When then-Burlington Free Press photographer Emily McManamy captured the scenes at a monthly pro-wrestling event in St. Albans a few years back, she thought it would just be for a newspaper story. But with the help of the Folklife Center in Middlebury, she’s turned it into a multi-media exhibit that the Center is currently hosting.
“Hitting the Mat” features photographs, audio interviews and looping video clips of the office workers and carpenters turned villains and superheroes that turn out for Slam All-Star Wrestling each month at the Moose Lodge in St. Albans.
"I've got to be honest, I don't have a love for wrestling," McManamy says. "I think a lot of people assume that I have a direct connection to these guys, and that's actually the reason I pursued the project, is because I don't know anything about them."
McManamy found her muse when she stepped backstage one evening: "I remember peeling back the curtain for the first time and you've got this nature wallpaper [with] deer, and then an old beat-up upright piano on the side, and then just a bunch of guys in Spandex. And I said, 'This is a visual gift. And this is going to be a great project.'"
McManamy says that the wrestlers operate with an "intense level of humor," despite how seriously they take their performance and characters.
"They are extremely athletic and physical in what they do," she says. "And they're very very well trained. But their characters are hilarious, and they own those characters. And they shift from heroes to villains and back again. And ... they just give so much of themselves to the crowd."
One of the wrestlers featured in McManamy's exhibit is Mark Laroche, who owned Slam All-Star Wrestling at the time of the Free Press story.
"He's a regular guy with a family and kid and a regular job," she says, "But he transforms into Northern Studd and he dawns his black and gold Spandex and his black and gold boots."
Wrestling isn't wrestling without fans to pump up the energy — and McManamy says she found those who circled the ring at the Moose Lodge each Saturday night to be as enthusiastic as if they were at a pro match.
"They were incredibly in to it," she says. "There was such an energy in that humble space that really surprised me. I walked in at the very beginning when they were setting up ... And it was just empty, with the exception of the moose head on the wall. But as people started filling in and ordering food, a glass of beer, the cheering was just wild. And they're cheering for their dads, and they're cheering for their girlfriends and their moms that are up there performing."
And the semi-pro wrestling scene extends beyond Franklin County, McManamy says.
"There's guys coming over from Whitehall, from Plattsburgh," she says. "So there's a really strong network throughout the Northeast."
Nevertheless, the sport remains relatively unknown outside that network, according to McManamy.
"When we were setting up the [exhibit] gallery, a woman came in, just sort of poked her head around the corner, and said, 'Is this in the United States?' And I had to laugh. I said, 'Yeah, it's in St. Albans.'"
McManamy says that for the men and women who come out to wrestle each week, the goal less to parlay what they're doing into a "full-blown professional career" as it is to have fun — and develop strong relationships.
"You have to trust your life in the hands of somebody else, because even if the storylines are fictional, and there's a bit of acting up there, the physical aspect of wrestling is absolutely real. And these guys are flipping and jumping and pinning each other on the mat, and it's dangerous. So to have a true friendship and respect both in and out of the ring is paramount to the success and safety of this wrestling group."
"It's just a real strong sense of camaraderie and support as these regular guys and girls transform once they enter the ring," McManamy says. "What interested me is that these guys offered something that I could relate to, which is family and brotherhood."