Maria (the Tigress) Bernardi sits at the club meeting wearing Mike Mazurki's ear around her neck.
It's a solid silver mold of his left ear, which also serves as the club's official symbol--its registered trademark.
This is Wednesday lunchtime, the regular weekly meeting of the Cauliflower Alley Club at the coffee shop of the Dunes Motel on Sunset Boulevard.
The deep red Leatherette banquettes are filling up. It's a colorful bunch. Mostly older. Mostly men. Some wear cowboy hats, others loud-checked show-bizzy sports jackets.
Bernardi sits beneath her signed portrait, gnawing her lip. There's too much show biz here today, not enough real wrestlers and boxers. Even Barbie Dahl, whose glamorous wrestling-garb pic is on the wall--"To the gang at the Dunes, Hugs and Hammerlocks!"--hasn't made it today.
But it's humming all the same.
Ex-boxers and wrestlers have been chewing the fat at the Cauliflower Alley Club since the 1960s when a circle of ring and movie celebrities gathered at pro-strongman--and club founder--Mazurki's restaurant. In nearly 25 years, the group has grown to a 1,300-strong international club for boxers, wrestlers, show-business stunt people and celebrities--and even some of their fans.
(The club newsletter, "The Cauliflower Alley Club, Ring of Friendship," has photos of people with their arms around Archie Moore and Cesar Romero, and people with monikers like Henry W. (Treacherous) Phillips. Another page pays tribute to the recently departed, including Aldo Ray, the movie tough guy.
"The only thing square in the fight game is the ring!" shouts Terry Garabedian across the tables. He fought some in his youth, mainly in ports of call. "In my first four-round fight, the guy hit me with everything but the lamppost. "
"The difference between wrestlers and boxers," says Joe Palumbo, a one-time boxer and now a promoter, "is that wrestlers are one big family. Boxers are, well, clannish. Status-conscious."
"Ego-maniacs," adds Bernardi. "Invite wrestlers to a function, like our annual party, and they'll find their own way here. Boxers--they want their limos, their hotels paid for; they don't want to mix with boxers below them."
" I was an endurance dancer," Jack Stanley tells Gus Pherson, the child star from "Our Gang," who is sitting next to him.
Stanley, 79, is strictly show biz. It turns out he was Sad Sack, the original GI. He still has that Bassett-hound face drooping out from under a cowboy hat festooned with buttons.
"We danced 1,400 hours . . . 1,400 hours! And that only got us third place. The winners danced on to 3,200 hours . . . those days we worked. I won $500 with my partner for that," Stanley says.
Gus Pherson isn't saying much. Tim O'Sullivan, on the other hand, is: "That's Timothy Aloysius O'Sullivan, if you please! " He is 75, but untamed.
O'Sullivan boxed six years in his youth, served six years in the Marines, and 30 years in the New York Police Department. He knows lots of bigwigs in the fighting world, he says, but he's proudest of his voice.
"I sing," O'Sullivan says, "like Bing. I do the 'Star-Spangled Banner.' In one year I do it over a thousand times. The Navy League, the ring, the Troopers' Club . . . "
"We all come here to cut up jackpots. That means talk about the past," says Emilio Antonori, alias Jack Thomas, who looks tiny next to O'Sullivan.
Antonori is 84 and an escape artist. He used to perform at world's fairs in the 1930s, getting out of straitjackets while doing back-flips faster, he swears, than Houdini. "How long have I been around? I was a foot soldier in 'All Quiet on the Western Front.' "
Pretty soon, Antonori and Richard (Happy) Hall are arguing over how much money Houdini spent on publicity. "At least $75,000 a year!" says Hall, who can tap dance on roller skates on top of a drum on top of a table. He's still doing it at 68.
"Houdini may have been more famous than me," says Antonori, "but he died broke in 1926, and I'm alive in 1991 and have three apartment houses."
"You were faster, that's for sure," says Wally Cassell, who got Antonori work at several fairs. "Ten seconds! Houdini was never near that!"
Maria Bernardi has heard all this before. She may be the most "genuine" Cauliflower Clubber here. Even Art Abrams next to her, who essentially runs the club with her assistance, was never inside the ropes.
"I was a professional wrestler by the time I was 12," says Bernardi, who's now 66, "but I started when I was 3. I was a mean little devil in those days.
"When my little sister was born I was jealous, so my dad would take me to the ring. He was a pro wrestler all his life. I thought he was playing. I wanted to play. When he threw me around and I cracked my head, he said I couldn't play if I cried. So I stopped (crying). I thought it was the most normal thing in the world. It kind of went from there. Dad liked it, mom hated it. She wanted me to be a lady."
Bernardi didn't become a lady. Instead, she became "the Tigress." She got the name from a match she fought in Mexicali in the 1930s when promoters brought in women wrestlers to boost house attendance.
"The match was going our way. The fans get real excited down there. They cornered me. Alone. One (fan) came up and hit me. Thank God I can take a punch. I hit back. Knocked him out. Ballpark! I walked up to the men's dressing room, defying the crowd to attack me. I made it. I asked the men why they didn't come out and help me. 'What do you want us to do?' they said, 'Go out there and get killed?' "
She got her cauliflower ear in the 1960s, the third time she had suffered repeated blows to her ear. Twice before, she'd had the ear drained. But this third time, her promoter wouldn't give her time off, so her ear has stayed deformed to this day.
Bernardi never got equal pay to male wrestlers. In those days, she might average $20-50 per night. "But I was tough. I'd pull hair. I'd hit with closed fists. I didn't care. I always took the bad-guy role. It came naturally. I'm just mean, I guess."
Being mean took her around the world, including Rome, where in 1948 she won the Italian Championship. She is proud of that--and of winning the World Championship soon after in Los Angeles. "I felt very emotional that night. And I held on to both titles till I retired in 1963," Bernardi says.
Not that she wanted to retire: "My baby sister came to live with me. I had to quit. I highly resented it."
She suffers a lot from arthritis now. It's a common price for the rough-and-tumble life of these practitioners of man's--and woman's--oldest sport.
It's about 3 p.m. as the Dunes restaurant gradually empties. Bernardi looks unhappy. She is still worried about the lack of real (as opposed to celebrity) club members here.
"You should come to our annual reunion banquet. That's when you see everybody from Lou Thesz to Archie Moore," she says.
She gets up to return to the world her kid sister dragged her into 28 years ago--she manages an apartment building nearby.
Bernardi shakes hands and leaves through the glass doors. For a moment, all you can see in the glare is Mike Mazurki's silver ear swinging and flashing around her neck.