Celebrity timekeeper Liberace and some of Radio City’s Rockettes at WrestleMania 1. And, yes, there’s a story behind that. (Getty Images) 

WWE mega-event began at Madison Square Garden in 1985

World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania celebrates 35 years this week, culminating with Sunday’s main event at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The massive production returns to the market where it all began at Madison Square Garden in 1985.

Bobby Goldwater, now a consultant with The Goldwater Group, ran the Garden at the time WrestleMania 1 took place, and he played a key role in planning the inaugural event. The arena was the appropriate setting, considering MSG as an organization had a rich history with WWE Chairman Vince McMahon’s family, dating to Roderick “Jess” McMahon, Vince’s grandfather who promoted boxing at the old Madison Square Garden early in the 20th century with the legendary Tex Rickard, who owned the arena at the time.

“In 1979, I became director of public relations at the Garden and had a chance to work with Vince’s dad (Vince McMahon Sr.) and then with Vince,” Goldwater said. “I observed what he did in the 1980s to change and evolve the whole wrestling business.”

During Goldwater’s tenure at Madison Square Garden, the arena booked monthly WWE events that routinely sold out, which eventually led to the facility playing host to the first WrestleMania. Goldwater recalls the brainstorming sessions that took place during the organizational meetings leading up to the March 31, 1985, event.

“The buildup to that event that only (WWE) could do was just extraordinary,” he said. “This was the kind of organization that, back then, no idea was too crazy. If it could work, they figured out a way to do it.”

The concept of having Liberace appear at WrestleMania came up as officials discussed the concept of booking “somebody outrageous that nobody would expect” to attend a pro wrestling event, Goldwater said. The famed pianist had a run of shows coming up at Radio City Music Hall and the timing worked out well. Liberace, flanked by some of Radio City’s Rockettes, served as WrestleMania’s celebrity timekeeper, and became part of its lore.

Bob Collins, an executive at WWE for 20 years before retiring in 2008, recalls the early days of WrestleMania, when closed-circuit television, the precursor to pay-per-view, was a key piece of the overall production.

“We always looked at closed-circuit as an extension of the box office,” Collins said. “There were probably hundreds of locations around the country selling tickets so people could watch WrestleMania on the big screen at theaters, arenas and venues such as Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. They would sell thousands of tickets.”

Collins found out firsthand the reach of WrestleMania through closed-circuit. In 1987, one year before Collins joined WWE, he was working for the Ice Capades and promoting the tour stop at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, N.M.

“We had to make ice there. They didn’t have an ice floor,” Collins said. “We wanted to move in the weekend before we opened and the building manager said, ‘I’m sorry, you can’t come into the coliseum; we have WrestleMania on closed-circuit on Sunday.’ I was blown away. Here we are in Albuquerque and they’re talking about WrestleMania … on the giant screen.”

The year 1987 was a milestone for WrestleMania. It marked the first time the event played a stadium, and more than 90,000 packed the old Pontiac (Mich.) Silverdome. Since 2007, WrestleMania has been a fixture at stadiums with Smackdown, Raw and other smaller events booked at arenas in the same market.

Staples Center was among the final arenas to host WrestleMania in 2005. Back then, the arena had five sports tenants plus the Grammys, which made it a challenge to squeeze WWE’s extravaganza into the spring schedule, said Staples Center President Lee Zeidman.

For WrestleMania 21 in Los Angeles, the Chairman’s Room, the arena’s ultra-exclusive lounge, was filled with celebrities such as David Arquette, Adam Sandler, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, Ice Cube, Carmen Electra, “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and Sylvester Stallone, who took on Hulk Hogan in “Rocky 3” the motion picture. They joined Vince McMahon, his guests and WWE sponsors, Zeidman said.

“It’s the crown jewel of WWE and it was tremendous for us to have WrestleMania in our sixth year of operation,” he said. “We always hoped that we would get it back, but they made the right decision to go to stadiums (exclusively) after 2006.”

“It’s a phenomenal model and we wish them nothing but success,” he said. “If and when they do determine that for nostalgia sake, they would like to come back into arenas, we would love to be first in line.”

Staples Center, among other arenas across North America, still plays a key role for booking WWE events. In November, AEG’s flagship facility played host to four consecutive nights of pro wrestling, including the Survivor Series, a pay-per-view production.

“WrestleMania strengthened the relationship we have with WWE today,” Zeidman said.