“I got tired of working for run-down promotions. I wanted to start something and do it right. Orlando is the home of dinner shows, so why not a wrestling dinner show?” Smith said.
Why not, indeed.
The area already had dinner theaters blithely celebrating the fun part of the Dark Ages, the sinking of the Titanic and the crimes of Al Capone, not to mention themes that include Hawaiian luaus, burlesque, magic, mystery and the Hoop de Doo hootenanny.
Surely, body slams would be a slam dunk.
Besides, as the catering manager of a fancy Miami hotel, Smith knew fine dining. And he still loved wrestling, after 12 years of indie matches as a babyface (wrestling lingo for the good guy) called The Black Butler.
“It’s the next evolution of dinner theater,” says Smith. “And our chef cooks with love.”
Five people came to his first show in 2012. Smith almost quit.
Five years later, his shows are all sell-outs.
The human body wants to protect itself, but where’s the spectacle in that?
“You have to break that habit for the sake of entertainment,” says Luis Montes, a former pro wrestler who is tonight’s “gorilla,” wrestling parlance for backstage manager.
It's a few hours before the first bell. He and technical manager Wade Gunn are checking the lights and sound system in the ballroom Smith rents seven weekends a year in Kissimmee's Osceola Heritage Park, where the Silver Spurs Rodeo is also held.
He asks one of his wrestlers to demonstrate "taking a bump," the hard backward fall that's a staple of the professional wrestling.
The man tucks his head, leaps up and slams down squarely on his back, bottom and shoulders. The crash sounds like a stack of 2-by-4s slamming into the wrestling ring’s plywood floor.
“It’s the bed of nails approach,” explains Montes, who sells cable TV contracts in Winter Haven by day and trains neophyte wrestlers on the side. “If, instead of contracting your muscles as you fall, you relax while spreading the impact out over the whole body, it doesn’t hurt as much.”
Montes says he and Wade are always asked if they played football or wrestled in high school.
“We were drama nerds,” says Montes. “We did community theater. For us, this is wish fulfillment, like a comic book come to life.”
A tall, terrifying apparition in black leather and rags appears, eyes glowing like red LED lights. The mask covering his face is painted with jagged Halloween goblin teeth.
Montes introduces The Scarecrow, one of the night’s headliners.
Uh, Mr. Scarecrow, are you ready to pummel your opponent tonight?
“Yeah, but they haven’t told me yet if I’m going to win or lose,” he says.
You knew pro wrestling was fake, right? That story lines are worked out before a match? That wrestlers are told whether they’re going to win or lose each match?
“Everybody in the public knows it’s fake, so let’s not insult their intelligence,” says Montes. “Instead, we embrace how ridiculous it is. All we ask is that people suspend belief for a few hours and have fun.”
Smith is the myth maker, who wrote the dinner theater's fairy tale backstory that's part "Game of Thrones," part video game adventure. The fair maiden Lady Golden Eyes entertains people of her village at her manor until Lord Darkness casts a spell, making half the performers evil, requiring the resulting battles between good and evil.
Smith looks for performers, not just wrestlers.
“People want to see the entertainment part,” he says. “Our wrestlers are actors who know how to work a crowd. We want something so elaborate that people remember that character. That is the grab.”
After a thrash metal band called "Anyone's Guess" sets the mood, Smith begins to emcee the night's seven matches.
A line-up of ladies and gentlemen of bounce, who learned how to take a bump and return it in with a head butt, swagger in to their theme songs.
A loosely choreographed series of Russian legsweeps, jacknife pins and flying knee strikes decide each match’s winner.
Luke Russell, 12, of St. John's, Newfoundland, is transfixed. His parents bought him tickets for the wrestling dinner theater when they knew they were coming to Orlando for Wrestlemania, the biggest event of the professional wrestling world, held the same weekend in April.
“It was awesome, better than we expected even,” said Luke’s mother, Hazel, as they finished their head lock salads and drop kicking vegetable medley. “We should have this at home.”
A crowd of about 100 munches on body slam roasted chicken while Scarecrow quickly crushes his pudgy opponent.
Jay Fortune, swathed in gold lame, vanquishes a wrestler called Effy, who wears only a skimpy turquoise trunk. After getting his medal, Fortune slides on his glasses, which makes him look like an accountant at a costume party.
Jason Brandt came from Tampa just to heckle the wrestlers.
“If you’re clever enough, you can make ‘em laugh,” says Brandt. “In televised matches, I sometimes get on TV.”
Carrion, a villain wearing a black mask with the physique of a marathon runner, endures a series of body slams that leave his chest and back bleeding. Furious, he flattens his opponent Little Bobby, who slowly tries to rise.
“Oh, Bobby, ya should’ve stayed down,” yells Brandt, as Carrion leaps in the air for the smackdown.
Carrion carries away the medal.
Everyone brightens as two women stride to the center ring.
Santana, the American Dream, in a green cape, battles Raegan Fire, in red.
This is full contact gymnastics. The women do backflips from the ropes onto their opponents. Cartwheeling kicks land on backs and chests. Long hair flies.
Santana throws her opponent out of the ring, then executes one of her specialties: a frog splash jump from the top rope onto Reagan’s back, for the win.
“I’m a former cheerleader gone bad,” said Santana, whose last name is Garrett, posing for pictures after the match.
During the finale, the good guys lose. Carrion, the night’s villain, takes home the Manor trophy belt.
“It’s like a Greek tragedy, a hero’s journey,” said Montes.
“That’s what we put on in a 12-minute span between the ropes.”
Says Smith, “I’m doing something I dreamed about for years and years. Wrestling, fine dining and a live band. Where else can you get all that?”