Telling the amazing, untold story of lady wrestlers

Chris Bournea

Mar 26, 2018

lady wrestlers

Journalist and author-turned filmmaker Chris Bournea explores a remarkable story hidden in Columbus's past with his first film, Lady Wrestler: The Amazing, Untold Story of African-American Women in the Ring. Made with support from a residency with our amazing team in the Film/Video Studio, it debuts here on Thursday. Below, Chris shares how he was first tipped off to the women wrestlers of the 1950s now living locally and how the Wex residency helped him move into filmmaking. 

I discovered the stories of the African-American female wrestlers through a longtime friend and journalism colleague, Terry Anderson, who's worked in public relations and communications in the Columbus area for many years. In 2005, Terry was working at the Greater Columbus Arts Council and I was a reporter at ThisWeek News, a subsidiary of the Columbus Dispatch.

When I would call Terry for story ideas, he would periodically suggest that I interview a woman he grew up with in his neighborhood who always had interesting people hanging out at her house—bodybuilders, actors, and wrestlers—and she may have even been a wrestler herself. That woman turned out to be Ethel Johnson, one of the first African-American female wrestlers. She entered the business in the 1950s and still lives in Columbus.

Terry arranged for me to interview Ethel and I was fascinated by her accounts of traveling all over the world to places like Latin America, Japan, Australia, and Canada and being greeted enthusiastically by adoring fans. However, when she wrestled in the American South, she was subjected to Jim Crow segregation and had to go in the back door of restaurants, drink from “colored” water fountains, and stay in segregated hotels.

Being African American myself and having been born and raised in Columbus, I was intrigued not only by Ethel’s story, but baffled as to why I’d never heard of her before. I wrote about her story in the Dispatch and the article was published during the first week of Women’s History Month in March 2006.

The organizers of the Arnold Classic—the annual Columbus sports festival that was founded by Arnold Schwarzenegger—saw the article, contacted me, and offered to present Ethel with a lifetime achievement award during that year’s expo. Being a retired grandmother who mostly stayed out of the limelight since leaving the wrestling industry in the 1970s, Ethel humbly declined the award.

However, I felt Ethel’s story was too grand in scope to be limited to one newspaper article. I’d had an interest in both writing and filmmaking since childhood, so it occurred to me that Ethel’s story would make an interesting documentary. I asked her if she would agree to be interviewed on camera and she agreed.

My research led me to several other African-American female wrestlers, many of them still living in Columbus, and I also interviewed Ramona Isbell and the children of Ethel’s late sisters, Babs Wingo and Marva Scott. I chose the title Lady Wrestler because that was the label that was on many of the women’s publicity shots: “lady wrestler” or “girl wrestler.”

I also interviewed wrestling legend “Rowdy” Roddy Piper a couple of years before his sudden death from a heart attack in July 2015. Everyone I spoke with was amazingly forthcoming and generous in sharing their stories.

Wrestler Kathleen Wimbley and jazz star Billy Eckstine

The residency I received through the Film/Video Studio Program was invaluable in completing the post-production for Lady Wrestler. I worked closely with film editor Paul Hill, whom I’ve known since we attended high school together at the Fort Hayes Career Center’s Radio and Television program. I graduated from Fort Hayes with a degree in broadcast journalism and I also hold a bachelor’s degree in English from Ohio State. I have worked as a journalist at local newspapers in Columbus for years, and the Wexner Center helped me translate my storytelling skills from print to film.

Working with Paul, Jennifer Lange, and other Wexner Center staff was instrumental in helping me to professionally edit Lady Wrestler, ensure that the sound was high quality, and record voiceover narration in the center’s recording booth.

My residency helped me grow by leaps and bounds as a visual storyteller. The Wexner Center’s steadfast support of both me as an artist and Lady Wrestler as a film has been an incredible boon along this journey. 

Images: wrestlers Ethel Johnson and Babs Wingo, Kathleen Wimbley and jazz star Billy Eckstine, courtesy of the filmmaker