When local television was in its infancy in the 1950s and ’60s, it did not get much bigger than Shirley Love in southern West Virginia. At a time when the population was robust in the southern coalfields, everyone knew him.
A longtime broadcaster with WOAY TV and radio, Love passed away on Friday morning at the age of 87. He was a broadcasting fixture from the 1950s to the 1990s and a public servant, serving one term in the State House of Delegates and 14 years in the State Senate.
Love did it all in broadcasting — music and dance shows, radio and television. He did the radio play-by-play for Oak Hill High School athletics. He would have seen Red Devil stars such as future Maryland basketball player Tom “Speedy” Jones and future Mountaineers Tracy Shelton and P.G. Greene. At one time, he also hosted a Thursday night football highlights show that featured Oak Hill coach Carroll Bumgardner and film of many of the smaller schools in the area such as Mount Hope, Marsh Fork, Clear Fork and Gauley Bridge.
Without question, his most memorable television gig was hosting “Saturday Night Rasslin” on WOAY. It was classic Americana and local television.
It was live TV that took place at TV Lanes in Oak Hill. The show promoted the Terrace Room Buffet, and Love and his broadcast partner talked often about their baked steak and cabbage roll. Love did live interviews with people in the crowd as they came from tiny coal camps such as Davy, Roderfield, Itman and Oakvale. They also came from the upper Kanawha Valley from towns such as Montgomery, East Bank, Falls View, Charlton Heights and Belle.
The wrestlers were an interesting cast of characters. There were names such as Bobby Pico and “Silent” Jim Montonero, who supposedly could not hear or speak. It turns out he could do both. Two of the “villains” were The Cuban Assassins, who would not be very politically correct today. They looked like young, thin Fidel Castros.
The two biggest villains were the Evil Jan and Jean Madrid, who were actually well-liked substitute teachers in Fayette County.
On cue, female members of the audience were instructed to get in the path of the wrestlers so they could hit them with their purses as they walked into the ring. The crowd and television audience loved it.
You would often see your friends and neighbors in the crowd. One of the wrestlers was a well-built man with a shaved head and worked at the same coal company as my father. Because his head was shaved, he was introduced as being “the Mongolian from Outer Mongolia.” My father roared with laughter when he saw him and said, ”He’s not from Mongolia, he’s from Boomer.”
At a time when local television stations often produced their own programming and actually had local personalities, Love was “the” personality at WOAY. WSAZ had Dean Sturm, Budd Dailey and “Mr. Cartoon” Jule Huffman. WCHS had Jackie Oblinger, Ernie Saunders, Al Sahley and John Dickensheets.
It was a different time when media outlets were locally owned and the staffs seemed to have more fun. No one seemed to enjoy it more, or loved his community more, than Shirley Love.