R: Don Robinson
The words courage and vision could have been invented for this man, Don Robinson of Scarborough.
Professional wrestling is full of larger than life characters. None are larger than Don Robinson.
We guess a few of you are sceptical?
- Don Robinson was one of the major independent promoters of the 1960s ...
- He was described by Bob Kirkwood as the "northern arm of Paul Lincoln."
- The promoter of wrestling on the BBC in the spring of 1966.
- Promoter of wrestling at major venues throughout the north of England, including the Queens Hall Leeds.
- The man who brought great names into British wrestling including Klondyke Bill.
- A promoter who organised wrestling in India, Finland, Poland and Sweden with Klondyke Bill, Ski Hi Lee, Dwight J Ingleburgh and Karl Von Kramer.
- Chairman of the Wrestling Federation of Great Britain.
- Wrestled professionally, often using the alias Dr Death.
Well, that's the wrestling credentials out of the way. What about the rest of this great man's achievements?
- He was the man behind the 1960s offshore radio station, Radio 270.
- Was awarded the Freedom of Las Vegas for organising the first direct charter flight from England to the United States.
- As Chairman is credited with saving both Scarborough and Hull City Football Clubs.
- President of Scarborough Cricket Club.
- Owner of the Royal Opera House, Scarborough.
- Board member of Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television.
- Committee member of the Variety Club of Great Britain.
- Chairman of the Zooloogical Society of Great Britain.
- Owner of London, York and Paris Dungeon complexes, Flamingo Land, Dudley Zoo, Whipsnade Zoo, Scarborough's Zoo and Marine Land.
Beginning to feel a bit guilty for doubting us now?
Here's a Director of some twenty-four businesses over more than half a century, and every one of them has been a success. That's the Midas touch. Yet it isn't a result of good luck. No one could be that lucky. Don Robinson has the Midas touch because his ambition has been to always succeed, worked hard all his life, and learnt from the mistakes he's made.
Whilst words like innovative, astute and entrepreneur certainly describe Don, we can add that modest, unassuming, generous and just a normal sort of fellah are equally applicable. Generous enough to buy a round of drinks and sandwiches in the pub for a dozen wrestling related enthusiasts meeting up forty years after he employed the biggest names in the business and worked in the ring himself as Dr Death (with the blessing of his good friend Paul Lincoln, with whom he shared a London office).
Mind you, Don the immensely successful businessman, was in his element recalling his life as one of wrestling's great entrepreneurs, telling the stories of the day he travelled in Jarvis Astaire's Rolls Royce, turned fans away from the Queens Hall in Leeds with a world title match between Mike Marino and Dai Sullivan, brought Klondyke Bill into wrestling, promoted Dara Singh in India, and re-introduced pro wrestling into Sweden. When the subject of Dr Death was raised a modest side of the man emerged. Those who witnessed Don as Dr Death have told us just how good he was, but Don himself told us there was only one real Dr Death, and that was his good friend Paul Lincoln.
Generous enough also to have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds, possibly over a million, from his own personal wealth and the twenty-four companies of which he has been a director. Don was a director of the Live Aid concert and ensured the rent charged by Wembley was greatly reduced. He was awarded a Variety Club Golden Heart for donating three minibuses. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been donated to medical research and hospital charites in Britain and tens of thousands of pounds to aid the people of Bulgaria. The list of beneficiaries just goes on and on.
The conversation that evening also led around to the 1972 April Fools hoax when the corpse of a bull elephant seal from Don's Flamingo Park mysteriously made it's way into Loch Ness, causing a major alert when discovered. Strange how that could have happened Don, and so fortunate it created an enormous amount of free worldwide publicity for the Flamingo Park and Dudley Zoo enterprises! Always a hard headed business man in search of a good profit there was still a lot of fun to be had working with Don, and one of his workers, dolphin trainer Steve Walton, told us Don's workforce was one very large family. It's many years since Steve left Don's workforce, and he's gone on to travel the world as an internationally acclaimed dolphin expert, but he's kept in touch down the years and drops in to see Don and his wife, Jean, whenever he's back in the United Kingdom. Steve explained that once you have Don as a friend he is a friend for life.
It all started with a trampoline. Don was working as a teacher in the gymnasium at the Scarborough Technical College and a trampoline was brought in from America. "We weren't even sure what sure what a trampoline was" Don told us. When it arrived the trampoline turned out to be bigger, and more expensive than Don could imagine. "Two hundred and forty pounds for one trampoline!" He was still incredulous about the cost over fifty years later. Don's creative brain found a local manufacturer to build six trampolines for £180, which he set up on the beach in Scarbrough. Six trampolines that season in Scarborough, expanding to twelve sites around Britain the following season, and twenty four sites the year after.
For Don this was the start of a business empire that has continued to grow and thrives up to the present day, 2014, the year in which he celebrates his 80th birthday. We couldn't begin to scratch the surface of the achievements of this one time professional wrestler and promoter. Don's companies have operated numerous theme parks and zoos, including Windsor Safari Park, Flamingo Land, Dudley Zoo, and from 1971 until 1982 he was Chairman of the National Zoological Association of Great Britain.
His lifelong sporting interests have also seen him involved in numerous high profile sporting ventures including Chairmanships and rescue of Scarborough and Hull City Football Clubs. Other enterprises involving Don include the founding of the Winston Churchill Britain at War Exhibition and the 1960s pirate radio station, Radio 270, ownership of the Royal Opera House, Scarborough and concert promoter.
But what about the wrestling?
Wrestling was certainly not Don's first sporting love. Rugby was where his heart lay, and whilst playing for Hull Kingston Rovers he became friends with Sam Evans, who was already planning a wrestling career. Don went to a wrestling show at Northallerton and asked to speak to one of the wrestlers on the bill.
Jim Stockdale was an experienced wrestler from Stockton who trained wrestlers at his gymnasium behind his father's public house, the Grey Horse. It was the start of a partnership with Jim Stockdale from which Don was to learn a great deal about wrestling and promoting. Jim Stockdale wasn't the only man from whom Don learned the business, and he attributes much of his knowledge to another Yorkshire man, veteran wrestler-promoter Cyril Knowles.
Jim Stockdale and Cyril Knowles taught Don the rudiments of professional wrestling, but it was the promotional side of the business that interested him most. Don was to become one of the top promoters in northern England, putting on multiple shows throughout the week, and even giving a youngster named Johnny Saint his first professional break. Don Robinson was not part of Joint Promotions; his colourful and creative talent would have been out of place in the conservative organisation.
He was the Chairman of the Wrestling Federation of Great Britain, a group consisting of ten independent promoters. A quiet, unassuming man there was one moment when Don became quite agitated. We suggested that the independent promoters were in some ways less important than the Joint Promotion organisation. Forty years later Don is as emphatic as ever, that the independents were in every way better than the Joint organisation; more shows, more wrestlers, better and more exciting shows. The only advantage held by Joint Promotions was the television contract, which they used ruthlessly to keep wrestlers under their control.
Don took wrestlers to Poland, Sweden, Finland and Bombay in India where they performed in the Sardar Patel Stadium which had a 50,000 audience capacity. The tour of Sweden, in 1967, was the first time professional wrestling had been held in Sweden for 25 years. He wrestled on the shows, wearing a mask as Dr Death. One night a local wrestler jumped into the ring and challenged the hooded Don to a fight. Not only were fans clamouring for the fight the local media showed immense interest, even to the extent that their investigations traced Dr Death's origins back to Don's Scarborough home.
When the BBC chose to show wrestling in January 1965 they asked Don Robinson to promote the tournament, broadcast from Southend. The story behind that night and the eventful consequences can be found in The Other Side of Wrestling. One of those consequences was a business partnership and long time friendship with Jarvis Astaire. Don was understandably disappointed when the BBC withdrew from their trial of televising wrestling as he had hoped that he could have been one of the promoters involved.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s Don challenged the might of Joint Promotions. He was a master showman who would put on exciting wrestling tournaments with wrestlers who were more colourful and larger than life than those seen on television. Regular workers included World champion Mike Marino and overseas stars Ricky Starr, Crusher Verdu, Rene Lasartesse, Ski Hi Lee, as well as his home grown talent, Klondyke Bill and Toma Hansom (his friend Tommy Hanson).
Courage and Vision. Don Robinson had it by the bucketload.