The Great Count Billy Varga
– Dr. Mike Lano
Watch for a more detailed bio and more photos to come.
Count Billy Varga (age 94) was absolutely beloved in the industry and it was extremely sad news to learn he passed after a very long stay at that nursing facility. As with Red Bastien and others, it was frustrating that this decades-long chronicler of the wrestling business who nearly knew everyone and everything pro wrestling, would begin forgetting all he’d accumulated. For Gene Lebell, John Tolos and his very best friends, he maintained his famous smile and quiet manner till the end.
But we’ll never forget his accomplishments, friendship and love.
Billy of course was based out of Los Angeles/Hollywood wrestling office and our various 50′s SoCal territories before Cal Eaton basically partnered with longtime wrestler/promoter/booking genius Jules Strongbow. Billy said he even contributed some ideas backstage to Jules and Jules later booking equal genius promoter in Charlie “Mr” Moto, Sandor Szabo and yes, even Lou Thesz. He was a roadmate of Fred Blassie, Dick Beyer, Don Manoukian, John Tolos, Warren and son Golden Boy Tricky Nickie Bockwinkel, Wild Red Berry, “Cowboy Rocky” Johnny Valentine, Dick Beyer, Lord James Blears, and countless others. He also wrestled up and down the West Coast and was one of those early stars traipsing to Japan soon after Thesz, the Duseks, the Sharpe Brothers paved the early way for Fred, Dick and The Count. And one of his total best friends along with Gene Lebell, Tolos were the Christie Brothers “who played a ton of ribs on me for years without a receipt,” he said the last time I interviewed him.
In the 50′s and 60′s, he was one of those classic, caped heels who never had to shout (Nick had often cited him and others for their refined patter expertise on the stick) and was loved as much as he was gently “hated” by our SoCal fans. He appeared on many tv shows(besides channel 5 KTLA Los Angeles wrestling each week), particularly in the 60′s. Most memorably with Jimmy Lennon and Judo Gene Lebell on that famous Munsters episode. And he and Gene on the Jack Benny tv show and so many others. Billy said he’d even played the heavy on nationally syndicated radio shows like Fibber McGee and Molly! And when Iron Mike Mazurki founded Cauliflower Alley Club, Billy was front and center at every Spaghetti Factory lunch on through our bigger one-day Saturday spectaculars and award banquets at the Sportsman’s Lodge on Ventura in “the Valley.” He’d maintained his friendships with everyone and when Gene Kiniski came to his lone CAC, he made sure The County, Tony Borne and Golden Greek John Tolos were seated next to him at his table with June Byers and Penny Banner.
As gentlemanly as Billy was in his “heel” days, he was even more quiet and disarmingly charming in his CAC days, helping our Board whenever he could. Teaching others, and just enjoying life of “a near cowboy. That’s what I’d like to be,” he told me in 1990. “I always loved wrestling of course, but also loved horses and ranch life just as much. All my friends are pro wrestlers like me, so that’ll never come out of my blood. They’re the best people, you know.” Billy didn’t really go for suits and ties and often wore rocks he’d dug up and polished affixed to his famous cowboy lanyards and western-wear suits he’d shopped for at Nudie’s Western Clothiers in the Valley, who’d outfitted everyone from Elvis Presley to The Duke (John Wayne), who Billy counted on as friends.
*Got some nice quotes on Billy from fellow SoCal wrestling historians:
1) I spent a very fascinating evening with the Count one night in the late 70′s at the very progressive Fox Venice theatre in Venice Beach, Ca. They were having a very sparsely attended benefit for the Hollywood Sign with a handful of celebrities (Scatman Crothers for one) and there was a party in the upstairs projection lounge. The Count and I hit it off and then proceeded to put the make on a quite attractive mother and daughter combination — he was going after the mother, myself the daughter. Neither of us were successful, but it was a great, “back to High School” type of evening. — Johnny Legend
2) About 10 or 12 years ago, I had a long phone talk with Billy Varga. I remember some of what he told me.
He had no choice. His father forced him into being a wrestler.
He told me that Hugh Nichols was always taking him to the gym and giving him severe beatings on the mat. Billy praised Nichols as being a great wrestler. Billy taught his wife Rosebud how to cook.
At the time I talked with him, Billy said that he had received a check that morning for an old TV show.
He mentioned growing up in Lorain, Ohio, and I talked about going to the Lorain Public Library for research.
– “Rasputin Don”
– Dr. Mike Lano