Lady of the ring

How a punk rock singer became one of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

Lily Crabtree shows off a poster of herself from her Corporal Kelly days.

Lily Crabtree shows off a poster of herself from her Corporal Kelly days.

Photo/Eric Marks

Nowadays, Lily Crabtree is the Guaranteed Services manager of the Patagonia warehouse here in Reno, but nearly 30 years ago, she was Corporal Kelly, barking orders and mugging for the camera as she got into the ring to wrestle. She was a cast member of GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a popular syndicated TV show that ran for four seasons in the ’80s.

A grainy video recording of her final bout can be found on YouTube: A lively crowd surrounds a ring that could be the venue of a boxing match, except the ropes are the color of cotton candy. Corporal Kelly, “the mean Marine,” is introduced first. She runs out, decked in what looks like Vietnam-era fatigues, not comfortable athletic wear, and heads toward the ring as the audience raises a mix of cheers and the jeers a good heel deserves.

In the clip, there’s then a cheesy video swipe that might have been state-of-the-art in 1989 but looks as outdated as a horse and buggy today, and then there’s Corporal Kelly bobbing to a basic beat, flanked by henchwomen, and then, yep, she starts rapping. She’s right on the beat, in a gruff voice that approximates no-nonsense, but is actually all-nonsense: “Stand at attention when I speak/I’m Corporal Kelly; I despise the meek/I spot their weakness, and I move in/With strategy behind me, I’m gunning to win.”

Her opponent is Sunny, the California Girl, a bouncing blonde who approaches the ring with a surfboard in hand, like she literally just ran over from the beach and didn’t have time to stash her stick. Instead of rapping, she attempts to tell a “knock, knock” joke, but the audience doesn’t really bite, so she just stutters awkwardly for a second, until the ring announcer looks at her, shrugs, and says, “don’t you …” and then she shouts “Tanks!” This is apparently the midway response of the joke, but she doesn’t wait for a “Tanks who?” before launching into a rendition of “Tanks for the Memories.”

(The 1980s were a different time. It’s hard to picture the stereotype of the dumb blonde being presented so blatantly, and with such condescending affection, anywhere on TV today—except maybe at a Trump rally. And even then they’d probably call her Hillary and ruin the whole terrible, tacky simplicity of the thing.)

The match begins moments later. Kelly shoves Sunny into a corner and starts pummeling her, she grabs her hair and tosses her against the ropes, picks her up and slams her over a knee. Sunny gets the upper hand a moment later, and the two wrestlers alternate taking the lead in a half-choreographed, half-improvised dance around the ring. The bout ends with Kelly climbing to the top turnbuckle and diving off with a “bombs away!” body slam.

But after pinning Sunny, Kelly seems to have trouble getting to her feet, and although she raises her arms above her in a gesture that seems like a victory celebration, the howl she lets out seems pitched between triumph and agony, and she seems strangely immobile as the ring announcer declares her the winner.

It was a moment of triumph for Corporal Kelly but a moment of agony for Lily Crabtree.

“I heard my knee pop,” said Crabtree recently. One leg had landed on a soft spot on the mat. The leg twisted, and her ACL was obliterated. She gritted her teeth, pinned her opponent, stayed in character long enough for the crew to finish filming the scene, but then she had to be helped out of the ring.

“They tried to send me back out there,” said Crabtree. “I don’t know if you can tell in the match, but I only had one good leg.”

Broom with a view

Crabtree was born in Cincinnati and grew up just across the Ohio River in suburban Kentucky. She moved out at age 16 when her parents threatened to put her in an all-girls Catholic school because they found out she was sexually active. Not long afterward, in the early '80s, she started hanging out with musicians in Cincinnati's music scene, especially a band called the Ravens.

“I basically roadied for them, moving equipment in and out,” she said. “I was always a tough girl.”

Before long, she also started doing live sound for the band, and then began dating the group’s bassist, Blackie Crabtree, who eventually became her husband, and then eventually her ex-husband—although they’re still on good terms. (Renoites might know Blackie from his current band, the Flesh Hammers.)

“Our first date—Halloween night, a busload of punks went to Cleveland to see Talking Heads and did acid,” said Crabtree.

The Ravens changed their band name to the Explosive Broomhandles—a name that might conjure up mental images of fiery, ejaculatory witches—and then the band’s male singer quit.

“I knew all the songs, so they asked me if I wanted to sing,” said Crabtree. “And I said, ’Yeah. Who doesn’t want to sing?’”

The band started out as fast-loud-rules, thrashy punk before eventually evolving into what Crabtree describes as “Western Gothic sleaze rock”—still fast, but with a hint of twang and some post-punk gloom. On Desert Storm, the group’s 1991 album, her voice sounds a bit like Exene Cervenka and a bit like Siouxsie Sioux, and the band sounds a bit like early Slayer covering Waylon Jennings—thrashers playing country songs with a Goth singer. Or, put another way, the sound of your dog dying and your truck breaking down, but it’s night, and you’re out in the middle of the desert, and there’s no one for miles, and you’re sickeningly alone in the universe.

But nearly a decade before the recording of the album, back in ’82, the Explosive Broomhandles moved to Southern California.

“At that time Cincinnati wasn’t really ready for punk,” said Crabtree.

Crabtree and the band spent the next decade and more gigging around the Los Angeles area, playing iconic venues like the Whiskey and the Troubadour.

“We played the Whiskey the night of the Rodney King riots,” she said. “It was intense. We were onstage when the verdict came down or right before we went out. So we talked about it onstage. … We talked about the LA cops and how we thought this was bullshit, and you know there’s going to be a riot tonight and there actually was. … But we didn’t completely bash ’em because, you know, they might have had to save us on the way home.”

Both Crabtrees worked for Patagonia, and they moved with the company up to Reno in ’96. In 2011, Lily Crabtree survived both a divorce and breast cancer. But before any of that, before moving to Reno, she took a hiatus from music to wrestle.

The young and the wrestlers

“I was always a big wrestling fan,” she said. “It's just the greatest form of entertainment. It's over the top. It's campy. It's good versus evil, and you can always root for evil in this case.”

And for her, wrestling is a lot like playing rock music—the same sense of theater, oversized personalities and big, silly gestures. She describes it as “like a silent movie in the ring.”

She and Blackie would often attend wrestling events around LA, and, on a whim, she eventually started working out with friends at a wrestling gym called Gil’s Garage. Many of the other wrestlers training there were Lucha Libre fighters who taught her the best ways to fall and other moves. There were no other women training at that gym.

Women in professional wrestling was, of course, not a new phenomenon. Watching other people—men and women—fight, or pretend to, is an activity that has remained popular since prehistoric times. The formats have changed over the years, but it has never gone away. But Glow: the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling is perfectly a product of its time, the ’80s: the colors are oversaturated, the dialogue and sketches are cheesy, and the characterizations are tacky. The whole show reeks of some saccharine, leering excess. Naturally, it was filmed in Las Vegas.

More specifically, it was filmed at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. GLOW was started in 1985 by producers David McLane and Matt Cimber. By the time Crabtree joined the show before the third season, McLane had left GLOW, and Cimber was running the show. Cimber’s biggest claim to fame is that he was married to actress Jayne Mansfield at the time of her death.

One Saturday, the show featured a promo: “Do you have what it takes to be on GLOW? Send us your resume.”

So Crabtree sent them a resume.

“I didn’t hear from them forever, and then they called and wanted to meet me,” she said. “Matt Cimber met with me—I think it was at a Burger King in the valley. … This guy is such a dick, and you can say he’s a dick because he is a dick.”

The angels

Andrea Micheil, who's also now a Reno resident, was on GLOW in season two, back when McLane was still onboard. For her, the continuing cultural influence of GLOW has less to do with the inclusion of women—which had happened before—and more to do with the larger-than-life characters on the show.

Photo/Eric Marks

GLOW took wrestling one step further,” she said recently. “My grandmother, she watched wrestling, and everyone either had black trunks on or red trunks on. One guy was a bad guy and one guy was a good guy. We took it one step further. We took those characters and we gave them costumes. We gave them exaggerated characters.”

Her character was Angel—“Don’t let the name fool you”—a heel. She was a gymnast who’d studied theater arts and worked for a casting agency. She joined GLOW after going for an audition looking for “athletic women.” She was only on GLOW for a year but later wrestled for other companies, some of which were GLOW spinoffs: Powerful Women of Wrestling, Female Ladies Appearing in the Ring, and AWA Superstars of Wrestling. She also acted and did stunt work in movies, and now works for Breakthru Beverage in Reno.

“Anything could happen in the ring,” she said. “People say, wrestling is fake. Well, I wish you’d tell my cracked pelvis and my four or five vertebrae that will never be the same that.”

When Crabtree tried out for the show, it was alongside about 60 other hopefuls. The tryouts, she said, were grueling. They’d run laps, lift weights, do calisthenics, practice moves.

“They put us through the paces,” she said. “They worked our asses. … They’d work us from 7 until noon, and then we’d have a half hour break for lunch, and then we’d work from 12:30 until 6:30, and then we’d have an hour break for dinner, and then we’d do commercial spots—not real commercial spots, but we’d practice.”

This was every day but Sunday for three weeks before the first cut.

“I made the cut, and that’s when they told me I was going to be Corporal Kelly.”

Crabtree was actually Corporal Kelly II. It was a character that already existed, that she had no hand in creating. Her casting was based on the fact that she had a physical resemblance to the original Corporal Kelly from the earlier seasons.

“That was frustrating, and they cut all my hair off, and they dyed it brown,” she said.

After the first round, the women were assigned characters, some of whom they—unlike Crabtree—had a role in creating. And then after testing the characters, there was another round of cuts.

“At the end, we were down to about 24 or 26 girls, and then people started getting hurt immediately.”

Crabtree saw an inexperienced wrestler break her collarbone.

“Her bone was sticking out. So they called the ambulance. The ambulance takes her away, and we’re all standing there freaked out of our gourds, and then they say, “’Next.’”

The most challenging aspect of it all, according to Crabtree, was the abuse meted out by Cimber.

“I did used to call Blackie almost every night crying because it was brutal and the producer was such a dick. He would call us in our apartments every night to see if we were home. He wanted to talk to every girl at 2 in the morning. He kept such close tabs on us. He bitched at us constantly. If he saw us eating anything he didn’t think we should be eating, he’d scream at us. After I got my character, I’d be walking down to the ring—our apartments were really close to the ring—and if he’d be driving by, he’d stop and say, ’March, Corporal Kelly, march!’ And he’d call you a fat ass, and say you were a pig, and tell you how ugly you were. He would just dog us. … He sexually harassed a lot of the girls, but not me, because that was one time, as he told me, that being a bull-dyke Marine was working in my favor because he wasn’t hitting on me.”

The schedule continued to be grueling after she passed the audition process. Every Monday morning would start with a meeting with the writers and producers in which they’d go over the week’s matches. All week long would be rehearsals and workouts. Friday nights were dress rehearsals. And Saturdays were all-day taping days, including shooting commercials and sketches after the matches. After that, she’d drive to LA to spend a precious few hours with her boyfriend before driving back in time to make the morning meeting the following Monday.

And the fights were physically demanding. In addition to destroying her ACL, she was sidelined for a bit early on with a broken elbow. Her opponents, the supposed “good girls,” weren’t always mindful about pulling their punches.

“The good girls were bitches,” she said. “They were mean. Those damn farmers’ daughters were the worst. … The bad girls were usually so cool. The good girls were a bunch of naked, spoiled bitches.”

Some of the other wrestlers were cokeheads, but no one, to her knowledge, was using steroids. One of the wrestlers switched careers and went on to be in pornography. Some others had minor acting careers, appearing on shows like Married … with Children.

“It’s pretty funny that people are still into it,” she said. “We didn’t have money.”

She said she was paid $250 a week, plus another $150 a week that was held until the end of the season. She lived with three other women in a two-bedroom apartment.

“You could eat at the Riveria, but if you ate at the Riveria, Matt was going to come yell at you for what you were eating, so hardly anyone ate there,” she said. “I never did anyway. Matt was screaming at you all the time. They were constantly watching you. It was crazy. And then when I messed up my knee, they lied about how much I made.”

They downplayed her earnings, so her workers’ compensation payments would be less.

She remembers needing to collect cans to earn money to buy a meal—a meal she ate while watching herself on syndicated TV.

“I thought, this is wrong,” she said. “Should you be cashing in your cans and excited you’re going to have a hamburger while you’re on TV?”

There’s been a renewed interest in the GLOW athletes in recent years. An acclaimed documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, was completed in late 2011. The GLOW wrestlers are being honored at the Cauliflower Alley Club wrestlers’ convention in Las Vegas this year. And a scripted TV show written by Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and starring Alison Brie is being developed for Netflix.

Many of the GLOW wrestlers participate in AfterGLOW fan events, including an upcoming cruise. Why the continued interest?

“Every fan had a wrestler that connected to them somehow, whether it be a bad girl or a good girl that they wanted to be,” said Micheil. “Fans would say, ’You guys are real people? You have no idea how you guys got me through my day.’ Because whatever problem or situation that was going on in their lives because they felt different, and they saw us, and we were different, and we were on TV, and it was OK to be different.”

But for Crabtree, the experience is tainted by frustration with her character: “Part of me was not that into being Corporal Kelly. I thought it was cool that I got to do it, and look back on it, and say I did it.”

She wanted to embrace her stage name and persona as the singer of the Explosive Broomhandles: Lillian Lust.

“I freaking loved being Lillian Lust, and Corporal Kelly was the exact opposite of Lillian Lust,” she said. “As Lillian Lust, I was always the girl that I wished I could be—that girl in school that I never was because I was a dorky little Catholic girl with bad hair.”

Despite her reservations, she embraced the character of Corporal Kelly with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.

“When I was Corporal Kelly, I was Corporal Kelly. I’d get up in little kids’ faces and say, ’Listen up, you little maggot, I’ll rip your head off.’ I was in people’s faces and screaming at the audience. I embraced it. I loved being a heel.”