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"The MSG Curtain Call": A Conflation of Front and Backstage in Professional Wrestling

by Ethan Tussey

by Ari Berenstein for IN MEDIA RES


May 19th, 1996: Madison Square Garden, New York City: Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel and Hunter Hearst Helmsley are in the ring together after the main event, hugging and raising their arms in celebration. At the time it was the last WWE (then known as WWF) performances for Diesel (Kevin Nash) and Ramon (Scott Hall) before leaving for the competing product, World Championship Wrestling.

A curtain call is an expected part of theatre routine, as second nature as the actual performance. The actor leaves the role of the character and becomes his or her real self. By accepting accolades and acknowledgement from the audience, the actor temporarily conflates front and backstage. An entire ensemble may also appear and celebrate onstage together.

However, curtain calls were almost unheard of in professional wrestling. Faces (the heroic protagonists) and heels (the villainous antagonists) weren’t supposed to shed their character to show respect and admiration for each other in public, much less "onstage" (i.e. the wrestling ring), even after their performance had concluded.

"The MSG Curtain Call"  was precedent in that the wrestlers chose to allow the audience to see their real backstage friendships. In the video, the audience gives a roar of approval and exhilaration for this unscripted moment. The child, his voice filled with surprise and enthusiastic acceptance, recognizes there is more at stake than the usual "show". I had been in attendance on that night and his reaction mirrored my own.

It was also an unauthorized action with dramatic repercussions, namely the temporary demotion of Helmsley. A planned prestigious win at the 1996 King of Ring tournament instead went to "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who was on the cusp of gaining massive popularity. Austin’s mainstream appeal contributed largely to WWE regaining top status over WCW by mid-1998.

Fans had long ago learned the secret "F-word" regarding professional wrestling. However, they were increasingly exposed to moments such as the curtain call that served to blur and to conflate the boundary between front and backstage during the "Attitude Era" of the late nineties.

Curtain calls are no longer provocative rebel yells in 2010, but rather pre-approved or otherwise innocuous celebrations, such as "Nature Boy" Ric Flair’s retirement ceremony. Still, it is in these moments that the audience comes as close as possible to witnessing the wrestlers’ real emotions and reactions, as opposed to the ones they are supposed to perform on stage.

The MSG Curtain Call

Clip from WWE

from WWE Monday NIght Raw (1996)
Creator: Vince McMahon
Distributor: USA Networks
Posted by Ethan Tussey