The scene at the Palmhouse during a tag-team match. Credit: Richard Cahan

Walking down Howard Street late Sunday afternoon, you might not have noticed anything going on at Palmhouse, an event space for parties and weddings next to the Peckish Pig Restaurant and Brewery.

The curtains were closed, and passersby could only catch the faintest sign of music and cheers coming from within.

But if you were to open the door, you would immediately find yourself inside the unexpected, wildly entertaining and engaging world of professional wrestling. The main event: Californian Matt Brannigan against crowd favorite and wrestling legend Max the Impaler.

One quick note about professional wrestling – the matches are what some might describe as “staged,” which means that the result is predetermined, though the wrestlers have some freedom to improvise the journey to that eventual outcome. As a result, the events are more about interacting with the crowd and putting on a show than about competition.

“I’ve been saying this nonstop, and nobody’s believed me: Wrestling is art,” event organizer Lolo McGrath said. “It’s an art form. They put their bodies on the line. We know some things are predetermined, but most hits, that is real, so wrestling asks you to engage with your imagination in a way that no other medium does.”

McGrath, one of the managers at Peckish Pig, has previously helped lead professional wrestling events in Washington, D.C., but Sunday was their first time organizing contests in Evanston. They brought a few of their go-to performers from D.C., including Trish Adora, a U.S. Army veteran who became the Pan-Afrikan World Diaspora Wrestling Champion in 2020.

All of the performers on Sunday have gone through their own unique paths to professional wrestling. One of the other competitors, Mateo Valentine, is an actor who got burnt out.

“I was enamored by the allure of professional wrestling,” Valentine said. “It’s pure combat. In so many ways we are telling a story without even speaking. Using the rest of your body to tell a story and get the fans moving.”

One of the major themes of the afternoon was inclusion, with emcee Sarah Rose proudly proclaiming to the crowd that “wrestling is for everyone.” A fan taking pictures wore a shirt with the plainly printed phrase “Wrestling is gay.”

Like McGrath and Rose, Max the Impaler, who ultimately crushed Matt Brannigan with some heavy hits and chased him around Palmhouse like a lion stalking its prey, uses they/them pronouns. They’re often called the alliterative nickname “the nonbinary nightmare.”

McGrath and their team even had the event livestreamed on YouTube, with live commentary and analysis from two broadcasters. Well over 100 people crowded the Palmhouse space, with the crowd enjoying beverages from local breweries and reacting with boisterous “oohs” and “ahs” throughout the contests.

“Evanston is known for its history of rules. Prohibition. Bowling. It runs the gamut of things that have been ruled out,” said India Mussell-McKay, one of the Palmhouse owners. “As things start to change and more things are allowed, we thought it would be fun to showcase something different that you don’t see everywhere.”

The success of Sunday’s event, though, was far from guaranteed. Not long ago, McGrath wasn’t sure if it would even happen. They had only sold eight tickets just two weeks ago.

“Today was a dice roll … I was so devastated because I love Evanston so much. I’m trying to give them this huge piece of my heart. Are they going to answer the call?” McGrath said. “I was really shocked today. Today was a good freaking day.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

Richard Cahan

Richard Cahan takes photos for the Evanston RoundTable. He also is publisher of CityFiles Press, a small but mighty media company that believes in the power of words and pictures. You can reach him at...

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