Adrian Adonis: the Lewisporte Tragedy That Killed an American Wrestling Star
On July 4th, 1988, a minivan carrying four professional wrestlers plunged off of a bridge and into a creek in Lewisporte, Newfoundland. While some reports say they swerved avoiding a moose, others say they struck the animal before the fatal plummet. The one unanimous factor is that only one of the four men walked away from the crash alive.
Three of the grapplers occupying the vehicle were grizzled veterans of the Canadian wrestling circuit. These three were William “Mike Kelly” Arko, Victor “Pat Kelly” Arko, and Dave “Wildman” McKigney. The fourth man was a 33 year old American wrestling star who was coming off a much hotter trail blaze of international spotlight. Following prominent stints in the AWA (American Wrestling Association), and the emerging explosion of the WWF (World Wrestling Federation, now known as the WWE), this fourth man entertained millions with midcard appearances at some of the first groundbreaking Wrestlemania events. This up and coming star’s birth name was Keith Franke, but the wrestling world knew him as “Adorable” Adrian Adonis.
Adrian Adonis never made it to the WWE Hall of Fame with the rest of his peers, instead he was one of the three individuals who met their demise in the fatal Lewisporte accident of July, 1988.
What exactly happened to Adonis to go from performing for a record breaking attendance of 93,173 people at WWF’s Wrestlemania III in 1987, to meeting his premature death crammed in a minivan with a pack of blue collar Canadian wrestlers in 1988? Aside from the debated details of how the driver and sole survivor, William Arko, steered the minivan into the creek, there is yet another mystery surrounding the crash; the mystery of a detour that quickly landed the career of Adrian Adonis from New York’s Madison Square Garden to Newfoundland’s gymnasiums and hockey arenas within a single year.
As a bit of a smart mark (“Mark meaning a wrestling fan who believes (or temporarily suspends his disbelief) in pro wrestling. The Smart Mark is the fan who knows wrestling is choreographed, but appreciates it on a higher level.” – urbandictionary), as well as a curious aficionado for any kind of strange Newofundland history or trivia, the lack of documented detail about both the last days of Adrian Adonis’ career, and the deadly turn of events that took his life, has always struck me as peculiar.
Adrian Adonis accomplished a lot in his short 33 years. Riding the emerging wave that landed professional wrestling in the main event status of 1980’s pop culture, Adonis is probably best remembered for his flamboyant and colorful gimmicks, as well as his stunning athleticism that was unusual for someone of his 300+lbs build.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Adonis trained as a young man under the staunchly traditional school of New Zealand-born Canadian wrestling legend Fred Atkins. Though no exact information is accessible about the schooling relationship of Adonis and Atkins, one can assume based upon research into Atkins’ history that the two crossed paths in Adonis’ hometown of Buffalo.
In the early 1970’s, Fred Atkins was briefly relocated from Toronto to Buffalo to serve a stint as a secret trainer for the Buffalo Sabres NHL team. The Sabres were only halfway into their first season when Atkins, known for his grueling conditioning drills in the world of amateur wrestling, was brought in to whip the team into shape. It is likely the Adonis-Atkins connection was made in these young years as Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke was beating around his hometown, and cutting his teeth prior to his professional wrestling debut in 1974. Fred Atkins would return to Toronto shortly after where he would go on to train the Toronto Maple Leafs, while Adonis began his decade climb of the professional wrestling ranks.
Adrian Adonis’ training origins in pro wrestling may seem like minutiae to most, but in relation to the end of Adonis’ young life and career, it does draw the first connection to the Canadian wrestling circuit.
The journey to the spotlight was a rapid ascension for Adonis, thanks to his brawny physique and his sharply pointed charisma. Adonis initially adapted a rugged persona with studded black leather attire, a getup quite different from the sundresses and exaggerated makeup WWF would see him dawn in his glory days. His New York accent and street thug demeanor pushed his character somewhere into the realm of a switchblade-wielding punk that Charles Bronson would tear through in a back alley brawl sequence of a run-of-the-mill action movie. Aesthetically, Adonis’ costume in his early era landed somewhere between leather daddy and outlaw biker.
Adonis found himself in the AWA where he would solidify his position as a promising up and comer in the wrestling industry. A young Adonis formed a memorable tag team with ex-Navy Seal, future WWE Hall of Famer, Minnesota governor and political commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura. The two comprised a tag team known as the East-West Connection, and it was here that Adonis got his first taste of glory and gold during the team’s run as AWA Tag Team Champions.
Though Adonis spent his formative years as a chiseled “bad to the bone” tough guy, the character re-brand of “Adorable” Adrian Adonis would be Keith Franke’s most memorable personage during his peak of popularity with WWF in the 1980’s. Adonis sported what was seen at the time as a colourful androgynous wardrobe of dresses, scarves, and accessories. Adorable Adrian Adonis would bask in an eye sore of floral patterned dress and decor, with copious amounts of makeup.
Adonis was a staunch heel. For those of you green to the most basic terminology of wrestling, a heel is the villain role that wrestling fans love to hate. But to understand the heat of Adonis’ innuendo-filled cross-dressing “flower child” gimmick, you must understand the abhorrently politically incorrect leanings throughout the history of professional wrestling which relied on playing up to the fears, prejudices and phobias of the straight, white American male in order to shape an intentionally loathed character. Before adequate TV time existed to develop wrestling villains, promoters turned to theunsavoury cloaking of the desired heel with characters ranging from Iranian Sheiks, to Russian Communists, and in the case of Adonis, an obese androgynous guy in a dress who screamed about being the future of professional wrestling.
The basic premise for the personality was not a new one. Like a 1980’s version of the legendary Gorgeous George, and a precursor to players like Goldust in the 90’s, Adonis’ gimmick worked so well that he quickly became one of the top heels in the WWF. To further build on his committed persona, Adonis began carrying around his own brand of perfume he referred to as “the fragrance”, and it would often find itself doubling as a blinding weapon when sprayed in the eyes of his opponents.
During his rise in the WWF, considerable weight gain brought Adonis close to the 350lbs mark. Despite his weight gain, his agility and in-ring work kept him as the prolific main event counterpart to awe-inspiring heroes such as WWF Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan.
Recognizing and utilizing the charismatic talents of “Adorable” Adrian Adonis, WWF implemented a weekly interview segment entitled “The Flower Shop” in 1986. The talk show format was set to replace the famous “Piper’s Pit” program that fan-favorite “Rowdy” Roddy Piper had hosted and popularized in years previous. “The Flower Shop” was hosted by Adrian Adonis and his manager “The Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart in front of a floral parlor themed backdrop as they interviewed and agitated fellow wrestlers in a loud, self-praising and provocative manner.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper returned later that year to make several antagonizing appearances on “The Flower Shop”. Piper trashed the set with a baseball bat, and eventually deliver the news of the cancellation of the segment. The Adonis/Piper feud culminated in a grudge match on March 29th, 1987 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan for Wrestlemania III. This particular event broke records for the largest recorded attendance for an indoor event in North America with 93,173 spectators.
The Wrestlemania III Adonis .VS. Piper match is particularly relevant to the final year of Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke’s life, as it was his final high profile appearance for the World Wrestling Federation.
Outside of the fictional in-ring world, Adonis and Piper were great friends and former teammates. During an appearance on the “Stone Cold” Steve Austin podcast shortly before his own death in July of 2015, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper reminisced affectionately about Adrian Adonis, proclaiming he “looked after” Piper “outside the ring”, and that Adonis was the one who “put him over” at Wrestlemania III, explaining it was “all him, not me”.
Roddy Piper eulogized Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke at his funeral, and even claimed in an episode of “The Haunting Of…” in 2013 to have been visited by Adonis’ ghost following the 1988 tragedy. (watch the episode here. Y’know, if that is your kinda thing.)
During the same “Stone Cold” interview, host “Stone Cold” Steve Austin praised Adonis’ work calling him “one of my favourites of all time”, and confessed that he particularly “loved Adrian’s work as a heel”.
The Adonis/Piper bout at Wrestlemania III was billed as a “Hair .VS. Hair” match, and upon his loss Adonis was subjected to an in-ring head shaving by Piper and Brutus Beefcake. Adonis played up the humiliation of losing his iconic “luscious locks”, much to the jubilation of the fans.
Rumors have circulated in regards to Adonis’ final “big job” for the WWF. Fellow wrestlers such as Roddy Piper have speculated that the “Adorable One” had become disgruntled by how far the WWF pushed his exploitative and homophobic gimmick. Adonis hoped the head shaving loss at Wrestlemania III might give him a clean slate to rebuild a new persona in the WWF, but that opportunity never came.
Shortly after his loss at Wrestlemania III in 1987, Adonis was dropped by the WWF. The organization has long been accused of punishing wrestlers on their roster for resisting creative direction, and many have speculated that this may have been the motivation for kicking Adonis to the curb so hastily following the biggest match of his career.
Adrian Adonis would make a return to the AWA in late 1987, but his continued weight gain, the wear and tear of the wrestling business, and the reckless “on the road” party lifestyle of 1980’s pro-wrestling came at the detriment of his physical well-being.
“He was a phenomonal fucking worker”, said infamous wrestling manager and promoter Jim Cornette during a recent podcast interview. “But when he started gaining the weight it was amazing to see somebody shaped like that, obviously in that ridiculously bad of a condition, be able to move, and bump, and fly and do all that shit. You knew it couldn’t be good on his body.”
Adonis was scheduled to take part in a 1988 tour in conjunction with New Japan Pro Wrestling, but an ankle injury prevented him from traveling or competing on the card; soon after he was also dropped from the AWA payroll.
With a young family to support at home, Adonis found himself in a dire financial situation. The former star could not secure steady employment in the large scale market of American pro wrestling. Running out of options, Adonis took to smaller wrestling circuits for short term tour contracts.
It was the hard grind of these low budget wrestling circuits that brought Adrian Adonis on his tour to Newfoundland, Canada. With hopes of rebuilding his young and promising career, it was said in press coverage of his passing that Adonis had taken back to a strict workout regiment in his final days, and he saw these small tours as only a small speed bump on his return to the bigger promotions. Unfortunately, Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke never got his second chance.
The other victims of the July 4th, 1988 minivan accident are also well worthy of remembering for their avid contribution to the history of Canadian wrestling. The bearded Ontarian bear-fighter and 30+ year veteran of the Canadian circuit, Dave “Wildman” McKigney lost his life in the crash. William “Mike Kelly” and Victor “Pat Kelly” Arko, remembered simply as the Kelly Twins, were just as known on a national Canadian scale due to commercials for Oh Henry chocolate bars, Pizza Delight, Coors beer and Canada Trust, as they were for their scheming tag team act. Victor “Pat Kelly” Arko died in the accident, while William “Mike Kelly” Arko, the driver of the vehicle, survived with serious injuries.
McKigney and Arko have found themselves somewhat posthumously celebrated in their world of Canadian wrestling, with references in such books as “Drawing Heat” by Jim Freedman, as well as retrospective bios from national sports media outlets.
Despite Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke’s undeniable impact on the peak era of the wrestling business, it seems to be an unlucky truth that his contributions have been overlooked by institutions like the WWE Hall of Fame, or the Cauliflower Alley Club.
In a short career amongst short careers, and in an industry rich in crash and burn stories, perhaps the flash pan chapter of Adrian Adonis was one just a few pages too short for the mainstream wrestling history books. But no matter who fails to remember the career of “The Adorable One”, we can take it upon ourselves as Secret Easterners (the new Atlantic Canadians, ok?) to memorialize the New York entertainer as more than just a local factual footnote as the “American Wrestler who died in Lewisporte, Newfoundland.”
In Memory of:
Keith “Adrian Adonis” Franke
Dave “Wildman” McKigney
Victor “Pat Kelly” Arko
July 4th, 1988.