In the 1960’s, many young men joined the fight for equality in the civil rights movement. Boycotts, marches, and protests were organized by groups like Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Georgia, organizing sit-ins in the South. They often faced harsh and violent opposition, like the day known as Bloody Sunday, when police and sheriffs attacked the unarmed marchers with billy clubs and tear gas. One young man who was beaten that day was “Gen.” Larry Platt, best known lately for auditioning for American Idol with the song Pants on the Ground.
Life started off pretty normal for Charles Sherwood Stratton when he was born to a housekeeper and carpenter in 1838, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Pretty normal ended when he was six months old, as did his growth. He basically stopped growing. He was otherwise healthy, and doctors were stumped. Normal ended completely in the winter of 1842, when one Phineas Taylor Barnum showed up at his family’s home, chasing rumors of an extraordinarily small child. 4 year old Charlie was now in show businesses, earning his family $3/wk. Barnum immediately began promoting his tiny talent. When Charlie and his mother arrived the following week, they were surprised to see banners on the American Museum, bragging about the arrival of General Tom Thumb.
In typical Barnum style, he had taken absolutely wild liberties with the truth. He took the name Tom Thumb from an English fairytale character, basically Thumbelina. Posters and handbills claimed that General Tom Thumb had been brought to America from Europe “at great expense,” and that he was 11 years ago. That’s good, we wouldn’t want people to think you were exploiting a little kid. Who am I fooling? This was pre-child labor laws — pre-any labor laws — there was no such cultural concept of exploitation. Charlie and his mother moved into an apartment in the museum building, and Barnum set to work teaching Charles to sing, dance, and do impressions. And act like a pre-teen instead of a preschooler, I guess. Barnum recalled him as “an apt student with a great deal of native talent and a keen sense of the ludicrous.” By all accounts, young Charlie Stratton loved performing and he and Barnum were genuinely fond of one another.
General Tom Thumb was a sensation! He wore different costumes on stage, from a Scottish Highlander –[sfx movie] not that kind [sfx bagpipes] that kind– to Napoleon Bonaparte. Barnum even did a double act with Tom Thumb, playing the straight man to Thumb’s jokes. Tickets were hot commodities. Before long, Barnum was paying the Strattons $50 a week, an enormous salary for the 1840s. Two years into his career, the General, age 6, I’ll remind you, Gen. Thumb and Barnum set sail for England, armed with a letter of introduction from newspaper publisher Horace Greeley to see the American ambassador in London. Barnum was angling to see Queen Victoria, though he’d hedged his bets so the trips wouldn’t be a waste if he failed — he’s advertised a number of Thumbs shows as a limited number of farewell performances, drumming up fresh interest.
By some amount of luck and I’m sure no small amount of cunning, a royal audience was arranged and Barnum and the little General were invited to visit Buckingham Palace and perform for Queen Victoria, her family, and a few dozen nobles. According to Barnum, so grain of salt on the veracity of the account, “They were standing at the farther end of the room when the doors were thrown open, and the General walked in, looking like a wax doll gifted with the power of locomotion. Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him. The General advanced with a firm step, and as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, “Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!” A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.” He then went into his usual routine. The night was a smashing success, plus or minus at the very end when the Queen’s poodle suddenly attacked the tiny dancer, but he was able to fend the dog off with his little walking stick.
The visit to Queen Victoria was perhaps the greatest publicity windfall of Barnum’s entire career and it made General Tom Thumb’s theater performances a huge hit in London. Barnum had a miniature carriage built to take General Tom Thumb around the city. Even though Londeres were clamoring for more, Thumb set off to play other European capitals. Back in the states, he toured…the states, then back to Europe, then a truly amazing thing happened — he started growing again. Over the course of his teens he grew from 2 ft tall to 3. In the early 1860s, General Tom Thumb met and fell in love with another diminutive performer in Barnum’s employ, Lavinia Warren, and the two became engaged. Barnum, of course, was thrilled [sfxx ch-ching] and promoted their 1863 wedding, describing them as “The Loving Liliputians.” Crowds wanting to see the compact couple had to be held back by the police. The couple stood atop a grand piano at the reception to greet some 10,000 guests at the reception at the Metropolitan Hotel. The best man at the wedding was fellow performer George Washington Morrison Nutt, who carried the fake rank of Commodore, and the maid of honor was Minnie Warren, Lavinia’s sister.
On their honeymoon trip, General Tom Thumb and Lavinia were guests of President Abraham Lincoln at the White House. They were a worldwide sensation, touring the globe for three years, even making it to Australia, which is an arduous enough journey now, let alone in the last 1860’s. In a few of the couple’s performances, they held a baby they said was theirs. They did have a child who would have been of average height, but they didn’t live to see two years old. Some researchers believe that Barnum filled in the gap by renting a child from local foundling homes. General and Mrs Tom Thumb continued to perform until the 1880s, when they retired to a custom mansion in Massachusetts, built to scale.
Elvis Presley was the king of rock ‘n’ roll and to this day, he is one of the highest-posthumously-earning celebrities. To folks in the 50’s, he seemed to come out of nowhere and skyrocketed to unprecedented fame. In reality, his career was carefully orchestrated by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, a Dutch immigrant and shrewd businessman, described as a cross between P.T. Barnum and W.C. Fields. He was a larger-than-life figure, a legend in his own right, and by legend, I mean myth. There was no such person as Col Tom Parker, but the truth of his life didn’t come out until Parker was in his seventies and Presley was long dead.
“Parker” was actually born in the city of Breda in the Netherlands, making him Dutch. His real name was Andreas van Kuijk. When he was still in his teens, Andreas fled the Netherlands by ship, arriving in Canada and making his way to Hoboken, New Jersey. The first of many questionable life decisions. There was no paperwork involved along the way, meaning he’d entered the country illegally. He worked with traveling carnivals and eventually got into music promotion, changing his name to Tom Parker, training away his accent –very convincingly, to his credit, and erasing any mention of his past. His new backstory was that he was Thomas Andrew Parker of Huntingdon, WV, and he wouldn’t hear otherwise from anyone. He’d been awarded the rank of Col not by the military, but by the governor of Louisiana in 1948, for work Parker did for his election campaign.
I should explain this concept of a civilian government official bestowing an honorary military rank on someone, not only for the benefit of several listeners overseas, but for most of my American listeners, I’d hazard. Let me take a quick poll. Show of hands if you’ve always assumed Col Sanders was retired military…and show of hands if you knew he was a Kentucky colonel *and what that means. Actually, I’ve just remembered I can’t see you, so let me know on social media instead. Also, should I start a TikTok? Anyway, the ceremonial colonelcy isn’t an American invention, which is somehow a relief and a disappointment simultaneously. During the Renaissance, a lord and prominent gentlemen could purchase the rank of colonel. This would require them to *be a colonel, but as luck would have it, they could deputize a lieutenant colonel to do the actual work for them. In the colonies, men of the landed gentry were given the title to commission companies, financing local militias, or head a colony, but no need to muck in with soldiers. Now, the words “colony” and “colonel” look very similar, but etymology is as etymology does and they aren’t related.
Though he was a ceremonial colonel and never outright *claimed to be a military colonel, he was more than happy to *hint that he was a full bird colonel during his service in WWII and just leave people to fill in the rest. Parker did serve in the Army but only “attained” the rank of
private. Parker enlisted in the Army in 1929 for two years, then re-upped. Don’t ask me how he was able to enlist, being an illegal alien living under an assumed name and whatnot. Chalk it up to being more likely to believe something without proof in those days and/or vital records being easier to falsify. I mean, you could have a New Jersey driver’s license without a picture in it until the 90’s. Parker’s second hitch didn’t go so well. In 1932, he walked off his post and was declared AWOL, absent without leave. He was quickly arrested and spent the next few months in a military prison, which would be harsh enough, but he spent much of that time in solitary confinement. This took an enormous toll on him mentally, resulting in some sort of “breakdown.” The Washington Post reported that he spent several months recuperating at Walter Reed Army Hospital and was officially diagnosed as being in a “Constitutional Psychopathic State.” That’s my band’s studio album. Parker was discharged from the army. When WWII broke out a decade later, Parker knew the need for cannon fodder would mean standards would drop dramatically and he’d be at risk of being drafted. To make sure this wouldn’t happen, he deliberately gained as much weight as possible. Yes, like that Simpsons episode, with a similar target weight, but Parker put on even more weight, until he weighed around 300 lbs/126kg.
In 1955, Parker heard about a talented young singer who was quickly amassing a following, especially with teenage girls and young women, Elvis Presley. Parker met Presley during an intermission between two shows Presley was playing at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis. Parker immediately set out to make himself part of Presely’s budding career. He was able to convince Presley’s then-manager Bob Neal to take him on to work jointly to make Elvis a household name. As sure as god made little green apples, a year later, Elvis set the airwaves on fire, with “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Hound Dog,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Blue Suede Shoes,” not to mention a cross-country tour, lot of television appearances, including the infamously-cropped Ed Sullivan Show, *and his first movie, Love Me Tender. Bob Neal was only there for the first quarter of that explosive year before Parker was managing Presley full time.
Colonel Tom Parker was now the manager of the biggest musical star in the world, with cajones to match. Where most managers take a small percentage of the earnings of their performer clients, Parker’s rate was 20%, initially. As the gross rose, so did his take. Ten years in, Parker was taking a god-smacking, mind-numbing *50%. And he constantly pushed Elvis to earn more, with one major exception; hold that asterisk in your mind for a sec. It’s estimated that Elvis earned ovr $1B in the course of his career. The contract that granted Parker the 50% also allowed him to charge additional fees for the services he provided, grinding away more of the bankroll. Parker was now making more than the artist he managed.
In addition to brutal touring and recording schedules,Parker signed Elvis to star in some really bad movies, though sadly not bad enough to come back around to being enjoyable. But they made *tons of money, a collective $2.2 billion in domestic gross alone. Plus each movie meant soundtrack royalties and the inherent publicity for the rest of Elvis’ catalog. What’s weird, or extra evil, is that Elvis was sought for good parts in good movies, like West Side Story, Midnight Cowboy, and A Star is Born. But no, Elvis had to make a movie where he sings “Yoga is as Yoga Does.” I’d include a clip, but I don’t want the YT port of the show to get copyright struck and honestly, it sounds like it would be painful to listen to.
in 1973, Parker sold the rights to Presley’s recording catalog to RCA for a ridiculously lowball $5.4 million. From 69-76, Elvis took up “residency” in Vegas. Towards the end, he was playing two shows a night, 7 days a week. Elvis at one point when over 45 weeks without a day off, playing a total of 636 consecutive shows. Each week earninged Elvis $125k, meaning it earned Parker $62.5k every week. This was when Elvis eating and substance abuse really started to spiral out of control. There are many who say Parker hastened Presley’s death by pushing him so hard for so long. This wasn’t regular, workaday greed; Parker gambled. And not well, by the looks of things. Elvis being in Vegas earned Parker the money he needed to wind up in debt to the casinos and bookies, whereupon he’d push Presley to earn more money.
Parker kept as many earning avenues open as possible, with one ginormous exception. Despite being one of the biggest acts in the world, Elvis didn’t see the world. The closest he got to an international tour was in 1957 for three dates in Canada. Calling that an international tour is real ‘weekend party in a field band’ energy. But, yeah, I totally would have done that if I’d booked a Game of Thrones burlesque show in Toronto if I could have. For those who got on this crazy train at the last station, I produced the only GGRM-approved GoT burlesque tribute show and we got to perform for the man himself. Notably, Parker did not accompany Presley on the trip. He didn’t have a passport –no word in if he’d ever tried– and he’d’ve been almost guaranteed to be found out. He also couldn’t let Elvis out of his immediate control. Parker consistently turned down offers for Presley to tour in Europe and Japan, deals often worth millions of dollars.
It didn’t have to be like that, though. Parker could have become a naturalized citizen. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 had offered amnesty to people in the country illegally. Plus, the manager of the biggest star in the world definitely had lots of powerful friends. It would realistically possible for him to reach the president directly and ask for help. There’s one theory why Parker chose to hide in plain sight rather than getting right — he was hiding from justice after murdering a woman back in his hometown of Breda.
In 1929, a woman named Anna van den Enden was killed behind her husband’s grocery store, during a robbery. This was roughly the same time Parker stowed away for Canada. The police investigation at the time didn’t turn up evidence linking Parker to the crime, but a journalist did receive a tip that it was Parker, identified by his real name. It certainly would explain Parker’s hurried exodus and his intense secrecy over his true identity.
In 1981, four years after Elvis died, Albert Goldman published a biography of the singer that not only excoriated Parker, it exposed his true identity to the world. At the same time, his financial malfeasance also came to light. Memphis Probate judge Blanchard Tual investigated the estates on behalf of Elvis’s 12-year-old daughter, Lisa Maria. Tual found that, in addition to the ridiculous 50% cut –which Parker once defended as “No, Elvis takes 50% of what *I make.”– Parker had defrauded Elvis’s estate over $7mil, in the previous three years alone.
Parker, ever the showman, ever the conman, primed a brilliant legal strategy. Did I brilliant? I meant idiotic car crash waiting to happen. Parker officially claimed that he was a citizen of no nation –which is a thing, it’s called statelessness- and thus not subject to any country’s laws –which I’m pretty sure is not a thing. His argument was since he’d served in the U.S. military without permission from the Dutch government, that meant he had forfeited his Dutch citizenship. But he’d never been naturalized as a U.S. citizen, so he wasn’t subject to American laws, either. Sadly, the theory was never tested in a court of law. The case was settled out of court.
In my tomboy days –do they still have tomboys?– there were some stand-out selections in my entertainment options. I never cared for Hannah-Barbera cartoons or cutesy things like My Little Ponies. Every day after school, it was Thundercats, SilverHawks and GI Joe, and on the weekend, monster trucks and WWF. Good times. The weekday and weekend entertainment overlapped, and reality and fantasy blurred, in the form of a conspicuous chin and the fatigue-wearing man attached to it, Sgt. Slaughter.
Sgt. Slaughter is the persona of Robert Remus, born in Detroit in 1948. He made his first wrestling appearance with the National Wrestling Alliance in the late 70’s, wrestling under his real name, before moving to the American Wrestling Association, before joining the nascent World Wrestling Federation in 1980. By the by, I will be referring to that company as WWF when talking about pro-wrestling prior to 2002, when they lost a trademark case against the World Wildlife Foundation. Remus spent his first two years in the WWF as a villain or heel, under the management of the Grand Wizard, whom I immediately had to look up further because that sounds like a rank in the Klan, but no, it’s just a silly character with a sequined turban, carry on with your activities. It wasn’t long before the character of Sgt Slaughter was created for and around Remus, who looked the part to a T once his was in clostume — jungle boost, Vietnam era BDU pants, black tank top, aviator glasses, and the four-dent felt campaign hat of Marine drill instructors. He very quickly rose to the status of number one contender on the strength of his “cobra clutch” challenges where he would seat wrestlers in a chair in the ring, and apply the hold, offering $5,000 to anyone who could break it. Slaughter’s wrestling career is probably best remembered for his rivalries with Hulk Hogan and, the peanut butter to his jelly, the Iron Sheik, just one example of the occasionally still used trope of ‘scary foreigner bad guy.’
Over the course of the next thirty years, he left and returned to the WWF four time and was inducted into the wrestling hall of fame in 2004, but I want to stay in the 80’s for a moment longer. A Modified version of Sgt. Slaughter joined an elite covert special mission unit known as G.I. Joe, first appearing in the five-part TV episode entitled “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!” In fact, Slaughter’s first departure from the WWF stemmed from a dispute over whether or not his likeness could be used by Hasbro for GI Joe toys. Slaughter is one of only a few real physical people to be G.I. Joe figures, along with such names as NFL player William “The Refrigerator” Perry, fellow wrestler Roddy Piper, and surprisingly astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Let’s take a brief moment to remember Michael Collins, the third Apollo astronaut who never got to step onto the moon, who passed away the week this episode was recorded. … Slaughter also appeared twice as a special guest on The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, which starred fellow wrestler Captain Lou Albano. During the mid-1980s, Sgt. Slaughter released a full-length LP, Sgt. Slaughter and Camouflage Rocks America. It featured a number of original songs, including “The Cobra Clutch,” as well as a cover of Neil Diamond’s “America”. Look, it was a weird time. Things were tense with Russia, there were shoulder pads in every garment, and somebody told Eddie Murphy and Don Johnson it would be a good idea to sing.
The character of the Marine drill instructor was an easy sell to the public of the ’80s and ’90s, but Remus himself never served in the military. You’re probably saying, so what? It’s just a character. Children get confused by what’s fake and what’s real in wrestling, but adults don’t. Therein lies the problem. Sometimes, the adults get fooled, too. And sometimes, just sometimes, that confused adult is the wrestler himself. There’s a word that entered my vocabulary during this week’s research and now I wish to insert it into your brain — kayfabe. In professional wrestling, kayfabe is the portrayal of staged events within the industry as “real” or “true”, specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not staged. Basically, it means never breaking character. Some wrestlers maintain their kayfabe even with other wrestlers, far from public eyes, like the Iron Sheik, who was actually a second-generation American.
Remus seems to blur that line even further. He went beyond “pretending” to be a Marine and into “claiming” terroitory. In a 2015 interview with KMEL radio, for example, the interviewer called him a genuine veteran “who had military experience.” Slaughter then replied, “I didn’t even think about using that character” when he first broke into wrestling, until one day inspiration supposedly struck. “So I went down to my locker box, pulled out my campaign cover [i.e. Marine hat] and got my swagger stick out,” he explained. “When my wife got home from work, I had her take a disposable camera, take some pictures of me growling, and being bad, and took ’em over to a wrestling office — Verne Gagne’s wrestling office.” This strikes me as unlikely to be true, since there was a span of years between him getting into wrestling and him becoming Sgt Slaughter, during which he also played a masked character called Super Destroyer Mark II.
Questions about the truth behind Sgt. Slaughter’s military history have swirled around the wrestler for years. For instance, a Baltimore Sun article from March 24, 1985, with Slaughter’s picture plastered on the cover, said, “Slaughter dodges all questions about his armed service record — for good reason.” That Sun article has resurfaced over the years, periodically reignited the question of “abuse of the uniform.”
So what’s the big deal, him saying he served when he didn’t? It’s just a really public version of lying on your resume. For starters, it’s an actual, factual crime. In 1984, “Congress passed a law prohibiting the use of the Marine Corps emblem and insignia by civilians.” This gave the Marine Corps more leverage to go after Remus. They were aware of him, as most of the country was, even without dozens of people writing letters demanding they do something. The Corps “fired off a letter demanding that Slaughter stop because his actions ‘reflect discredit on those who have served.’” They could have gone further, even prosecuting Remus, but those who make such decisions always decided against it. One suspects this is because Sgt Slaughter, who was a face character or good guy, was in his own way good publicity for the Marine Corps.
Another reason Remus’ continued claims are problematic is that the WWE partners with multiple veterans’ organizations, uses Remus/Slaughter as a company ambassador at military events, and refer to him as a veteran. Slaughter was included in a Veterans Day 2018 listicle of wrestlers who really did serve. “After graduating from high school,” wrote digital content producer Kevin Powers, “young Robert Remus joined the United States Marine Corps where he earned the moniker ‘Sgt. Slaughter.’”
Not everyone is as willing to let Remus slide, or let the public continue to believe what comes easiest. Verifiable veteran turned pro-wrestler turned politician, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, spoke out against Slaughter in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1991 and on The Colbert Report in 2008. Why still talk about it in 2008, thirty years after Remus started wrestling? Because Remus is still at it, even in his 70’s, with most of those who watched him as starry-eyed youngsters now dealing with hot flashes and IRA contributions. Remus has long given — and continues to give — out-of-character interviews where he’s clearly speaking as Bob Remus and still claims to have served in the Marine Corps. He showed up for a 2019 interview, wearing a camouflage jacket, mirrored sunglasses, and a drill sergeant hat with a blinged-up band. This noteworthy because he was going on the Jim Norton & Sam Roberts SiriusXM *radio show. During the interview, he asserted he entered the Marine Corps in 1968 and served in Vietnam. The Marine corps responded to this by pointing out, for the umpteenth time, “that when Remus is in character as Sgt. Slaughter for public appearances, such as the 2019 interview, he is speaking as his character, not as Remus.”
And if you’re the sort of person who feels they must point out to children that wrestling is fake, you’re a killjoy and no one likes that. Explain to the child that the outcome is predetermined. I assure you, wrestlers are more stuntmen than they are actors and the injuries they sustain over their careers are very real.
And that’s… So, you’ve probably guessed Gen. Larry Platt isn’t really a general. He got his nickname from the Rev. Hosea Williams because of his heroic efforts on behalf of the civil-rights movement. And his hometown of Atlanta, where he remains a community activist, proclaimed Sept. 4, 2001, Larry Platt Day in Atlanta, because of “his great energy and commitment to equality and the protection of the innocent and for his outstanding service to the Atlanta community and the citizens of Georgia.” This was a decade before American Idol, which he was not allowed to advance in because he was over the age limit of 28. Remember…Thanks…