With the 5th anniversary of Penny Banner’s death coming up on May 12, it is a great time to repost Mike Mooneyham’s eloquent tribute to the legendary woman wrestler.
Pretty Penny Left Beautiful Legacy
It’s never easy writing about the passing of a pro wrestling legend. It’s even harder when the legend happens to be a close friend.
Penny Banner, who I’ve always known and will forever know as “Pretty Penny,” left us early Tuesday, peacefully at home and in the arms of her beloved daughter, Wendi.
The records may list her chronological age as 73, but to those who knew Penny, she was ageless, timeless and forever young.
Penny and other female wrestling legends Ida Mae Martinez and Kay Noble (both at right) – photo by Dr. Mike Lano.
“When I think of my dear friend Penny, I think of ‘57 Chevys, poodle skirts and rock and roll. God bless her. She was the eternal teenager right up until she left this earth,” Les Thatcher said last week.
Amen to that.
Penny Banner’s accomplishments in the wrestling business could fill a book, as they did a few years ago in her autobiography, “Banner Days.” She was the first AWA world women’s champion during the early ‘60s and was perennially ranked among the top two or three female performers in the business during a career that spanned from 1954-77.
The St. Louis native also was a diva long before the wrestling world even considered such a term. The focus of women’s wrestling back then was skill, ability and toughness, not sports entertainment, titillation and eye candy, all staples of today’s product. Penny, though, combined wrestling skill, raw athletic ability and glamorous looks to produce the total package. A drop-dead gorgeous blonde bombshell, she easily could have been the queen of the divas in the current incarnation of the profession.
But an amazing 50 years ago she was a queen of the mat. It was a golden era for the profession, and she was a pioneer who helped usher in the Golden Age of Women’s Wrestling.
Dick Beyer, who achieved worldwide acclaim as The Masked Destroyer, broke into the business around the same time as Penny. Twenty-four years old and just out of college, he started pro wrestling at Al Haft’s gym in Columbus, Ohio.
“There was a very good-looking blonde by the name of Penny Banner training in the same gym,” he recalled. “Needless to say, I had a difficult time trying to concentrate on my training when I just wanted to put my favorite wrestling hold on Penny, ‘the double lip lock.’ I never saw much of Penny during my 39 years of wrestling, but for the last several years we had plenty of time at the CAC (Cauliflower Alley Club) reunions to visit and tell stories about our separate careers.”
“She was beautiful, well-tanned, strong, very sexy, yet wholesome with class,” is how former mat great Cowboy Bill Watts described Penny.
Jody Hamilton, who formed half of one of wrestling’s most successful tag teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s, The Masked Assassins, said Penny’s striking beauty was even greater on the inside. She was, he said, one of the very few people in the business he loved and trusted implicitly.
“Penny was beautiful not only on the outside, but on the inside,” Hamilton said Friday. “I measure beauty more by inner beauty than outer beauty. She was a knockout on the inside as well.”
Many folks share his sentiments. Penny had a unique style that was endearing. One of her suitors in the early years was Elvis Presley, whom she dated several times over a three-year period. The king of rock ’n roll become a regular for Penny’s matches in Memphis and would invite her to his Graceland home after the shows.
“We’d kiss all night long while the guys (the ‘Memphis Mafia’) played pool,” Penny would recall.
Penny, indeed, was captivating. Graceful, beautiful and talented, she was as athletic as most of her male counterparts. She also married the territory’s top star, Johnny Weaver, and that fact made her even more of a fan favorite.
But Penny, who had a six-year run as a heel before marrying Weaver, whom she had met in 1959 in the St. Joseph, Mo., area, lamented that she had to play the role of a babyface when the Weavers moved to Charlotte in the mid-’60s. It was fairly common knowledge among fans that the two were married, and promoters demanded that she work as a crowd favorite.
“I could have been the Buddy Rogers of women’s wrestling,” she once said. “I’m the first girl who started wearing two-piece bathing suits in the ring. I always tried to do something to be memorable and different — something more than just flying mares and dropkicks.”
She and Weaver, who was one of promoter Jim Crockett Sr.’s most popular stars during the ‘60s, also made a pact that she wouldn’t work a territory that he didn’t. With Weaver firmly entrenched in the Mid-Atlantic wrestling office, Penny’s career became limited to dates in the Carolinas and Virginia, working with a select number of women.
Surprisingly enough, Penny never fully knew just how good she was. She once confided that she wished she had realized it years ago while still in the business. But it was tough being a woman in the sport then, and she admitted being scared and nervous at times.
“If I had known I was that good, I would have really put on a show,” she joked. “I would have been like Buddy Rogers. I would have gotten confidence. I never thought of me as being good. I guess I always wanted to be a perfectionist.”
“She was so well respected by her peers — not only as a person, but for her tremendous physical ability in the ring,” said Hamilton. “It was well known among her peers that she was a tremendous icon in our profession, but she never let that go to her head. She was always Penny. What you saw was what you got.”
Penny’s wrestling days ended more than 30 years ago, following an illustrious 23-year career, but she found joy in many other facets of life. She began working in real estate in 1977 and made a comfortable living at it. She joined the Senior Olympic Games at age 56 and captured a shelf full of medals and trophies to show for her efforts. She loved to dance and sing karaoke with friends.
And while their marriage for years had been portrayed as a picture-perfect relationship in magazines and in front of the camera, the reality of the situation was far from it. Penny tried her best to make things work, often immersing herself in things to get her mind off her troubled marriage. She took guitar and clogging lessons. She even put a wig on and went out dancing with the wives of other wrestlers when her husband was on the road. She was petrified of horses, but she learned to train them and to rodeo. She was president of all the 4-H clubs in Charlotte. She became a top competitive swimmer in the Senior Olympics. She was a board member of the Cauliflower Alley Club and regularly attended its annual convention in Las Vegas as well as the Gulf Coast wrestling reunion in Mobile.
The marriage ended, in 1994, after 35 years.
Penny continued to champion the cause of serious women performers, and she never broke kayfabe. She always maintained the purity of the sport and her own image, paving the way for all the girls who followed.
She would joke when recalling how she and other lady wrestlers from her generation had to sew elastic around the legs of their suits to be sure their cheeks didn’t hang out. “Now, anything can hang out,” she’d laugh.
Penny, who was born Mary Ann Kostecki in St. Louis on Aug. 11, 1934, was inducted into the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005 and the St. Louis Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007. This summer she was set to receive the Frank Gotch Award at the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa, the first woman to be so honored.
Always upbeat and positive with a youthful exuberance, Penny was never anything but the life of the party who would brighten up a room when she was in it. “The pleasure of her company was not an experience to be forgotten,” one acquaintance said of her outgoing personality. There was no pretense about Penny. She never failed to offer words of encouragement.
“She was always eager to do something new and always eager to be helpful to everybody,” said her daughter. “That’s what teenagers want to do. They want to go out and explore the world. They have a zest for life, and she’s always had that.”
“Penny was a dear, dear friend,” said Hamilton, who had known her since 1954. “Her passing has left a void in my life that won’t be filled. She was not only a great person, but to me she was one of the greatest of all the female wrestlers. I loved her dearly.
“It was a close relationship that had grown and matured over the years. We were friends through good times and bad times. She was always there if I needed anything, and she knew that if she needed anything I was always there for her. She was such a tremendously loyal friend.”
Penny’s passing has been especially hard on daughter Wendi, who is still grieving over the loss of her father, stricken at the age of 72 less than three months ago with a fatal heart attack. Weaver, just months away from retiring from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department, had gotten a clean bill of health from the doctor two days earlier. He had suffered from a heart arrhythmia a year and a half ago, but had been fine ever since, says his daughter. Three trips to the doctor this year also had checked out fine.
“It was just his time,” says Wendi. “I know he died in a manner behooving him, because he could not have gone through what my mom did.”
Wendi and her mother were like bookends. “She was the loving, caring, supportive mother. She definitely was somebody to look up to.”
Penny had been diagnosed with peritoneal cancer in late 2005. Like every other obstacle in her life — numerous family hardships which resulted from an absentee father, a tumultuous marriage and working in a man’s sport — she faced the disease with remarkable courage and resiliency. Through the surgeries and chemotherapy treatments, this regal lady would greet friends with cheerful phone calls and e-mails, never allowing herself to get down over her own condition.
For photos and the rest of the article, go to http://web.archive.org/web/20080921220819/http://web.charleston.net/news/2008/may/18/pretty_penny_left_beautiful_legacy/
– Mike Mooneyham
Dr. Mike Lano’s photo gallery for Penny Banner http://www.prowrestlingdigest.com/2012/07/21/penny-banner-photo-gallery-by-dr-mike-lano/
Article by The phantom of the Ring featuring Penny Banner and other ring greats http://www.prowrestlingdigest.com/2009/05/18/the-phantom-of-the-ring-—-lipstick-dynamite-and-glowworms-part-27/