The Gobbledy Gooker: Wrestling's Most Bizarre Gimmick

WWE, YouTube
WWE, YouTube

I don’t remember much about being seven years old, but I’ll never forget Thanksgiving Day, 1990, at my Uncle John’s house on Staten Island. While the adults were in the dining room drinking and laughing, I was glued to the television, watching my heroes Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the Legion of Doom. It was WWF’s Survivor Series pay-per-view, and it was basically the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

But that night was memorable for another reason: It was the debut of one of the most celebrated wrestlers in history, a man who’d go on to win seven WWF (now WWE) Heavyweight Championships, as well as an unprecedented and inimitable 21 straight Wrestlemania matches. This man was not a man at all, but an undead monster. A “Phenom,” as WWE announcers would go on to call him.

On that day, the world got its first glimpse of the Undertaker.

This is not his story.

No, this story is about another debut from that night. One that was so perplexing that, more than a quarter-century later, fans are still scratching their heads.

I am talking about what is considered one of wrestling’s worst gimmicks: the Gobbledy Gooker.

WHAT'S IN THE EGG?

The Gobbledy Gooker was actually the most anticipated part of that evening, which only adds to the mystery of how this happened. For the unfamiliar, the Gobbledy Gooker started its life as an egg, hyped heavily on televised WWF broadcasts in the weeks leading up to Survivor Series. The world would find out what's in the egg, it was promised, during the big pay-per-view event on Thanksgiving.

When Survivor Series finally aired, all was revealed. “Mean” Gene Okerlund, the voice of the WWF in the 1980s and early 1990s, enhanced the drama. “Is it the playmate of the month?” Gene asked, to the cheers of men across the arena. “The way it sounds to me right now, the speculating is all over!” I couldn’t handle it anymore. Break open, already, dammit. Break!

When the egg finally did break open, few in the crowd at Connecticut's Hartford Civic Center could believe what was inside: a man in a giant, cartoonish turkey costume.

To say fans were unhappy is an understatement. Watching the video now, you can immediately hear the boos. As the turkey climbs off its platform, “Mean” Gene tries to sell it to the fans. “Take a look at it ladies and gentlemen!” Okerlund exclaims. “Feathers, a beak, a little rooster tail on top. You’ve got a pair of legs like my mother-in-law, pal.”

The Gooker leans in and gobbles into Okerlund's microphone.

"What is with the gobbledy?" Okerlund asks. "Don't tell me you're the Gobbledy Gooker?"

The Gooker grabs Gene, and the two walk to the ring, run the ropes, and dance the show off the air to a cheesy version of “Turkey in the Straw.”

At the time, I was confused, though not as angry as most of the fans in attendance. Looking back, I still don’t see what kind of sense it was supposed to make. After about a month or so, the Gooker was all but gone, little more than a bizarre, tryptophan-aided memory.

If he was supposed to wrestle, the entire costume seemed unreasonable. If he was meant as a mascot, who was he representing? And why did Vince McMahon, who had just hours earlier introduced the great Undertaker, follow it up with this?

I had to know.

So I asked.

THE MAN BEHIND THE BEAK

The Gobbledy Gooker, it turns out, was a wrestler named Héctor Guerrero, a member of the famous Guerrero wrestling family; son of the great Gory Guerrero, brother of Chavo, Mando, and Eddie Guerrero. While not the surefire hall-of-famer Eddie was, Hector’s career was nothing to sneeze at. He won more than two dozen titles across the country, including multiple tag titles, an NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship with Crockett Promotions, and an NWA Florida Heavyweight Championship. In 2007, he moved into the broadcast booth, joining the Spanish commentary team for the Total Nonstop Action promotion, where he remained until 2015.


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Most wrestlers have had a gimmick that doesn’t work, or one that they’re embarrassed by. For example, hard-nosed British technical wrestler William Regal was once known as “The Real Man’s Man,” a guy who chopped wood and wore a hard hat. The Undertaker’s in-character brother, a demon from hell named Kane, was previously a wrestling dentist. It’s all part of the business.

But over the phone from his Florida home, Hector doesn’t sound embarrassed. To him, the entire Gobbledy Gooker thing was a missed business opportunity, one he says could have worked if it was given the right venue. He’s vehement that, in front of the right crowd, it would have been recognized for exactly what it was: Something fun to entertain the kids. “It was always for the children,” Hector told Mental Floss. He says he was not ready for the rowdy northeastern crowd he faced that night in Hartford, and thought that a more kid-friendly audience would have been more appropriate.

“It was not a kid crowd,” he laughs.

GOOKER'S ORDERS FROM THE TOP

Hector started receiving calls from the WWE in early 1990, months before Survivor Series. He was not immediately responsive. Years prior, he says, he had a brief but antagonistic encounter with one of the company’s agents, so he didn’t pay the calls much attention. He eventually relented, however, and soon he was speaking directly to the man in charge himself, current WWE CEO Vince McMahon. The two had a cordial conversation—McMahon was reaching out because wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes had vouched for Hector.

The idea, as Hector remembers, was a fun mascot for kids who would eventually start actually wrestling. Months after getting the call from Vince, Hector tried out for Gooker in person.

There was some initial hesitation about Hector's body type. The WWE was fresh off a 1980s era that prized the godlike physiques of wrestlers like Hulk Hogan. Hector, who had just gone on two tours with the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling, was smaller than most of the roster.

The Guerrero family, from Mexico City, was known for melding the exciting, Mexican lucha libre-style of wrestling—athletic, fast-paced, freeform, and acrobatic—with a traditional American style inspired by old school wrestlers like Dory Funk Sr. Years later, when Hector’s brother Eddie and other lucha-style wrestlers became stars with the WCW, they were exclusively part of the company’s cruiserweight division—wrestling that often demanded a smaller physique.

“They had expected to see me bigger, but at this time, when this all happened, I was on a very strict diet,” Hector says. “They didn’t realize that us light guys could do things that could maybe draw money.”

Nonetheless, Hector credits his small, athletic build and quick skill set as the impetus for WWF’s call. The work he did with WCW as “High Flying” Hector Guerrero was innovative to American audiences, and despite his smaller-than-average size, Hector impressed during his WWE Survivor Series tryout—all while performing in full turkey getup.

He was asked to put on the costume and show what he could do in the ring, and he bounced from rope to rope, doing flips and cartwheels. To see, Hector had to look through two holes drilled into the giant turkey mask's bulging plastic eyeballs, which was extremely difficult. To look left or right, he had to rotate his entire head. Still, he nailed the audition and landed the gig.

Hector started to receive a stipend and began working as part of the company. When wrestler Tito Santana was to debut a new character, El Matador, WWE wanted native Spanish-speaker Hector in Mexico to help film vignettes. And having been in the business since he was a teenager, the 36-year-old Hector also knew a few friendly faces in the company. His traveling companion, Terry Szopinski—better known to wrestling fans as the Warlord—helped him bulk up on the road. Even he and the Undertaker, who would later debut on that same Thanksgiving night, shared a brief history in WCW, where Hector was impressed with the agile big man’s work.

GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S BIG NIGHT

On Thanksgiving 1990, Hector huddled in a box underneath the giant egg for four hours—enough time so that no one entering the Hartford Civic Center could see him before the show. He was given a TV monitor, a light, and some drinks and snacks. The crew pranked him by pasting pornographic photos inside the box. (Hector, who says he was by then a devout Christian, was not amused.)

The night went on, and Hector waited patiently for his moment. Suddenly, Gene Okerlund began to talk about the egg, and Gobbledy Gooker knew it was time to hatch.


Sadly, it did not go well.

“As I stepped down to talk to Gene, the more boos I hear,” he says. “You know, I can’t hear the kids screaming that they like it, but I can hear the people, because there’s more adults. And they’re booing the heck out of it.”

Okerlund put the microphone down, and said to Hector, “We’re going to put it over,” meaning they were going to try to make it work. They marched to the ring and Okerlund, to his credit, did his best Charlie Chaplin routine, stumbling, tripping, and falling. Someone later told Hector that Okerlund woke up the next day with bruises all over his body from trying so hard to sell the routine.

As the Gobbledy Gooker made his way backstage after his performance, Hector felt the stares and immediately felt like a pariah. “I worked pretty hard,” he says. “I put my 110, 115 percent, like all my matches. I put all of my ability into it.”

“It was an egg,” he adds, exasperated. “What’s going to hatch out of an egg?”

THE GOBBLEDY GOOKER'S END

Hector continued touring with WWF for a month without incident, save for one. Hector was again asked to do his Gobbledy Gooke routine, this time at Madison Square Garden. The crew told him they would shine a spotlight as he approached the ring. He agreed.

When announcer Howard Finkel called out the Gooker’s name, the familiar “Turkey in the Straw” beat dropped. Hector was ushered through the curtain by stage hands. That’s when he says he knew he was in for some trouble.

Hector walked through the curtain into pitch darkness. Suddenly, he was hit with a spotlight. It shined through the large white eyeballs of the costume's mask, and he couldn’t see a thing.

In his telling, he says he was hurried down the aisle by crew members, feeling his way as he went. He eventually got to the ring, busted his knee on the steel steps, climbed to the apron, and, unable to see what he was doing, flipped over the top rope and came crashing down to the mat with a thud.

“All I can see is white,” he recalls. “I can’t see where the ground is. I can’t land on the ground, because I see white. So I landed on my butt. “


WWE

The main lights were eventually turned on, and a frazzled Hector finished up his routine. Backstage, he was greeted by an upset Vince McMahon, who simply walked away from him. He was later approached by the legendary announcer “Gorilla” Monsoon.

“You couldn’t see, right?” Gorilla asked.

“Yeah,” Hector responded.

“We figured that out,” Gorilla deadpanned.

It was an impossible situation, according to Hector. About a month after his debut at Survivor Series, he was out of a job. He said there was no formal conversation. The company just stopped booking and paying him.

Looking back on the incident decades later, Hector isn’t bitter. This was not always the case. Losing the WWF opportunity was tough on him and his family, and he went to work as a gymnastics coach before wrestling again for other, smaller companies. Around Survivor Series 1991, he says he was again offered the Gobbledy Gooker gig. He did not accept.

As time went on, Hector’s outlook changed. He now considers any alleged slight as “water under the bridge.” His younger brother, the late Eddie Guerrero, and his nephew, Chavo Guerrero Jr., both went on to become WWF stars. He’s happy with the way his family was later treated by the company, has no ill will, and characterizes most of his experiences working with McMahon and others as very professional. After ending his tenure with Total Nonstop Action in early 2015, Hector started a wrestler consulting business and hopes to use the skills he learned under his father and through his more than 30 years in the business to help other wrestlers succeed.

In 2001, Hector even agreed to don the Gobbledy Gooker suit in Houston for Wrestlemania X-Seven, in a “gimmick battle royal” with 18 other gimmicky wrestlers from WWE’s past. It was an over-the-top-rope elimination match, and he was eliminated by Tugboat, a heavyset wrestler known in the 1980s for dressing like a sailor.

At the 2006 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony, Hector Guerrero sat in the crowd to watch the induction of his late brother Eddie.

That same night saw the induction of “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who recounted that infamous experience he and the Gooker shared 27 years ago.

“Hector, we had a lot of fun,” Okerlund said. “But all is forgotten.”

Sorry Gene, but the Gooker lives on. And Hector wouldn’t have it any other way.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Ad Astra: The Time Earth Almost Got a Space Billboard

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iStock

In the 1980s and well into the 1990s, everything associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger was big. Big biceps (22 inches during his bodybuilding heyday). Big box office (1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day made $520 million worldwide, the highest-grossing movie of that year). So it was no surprise to open a newspaper in 1993 and see that Columbia Pictures was spending $500,000 to plaster the actor's name and the title of his pending summer blockbuster, Last Action Hero, on the fuselage of a NASA rocket set for launch that June. Schwarzenegger himself was scheduled to push the button that would propel the spacecraft into orbit.

The NASA project deal was being brokered for commercial advertising purposes by Space Marketing Inc., an Atlanta-based firm specializing in sponsorships and ads located outside of the atmosphere. The company's CEO, Mike Lawson, told the Los Angeles Times that he could've sold "dozens" of ads for the rocket, but that he and NASA officials didn't want it to "look like a pace car at the Indy 500."

The idea of promoting a movie in space was brazen, but not nearly as much as another, more ambitious project that Lawson was planning. If everything went according to plan, his Space Marketing would shoot a payload into space in time for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Once it was in orbit, mylar tubes would inflate with gas and spring open to support a mile-wide, quarter-mile tall reflective sheet that would be visible from Earth. Lawson called it an "inflatable platform," but the press—and critics—quickly labeled it something else: a space billboard.

If Lawson had his way, it would be able to make everything from the Olympic rings to the McDonald's logo as visible to Earthbound consumers as a full moon.

 

In Robert Heinlein's 1950 novella The Man Who Sold the Moon, a lunar entrepreneur hustles to sell advertising space on the moon as part of his attempt to make colonization a profitable venture. Lawson—a onetime director of marketing for his father's publishing company in Atlanta and a fan of science fiction—read the story. In 1988, he founded Space Marketing as a way to defictionalize the concept.

As fantastic as it sounded, the idea wasn't without precedent. In 1981, telecommunications mogul Robert Lorsch made a presentation to Congress that outlined a strategy for allowing corporations to "sponsor" space travel by letting them buy plaques that would go onboard spacecraft. In the same way they endorsed the Olympics, Lorsch said, corporate America could help subsidize space travel.

A McDonald's logo is visible from space
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The plan was a response to then-president Ronald Reagan's plea to have the private sector assist in helping the government overcome their financial burdens. While Lorsch's proposal was prescient—it anticipated the rise of privatized space exploration—the idea of having commercial sponsors for NASA didn't make it through the Byzantine maze of Washington bureaucracy.

Lawson thought the idea could be taken further, and not necessarily with the cooperation of government. Partnering with scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Library and the University of Colorado, Lawson developed a plan to allow instruments developed by these institutions to go into orbit and collect information about the ozone layer. To underwrite the project, he would solicit commercial advertisers for the mile-long mylar sheet that would exit the atmosphere rolled up and then expand to full size once it reached orbit. The aluminized lettering would reflect the sun's rays, making whatever graphic it displayed visible for 10 minutes at a time at any given point on Earth. After roughly 20 days, it would disintegrate, leaving the sensors behind to continue collecting data for researchers.

'We could actually fly [the] Golden Arches in space," Lawson said in May 1993, referring to the ubiquitous McDonald's logo. With an estimated launch cost of $15 to $30 million, companies buying ads would cover expenses as well as contribute to a profit for Space Marketing—perhaps paying as much as $1 million for every day it was visible.

A few months later, the city of Atlanta began investigating Space Marketing's concept as a possible advertising vessel for the 1996 Olympics. "Special" glasses given away at point-of-purchase displays with cooperating sponsors would allow people to see the Olympic rings in orbit.

That last point appeared to be a concession to a growing chorus of concern over the idea of using space as a commercial entity. While proponents of the idea argued it was similar to blimps sailing overhead and displaying corporate propaganda messages, a coalition of scientists argued otherwise. Carl Sagan called it an "abomination," insisting that astronomy could soon become a practice of exploring the stars wedged between mile-wide ads for fast food and automobiles.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader led a group calling for an orbital billboard ban, labeling it a practice of "defacing the heavens." Other groups decried it as commercial pollution of space and vowed to boycott any companies involved. Supporters of Nader's Public Interest Research Group picketed Space Marketing's Atlanta headquarters.

Lawson tried to parry the attacks in media, saying that the phrase "space billboard" was the source of the controversy. He preferred the term "environmental billboard" and said that the whole objective was to have a global company foot the bill for scientific research.

 

Conceptually, the idea of a floating Arby's logo the perceived size of the moon was too dystopian for lawmakers to handle. In 1993, Congress submitted legislation that would prohibit the Transportation Department from issuing a launch license to any company prepared to shoot a corporate image into space. (The bill was eventually signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000.)

None of this publicity was particularly helpful to Space Marketing, which saw its Olympic plans wilt in the face of both legislative opposition and the probability of massive pushback from space advocacy groups. They turned their attention to Russia, which had no ethical objections to space endorsements, and facilitated a 1999 project that saw Pizza Hut attach its logo to the Proton rocket that carried supplies to the International Space Station. (The chain previously considered projecting its logo with lasers on the surface of the moon but abandoned the idea when they realized it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.)

A rocket is propelled into space
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Space Marketing's investors moved on to the blimp industry and the firm was dissolved by 2007, when Lawson became CEO of airship manufacturer Techsphere Systems. As for the Last Action Hero stunt: It dissolved when Columbia learned Lorsch was threatening legal action, claiming he owned a copyright on the idea of commercial space advertising. The movie itself also failed to launch, becoming a notorious summer bomb when it was pitted against Jurassic Park.

While space has largely been off-limits to such "obtrusive" advertising by law, not everyone agrees that's for the best. Earlier this month, it was reported that NASA is looking into selling off the naming right to its shuttles as a way to recoup some of the organization's costs. When Lorsch testified before a Senate subcommittee in 2004 to review his 1981 proposal, he said that his sponsorship program might have earned NASA $5 billion in revenue if it had been implemented.

Antisocial Media: The Rise and Fall of Friendster

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iStock

When software engineer Jonathan Abrams arrived in Silicon Valley in 1996, the internet was known for three things: vast amounts of information, pornography, and anonymity. If users weren't investigating the first two, they were exploiting the third to argue about movies or politics, their unfiltered opinions unencumbered by concerns over embarrassment. People were known only by their screen handles.

Abrams, who came to California to program for the web browser Netscape, had an idea. What if people could use their real names, faces, and locations online? Instead of having an avatar, they'd simply upload their existing personality in the form of photos, profiles, and interests. They could socialize with others in a transparent fashion, mingling within their existing circles to find new friends or even dates. Strangers would be introduced through a mutual contact. If executed properly, the network would have real-world implications on relationships, something the internet rarely facilitated at that time.

Abrams called his concept Friendster. Launched in March 2003, it quickly grew to host millions of users. Google began talks of a lucrative buyout. Abrams showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live, anticipating the dot-com-engineer-as-rock-star template. His investors believed Friendster could generate billions.

Instead, Friendster's momentum stalled. Myspace became the dominant social platform, with Facebook quickly gaining ground. Abrams, who once appeared poised to collect a fortune from his creation, watched as copycat sites poached his user base and his influence waned. What should've been a case study of internet success became one of the highest profile casualties of the web's unrestricted growth. It became too big not to fail.

 

Many businesses rely on a creation myth, the idea that a single inciting incident provides the spark of inspiration that turns a company from a small concern into a revenue-generating powerhouse. For publicity purposes, these stories are just that—fictions devised to excite the press and charm consumers. Pierre Omidyar, who programmed AuctionWeb and later renamed it eBay, was said to have conceived of the project to help his wife, Pamela, find Pez dispensers for her collection. In fact, there were no Pez dispensers. It was a fable concocted by an eBay marketing employee who wanted to romanticize the site's origins.

In early press coverage of Friendster, there was little mention of Abrams looking to monetize the burgeoning opportunities available online. Instead, he was portrayed as a single man with a recently broken heart who wanted to make dating easier. Abrams later said there was no truth to this origin story, though he did derive inspiration from Match.com, a successful dating site launched in 1995. Abrams's idea was to develop something like Match.com, only with the ability to meet people through friends. Instead of messaging someone out of the blue, you could connect via a social referral.

Human-shaped icons represent the concept of social networking
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Following stints at Netscape and an aggregation site called HotLinks, Abrams wrote and developed Friendster for a spring 2003 launch. He sent invites to 20 friends and family members in the hopes interest would multiply. It did, and quickly. By June, Friendster had 835,000 users. By fall, there were 3 million. Facebook's launch in February 2004 was months away, and so low-key that Abrams met with Mark Zuckerberg to see if he'd consider selling. If an internet user wanted to socialize in a transparent manner, Friendster was the go-to destination.

When users signed up for the site, they were only allowed to message people who were within six degrees of separation or less. To help endorse unfamiliar faces, Friendster also permitted users to leave "testimonials" on profiles that could extol a person's virtues and possibly persuade a connection to meet up in the real world.

Naturally, not all mutual connections were necessarily good friends: They might have been acquaintances at best, and the resulting casual atmosphere was more of a precursor to Tinder than Facebook. One user told New York Magazine that Friendster was less a singles mixer and more "six degrees of how I got Chlamydia."

Still, it worked. The site's immediate success did not go unnoticed by venture capitalists, who had been circling popular platforms—America Online, Yahoo!, and, later, YouTube—and injecting start-ups with millions in operating funds. At the time, the promise of savvy business minds flipping URLs for hundreds of millions or even billions was a tangible concept, and one that Abrams kept in mind as he fielded an offer from Google in 2003 to buy Friendster for $30 million. It would be a windfall.

Abrams declined.

 

Investors—including future PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Google investor K. Ram Shriram—advised Abrams that there was too much money to leave on the table in return for short-term gain. Abrams opted to accept $13 million toward building out the site. He sat on the board of directors and watched as backers began to strategize the best path forward.

Quickly, Abrams noticed a paradigm shift taking place. As a programmer, Abrams solved problems, and Friendster was facing a big one. Buoyed by press attention (including the Kimmel appearance where Abrams handed out condoms to audience members, presumably in anticipation of all the relationships Friendster could help facilitate), the site was slowing down, unable to absorb all of the incoming traffic. Servers struggled to generate customized networks for each user, all of which were dependent on who they were already connected to. A page sometimes took 40 seconds to load.

The investors considered lag time a mundane concern. Adding new features was even less attractive, as that might slow the pages down further. They wanted to focus on partnerships and on positioning Friendster as a behemoth that could attract a nine- or 10-figure purchase price. This is what venture capitalists did, scooping up 10 or 20 opportunities and hoping a handful might explode into something enormous.

But for business owners and entrepreneurs like Abrams, they didn’t have a portfolio to deal with. They were concerned only with their creation. Its failure was all-encompassing; there weren't 19 other venues to turn to if things didn't work out.

Two word balloons represent the concept of social networking
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Abrams saw the need for a site reconfiguration. The board was indifferent. Eventually he was removed and assigned a role as chairman, an empty title that was taken away from him in 2005. As the board squabbled over macro issues, Abrams watched as micro issues—specifically, the site itself—deteriorated. Frustrated with wait times, users began migrating to Myspace, which offered more customizable features and let voyeurs browse profiles without "friending" others. Myspace attracted 22.1 million unique users monthly in 2005. Friendster was getting just 1.1 million.

 

By 2006, Friendster was mired in software kinks and something less tangible: a loss of cachet among users who were gravitating toward other social platforms. Though Abrams was out, investors continued to pour money into Friendster in the hopes that they could recoup costs. In 2009, they sold to MOL Global for $40 million, which would later convert the site into a social gaming destination. But it was too late. Though the site still had an immense number of users—115 million, with 75 million coming from Asia—they were passive, barely interacting with other users. By 2011, user data—photos, profiles, messages—was being purged.

In ignoring the quality of the end-user experience, the decision-makers at Friendster had effectively buried the promise of Abrams's concept. They sold off his patents to Facebook in 2010 for $40 million. Coupled with the MOL sale, it may have been a tidy sum, but one that paled in comparison to Friendster's potential. A 2006 article in The New York Times reported with some degree of morbid fascination that if Abrams had accepted the Google offer of $30 million in 2003 in the form of stock, it would've quickly been worth $1 billion.

In the years since, Abrams has tinkered with other sites—including an evite platform called Socialzr and a news monitoring app called Nuzzel, which is still in operation—and tends to Founders Den, a club and work space in San Francisco. He's normally reticent to discuss Friendster, believing there's little point in dwelling on a missed opportunity.

The site did, ultimately, became a case study for Harvard Business School—though perhaps not in the way investors had intended. Friendster was taught as a cautionary tale, an example that not every good idea will find its way to success.

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