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Arm wrestlers’ alter egos take the theatrics over the top

Pro arm wrestlers Megan Smith Bess Boswell  demonstrate bout while visiting O'Malley's Liquor Kitchen. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times.

Pro arm wrestlers Megan Smith and Bess Boswell demonstrate a bout while visiting O'Malley's Liquor Kitchen. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times.

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† 10 p.m. Saturday

† O’Malley’s Liquor Kitchen, 3551 N. Sheffield

† $10 (or $25 with three-hour open bar)


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Updated: November 10, 2012 6:03AM

According to founding member Megan Smith, there is but one hard-and-fast prerequisite for those who wish to join her elite group, the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers: “They have to have a vagina.”

Actually, they have to be 21 or older as well, but ages probably could be faked.

The second-ever CLLAW chapter in a nationwide organization that has grown to include 20, Chicago’s was launched in 2009 and modeled after its predecessor in Charlottesville, Va.

Anatomical requirements aside, it also is necessary for prospective members to create interesting back-stories for colorful characters, and to sustain those characters (in full costume) for hours on end during at least two of three annual bouts. All of this must be accomplished amid throngs of boisterous bar patrons.

Surprisingly, arm strength is of little consequence.

“Some of them are just people who work in offices and who saw a CLLAW match and decided they wanted to join the league,” Smith, who masquerades as hairbun-sporting figure skater The Cutting Edge, said early one evening at an atypically empty O’Malley’s Liquor Kitchen in Lake View. Located in the shadow of Wrigley Field, it’s the site of CLLAW’s next arm-wrestling event on Saturday.

As at all CLLAW blowouts, a bevy of becostumed ladies will be on hand to socialize, harangue and do combat. And like always, proceeds benefit the Sideshow Theatre Company and one charity — on this occasion, it’s Rock for Kids (

“We used to [have matches] on a tabletop, and one time we broke a bar table,” said Smith, who doubles as Sideshow’s executive director. By day she serves as director of corporate relations for Steppenwolf Theatre Company. “So we had to modify our approach.”

Nowadays a specially made arm-wrestling platform — complete with handgrips and foam pads — sits on a raised perch in a central location. That way patrons can get up close but not too personal.

“People are never really that aggressive at CLLAW,” Smith said. “Everyone’s really respectful of the event.”

And if they aren’t, the ladies have found that staying in character more effectively quells potential unrest. When there’s booze involved — and there’s never not booze involved — things can get rowdy.

“The first time I did it, it was so overwhelming because the crowd is so excited,” said 23-year-old grappler Erin Morrill, a k a the theatrically inebriated “Drinker

“A lot of people show up, and you have to be bigger and louder than the whole crowd to be heard,” said Morrill, who works as a “facilitator” at the Museum of Science and Industry. “The first time is always really scary, because it’s so overwhelming. It’s so different from doing improv or theater because it’s so interactive with the audience. But it’s so fun.”

Her sister-in-arms (groan), 31-year-old Bess Boswell (a made-up surname for purposes of occupational privacy), is a graduate student in DePaul University’s counseling program. Outside the ring, she works with adolescents at an inpatient mental health hospital. She’s also a comic.

“[Wrestling] takes a lot of energy,” said the fearsome warrior known as the Killer Bee (gloating catchphrase: “Unhhh, bitch! You just been stung!”) “You’re all over the place in every extreme.”

During the course of her illustrious CLLAW career, the typically triumphant Boswell said, she has shed 40 pounds.

“You’re really happy when things are going right and you’re trying to build the crowd and build the camaraderie,” she went on. “You’re breaking it down, too, when you’re really mad about something. It’s just nuts. So you do have to prepare. And prepare for a few days afterward to recover from the drinking, the pain and the voice loss, and just being extremely tired.”

Actress and e-learning administrator Elise Mayfield, 27, chimed in: “Your arm gets sore, for sure.”

“I usually have, like, 30 minutes where I’m fine after the event. Then I’m like, ‘I gotta go,’ ” she said, slumping over. “It’s time for bed.”

“It’s funny you guys go to sleep,” Smith teased. “I usually stay and dance for like an hour. And then I’m like, ‘I’m gettin’ food!’ ”

As the fiftysomething brassy broad Florida Devereaux (a “washed-up sitcom star”), Mayfield’s fight-night shenanigans are less physically demanding than those of her mates. And while she has never won a match, she prowls the room like a pro.

“Some of the people who never win have some of the most prevalent characters,” said Mayfield. “Because you’re done wrestling, so now all you’re doing is working the crowd.”

Like her mates, Mayfield is occasionally recognized in public. She also has received mail at her home addressed to alter ego Devereaux.

While it’s all in fun, however, injuries do occur. Fortunately, the ladies claimed, serious ones are few and far between.

“My character is always inebriated, even if I’m not,” Morrill said. “I fall into things. And usually the morning after, I’m like, ‘Look at all these bruises I got.’ But I don’t really notice, because during the match your adrenaline’s rushing.”

Upon leaping off the stage one evening, Morrill recalled, “I could feel my spine do something weird.”

But she kept on keeping on, gamely playing “the heel” (villain in wrestling parlance) till closing time.

In a more dire case, Smith said, a wrestler was whisked to the emergency room after suffering a painful “spiral fracture.” Thanks to pre-planning (which includes a “safety word” spoken by the evening’s announcer), she was out the door, into a cab and at the hospital in mere minutes. As it must, the show went on. Patrons partied, grapplers smack-talked and libations flowed.

“After the matches,” Morrill said, “this place is a huge mess.”

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