David McLane had nothing to do with the writing or producing of Netflix’s GLOW, but without him, there’s a good chance Netflix’s well-received summer comedy would have never existed. Three decades ago, the longtime wrestling promoter and announcer created the weekly, low-budget syndicated TV show on which Netflix’s fictional universe is loosely based. Dubbed GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, McLane’s brainchild featured many of the elements familiar to viewers of the Netflix series: over-the-top story lines, cartoonish characters and, yes, really bad rapping. McClane even made regular appearances on the show, playing a (slightly) exaggerated version of himself. He left GLOW halfway through its four-year 1986–1990 run, selling his stake in the concept and moving on to other things, including another female wrestling promotion still in production (WOW: Women of Wrestling). Because of that breakup, McLane won’t make a dime from the Netflix comedy; he wasn’t even consulted by the new show’s producers. But as Vulture discovered when we caught up with McClane recently via telephone, he still has plenty of colorful memories about the birth of the Reagan-era GLOW, a few regrets about its 1980s ethnic stereotyping, and some candid opinions about what the Netflix series got wrong and right.
So one thing the Netflix series doesn’t explore is exactly how the idea of doing a TV show about women wrestlers was born. Do you remember the genesis of GLOW — how did the idea come to you?
I remember it specifically. I was the announcer for Dick the Bruiser’s World Wrestling Association. We had a live show in Indianapolis, Indiana, at the north side Tyndall Armory at 711 North Pennsylvania [Street] – that’s how good I can remember that. Typically we would always put the perceived worst match before the main event. So the women’s match would typically precede the main event, if there was a women’s match on the show. That evening there was [one], because my boss, Mr. Bruiser, was in the main event and he wanted to make sure he shined for the night and left the greatest impression on the sold-out house. We had two women in the ring: Princess Jasmine vs. Candi Devine. The match was going swimmingly, and I recognized that the fans were really getting into it. When it ended, I jumped in the ring and told the girls to go to the outside and cause some commotion. I told [Candi] to pick up a bottle of water – it was a pretty big one – next to my table and… throw it in Jasmine’s face. Jasmine was soaking wet with water, and the crowd just went wild. They preceded to wrestle, and that was the very first time in the history of my life I was yelling, “Security! Security!” The crowd was hysterical. I asked the crowd, “How would you like to see these two girls wrestle in a rematch?” [They] went wild. Then I yelled, “How about we put them in a steel cage? Two women in a steel cage for the first time in the history of wrestling!” The crowd went even more wild.
I went downstairs into the locker room with my chest beating and told the Bruiser, “Did you hear that crowd? We’ve got two girl wrestlers that are going to debut in the cage match in the next show!” He said, “Are you fucking stupid? First of all, no one is ever going to pay to see women wrestle. Secondly, you idiot, why would you build that match up when I’m on next? You screwed everything up!” That was the seed right then. When he was chewing me out, I said, “Shit, not pay to see women’s wrestling? This crowd will pay $25 to see them.”
Take me back to the process of getting a show such as GLOW on TV in the 1980s. You were on during the heyday of local TV syndication, when it was much easier for small, independent players to get national exposure. How did the series end up on TV?
Back in those days, there was a bevy of independent television stations — and they really were independent television stations — in each market. Cable TV only penetrated in maybe 1985. To start GLOW, we had to take it to [the TV industry syndication trade show] NATPE, and I just didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. That’s when I met INI [Independent Network Incorporated], the distributor, who introduced me to [GLOW co-owner Meshulam] Riklis and [Matt] Cimber. They helped me get to NATPE.
NATPE is basically where producers like yourself pitched and sold TV shows to local stations. It was like this carnival of crazy ideas. What was the first NATPE for GLOW like?
We had a booth there [where we] built a ring. We took down Tammy Jones, Americana, Matilda the Hun, and Hollywood, and put them in the ring. It was wild. Geraldo Rivera, the Saved by the Bell crew — we had every celebrity in there and meeting the GLOW girls at the NATPE show. We were successful in NATPE at closing 30-plus stations. They literally went into a room and signed the contract right then for the show. Out of the 300 and some shows that would [go to NATPE], not more than probably 10 or 12 shows in total would get enough [to air in the fall]. It was amazing. I was so naïve about the hurdles that would be thrown at us to get on TV. [But] we hit it. Then, during that summer of ’86, we revved up the PR machine and I was able to get an introduction to Jackie Stallone, Sylvester’s mom. After I met with her and she agreed to come onboard, it was like gold. We instantly hit all the media outlets with press. We cleared another 30 or 40 stations — and that was it, we were up and rolling.
You did the auditions for GLOW in Los Angeles, but — unlike the Netflix series — the show was actually taped in Las Vegas, at the old Riviera Hotel. Did that make a difference in how the show evolved?
It fundamentally changed the entire dynamic of the show, to the extent that it provided a platform to make it seem bigger than professional wrestling. Wrestling was run in arenas across the country. And WWE [then WWF] lighting and production at that time was still, no pun intended, in the dark. They weren’t elevated with lighting and production until Dick Ebersol got involved, and they did the Saturday-night main event [for NBC]. So their syndicated programming was still shot in the dark arenas. We came out and were from Las Vegas, Nevada. And with the pyro going off, and the GLOW sign, and the antics of the casino as our backdrop — it gave the show an entertainment feel that wrestling didn’t have.
You’ve seen the Netflix show. Do you think Chris Lowell’s character — the young rich-kid producer, Sebastian — is supposed to be based on you? Or do you see more of yourself in Marc Maron’s director character?
It’s probably a bit of the producer.
Did they mostly get you and your relationship with Matt Cimber, the actual director behind the show, right?
They created a more colorful character. [But] they nailed it where they mentioned Cimber’s story lines being so difficult to understand. It was like reading Macbeth, versus keeping it simple. If you’ve got the Russian, and if you’ve got the Pocahontas, the Indian girl, and you’ve the American girl, it’s good versus evil. Keep the stories simple. He brought the comedy element to the show that I wasn’t going to bring to the show. I brought the wrestling knowledge to the show that he didn’t know. They have that meeting between Marc and the producer in the show, and [Maron] acquiesces to the producer and says, “We’re going to do it your way.” That is when GLOW popped.
Anything the producers got really wrong, in your mind?
There was no cocaine going on when I was there. Remember, I left GLOW after the first two seasons of taping. But when they had Maron doing cocaine, that wasn’t accurate. Cimber’s habit was going down to the casino and gambling, not doing drugs.
GLOW dealt with things in a way that a lot of people today would see as problematic. It dealt in broad stereotypes. I know it was a different time then, but do you look back on those days and say, “Wow, maybe we went a little too far”? Or would you go the mat as it were and defend it, saying, “That’s what we did, and I have no regrets”?
As the company became more successful, Cimber and the writers were left alone to create more of the matches while I was out doing the business. To answer your question, I would have turned the clock back on several of the characters and plotlines. There was one where Matilda the Hun came in with a German flag and wrestled a girl. She had a Nazi symbol on her. I went ballistic, because there was no way in hell we [were] going to put that on. It got on the tape but it didn’t make it very far in the distribution chain because stations saw it and had it cut out.
In terms of dialing the clock back with some of the stereotypes? Yes, I saw it then and wanted to. But the wheel was rolling at such a fast pace that there were some things I couldn’t keep a finger on.
What about the very obvious way you guys played up the sex appeal aspect of your wrestlers? They were dressed in a way which, today, some would maybe say hypersexualized them.
The focus wasn’t as much on their athletic abilities.
Maybe because I looked at it through a 25-year-old kid’s eyes, I did not see the costumes that we were putting the talent in as overly sexual or exploiting sex really at all. The climate of the ’80s was the Jane Fonda, high hip leotard. That was the time then. If you look at it, every girl had the big hair and the leotard that went straight up their butt. It’s funny, things were looser back then. Today, I look at our costumes [on WOW] and I think, “Wow, we don’t have any costumes that go up girls’ rear ends.” I just didn’t see it.
Off camera, were the women always treated with respect?
I think it’s indicative that when I left the company the majority of the talent left with me. I didn’t agree with the culture of how the director treated the talent. There was an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last [month] with one of the wrestlers, Godiva, who came in after I had left the company. She had noted in the interview how the director Cimber would tell her she was fat, fat, fat and degrade her. She said it hurt her feelings, and it still hurts her feelings. She’s still taken back by such insults. [But] she’s a friend of the director to this day.
There were things that I would have dialed [down] back then, and in terms of the treatment and portrayal of some of the talent. I think a lot of that is from after I left the company.
It constantly got worse. When I was there, I treated the talent with the utmost respect. I thought they were the foundation of the company. That’s why Laurie Thompson — who played Susie Spirit, the cheerleader — to this day is my attorney.
You’re not officially involved with the Netflix production at all. Did you at least talk to any of the writers or producers?
Not been involved at all. I’m going to invite them out for a cocktail. They got the beginning stuff spot on, and I’d love to find out how the writers did that so well. Bravo to them.
So a decade after GLOW ended, you launched another women’s wrestling franchise, WOW. It only lasted a year, but you brought it back a few years ago via YouTube, and you now have a deal with MGM and Mark Burnett to expand the brand on TV. How is that going?
I think my vision is going to finally be realized with the partners like Jeanie Buss of the Los Angeles Lakers as my partner and owner in the League, and MGM and Mark Burnett now engaged. I think women’s wrestling is once again going to change the status quo and elevate the medium and context in which fans of wrestling see wrestling.
Any chance you might try to put the original episodes of GLOW back on TV somehow? I know several episodes are on YouTube.
The shows that are seen on YouTube were taken primarily by fans who recorded an episode on [videotape] and then uploaded them. The original tapes of GLOW were never properly taken care of. The current owner of GLOW doesn’t have many of the original tapes.
Do you have the originals?
I can’t answer that. I sold the company. [Laughter.]