ELLERBE — Final preparations are being made for a weekend event to honor the legacy of the Eighth Wonder of the World and late Richmond County resident Andre the Giant.
A Giant Celebration, scheduled for Saturday, will serve as a tribute to the wrestling legend and a fundraiser for the Rankin Museum of American Heritage, which boasts a full Andre exhibit that opened in 2015.
Most of the items in the exhibit were donated by Jackie McAuley who, along with her late ex-husband Frenchy Bernard, operated Andre’s ranch on N.C. 73 north of Ellerbe while he was on the road throughout the ‘80s and until his death in 1993.
The former ranch’s moniker, AFJ, incorporates their names: Andre, Frenchy, Jackie.
McAuley has since moved away from Richmond County, but is back in town to help celebrate her late friend.
“My heart will always live in Ellerbe,” McAuley told the RO on Thursday. “Andre and AFJ Ranch live on in my heart. To see and feel the love so many people share for Andre is amazing. I was blessed to have Andre in my life.”
Several photos for the exhibit were also donated by Chris Owens, a collector of all things Andre.
“A few years back, I gave a framed piece that housed an original 1972 Montreal promotional photo of Andre and Don Leo Jonathan,” Owens told the RO on Thursday. “I also had framed each of their autographs with it.
“At the time, Andre was wrestling as Jean Ferre. That autograph is considered very rare to get due to the short time frame he used it and that he was mostly out of the country at the time when he was going by that name.”
Owens, of Groveland, Illinois, has been a professional wrestling fan since 1980 at the age of 7.
“(I) first saw Andre in the magazines and was drawn to him and wanting to learn more about his career,” Owens told the RO on Thursday. “I would purchase the weekly wrestling magazines to read about him and follow his wrestling career.”
As Owens got older, he says he was drawn to the man behind the persona and how Andre became a wrestler.
“As the 1980s rolled on and tape trading got more popular, I was able to start seeing more of his stuff from other territories and countries,” Owens said.
Prior to the early ‘80s explosion of the World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), the business was separated into regional territories across the U.S.
“As a fan, I learned that the story of the man behind the ‘The Giant’ had quite the ‘American Dream’ success,” Owens said.
The young fan started his collection with a pin-back button of Andre purchased at a live show in 1981: “I still have that button.”
“I enjoy collecting original photographs (of) him,” Owens said. “It’s always fun learning the stories behind the pictures — whether they are from the fans who took the pictures or photographers at the arenas.”
Owens has also “amassed a large collection of magazines, programs and original event posters that featured Andre,” and collects most anything related to Andre, including action figures and shirts.
In addition to his memorabilia collection, Owens also served as an associate producer for the 2018 HBO documentary, aided several authors on their stories about the wrestler’s life and was spotlighted on “WWE’s Most Wanted Treasures” on A&E.
“Over the years, I have been blessed to get to know people who were close with Andre,” Owens said. “They have generously shared their memories and stories with me. I have (been) able to meet countless wrestlers who worked with him and recounted stories with him as well.”
Saturday’s tribute will feature appearances by several former wrestlers, many of whom shared the ring with the Giant: The Million Dollar Man Ted Dibiase; Haku (former Colossal Connection tag-team partner); the Powers of Pain, The Warlord and The Barbarian; Jerry “the King” Lawler; Mark Henry; “Cowboy” Bob Orton; Tugboat; and the Berserker.
Other appearances include Andre’s daughter, Robin Roussimoff, and Sean Studd, son of one of the Giant’s biggest in-ring rivals Big John Studd.
The event, hosted by the museum and Lelands — a sports collectible company based in New Jersey — will also include a full-card wrestling show.
Matches include two women’s championship bouts; two championship triple-threat matches; a tag-team match featuring Richmond County’s own New Breed (Trip Stewart and Trey McKenzie); and the type of match the Giant excelled in — a battle royal.
A pre-event press conference is scheduled for 8 p.m. Friday and will be broadcast on social media.
The event begins at 1 p.m. Saturday with a street fair. The celebrity meet-and-greet starts at 3 p.m. and the matches start at 7 p.m.
There is no cost for the street fair, however there will be tickets to meet the individual wrestlers and tickets for the wrestling show. Advanced tickets for the latter are available for $20 until 8 p.m. Friday at titan-championshipwrestling.com. Afterwards, general admission tickets will be $30.