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Martin J. 'Mickey' Garagiola obituary: Voice of 'Wrestling at the Chase,' waiter extraordinaire

Mickey Garagiola, who shared one of the most famous Italian surnames in America, came by his fame through an unusual dual career: waiter and professional wrestling announcer.

Mr. Garagiola died of cancer Sunday at Mary Queen and Mother Skilled Nursing Care in Shrewsbury. He was 88. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m., Thursday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church.

Mr. Garagiola was the big brother of Joe Garagiola, who became a catcher with the St. Louis Cardinal, a celebrated baseball announcer and a "Today Show" host on NBC. But Mickey Garagiola found his own niche as perhaps the best known waiter in St. Louis while moonlighting as the television announcer for "Wrestling at the Chase."

The Waiter

When Mr. Garagiola completed eighth grade, his first career was quickly chosen for him by his father, Giovanni, who heard that Ruggeri's restaurant was looking for part-time help.

"He'll be there," Mr. Garagiola recalled his father saying.

"I graduated from St. Ambrose on a Sunday in June in 1936," Mr. Garagiola told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1998, and was soon on his way to Ruggeri's, where he began as a dishwasher.

"There" is where he happily remained for the next 45 years.

"Each day was a new deal," Mr. Garagiola told the Post-Dispatch. "I never thought of doing anything else.

"Where was I going to go without an education? If I could have hit a baseball like my brother, Joe, it might have been different. I considered becoming a carpenter, but I told myself, `No. You'd work outside in the cold.' I said I'll stay inside at Ruggeri's."

A celebrity among celebrities

He stayed at Ruggeri's until it closed in 1982. After receiving the news that his beloved restaurant would be closing, Mr. Garagiola said, "I sat in my car on Elizabeth (outside the restaurant) and cried like a kid."

But at 60, he wasn't done. He headed straight for Pietro's restaurant on Watson Road, where he worked for 14 years, until he retired on his birthday at age 75.

Pietro's, like Ruggeri's, was known as a meeting place for national and local celebrities. Pietro's is where John Pertzborn, co-anchor for FOX 2 News in the Morning, met Mr. Garagiola in the mid '80s. Pertzborn was at Channel 5 at the time.

When he first started frequenting Pietro's, Pertzborn said someone asked him, "Hey, do you know who that is?" They were referring to Mr. Garagiola.

"He was a big deal," Pertzborn said. "People around here treated him like he was a bigger deal than his brother (Joe). He was one of those guys who everyone treated with a lot of respect.

"In fact, he was one of the most popular guys in St. Louis, but he would walk up to you and treat you -- treat everybody -- like they were big shots," Pertzborn said. "I was so impressed with him because he was so down to earth and so humble.

"Food is important, but how you feel when you go into a restaurant is what matters -- it's how the people are treating you."

Wrestling at the Chase

Wrestling promoter Sam Muchnick offered Mr. Garagiola a part-time gig as the ring announcer for "Wrestling at the Chase," a job previously held by his brother, Joe. The TV show taped on his off-day, Sunday, at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel.

"Sam worked with me. Told me what to do," Mr. Garagiola reminisced. "Things were on a roll."

Most of the time, anyway. One day, Mr. Garagiola's announcing hit a bit of a snag. He called the tag-team match the way he saw it, but that's not exactly how it was supposed to be. After Mr. Garagiola announced that challenger Ted DiBiase had beat the reigning world champion, Harley Race, he looked down to see Race objecting from his prone position. Mr. Garagiola's exchange with Muchnick, who agreed with Race, reportedly went like this:

"Sam said, `What the hell were you doing?'

"I replied, `The guy beat the champ. I thought that was it.' "

"Sam said, `Doesn't work that way.' "

"I said, `Oh.'

What Mr. Garagiola learned was that a world title only changed hands at the big show: Kiel Auditorium or the Arena. TV exhibitions were merely preludes.

Mr. Garagiola survived the missed call and went on to be lauded for his life and work. On June 10, 1982, former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr., proclaimed the day "Mickey and Adele Garagiola Day" in St. Louis in a ceremony at City Hall.

A hard-working guy

Martin Joseph Garagiola, was born in St. Louis on the Hill on Dec. 18, 1921, the first of two sons of Angelina and Giovanni Garagiola, who emigrated from Inveruno, Italy, near Milan. He grew up on the block of Elizabeth Avenue that became known as "Hall of Fame Place" because of its famous residents, including Mr. Garagiola, his brother Joe and their neighbor, baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra.

After serving stateside in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Mr. Garagiola was discharged in July 1945. Three months later, he married his neighbor, Adele Riva, on Oct. 21, 1945, at St. Ambrose Church.

"I've known him all my life, practically," Adele told the Post-Dispatch.

To the people who knew him best, his family, Mr. Garagiola was no celebrity.

"He was an entertainer to friends and customers, but he was just 'Dad' to us," said his son, Robert. "It was strange to see him on TV.

"He was a very hard-working guy and he taught us all a work ethic. For 60-some odd years, he worked and hated to miss work. Growing up as a child of the Depression he was cautious with money and taught us the value of a dollar."

Some, like his brother Joe, said he was plenty cautious with money.

"My brother's frugal, let's face it," Joe Garagiola told the Post-Dispatch in 1997. "He still has two envelopes from his First Communion that he never opened. And he still owes me 10 bucks that I gave him to buy a Boy Scout uniform."

Mr. Garagiola denied still having the Communion envelopes, but conceded that he still owed for the uniforms, noting, "I never did give him the 10 bucks back. And guess what? I'm not going to, either."

Honoring a St. Louis icon

Mr. Garagiola was preceded in death by his parents and his wife, Adele, who died in 2006.

In addition to his brother, Joseph Henry "Joe" (Audrie) Garagiola Sr., of Scottsdale, and his son Robert (Antoinette) of Crestwood, Mr. Garagiola is survived by a daughter, Martina (Steve) Bettlach of St. Louis, and another son, John Garagiola of St. Louis; five grandchildren, Steve (Laurie) Bettlach, Julie (Adam) Rossi, Anne (Patrick) Grady, Robert (Allyson) Garagiola and Brian (Carrie) Bettlach, and eight great-grandchildren, Allison, Samuel and Katelyn Bettlach, Mary Kathleen and Michael Grady, Isabella Rossi, Lauren and Justin Garagiola.

Mr. Garagiola is also survived by his best friend and brother-in-law, Charlie Riva.

Visitation for Mr. Garagiola will be 3-8 p.m. today at Calcaterra Funeral Home, 5142 Daggett Ave. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, 5800 Oleatha Avenue.

The interment will follow with full military honors in Resurrection Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, contributions in Mr. Garagiola's name may be made to the Sick & Elderly Program of the Hill, 2315 Macklind Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63110, or St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church, 5800 Oleatha Avenue, St. Louis, Mo. 63139.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.

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