A short bout with Victor the Bear
This is a bear story. Unlike many bear stories, this one is true.
Tourism started in Western North Carolina during the post-Civil War era, but it wasn’t a huge factor in the region’s economy until the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was founded in 1934. All of the communities in WNC were influenced by tourism, but none more than the lands held by the Eastern Band of Cherokees on the North Carolina boundary of the park.
By the post-World War II era, Cherokee had become one of the major destination points for tourism in the eastern United States. Some of the attractions that evolved — the “Unto These Hills” outdoor drama, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Qualla Crafts, and others — were substantial attractions and have endured.
Others were less substantial and have faded into the mist. One of my absolute favorites in this category was the Dancing Chicken. It was well worth the quarter you put into the slot in the chicken’s cage to see him go into action in anticipation of the cup of cracked corn that he got after each performance. Man that chicken could dance! We’re not talking Fred Astaire. The Dancing Chicken’s style was a cross between the Scarecrow in the “Wizard of Oz” and down-home mountain clogging.
Another more substantial attraction that nevertheless didn’t withstand the passage of time was Victor the Bear at the Chief Saunooke complex. The complex today is still impressive, stretching along the Oconaluftee River with a gem mine, tubing center, an indoor gift mall, and several different types of bears in an assortment of pits. They even have cuddly cubs. The complex was the creation of Osley B. Saunooke, who died in 1965 at the age of 58. As “Chief” Saunooke, he became the world heavyweight wrestling champion when he defeated Tom Johnson in a grudge match staged in Boston in 1938.
But Victor, alas, is no longer there. Back in the 1970s, you could pay a small fee and go into the old wooden amphitheater (which later burned down and was replaced) and see Victor. He was located on ground level in an iron cage about the size of a circus ring. If you really wanted to do so, at no extra charge you could go into his cage and wrestle Victor.
Victor is one of the towering figures in the annals of bear wrestling. He appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. During the half-time of a Philadelphia 76ers basketball game, a local radio station sponsored a “Beat-The-Bear Night.” Fans were promised that radio announcers would wrestle the bear and also challenged: “And how would you like to wrestle the bear? I mean, five of our listeners will each get to wrestle Victor for 60 seconds (Thump) or less, whichever comes first. Just write to us and tell us why you would like to wrestle Victor.”
I’m not sure about Victor’s heritage. He has been described by one source as an Alaskan black bear. He was certainly larger than the eastern black bears found here in the Smokies region. Without exaggeration, I would estimate that he stood about 6-foot-6-inches when up on his hind legs and weighed about 500 pounds, give or take 50 pounds. Not a small big bear.
And Victor could wrestle. He was a great wrestler. He defeated the likes of Gorgeous George and Wahoo McDaniel in their prime. A poster at Saunooke’s declared (with perhaps a little exaggeration) that his record before he retired was 2001-0-1. The tie reputedly came when some a pro football lineman from New England got in the arena and wouldn’t really wrestle Victor. He just kept body-blocking him and running around inside the big cage until Victor got tired and frustrated and sat down.
If you want to see some great video action of Victor in action against The Destroyer, another pro wrestler, go to www.thedestroyer.com/photos4.htm on the Internet. The Destroyer was actually holding his own against Victor until he got disqualified for trying to trick the bear.
Back in 1976 I was working in the Smokies and had to drive past Victor’s place coming and going. One day I went in and watched some of the local talent wrestling Victor. One young Cherokee fellow got scared when they let him in the cage and tried to outrun the bear. Victor was on that guy quicker than a duck on a junebug.
You’d suppose that few people would want to wrestle a bear, but in Cherokee in those days there was always a line of guys at the cage door waiting their turn. Most lasted about half a minute. I had wrestled in high school. I thought I saw a weakness in Victor’s technique. I didn’t think I could whip Victor, but I did suppose that maybe I could get his attention and hold my own for several minutes.
The next Saturday my wife, our three children, several friends, and I drove over to Victor’s place and went in. I got in the participant line. I recall being a little apprehensive, but not too much since Victor had been de-clawed and had a wire muzzle on his snout.
When my turn came, I pulled off my shirt, underneath which I had a T-shirt that had a picture of Superman on the back and S-U-P-E-R-M-A-N spelled out on the front. The crowd went wild, but as I was entering the cage the bear’s owner and attendant, whose name was Tuffy Truesdale, leaned over and whispered in my ear: “The bear can’t read.”
Victor would actually lock up with you as the match began, just like in real wrestling. I swear that it felt like locking up with a freight train. My favorite move in high school had been the Fireman’s Drag. Just after locking up, you slip your right arm under the opponent, grab his far leg and roll him to the mat. I wasn’t a very good wrestler in high school, but I could take anybody down with that move. It was my specialty. So, after locking up with Victor, I slipped my right arm under him and reached for his far leg. When I stretched as far as I could and could only reach as far as the bear’s belly button, I knew that I was in immediate trouble.
Victor’s only move (his specialty) was to grab the opponent, throw him down on the mat, and sit on top of him until Tuffy gained a verbal submission. That’s exactly what happened. It was all with over in about 35 seconds.
Victor bodied me down on the mat and sat on top of me. Tuffy sauntered over and asked: “That about it, Superman?” I agreed that it was apparently all over.
He gave Victor a command to “Stand,” which he did, and Tuffy helped me up and led me to the cage door. He next gave Victor a Brownie drink as a reward. Tuffy then let the next “opponent” into the cage.
The Victor the Bear era was surely one of the high-water marks on the Cherokee Indian reservation in regard to tourist participation opportunities.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in November 2001