For a New York kid growing up just outside the bright lights of Broadway, the idea of being a performer often becomes a regular part of many childhood daydreams.
A young Bill Apter grew up in that environment, learning the value of a good show. Now, after nearly 50 years as professional wrestling's most well-known journalist, he also knows the value of a good story.
“My grandparents had convinced me that [wrestling] was 'fixed',” Apter said. “I didn't want to listen to them. I was always able to justify why a guy fell down when he wasn't hit, or something like that.”
In Apter’s young mind, the action taking in place in the ring was never too contrived and the stories never too sensational. Ironically, that same young fan would himself would go on to become perhaps wrestling's greatest storyteller ever.
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As a teenager, Apter had been taking part in stage performances, hosting a local radio show and taking pictures at wrestling events before he started working for Stanley Weston, who published the industry magazines Inside Wrestling and The Wrestler. In the early 70's, both Madison Square Garden and the pseudo sport he covered looked quite different than they appear today.
“From the first time I went in,” Apter said. “I was going in the dressing room covering (professional wrestling) like any other reporter would cover baseball, boxing or some other sport like that.”
As the publications and Apter himself slowly evolved, they began to be identified as protecting ‘kayfabe,’ the notion that what happened in the ring was real, and not pre-determined. At the time, that hard sell was considered the backbone of the industry's attraction to its fans.
Before long, Apter's penchant for shooting spectacular action photos from ringside was gaining notice. He often risked flying bodies and debris to get the perfect shot, and found creative ways to pose wrestlers in the studio.
Always looking to attract new fans and readers, Apter expanded his role as a photojournalist, while still protecting wrestling's dirty little secrets.
“I stayed with keeping it about sports,” he recalled. “You can't do that now in this day and age, when the Internet reveals everything.”
As Apter took to the road with the industry's cavalcade of characters, he began to be associated with the magazines so closely by wrestlers and promoters that the periodicals were nicknamed 'Apter mags'. Although he was never the editor-in-chief, he became the face for the franchise of publications.
“I was intimidated by [wrestlers and performers], but it didn't stop me from writing about them,” he said. “I did whatever I had to do to get a good shot and came up with different angles to keep the stories interesting.”
During this time, Apter's visibility increased when he began to make national television appearances as a reporter and at high-profile events as a representative of the magazines. Along the way, he gained a reputation for being trustworthy and approachable.
“There were times when a guy would call me and say that they just won a title, and ask how they could get on the cover,” Apter remembered. “I would have them meet me at a hotel or a studio and set up the shot that would ultimately be the cover.”
The wrestlers knew that an appearance on one of the publications could mean more fame and even more money, so they stayed in contact with the venerable shutterbug.
In a twist of fate, one of the people who would also approach him around this time was “Taxi” star Andy Kaufman. In 1983, the eccentric comic contacted Apter with a shocking request: he wanted to play a heel (bad guy) in the squared circle.
After initially calling the WWF, Apter re-directed Kaufman to Jerry 'The King' Lawler and the regional Memphis promotion. Before long, the crazy comedian was in the ring, starting a dust up that would be later be documented in the 1997 film “Man on the Moon.”
The following storm of publicity, which included the infamous incident where Lawler slapped Kaufman on David Letterman’s late-night talk show, all started from that simple introduction by Apter.
As Vince McMahon expanded and the industry boomed in the mid-80's, Apter and company continued to ride the rails of an even faster-moving train. When McMahon’s WWF began to consolidate power in the wrestling world, he often shut out reporters in favor of his own in-house magazine.
The ever-resourceful Apter found ways around the policy by calling on old friends, and continuing to forge a new relationship with McMahon.
“It was nothing personal; it was Vince's business model at the time,” he said. “He wanted to remove all the outside magazines from any type of press privileges.
“We were regularly covering other promotions at the time, so we made a decision to make the main cover shot someone from those territories. In New York [the WWF's home region], we knew people that went to the matches and they sat in the stands and took pictures.
“Sometimes, we bought tickets in the stands, and our photographers would go in with long lenses and shoot the matches. We did whatever it took while still respecting their rules.”
Apter’s life in the wild world of sports and entertainment naturally comes with a few unusual tales.
“A very close friend of mine who recently died liked to drink back in those days,” said Apter, who abstains from drugs or alcohol. “At one point we were on the road, and his girlfriend had apparently left the hotel.
“He wandered to my room, naked and walked to the balcony. It was about 12 stories up, and I thought he was going to do a leap and fall to his death right there. It was very scary.”
Apter has also seen the industry as a bit of a glass menagerie. During the 80's and 90's, a random mix of drugs, ridiculous road schedules and personal issues saw a huge swath of the wrestling population wiped out by an epidemic of early deaths.
During one ten-year period of the Apter era, over 50 current or former pro wrestlers died before they reached their fiftieth birthday. Many, if not all, of them crossed his path at one time or another.
When wrestling eventually had another economic boom in the late 90's, Apter received a career resurgence, as well, appearing in television documentaries about the business and continuing to write in a new medium- the internet.
At the start of the new millennium, Apter made a huge jump by moving to a new wrestling publication, World of Wrestling.
Going in a total opposite direction from the London family of publications, it exposed the the backstage aspects of the industry. Appealing to 'smart fans', it often discussed storylines and the wrestlers’ personal lives. For the veteran journalist, it was an incredible leap of faith.
“It was such a slick periodical,” he said. “It looked better than any wrestling magazine had before it, and it even looked better the the WWF's magazine at the time. I felt like it was a risk but a tremendous opportunity as well.”
Despite the credibility lent to it by Apter, the magazine's short-lived run ended in 2001 because of its parent company’s financial woes. Still, he continued to blow through the ever-changing winds.
He said: “In the 90's, when wrestling became sports entertainment, the audience changed, and so naturally, how we covered the sport changed, also.”
Apter would then shuffle off in the modern transition to cyberspace. Today, he operates long-running website 1wrestling.com while continuing to contribute in a multitude of ways to the business he loves.
Apter was honored by Pennsylvania's Keystone State Wrestling Alliance with a proclamation from the governor commending his “lifetime work in the pro wrestling business.” He was also recognized his for humanitarian work at the non-profit AHEDD, which assists persons with disabilities.
Pittsburgh mayor Bill Peduto additionally declared Dec. 3, 2016 as Bill Apter Day.
In recent years, Apter has even rekindled his relationship with the rechristened WWE, and now occasionally makes Network appearances as a historian. The number one company in the world seems to be a fitting stop after a long and illustrious career.
“I've filmed several appearances with the WWE Network, and I've really enjoyed my relationship so far,” he said, “and, there's a possibility down the road that I might be doing some live events for them, as well."
In the winter 2015, Apter released a memoir, “Is Wrestling Fixed? I Didn't Know It Was Broken!.” While on tour promoting it, Apter has developed a one-man comedy show and singing nightclub act. He makes regular stops at conventions and hosts a podcast with colleague Nick Hausman -- themed behind the book's title.
“In my show, it’s a one-man act based on my book,” he said. “It’s an entertainment show; it’s not just sitting there. There are games, music and contests, and I get the audience involved.
“There's a lot that goes on, because honestly, I’m an entertainer. The live performance is what I really enjoy the most.”
Apter will be at the Orlando Hyatt-Regency for WrestleCon on Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1 during WrestleMania Week. He will be there to sign autographed copies of his book and swap stories with fans.
“I certainly hope that fans come out to see me during WrestleMania Week,” he said. “One of the great pleasures of my job is that I get to hear stories that people can all share as childhood memories.”
Now, after all these years, he views the wrestling industry as as the ultimate survivor in the battlefield world of business.
“Professional wrestling will always evolve with whatever trends are socially relevant,” Apter said. “WWE was the first to gain so much leverage on social media, when it became relevant, and you see how well that’s worked out for them. They’re really brilliant in terms of social media.
“Where people used to get their information from newspapers and magazines, now they get it from websites and streaming services. WWE and the wrestling business as a whole will find ways to adapt to that in the years to come, I’m sure.”
Even after spending most of his life as a fan and observer, the little kid still comes out of the 71-year-old Apter when it's time for a big event.
“Unless I ever get physically or mentally where I can’t do this anymore, then I don't ever want to retire," he said.
As he readies himself for wrestling's biggest event of the year, he will remain the same steady observer he’s always been.
“I will be at the Hall of Fame ceremony on Friday [March 31] and NXT event on Saturday [April 1], but here's a scoop... By Sunday, I will be at home watching WrestleMania and covering it like I should -- where I can give it my full attention.
“The wrestling business has been inside me professionally for 50 years, but it's really been in my blood for about 65 of my 71 years and always will be.”
- Pro Wrestling On The Web