Arm wrestlers have CLLAWs out for charities

By Katy Nielsen

Lady arm wrestlers dressed as bananas, Strawberry Shortcake and Abraham Lincoln strutted around a dimly lit bar playing up their wrestler personas and collecting money for charities while an arm wrestling battle took place on stage.

It was a combination of improvisation and athleticism on April 15 at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street, 940 W. Weed St., which housed the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers event, one of four annual tournaments. The league is part of the Sideshow Theatre Company, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., and was the largest bout to date with approximately 800 people in attendance.

The first CLLAW event took place in May 2009 at The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway.  According to Heather Irwin, audience services manager for the Sideshow Theatre Company, 80 people attended that first event. Since then, the league has grown and established itself as a philanthropic organization and gained a following.

All proceeds go to charities, such as the Chicago Arts Partnership in Education and Rock for Kids. The latest event’s proceeds went to ArtReach Chicago, which seeks to bring art education to public schools.

“It’s a bunch of kick-ass women doing kick-ass things,” said Nicole Richwalsky, aka The Banana Split. “We all have different training methods and different methods of winning, but we’re all here to have a good time, support each other and make money for the fundraiser.”

During the contests on stage, Richwalsky, dressed as a giant banana, weaved through the crowd while balancing a crate of bananas on her hip. She and the other competitors interacted with the audience and divulged their arm wrestling strategies. Although they remained in character, each bona fide battle on stage was entirely unscripted and boiled down to athletic ability.

“We play by the rules of arm wrestling,” said Michelle Halek, also known as Burden of Eden. “We have a coach who comes in and trains us.  We know how to bring our shoulders into it and square off and not bend our wrists. It’s a real sport. We just add theatrics to it to make it fun for the audience.”

The rules of the event were as follows: Each contest starts at the sound of a referee’s whistle and lasts 20 seconds. A whistle blows to end each round. If after 20 seconds there is no winner, the judges will determine who won the contest. To win a round requires winning two out of three contests.

Each wrestler must keep her elbow on a square pad located on the table or she will receive a penalty. Simultaneously, a player must hold onto a grip with her left hand and keep both heels on the ground. If a wrestler receives two penalties in a row, she will be disqualified from the competition.

While the event is a real athletic competition, Columbia alumnus Clayton Smith, audience development coordinator for Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn Ave., said the event was a “brilliant fundraiser,” from an arts management standpoint.

Interspersed in the sea of wrestlers and attendees were people wearing balloons on their wrists selling “CLLAWBUX,” or raffle tickets. This is how the company makes a profit.

The raffle proceeds go to Sideshow Theatre Company and ArtReach Chicago. The prizes included toiletries and homemade toys. Attendees could purchase two tickets for $1 to win prizes after each match.

“The way they go around and take money to vote on people for awful prizes is genius,” Smith said. “Money is flowing like crazy.”

The wrestlers put on a show, playing up their identities, yelling at the audience and using props. It made the event more fun for the crowd, Irwin said. One wrestler came on stage with whipped cream and baking powder, which she sprayed and threw at her opponent, Halek, when she lost the contest.

“That girl was going to get disqualified,” Halek said. “The refs will penalize you, and if she’d kept it up, she would have been out in one more round. She would have been disqualified for being harmful, destroying equipment and making slippery surfaces.”

It all came down to the final contest of the night and Connie Vict, dressed as a criminal in a black and white striped shirt, tattered jeans and handcuffs, was crowned the winner, taking home the title of CLLAW IX champion. The next event is scheduled for this summer, but the date and location are to be determined.

“It’s so unique in the city, especially because it’s about fun, showing off strong women and presenting a really awesome show,” Irwin said. “My favorite thing is seeing what the women do on stage. I love seeing the characters they bring out and different ways they interact with each other and with the audience. I love that it’s a participatory thing and a give and take between the audience and the wrestlers.”