Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Handsome Johnny Barend

Sometimes he would saunter out for a Friday night locker-room interview on "50th State Big Time Wrestling" with his face turned away from the TV cameras. Other times, he would emerge from a coffin, his cigar smoke blowing into the air.

With a recording of "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines" blaring in the background, the image of the large man with the trademark cape, top hat and slicked-back jet black hair was unmistakably the persona of "Handsome" Johnny Barend.

Barend, one of the most iconic characters from Hawaii's golden age of professional wrestling in the 1960s and '70s, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Avon, N.Y. He was 82.

Barend's career spanned nearly 25 years, and he wrestled everywhere from Japan to New York's famed Madison Square Garden.

But family, friends and fans said one of his favorite places was Hawaii.

A fixture in Hawaii during much of the 1960s when Ed Francis and Lord James "Tally Ho" Blears were the promoters, Barend was known for edgy interviews that amused some and terrified others.

"He was such a colorful man, and he carried his uniqueness in real life, also," said Laura Blears, Tally Ho's daughter and a family friend. "He'd get right up in my dad's face with his cape and his top hat."

She said her father and Barend spoke about a month ago, and the two were planning to have reunion in Hawaii soon.

Old-time wrestling fans' most vivid memory of Barend might be his in-the-ring wedding to the former Anita Lum at the Honolulu International Center, now known as the Blaisdell Center Arena, in 1967, just before a championship match.

Barend met his bride-to-be on Kuhio Beach one day when she was still a senior at McKinley High School. He was 38 and she was 18, said Yvette Lum, Annie's younger sister.

She became one of the few nonwrestlers who was known to the audience, and even had her own nickname — "Transistor Annie" — because she always had a transistor radio against her ear, Blears said.

Johnny Barend retired from wrestling in 1972, and the couple moved to New York where he built and managed a small motel, Lum said.

Blears recalls that when she and her siblings were children, Barend would alternately delight them and scare them by widening his eyes at them whenever he would visit their house.

But Barend's sister-in-law remembers a different man.

"Outside of his wrestling career, Johnny was a very down-to-earth kind of guy who enjoyed living an ordinary, anonymous life," Lum said.

The couple had no children, but had a menagerie of cats, dogs, chickens, peacock and turtle. "He usually avoided media attention and was totally unlike his wrestling persona."

He did attend an occasional autograph show and agreed to one interview with a Canadian wrestling magazine several years ago which can be found on the Internet.

"He was a good role model for me during my teen years while my sister dated him and after they married," Lum said. "Although his height and stature sometimes overwhelmed me, I learned that I could count on him for good advice or guidance."

Memorial services in New York and Honolulu are to be announced at a later date.

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