?”
Count Dante and the Black Dragon Fighting Society continue to perform as a band, playing tunes like “Beware the Wonder Bra” and “God Damn Those Milwaukee Women.” They recently opened for the Dickies in San Francisco. Calhoun considers the Quimby’s reading a way to test the midwestern waters. “If the ghost of John Keehan or some samurai sword-wielding Internet ninja don’t behead me, then I’d really love to bring the band to Chicago,” he says. “I think it’s really fertile ground for my Kung Fu Rock and Roll Success Seminar.” Wrestling, however, is out for now, in large part because Calhoun has forsworn his old pattern of jumping from temp job to temp job and taken a regular gig researching sources for fund raising at Berkeley.
“[Wrestling] was always putting my real life on hold,” he says. “I’d be shelving books at a library I was working at, and somebody would spot me and say, ‘Hey, didn’t I see you fight two women while people were throwing tortillas at you?’ It’s really hard to get a promotion when you’re seen around town wrestling women.”v
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com.