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The Gobbledy Gooker: Wrestling's Most Bizarre Gimmick

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I don’t remember much about being seven years old, but I’ll never forget Thanksgiving Day, 1990, at my Uncle John’s house on Staten Island. While the adults were in the dining room drinking and laughing, I was glued to the television, watching my heroes Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the Legion of Doom. It was WWF’s Survivor Series pay-per-view, and it was basically the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

But that night was memorable for another reason: It was the debut of one of the most celebrated wrestlers in history, a man who’d go on to win seven WWF (now WWE) Heavyweight Championships, as well as an unprecedented and inimitable 21 straight Wrestlemania matches. This man was not a man at all, but an undead monster. A “Phenom,” as WWE announcers would go on to call him.

On that day, the world got its first glimpse of the Undertaker.

This is not his story.

No, this story is about another debut from that night. One that was so perplexing that, more than a quarter-century later, fans are still scratching their heads.

I am talking about what is considered one of wrestling’s worst gimmicks: the Gobbledy Gooker.

WHAT'S IN THE EGG?

The Gobbledy Gooker was actually the most anticipated part of that evening, which only adds to the mystery of how this happened. For the unfamiliar, the Gobbledy Gooker started its life as an egg, hyped heavily on televised WWF broadcasts in the weeks leading up to Survivor Series. The world would find out what's in the egg, it was promised, during the big pay-per-view event on Thanksgiving.

When Survivor Series finally aired, all was revealed. “Mean” Gene Okerlund, the voice of the WWF in the 1980s and early 1990s, enhanced the drama. “Is it the playmate of the month?” Gene asked, to the cheers of men across the arena. “The way it sounds to me right now, the speculating is all over!” I couldn’t handle it anymore. Break open, already, dammit. Break!

When the egg finally did break open, few in the crowd at Connecticut's Hartford Civic Center could believe what was inside: a man in a giant, cartoonish turkey costume.

To say fans were unhappy is an understatement. Watching the video now, you can immediately hear the boos. As the turkey climbs off its platform, “Mean” Gene tries to sell it to the fans. “Take a look at it ladies and gentlemen!” Okerlund exclaims. “Feathers, a beak, a little rooster tail on top. You’ve got a pair of legs like my mother-in-law, pal.”

The Gooker leans in and gobbles into Okerlund's microphone.

"What is with the gobbledy?" Okerlund asks. "Don't tell me you're the Gobbledy Gooker?"

The Gooker grabs Gene, and the two walk to the ring, run the ropes, and dance the show off the air to a cheesy version of “Turkey in the Straw.”

At the time, I was confused, though not as angry as most of the fans in attendance. Looking back, I still don’t see what kind of sense it was supposed to make. After about a month or so, the Gooker was all but gone, little more than a bizarre, tryptophan-aided memory.

If he was supposed to wrestle, the entire costume seemed unreasonable. If he was meant as a mascot, who was he representing? And why did Vince McMahon, who had just hours earlier introduced the great Undertaker, follow it up with this?

I had to know.

So I asked.

THE MAN BEHIND THE BEAK

The Gobbledy Gooker, it turns out, was a wrestler named Héctor Guerrero, a member of the famous Guerrero wrestling family; son of the great Gory Guerrero, brother of Chavo, Mando, and Eddie Guerrero. While not the surefire hall-of-famer Eddie was, Hector’s career was nothing to sneeze at. He won more than two dozen titles across the country, including multiple tag titles, an NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship with Crockett Promotions, and an NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship. In 2007, he moved into the broadcast booth, joining the Spanish commentary team for the Total Nonstop Action promotion, where he remained until 2015.


Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0 

Most wrestlers have had a gimmick that doesn’t work, or one that they’re embarrassed by. For example, hard-nosed British technical wrestler William Regal was once known as “The Real Man’s Man,” a guy who chopped wood and wore a hard hat. The Undertaker’s in-character brother, a demon from hell named Kane, was previously a wrestling dentist. It’s all part of the business.

But over the phone from his Florida home, Hector doesn’t sound embarrassed. To him, the entire Gobbledy Gooker thing was a missed business opportunity, one he says could have worked if it was given the right venue. He’s vehement that, in front of the right crowd, it would have been recognized for exactly what it was: Something fun to entertain the kids. “It was always for the children,” Hector told Mental Floss. He says he was not ready for the rowdy northeastern crowd he faced that night in Hartford, and thought that a more kid-friendly audience would have been more appropriate.

“It was not a kid crowd,” he laughs.

GOOKER'S ORDERS FROM THE TOP

Hector started receiving calls from the WWE in early 1990, months before Survivor Series. He was not immediately responsive. Years prior, he says, he had a brief but antagonistic encounter with one of the company’s agents, so he didn’t pay the calls much attention. He eventually relented, however, and soon he was speaking directly to the man in charge himself, current WWE CEO Vince McMahon. The two had a cordial conversation—McMahon was reaching out because wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes had vouched for Hector.

The idea, as Hector remembers, was a fun mascot for kids who would eventually start actually wrestling. Months after getting the call from Vince, Hector tried out for Gooker in person.

There was some initial hesitation about Hector's body type. The WWE was fresh off a 1980s era that prized the godlike physiques of wrestlers like Hulk Hogan. Hector, who had just gone on two tours with the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling, was smaller than most of the roster.

The Guerrero family, from Mexico City, was known for melding the exciting, Mexican lucha libre-style of wrestling—athletic, fast-paced, freeform, and acrobatic—with a traditional American style inspired by old school wrestlers like Dory Funk Sr. Years later, when Hector’s brother Eddie and other lucha-style wrestlers became stars with the WCW, they were exclusively part of the company’s cruiserweight division—wrestling that often demanded a smaller physique.

“They had expected to see me bigger, but at this time, when this all happened, I was on a very strict diet,” Hector says. “They didn’t realize that us light guys could do things that could maybe draw money.”

Nonetheless, Hector credits his small, athletic build and quick skill set as the impetus for WWF’s call. The work he did with WCW as “High Flying” Hector Guerrero was innovative to American audiences, and despite his smaller-than-average size, Hector impressed during his WWE Survivor Series tryout—all while performing in full turkey getup.

He was asked to put on the costume and show what he could do in the ring, and he bounced from rope to rope, doing flips and cartwheels. To see, Hector had to look through two holes drilled into the giant turkey mask's bulging plastic eyeballs, which was extremely difficult. To look left or right, he had to rotate his entire head. Still, he nailed the audition and landed the gig.

Hector started to receive a stipend and began working as part of the company. When wrestler Tito Santana was to debut a new character, El Matador, WWE wanted native Spanish-speaker Hector in Mexico to help film vignettes. And having been in the business since he was a teenager, the 36-year-old Hector also knew a few friendly faces in the company. His traveling companion, Terry Szopinski—better known to wrestling fans as the Warlord—helped him bulk up on the road. Even he and the Undertaker, who would later debut on that same Thanksgiving night, shared a brief history in WCW, where Hector was impressed with the agile big man’s work.

GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S BIG NIGHT

On Thanksgiving 1990, Hector huddled in a box underneath the giant egg for four hours—enough time so that no one entering the Hartford Civic Center could see him before the show. He was given a TV monitor, a light, and some drinks and snacks. The crew pranked him by pasting pornographic photos inside the box. (Hector, who says he was by then a devout Christian, was not amused.)

The night went on, and Hector waited patiently for his moment. Suddenly, Gene Okerlund began to talk about the egg, and Gobbledy Gooker knew it was time to hatch.


Sadly, it did not go well.

“As I stepped down to talk to Gene, the more boos I hear,” he says. “You know, I can’t hear the kids screaming that they like it, but I can hear the people, because there’s more adults. And they’re booing the heck out of it.”

Okerlund put the microphone down, and said to Hector, “We’re going to put it over,” meaning they were going to try to make it work. They marched to the ring and Okerlund, to his credit, did his best Charlie Chaplin routine, stumbling, tripping, and falling. Someone later told Hector that Okerlund woke up the next day with bruises all over his body from trying so hard to sell the routine.

As the Gobbledy Gooker made his way backstage after his performance, Hector felt the stares and immediately felt like a pariah. “I worked pretty hard,” he says. “I put my 110, 115 percent, like all my matches. I put all of my ability into it.”

“It was an egg,” he adds, exasperated. “What’s going to hatch out of an egg?”

THE GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S END

Hector continued touring with WWF for a month without incident, save for one. Hector was again asked to do his Gobbledy Gooke routine, this time at Madison Square Garden. The crew told him they would shine a spotlight as he approached the ring. He agreed.

When announcer Howard Finkel called out the Gooker’s name, the familiar “Turkey in the Straw” beat dropped. Hector was ushered through the curtain by stage hands. That’s when he says he knew he was in for some trouble.

Hector walked through the curtain into pitch darkness. Suddenly, he was hit with a spotlight. It shined through the large white eyeballs of the costume's mask, and he couldn’t see a thing.

In his telling, he says he was hurried down the aisle by crew members, feeling his way as he went. He eventually got to the ring, busted his knee on the steel steps, climbed to the apron, and, unable to see what he was doing, flipped over the top rope and came crashing down to the mat with a thud.

“All I can see is white,” he recalls. “I can’t see where the ground is. I can’t land on the ground, because I see white. So I landed on my butt. “


WWE

The main lights were eventually turned on, and a frazzled Hector finished up his routine. Backstage, he was greeted by an upset Vince McMahon, who simply walked away from him. He was later approached by the legendary announcer “Gorilla” Monsoon.

“You couldn’t see, right?” Gorilla asked.

“Yeah,” Hector responded.

“We figured that out,” Gorilla deadpanned.

It was an impossible situation, according to Hector. About a month after his debut at Survivor Series, he was out of a job. He said there was no formal conversation. The company just stopped booking and paying him.

Looking back on the incident decades later, Hector isn’t bitter. This was not always the case. Losing the WWF opportunity was tough on him and his family, and he went to work as a gymnastics coach before wrestling again for other, smaller companies. Around Survivor Series 1991, he says he was again offered the Gobbledy Gooker gig. He did not accept.

As time went on, Hector’s outlook changed. He now considers any alleged slight as “water under the bridge.” His younger brother, the late Eddie Guerrero, and his nephew, Chavo Guerrero Jr., both went on to become WWF stars. He’s happy with the way his family was later treated by the company, has no ill will, and characterizes most of his experiences working with McMahon and others as very professional. After ending his tenure with Total Nonstop Action in early 2015, Hector started a wrestler consulting business and hopes to use the skills he learned under his father and through his more than 30 years in the business to help other wrestlers succeed.

In 2001, Hector even agreed to don the Gobbledy Gooker suit in Houston for Wrestlemania X-Seven, in a “gimmick battle royal” with 18 other gimmicky wrestlers from WWE’s past. It was an over-the-top-rope elimination match, and he was eliminated by Tugboat, a heavyset wrestler known in the 1980s for dressing like a sailor.

At the 2006 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, Hector Guerrero sat in the crowd to watch the induction of his late brother Eddie.

That same night saw the induction of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who recounted that infamous experience he and the Gooker shared 27 years ago.

“Hector, we had a lot of fun,” Okerlund said. “But all is forgotten.”

Sorry Gene, but the Gooker lives on. And Hector wouldn’t have it any other way.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail
MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

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