Yesterday, I went to the public viewing for the recently deceased Tom Peterson. Anna Marum did a great write up on his life here. Tom was laying there – looking quite dead, as one would expect. The coffin was flanked by a portrait of him and a floral display, and a table featuring various fezzes from his fraternal organizations, I’m guessing. Above it all was a powerpoint playing of photos of Tom as a kid, photos of him with family, lots of fishing shots… and his ads. With sound. That’s right. As I was sitting there at the Lincoln Memorial Funeral Home, paying my respects to Tom Peterson, there he was, walking through his gigantic circa 1980s showroom, bombastically hawking $399 ranges and throwing in a little black and white TV for FREE – because “Free is a very good price.” Right above his quite lifeless corpse. I’ll be honest – it was fucking weird.
As I was siting there, about four rows behind the flower covered open casket, I really wasn’t sure why I went to the viewing. I invited a friend to join me, and he was all “I didn’t know the guy. The idea makes me uncomfortable.” Which is a fair response. My history was similar, yet of course quite different.
My family never bought an appliance from Tom Peterson, unlike oh-so-many commenters on the recent articles. Not a VCR, a range or a fridge – and we didn’t rent our VHS movies there either (in the 80’s, we went to a used TV place up on North Lombard). But I wore a t-shirt with his iconic face plastered upon it, and when I walked around downtown I very much enjoyed seeing the same graphic spray-painted on a building (right by the OLD Hamburger Mary’s) or a dumpster; an epochal stencil that a graffiti artist employed. But my main connection to Tom was from watching him on KPTV’s broadcasts of Portland Wrestling.
My birth father (Larry Kenck) was a douche. He left my mom when I was a baby, and he almost never paid child support. She ended up trudging through 1970s Swellfare until she could establish a successful nursing career. I saw my birth father maybe a handful of times after that, mostly in my teen years, when I would go visit him and his new family up in North Idaho. His new son (Larry Kenck Jr.) and I got along quite well, and established a great half-brother relationship. Somehow, they were able to get broadcasts of Portland Wrestling up in Post Falls, Idaho, and we watched it together – just being bros in sleeping bags on the living room floor. And Little Larry told me how he loved watching Portland Wrestling every weekend, because it made him feel more connected to me. THAT was My Tom Peterson.
Anna’s otherwise fantastic review of Tom’s life didn’t even mention his contribution to Portland Wrestling – which I think was a shame. Douglas Perry also recently wrote a great article about the history of Portland Wrestling. And while that piece didn’t deal too much with the era of Tom Peterson, it was still a missed opportunity to acknowledge his contributions to that scene.
As a historian, I felt that the contemporary record was lacking. To that end, I contacted Rich Patterson, who is the Portland Trail Blazers Radio Network Producer, as well as a Portland Wrestling Historian. I asked Rich if he could contribute a few words to this post about Tom’s contribution to Portland Wrestling, and he kindly did!
From the time “Portland Wrestling” returned to the Portland airwaves on KPTV in February 1967 until it went off in December 1991, there was one constant and that was Tom Peterson. (It had ended it’s run on KOIN in early 1966.)
It also seemed like a special night when Tom would be at the Portland Sports Arena to do “live” spots in the Crow’s Nest. A great moment was when The Royal Kangaroos took one of his TV’s & smashed it to bits during an interview.
Everyone knows that Tom Peterson is a local icon & I think that was all due to Portland Wrestling. Except for maybe the Saturday afternoon or late night movie, Tom didn’t do much TV advertising outside of Portland Wrestling. Viewers came to know his infamous “Wake Up, Wake Up!” when his stores would stay open all night directly from his commercials that ran on Portland Wrestling.
If there were to be a “Portland Wrestling Hall Of Fame”, you would have to include the likes of Playboy Buddy Rose, Tony Borne, Roddy Piper, Lonnie Mayne, Grappler….and Tom Peterson.
Kristi Turnquist has some classic Tom Peterson ads in her article here.
But I want go back to the top. In Anna’s article, she penned a line that really struck me: With his death comes the loss of another piece of old Portland, the quirky city that existed before it became a hip tourist destination. Now there’s a lot to unpack there.
Let’s start with the obvious – what the fuck does “Old Portland” actually mean? I use the term quite a bit, even though I hadn’t thought about it all that much. And to be honest, Anna’s definition, “the quirky city that existed before it became a hip tourist destination” is pretty damn good! [Ryan Pollard gets the hat tip for this.] Previously, I had looked at the quirky “pieces” disappearing as symptoms of Old Portland being gone. Parts of a bicycle or specific ingredients inside your burrito. Interstate Bowl is all boarded up. Sewickleys is shuttered. The Lotus may go soon. The VQ, Der Reinlander, this list goes on and on.
As I was mulling over writing this post this last weekend, I drove by the big open dirt pit that was formerly the New Seasons corporate office. Seasons has moved their corporate goings-on to the new, fancy and super fucking trendy Washington High School. They went and tore down the building housing their former command post – right on the start of the “gentrified as fuck Williams Bike Highway.” Ready for something bigger and better and I’m guessing more shiny to go in its place. As Leah Sottile has chronicled, for many in Portland, the placement of a Seasons is the beginning of the end. And this big dirt pit isn’t even a discussion of “New vs. Old Portland.” This is an evolution of New Portland. Is this New, new Portland? What happens to us when the gentrifiers begin to gentrify themselves?
When the #gentrification was #gentrified. We’ve come full circle, people! They tore down the New Seasons corporate offices. They’re gonna regentrify this big hole on the Williams corridor. God damn I hate the term “Peak #Portland,” but are we there yet?? Is this how we are conducting our affairs now? ITS LIKE THAT PICTURE OF THAT SNAKE EATING ITSELF!! #NewOldPortland #NewNewPortland
Driving over to the memorial service yesterday, as I was heading east on Powell, I saw a black Kia with a sticker in the window that requested of me to MAKE PORTLAND NORMAL. Obviously, this is happening (and a rack of Nike Orange Bikes can’t tell me it’s not…). And later as I sat near that casket, paying my respects to Tom Peterson, I thought back to that quirky Portland. Affordable housing for minimum wage earning line cooks. Yellow bikes that were shared – without locks – and without multinational corporate sponsorship. A Portland with a Carye Bye, and other artists like her. A satanic pancake restaurant and art gallery on Grand. Tom Peterson. AND Gloria too!
And what do we get instead? “Sure, you could come to Portland and stay in a generic hotel tower downtown—or you could set up shop in a cool neighborhood.” What did we trade for? “Portland’s AirBnB scene is especially vibrant.” Less low-cost dining out options. The highest rent increase in the nation. We have become a playground for the rich, and it’s filled with the fucking most banal of expensive options. And they are spreading like a fungus between your moist toes. On just two blocks of Killingworth, one can find a game shop with beers, a vegan bar, and a “carefully curated plant shop .” ON FUCKING KILLINGSWORTH, PEOPLE!! Is this how you want to conduct yourself? Is this really how you want to live?
Anna was right – but I don’t think that Tom Peterson was just another loss for quirky Portland. As I sat in the chapel, I memorialized Tom, but also Old Portland. Because when He died, It died [Yes – kinda like Cause he dies when it dies, when it dies, he dies! but with slightly less Dennis Hopper. Slightly.]. There’s really nothing left anymore to grasp onto and point out as an icon to that era. It’s gone. It’s all gone. Old Portland is Dead. You have my permission to stop bitching about it. Welcome to the New Normal Portland.
Rest in Peace, Tom Peterson. You chose the perfect time to move on.
Here is the program from his funeral: Tom Peterson Funeral