From Ox Baker’s tunic and Mil Mascaras’ mask to AJ Styles’ jacket and a cookie tray signed by ECW stars, Lehigh Valley native Ethan Cramer snapped photos of over 50 years’ worth of wrestling memorabilia.
“I came to see history one last time,” said Cramer, who visited Bud Carson’s Pro Wrestling World for its final day last Sunday. After 20 years in operation, the Allentown, Pennsylvania institution closed its doors, leaving a huge gap in Merchants Square Mall and an even bigger one in the hearts of wrestling fans in the tristate area.
Cramer had brought his nephew to meet EC3, Paul Bearer and several other stars for Carson’s autograph signings over the years. After meeting their heroes and posing for pictures, they’d roam the museum and browse the store, marveling at vintage magazines, VHS tapes, DVDs, T-shirts and action figures.
“Bud is a friendly person to everybody,” Cramer said. “He would always give more than what people had to offer. It’s something you had to experience if you’re a true wrestling fan.”
Visiting the pro wrestling oasis was a favorite pastime for Mike Swenk and his son Ben as well. A WWE fanatic, Ben also knows his wrestling history, being able to recite every Royal Rumble winner in rapid fashion. Not bad for a nine year old.
“He knows more than I do, but it’s fun for me because I’m reliving these childhood memories through him,” Swenk said. “It’s a shame somebody can’t take this place over and just keep it running as is. But I don’t even know what you could possibly pay for all this because a lot of it is one-of-a-kind, hard-to-come-by stuff. It’s priceless.”
Bill Apter, pro wrestling journalism pioneer and close friend of Carson, stopped by to take one final stroll and sign a “happy retirement” banner. “It was owned and made by a person who is a true wrestling fan,” Apter said. “He’s not just a collector of memorabilia, but someone whose entire heart is in the pro wrestling business. When you came to Bud Carson’s Pro Wrestling World, you could feel the beat of that heart the moment you entered the room.”
Wrestling’s Beloved Curator
In 1968, Carson’s love affair with pro wrestling began, as he discovered WWWF on TV. He was determined to follow in his idol Bruno Sammartino’s footsteps, and trained for a couple years in the early 1980s while serving in the Marines. After he performed on small shows at flea markets and tiny gymnasiums, Dominic DeNucci referred him to Ron Shaw for more seasoning.
However, family obligations curbed his career as Carson had to juggle a variety of odd jobs to put food on the table. Then in 1996, his life changed forever.
He was working in a foundry in Kutztown, PA, and lost his left arm after it got stuck in a machine. With the money he received from the accident, he bought a house and opened a baseball card store – his childhood dream.
In the late 1990s, though, pro wrestling was hotter than baseball. As the popularity of Stone Cold, the NWO and ECW rose to unprecedented heights, Carson capitalized by transforming his baseball card store into a pro wrestling superstore. He searched through flea markets and yard sales for classic memorabilia, making offers to friends, family and fellow fans eager to clean out their basements and cash in on dusty treasures.
“The first store he worked in was on the corner of South Albert Street, a little place, and he had Bruno for his first autograph session,” said Nancy Moyer. “I was there, and I’ve been helping him ever since.”
As Pro Wrestling World grew in quantity, personnel and popularity, Carson decided to launch an indie promotion called Lehigh Valley Wrestling. There were several events in the 2000s as well as a short-lived relaunch in 2013 featuring a variety of local talent and familiar faces like Stevie Richards, Sandman and Sonjay Dutt.
“I had the chance to work for LVW as a time keeper and as an interviewer,” said Stephen Faust. “Bud opened doors for me that I never thought would have happened. The man deserves his retirement. He deserves everything in life.”
End of an Era
In August, Carson announced that Pro Wrestling World be closing up shop in January of 2018, the day of the Royal Rumble in Philadelphia. It wasn’t a matter of finances – the store continued to thrive and he had invested well. But spending every weekend of the past three decades at the store or at fan conventions had taken its toll, and he wanted to spend more time with his grandchildren.
“I’m very grateful for what happened here,” Carson said. “What started out to be a little baseball card store has developed into what other people say is the greatest wrestling museum that they’ve seen. It all started with a dream and a trust in the Lord. The Lord sent me people and it just developed.”
Those people all gathered for the store’s final day: Moyer, Faust, Dale Seip, Tim Walton, Chris Kulp, and even Dazzling Dennis, Carson’s old radio show co-host.
“It was more than a store,” Kulp said. “It was more than a museum. On any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday, you could come here and sit with Bud and whoever else was around, and chat about whatever or the good ol’ days of pro wrestling for however long we wanted to. It was about the camaraderie and the friendship. That’s what I’ll miss most.”
Carson tried to book Sammartino for the store’s last autograph signing, but the 82-year-old former world champion doesn’t travel from his Pittsburgh home anymore. With no name bigger than the Living Legend’s, Carson decided he’d be the final autograph signing, giving longtime customers a memento and thanking them for their support.
“I’ve been on that side of the table for so long, I thought how cool would it be to be on this side,” Carson laughed.
Walton said that over the years, fans from as far away as Boston trekked down to the Merchants Square Mall to experience the magic. Priding themselves on their meet-and-greets, their T-shirts were printed with “Where the legends come to meet the fans.”
“We’re not like these bigger conventions, Walton said. “When we had the autograph events here, we wanted the fans to enjoy themselves, spend a little time with their idols and come away with, ‘wow, we had a really good experience here. I’m going to tell friends of mine they should really stop by here.’ We really made sure, as our motto says, that the fans come first.”
Carson estimated that about 10%-15% of the memorabilia has already been sold to interested vendors. Now he’ll put some on eBay and bring others to conventions like Legends of the Ring and Icons of Wrestling.
“A lot of wrestlers honored in this museum are no longer with us, but we had the opportunity to meet them and a lot of them are now our friends,” Carson said. “Yesterday, Tony Atlas came out from behind his table to meet me. Honkytonk Man yelled ‘Bud Carson’s in the house!’”
One of Carson’s most prized possessions is a “Dr. Death” Steve Williams football jersey that he got signed two weeks before Williams’ death. “Since we’re both Christians, we had this connection between us,” Carson said. “When I went to see him and have the jersey signed, he gave me this look like ‘my time is running out. ‘I’m glad you came and honored me with this jersey.’”
Memories and relationships like that are what he’ll cherish forever. From the heroes he grew up to befriend, to the fans that have become buddies, to the colleagues that have become family, Carson has expanded his Pro Wrestling World into a tight-knit community of people bonded by suplexes, chairshots and crimson masks.
“I didn’t do this by myself,” he said. “I was the tip of the brush that God had and was stroking everything. He put it all together and he sent me these fine people to work with. I want to encourage everybody that if they have a dream, work hard at it, trust the Lord, and your dream will come true.”