Friday, June 11, 1999 | 9:15 a.m.
What: "Ladies International Wrestling Association Golden Girls Extravaganza No. 9."
Where: Imperial Palace hotel-casino.
When: 8 p.m. today.
Tickets: $20, available at the door.
Information: Call 794-3261.
By day she's a perky Southern peach, a sprightly senior who gracefully declines to reveal her age and speaks with a robust Southern accent by way of South Carolina.
She's simply lovable Lillian Ellison.
But by night -- tonight, specifically -- she's simply fabulous. "The Fabulous Moolah," to be exact.
"By next year I will have been involved with professional wrestling for seven decades," Moolah -- er, Ellison -- said. "I'll wrestle till I'm 100 years old and I'll announce my retirement that night. I'll be the George Burns of professional wrestling."
Probably the most famous figure in women's professional wrestling history, Ellison and her Ladies International Wrestling Association colleagues host the Golden Girls Extravaganza No. 9 at the Imperial Palace. The event features three title bouts, a mixed tag-team match and a 15-woman battle royal.
Ellison and compatriot "Great Mae" Young top the show by taking on the two survivors of the battle royal. A coin will then be flipped. The winner of the toss takes on Young, who is an energetic 76. The loser gets Ellison.
(Gamblers should take note that the Imperial Palace sports book is not listing a betting line for any of tonight's matches.)
Many of the competitors are old enough to be great-grandmothers, with the emphasis on "great."
"We're in great shape," Young said. "I'm confident, I feel great and you'll see some great wrestling. I'm rarin' to go."
Off the top turnbuckle, even?
"You never know," Young said with a giggle. "Show up and find out."
The event is the centerpiece of the LIWA's annual convention in Las Vegas. Formed in 1984 by Ellison, Young and their women's pro wrestling contemporary Therese Theis, the LIWA's chief objective is to raise enough money through donations and shows such as tonight's to build a retirement center for retired male and female wrestlers.
The discussion of assisting elderly former wrestlers in their twilight years began in 1984 when Ellison, Young and Theis were headlining a card in San Francisco.
"We went to dinner that night and felt we needed to do something to back up old wrestlers, to help them along in their later years," Young said. "We started calling some of the girls with this idea of forming an organization to raise money."
The following year at the Aladdin, the LIWA hosted its first convention. But raising money has proven a challenge, and even two of the three co-founders have no idea how much is needed to even break ground on such a project.
"It's so hard to raise money," Young said. "We haven't raised enough money to even start construction. When it starts pouring in, and we think it will, we'll have a financial consultant or someone help us out."
One idea being floated by promoter Carmine DeSpirito, president of Mid-American Wrestling, is to have wrestlers throughout the country donate $1 of their purse each time they compete for the LIWA cause. The organization founders would like to see organizations nationwide buy into the projet.
"There are cards all over the country, big national shows, regional shows, small-town shows," Ellison said. "That money would add up very quickly."
Another obvious revenue source are the two major international professional wrestling organizations, the World Wrestling Federation and rival World Championship Wrestling. Ellison and Young are former WWF stars under founder Vince McMahon, whose son, Vince Jr., has ushered in the age of fireworks, flashing lights, off-color antics and mammoth cable and pay-per-view events.
"We've already had support from the WWF in terms of them buying ads in our programs and making donations," Ellison said. "We're going to try to get more support from them, believe me, because that's where the money is. We're going to keep working until we can't work anymore."
The tireless twosome was in town a week ago, accommodating radio and television interviews and working 14 hours a day to organize the convention and tonight's show.
"It's our life," Young said. "It's been our life since almost as long as we've been alive."
Without question, there are no more qualified experts, spokeswomen and ambassadors in the world of women's pro wrestling than "Great Mae" and "The Fabulous Moolah."
The youngest of 13 children and the only daughter, Ellison grew up a self-described tomboy whose father was a devout professional wrestling fan. When Ellison's mother died when Ellison was 8, her dad used wrestling as a madcap diversion from the family's sadness.
"I saw it many, many times as a little girl and it looked like so much fun," she said. "I took to it immediately. By the time I was 10, I was convinced I could whip anyone."
Employing her athletic prowess and over-the-top, theatrical personality, Ellison joined up with Bill "Elephant Boy" Olives in 1949 and served as ringside second and personal manager.
In other words, she mostly stood in the corner and baited opponents, occasionally leaping into the ring to provide a couple of timely forearm shivers. The duo was billed as "The Elephant Man and Slave Girl Moolah." The act -- and Ellison -- became one of the more popular on the WWF circuit and soon Ellison was wrestling on her own.
(Since then, her former partner has become a Catholic priest. Seriously.)
"It was so tough in those days, just to get sanctioned we had to do a performance for members of the athletic commission to prove we could actually wrestle," Ellison said. "We'd literally have them in the gym watching us."
Ellison became the WWF's dominant personality, dropping the submissive "Slave Girl" alias and adopting "Fabulous." She held the organization's world title belt from 1956-84, flipping opponents and fighting bureaucracy all the way.
"We couldn't even get into New York until 1979," she said. "Vince McMahon was always battling it out in court so we could have a show there."
When they finally were allowed in for the first time in '79, the WWF women joined the men at Madison Square Garden. The 20,000-seat arena sold out.
"I can't remember ever having a show at Madison Square Garden that wasn't a sellout," Ellison said. "We played to huge houses all over the country."
Ellison finally gave up regular competition soon after forming the LIWA. She and Young run a wrestling school in Columbia, S.C.
"When we're gone, we want to leave something," Ellison said. "We might not be around to benefit, but we want to help people and have that be our legacy."
The Great one
Young was also interested in wrestling, but not professional. At least not while a youngster growing up in Sand Springs, Okla. She was a full-fledged member of the Sand Springs High School wrestling team.
"I was good," she said. "This was true wrestling, the real thing."
She went to her first professional show in nearby Tulsa while still in school to see then-world champion Mildred Burke in action.
"After I saw her I went up to the promoter and asked if I could take her on," Young, a pro wrestler since 1940, said. "The promoter wouldn't let me near her because I was an amateur."
But a few days later, he did show up at Young's school with two of the better-known pro wrestlers of the era -- Elvira Snodgrass and Gladys "Kill 'Em" Gillam.
"I pinned 'em both," Young said. "Didn't take long, either."
At the age of 17, Young was awarded professional status and spent the next three decades wrestling steadily.
"By steady, I mean five or six nights per week," she said. "We went everywhere, but no one outside the area where we were competing knew what was going on because there was no television coverage back then. We only had a radio broadcast once in a while."
Young cut back her schedule in 1970 after her mother fell ill but continued to wrestle once a week when she had time. She said she's not too fond of the WWF/ WCW full-amperage approach to what started as a campy form of entertainment.
"The wrestlers don't have the same skills as we did because they don't need them," Young said. "It's all showmanship. It's more of an entertainment thing. The women are a joke, they're no better at wrestling than a pet pig."
Now them's fightin' words.
Center of attention
The LIWA hopes to erect its center in Las Vegas, ideally, because many former pro wrestlers have retired to Southern Nevada. The need is urgent, and is embodied in former champion and pioneer Mae Weston, a mentor to Ellison and Young.
Three years ago at age 76, Weston performed what would be her last match at the LIWA convention. She's now living in a nursing home in Westerville, Ohio.
"She still has a lot of life, but she's in a situation where she's living around a bunch of other people who are waiting to die," Ellison said. "You can't feel energy in that situation."
If the LIWA comes to realize its dream, former wrestlers such as Weston would live in the same complex with health-care professionals on hand and a recreation center.
"We can have videos of wrestlers, both men and women, of when they were performing in their heyday," Ellison said. "They can feel alive again and feel the same spunk that we do."
It's a concept that, dare we say, sounds Fabulous.