by Asa Church (WCAS07)
When Robert Collins (C70) told his parents that he had gotten a job, they weren’t exactly thrilled.
“You’ve grown up in a fairly affluent suburb of Cleveland, you went to Northwestern, one of the best universities in the world, and then you say to your parents, ‘I’m joining the circus.’ That’s not what my parents were excited to hear,” Collins recalls. But what could be better than working for “The Greatest Show on Earth”?
Graduating from Northwestern in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War, Collins faced a difficult and turbulent world. After serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, during which time he earned a master’s degree in public relations from American University, Collins joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Serving as an advance man, Collins worked ahead of the show making preparations and generating excitement. For a 1974 show in Baltimore, Collins remembers partnering with a local radio station and a bank to create a promotion giving away the world’s largest check. “What we didn’t tell the winner was that the check was painted with chalk on the side of an elephant,” says Collins. “So in order to cash it, she had to walk through the drive-through of the bank with an elephant.”
After a little more than four years with the circus, Collins pitched the Ice Capades, a Las Vegas–style revue that featured lavish musical productions and Olympians such as Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming.
After Ice Capades, Collins began promoting shows for World Wrestling Entertainment. An eclectic mix of physical prowess and showmanship, WWE underwent a transformation in the late ’80s and early 1990s. “We acknowledged, ‘Folks, this is entertainment,’” says Collins. “But it doesn’t take away from the athleticism of our superstars or the enjoyment of our fans.”
Wrestlers battle out more than 300 matches a year, performances that test the limits of their physical strength. “What they do in the ring is nothing short of superhuman,” Collins says.
Now serving as senior vice president for event marketing at WWE, Collins credits his time at Northwestern, first as a “Cherub” in the National High School Institute and then as an undergraduate working with WNUR-FM and the Waa-Mu Show, for shaping his love for live entertainment promotion.
Now living in Sarasota, Fla., Collins’ sole job is to promote WWE’s annual premier event, WrestleMania, which Collins describes as “a combination of Woodstock, the World Series and the Super Bowl.” On April 2 more than 14,000 fans from 16 different countries and 43 states will converge at Allstate Arena in suburban Chicago for the event. Millions more around the world will be watching on pay-per-view TV.
Collins finds fans in the most unlikely places, such as Northwestern’s University Archives. Returning to the Evanston campus recently to visit his cousin, assistant University archivist Janet Olson, Collins met associate archivist Kevin Leonard (WCAS77, G82), who was introduced to pro wrestling by one of his adolescent sons. “My son said, ‘Dad, you have got to see this!’” says Leonard. “I walked into the living room and there was this guy on television being hit over the head with a metal folding chair. I was hooked.”
Collins attributes the appeal of WWE to its interactive nature and the ability of the WWE stars to get the audience emotionally involved. He is often impressed by the fans’ dedication. At a recent WWE autograph session in Detroit, an Australian family approached him and said, “You’re probably not aware of it, but you bring the world together. … We would have never come to the United States if it weren’t for WWE.”
It’s those fans that have kept Collins in the business. “You know the way people are passionate about the Cubs or the Bulls,” says Collins. “We’re everybody’s hometown team.”