“Captain” Lou Albano (1933-2009) — professional wrestling legend and star of Cyndi Lauper videos — was what my grandmother called “a nice Italian boy.” Never mind that by the time she met him, he was in his 50s; and, that to an entire industry of professional wrestlers, being called “nice” would have been the kiss of death. None of that concerned my grandmother, who never saw Captain Lou at work. She just liked him because he praised her tortellini en brodo.
According to family lore, Captain Lou was introduced to us thanks to an encounter after hours at a local bar in our hometown of Carmel, NY, a bedroom community an hour north of New York City. He took one look at my brother, noting a build worthy of a professional wrestling career, and said, ” I gotta meet whoever’s feeding you!” He drove my brother home, and was instructed to walk over to the back door leading to my grandmother’s apartment. Within an hour, Captain Lou was treated to a feast, the size and scope of which normally was reserved for High Holy Days. Clearly, a visit from a local celebrity — and “nice Italian boy” — was on par with the most holy of days.
Lou was a man who liked to eat, liked home cooked meals, and liked to meet friends and visit their families. He was the sort that, upon discovering a fellow Italian, would give a slap on the back and declare himself a “paesan.” Lou was also the kind of person who would never let a man drive himself home while drunk. My brother was so drunk that early Sunday morning at the bar that to this day he has no memory of it. In retrospect, it’s clear Lou invited himself over that first time so my brother wouldn’t have to drive. I’m sure he would prefer people think he just liked his brunch.
A proper Italian Sunday brunch
After my grandmother passed away, Lou had his Sunday brunch at a local golf course. No one in this little town cooks at home anymore. Now, with Lou’s passing, even the expectation of a proper Italian Sunday brunch is gone.
As with many Italian Catholics, Sundays were important to Lou. We’d see him three pews away at the 5:30 mass, every week, no matter what. The juxtaposition of Saturday mornings in the wrestling ring, carrying on his posturing and macho banter, with Sunday afternoons, quietly genuflecting in church, seemed natural to him; not contradictory at all. As a kid, it seemed obvious to me that his profession did not define him as much as his religion did.
From our close vantage point, Captain Lou looked to my mother and me like the kind of man who understood prayer. Professional wrestlers are, as we all know, stunt men. They know exactly how to fall so it looks like their spine is snapping in two, without feeling a thing. It seemed like Lou was applying the opposite effect to his posture in prayer. He knelt with his entire body — as if he was praying with his entire being — free of fame and notoriety, free of the physicality adopted by professional performers. I’ve never before or since seen someone who looked so joyfully released from his own identity while lost in prayer.
A loss on many levels
Later, using the same sort of cartoonish, punk-new wave kitschy character he portrayed in the ring, and on TV as Cyndi Lauper’s dad and as Mario in The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, Lou was all over local Carmel television hawking carpets, pizza and used cars for local vendors. Somehow, instead of detracting from his stature, it added to our town’s.
My childhood friends and I talked about Lou’s passing and the different levels of loss. First, another authentic piece of the innocent 80s is gone, replaced by more postmillennial viral mockery of, well, everything. Second, the stature boost we felt our small town had thanks to Captain Lou is lost. The only thing worse than growing up in a cultural wasteland was growing up in a town painfully close to, but still outside of, the City of New York, the epicenter of all that was right and cool. It amplified the cultural void we felt so acutely. But along came Captain Lou, in his cheap flip-flops, Hawaiian shirts and rubber band jewelry, and suddenly our little town had cachet.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, the relief Lou gave our suburban teenage angst is no longer available. My high school friends and I clung to each other — we were the only kids into punk rock in a town that was strictly no-nonsense working class. They didn’t know what to make of us; but we felt like Lou got us. On occasion, when there was nothing else to do, we’d all pile into the car and go “Lou hunting”; driving by all his usual haunts until we found him. He always talked to us. And we felt he was there to show us it wasn’t so bad; he could live anywhere he wanted, but he stayed here. We could handle it; it was going to be OK. Now, with his passing, Carmel is just like any of the other bedroom communities of New York. One friend said there’s going to be a huge void in local television advertising, but it goes deeper than that. If we still all lived there, we’d have no reason to go “Lou hunting.” And it’s his continuing presence that will be missed most.
When, years after his national celebrity faded, he agreed to manage a friend’s band — a local pseudo-punk outfit with very little potential, honestly — he said only one thing: “I only drink red wine, and not too much.” He wouldn’t accept money. He saw them trying to build something from nothing and, in an act of charity, agreed to go onstage before their last song, raise his fist and yell, “Let’s RAAWK!” The audience — suburban kids just like us, who reveled in the memory of early 80s pro wrestling — lost their minds. My friend was not above recognizing that Captain Lou’s appearance was the highlight of their set.
One of the strangest — and most poignant — things a friend said about Captain Lou was simply this: “I stopped being afraid of rubber bands because of him.” She is, of course, referring to his employment of them for facial decoration. In all the years I knew him, I had countless chances to ask him why he did it. But it never occurred to me. It just seemed part of the package; they went along with the flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts. If I had the chance now, though, I’d ask. I’d also tell him his early 80s DIY facial jewelry had an impact he might not have known. I’m sad that Captain Lou will never knew he made one little girl unafraid of rubber bands. Because taking away a fear of rubber bands sounds absurd to most of us, but Captain Lou Albano was the kind of man who would know exactly how important that is.
Originally published October 21, 2009.