SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER made John Travolta a household name. Movies like Urban Cowboy, Grease, and Pulp Fiction made him a music icon. You know he is because you can’t think about Disco dancing and crying at a drive-in without thinking about Travolta.
It’s like thinking about tap dancing without thinking about Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr, or Gene Kelly. So when Glenn Gilbertti became DISCO INFERNO, there was no way you couldn’t help but think about John Travolta, THE DISCO KING.
Glenn Gilbertti a.k.a Disco Inferno
Brooklyn native Gilbertti was a natural to inhabit the Tony Manero character John Travolta played. Not only were they both from Brooklyn, but both characters–Manero and DISCO INFERNO–exuded a certain naivete that made them amusingly goofy and likable at the same time.
Both drew their confidence from dancing, whether making their way to the ring or lighting up the legendary Disco dance floors in the movie. Both were surprisingly insecure considering how willing they were to display their talents in front of large audiences.
An example of DISCO INFERNO’s insecurity would be the time (more than once actually) when he forgot how to apply his finishing move (a standing leg lock called THE LAST DANCE) and brought a reference chart to the ring with him.
The reference charts must have been as complicated as an instruction manual from IKEA because he often struggled and lost to his opponents while trying to decipher them.
For Tony Manero it’s when he’s strutting down a Brooklyn street like a Disco God, perfectly dressed and coiffed until we see he’s holding a can of paint he’s returning to the paint store he works for.
One character bragging about a leg lock he keeps forgetting how to apply on his opponents, the other strutting toward a dead-end job. All the machismo in the world can’t help either of them figure out where or how they’re going to end.
A Lifelong Mid-Carder
DISCO INFERNO spent most of his wrestling career as a mid-carder. Being a mid-carder means not fighting in the main events, relegated to a kind of limbo, where you’re not quite in the dustbin but your chances of ever winning a title again are marginal, or practically nonexistent.
Sounds like a bad position to be in but when you consider how difficult it is to become a successful pro wrestler, to begin with, a mid-carder can have as long a career as any of the top dogs and sometimes longer.
Glenn Gilbertti won several titles as Disco Inferno, among them: the WCW WORLD TELEVISION CHAMPIONSHIP, the WCW CRUISERWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP, and the WCW TAG TEAM CHAMPIONSHIP. Not bad for a mid-carder.
Gilbertti was a heel from the start. The fans hated his Disco dancing so much that they routinely chanted “DISCO SUCKS!” to him.
The “DISCO SUCKS” chants weren’t new. On July 12, 1979, thousands of fans in Chicago’s Comiskey Park were chanting the same thing. DISCO SUCKS was the theme of the Major League Baseball/local Chicago radio station promotional event titled DISCO DEMOLITION NIGHT.
The promotional event went south after the first game of the doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers. 7,000 fans stormed the field, starting disco record bonfires, removing bases, ripping up the grass, and destroying stadium structures like a bunch of crazed groundhogs.
Disco lovers will tell you Disco music died that night, murdered by overzealous spectators and a publicity-hungry DJ named Steve Dahl. How could a single genre of music inspire such hatred?
Some people speculate there was more to the Disco sucks movement than met the eye. Some people think it was less about the actual music and more about the hatred of certain cultures and subcultures.
Disco Never Dies
Despite the fiery riot, Disco never really died. Think Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” or Lady Gaga’s retro dance albums. It’s hard to believe an event like DISCO DEMOLITION NIGHT might occur nowadays but who’s to say it couldn’t?
Playing DISCO INFERNO was an innovative gimmick for its time. Grunge music and rap were the most popular genres of music in the mid-90s, not Disco. Glamour and spectacle took backseats to attitude and grit. Acting like a dancing fool was asking for trouble.
If dancing was a major part of an artist’s act, he or she was often labeled a sellout. Think one MC HAMMER. It’s no wonder the DISCO INFERNO was generally disliked. He was in direct opposition to everything mid-90s.
Alas, Disco Inferno, villain though he tried to be, was more comic relief than the true heel. Evidence of his comedic angle could be seen when he paired up with Alex Wright.
Wright was a German wrestler who had the same dancing his way to the ring shtick. The difference was Wright used techno music, the hard-driving synthesizer-led 90s version of DISCO.
The two started as enemies, fighting each other regularly. It’s hard to garner heat when you’re pro-wrestling’s equivalents of the warring Hansel and Zoolander characters.
When was the last time a male supermodel was truly detested by the public at large? Maybe Fabio–the long-haired Italian model slash actor who graced the cover of so many bodice-ripper romance novels he looked like a cartoon come to life?
But even Fabio’s impossible good looks couldn’t escape parody, as he wound up lampooning himself with cameos in Zoolander and Spy Hard and the I CANT BELIEVE ITS BUTTER commercials. Hard to get mad at people who can laugh at themselves.
Tag Team Champions
For all their silliness, Alex Wright and DISCO INFERNO did win a tag team championship together. This is a credit to their talents as wrestlers. It was also a good idea to double up on their gimmicks to maximize audience heat. If you truly hate dancing, boy, you are going to hate these two dancing fools.
And that’s exactly what Alex Wright and the Disco Inferno wound up calling their tag team: The Dancing Fools, which later became The Dancing Idiots, and even later became The BOOGIE KNIGHTS. And here I was thinking I was so clever.
Despite all the Disco dancing it featured, SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is a dark movie. Themes of hopelessness, misogyny, racism, sexual perversity and violence underlie the snazzy Disco dancing scenes. Tony Manero and his buddies live for Saturday nights when they can be kings of their realm for a few hours before having to go back to the drabness of their unexceptional lives in small-town Brooklyn. The gleaming towers of Manhattan are just beyond Tony’s reach, a bastion of the success he is longing for.
It would have been difficult for Disco Inferno to convey the inner darkness of the John Travolta character in the ring. Marc Mero had the wildness and unpredictability of Little Richard to work with. Honkytonk Man had a smashable guitar and Jimmy Hart’s megaphone at his disposal. To get truly villainous, Disco Inferno would have had to push the envelope as far as he could go to earn that elusive fan hatred. At one point, he was on the right track. Let me explain.
WCW female wrestler Jacqueline was working an angle in which she attacked male wrestlers from behind as they made their way to the ring. After a few times attacking Chris Benoit, WCW honcho Eric Bischoff devised an angle that would have Jacqueline defeat a male wrestler in the ring. Disco Inferno was tapped to the job, but he refused to lose to Jacqueline. The way Disco spills it on Youtube’s Hannibal TV:
Jacqueline’s 120 pounds, five foot 3. I’m 240 pounds. Other than me going in there and breaking her neck…I don’t see how this is going to be a competitive match.
Glenn Gilbertti was also worried about how being bested by a woman would play for his character after his loss. This was a legitimate concern. How would the fans receive him after losing to Jacqueline? Where could he go from there?
According to Gilbertti, a lot of people at WCW advised him against losing to a woman. The damage to his character could be irreparable. Intergender wrestling was not a thing at the time. Fighting Jacqueline in the ring would be groundbreaking and risky.
Eric Bischoff's Take
The way Eric Bischoff tells it:
“There’s not a lot to talk about – he didn’t want to do it [lose to Jacqueline]. He drew a line in the sand, which doesn’t usually work with me and I fired him. Disco didn’t have a serious character; Disco was a comedy relief. Disco was a heel, that thought he was somebody else all of the time – that was his character.
So I didn’t quite understand why Disco couldn’t see the opportunity to go out there and have fun with it. It’s not like anyone took Disco Inferno seriously to begin with as a performer. I mean as a legitimate wrestler, they took him seriously as a character, he was a great character – he was funny, and he was fun to watch.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why a comedic character couldn’t see the fun to be had and the business to be made by going out there and having a match with Jacqueline – it’s just incomprehensible to me.”
After a four-month hiatus from the WCW, Disco agreed to lose to Jacqueline. The match itself was a disappointment. It boiled down to Disco finding ways not to engage with Jacqueline, showing how scared he was to hit a woman. Jacqueline pins Disco in a small package.
Now, on the Hannibal TV interview, Glenn Gilbertti said Jacqueline clotheslined him harder than any man had previously. There’s no doubt Jacqueline was an excellent pro wrestler who achieved so much in WCW and the WWE. If Disco had to lose to a woman, Jacqueline was the one to lose to.
But it seems to me the match was a disservice to both Disco and Jacqueline as there was no real lead-in to the fight. It sort of just happened after a little smack-talking and nothing else.
A Twist On The Story
Here’s a storyline I think would have been a good lead into the fight. Follow me with this one:
Disco just won a match. Emotional about his victory, he grabs the ring mike and invites any woman in the crowd who wants to disco dance to join him in the ring. Accepting the invitation, a sassy young woman enters the ring.
She and Disco dance separately but perfectly in synch. She is a very good dancer and before we know it she’s dancing up a storm, showing up Disco on the ring-turned-dance floor.
Meanwhile, at the other corner of the ring,
Disco looks on with his arms folded. He doesn’t look pleased by her display. When she’s done with her dance routine, Disco approaches her, takes her arm, and lifts it in the air. As the woman starts to bow, Disco twists her arm into a lock that is causing her pain. Deafening Boos from the audience as Disco continues to add pressure to the poor woman’s arm.
Disco grabs the ring mike: I’m the King of Disco, not you!!!
Jacqueline races to the ring. She dropkicks Disco from behind, he bounces off the rope and into Jacqueline’s charging clothesline. The clothesline is hard enough to send Disco careening over the top rope and onto the broadcasting table. End scene.
Now Jacqueline is a hero because she rescued the female fan. Disco’s a tool because he was hurting a woman, playing up the misogyny we saw in Saturday Night Fever, bringing out the darkness of the Tony Manero character Travolta brought to life.
The final act of this lead-in is Disco descending to Andy Kaufman’s depths, challenging women in the audience to fight him since by now everyone claims he got a humiliating beatdown from Jacqueline.
Disco has become despicable, driven to depravity by Jacqueline. Disco Inferno has lost his mind and it’s up to Jacqueline to set things right.
Their match would have meant more that way. Too bad Eric Bischoff couldn’t see beyond the comedy relief. Maybe
Jacqueline should have lost. Disco could have channeled some of the lost boy angst Tony Manero was feeling in Saturday Night Fever. This match could have been wrestling gold. Nevertheless, the match did set a precedent, as intergender matches became more common with the emergence of Chyna.
Who knows if my script would have been acceptable to WCW creative? I’m no wrestling scriptwriter but it turns out Gilbertti is. In addition to being a creative consultant/scriptwriter for many wrestling events, Gilbertti currently runs a wrestling podcast with former WCW alumnus Konnan.
I don’t know if Gilbertti would have approved of my little lead into his match with Jacqueline but he certainly has good taste when it comes to choosing his role models. Gilbertti has previously stated
The Honkytonk Man was the basis for his dancing character. And he almost got the chance to join forces with the Honkytonk Man in the WWE, but alas that opportunity never came to pass, due to contractual obligations with the WCW.
How cool would that have been? Add Marc Mero to that mix and we would have had one hell of a trio. I can almost hear them now, singing as I speak: off-putting, off-key, and off-kilter. Music to this pro wrestling fan’s ears.
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Hi everyone. My name is Ariel Gonzalez, originally from Brooklyn, now living in the Garden State and I have a new podcast called “Wrestling With Heels On.”
On the podcast, I get to reminisce about my favorite wrestling bad guys from yesteryear. Light on stats and heavy on nostalgia, this little trip down villainy lane gives me a chance to visit the dark corridors of my wrestling soul, and it’s also fun to have a podcast.