June 3, doors 6:30 p.m., XL Center, One Civic Center Plaza, Hartford, xlcenter.com, $15-$95.
If you remember one thing and one thing only about Fandango, it should be this: You must let the A's breathe when saying his name. "You've got to feel it in your chest," advises Johnny Curtis (a.k.a. Curtis Jonathan Hussey), the Maine native behind the WWE character, before giving a demo in his trademark whisper. "Faaaaahn-daaaaaahn-gggoohhhhh. You've gotta feel it, bro." On WWE television, he implicitly encourages everyone who speaks his name to keep trying until they nail it, but good luck getting your enunciation good enough for his approval. At this point, no one can pronounce Fandango's name properly except Fandango, and the mere notion that he can and you can't is just one more tactic he uses to show his general superiority. The game is rigged in his favor.
The pronunciation aspect is one of the many absurdities that make up Fandango, a character whose very existence hinges on an absurdity. (He's part ballroom dancer, part wrestler.) His entrance music is a jaunty instrumental that mimics the "I Dream of Jeannie" theme, and once he gets done with sauntering/dancing into the ring, a giant lit-up silhouette of himself is usually waiting to greet him. He's always accompanied by an attractive female dancer (the latest of whom seems destined to leave him for someone else). Imagine Antonio Banderas' Zorro as a dashing, sly rake who has traded his sword and distinct outfit for a smirk and gaudy wrestling gear, and you're getting warmer.
But the ultimate example of Fandango-related absurdity unfolded without Curtis's doing. On the April 8 episode of "WWE Monday Night Raw" — the latest edition of which broadcasts live on USA Network from the XL Center on June 3 — Fandango was involved in a segment where his rival Chris Jericho assaulted him. One night earlier, Curtis both made this character's in-ring debut and scored a pivotal win over Jericho at WrestleMania 29, WWE's biggest spectacle. What happened on that Raw in New Jersey post-beatdown was even more remarkable. As Fandango laid in the ring dazed (still making sure to correct the ring announcer's pronunciation, of course), his theme hit. The loud, clear and coordinated crowd — a substantial contingent of whom had traveled internationally for WrestleMania — began singing the opening bars of Fandango's song, soccer-chant-style. Later in the show, they reprised it just for fun. Once Raw ended and production replayed the song for the exiting audience, people sang it as they filed out, and then reproduced it in packed traffic using car horns, and chanted it in subway cars. (There's video evidence of all this.) Soon, galvanized U.K. fans pushed "ChaChaLaLa" (the formal name for the in-house-created song) up the English pop charts, and "Fandagoing" — an act in which someone sings the tune, points their fingers upward and shimmies — temporarily became a thing on YouTube. Though the energy has since dimmed considerably, WWE continues to pump his theme music for crowds after shows, perhaps hoping to relight that memetic fire.
It's tough to relate to non-wrestling fans just how striking and important a move like this was. The popularity of Fandangoing is murky to discern — maybe the fans did it because they adored Curtis or they liked the catchy theme or they wanted to troll WWE by cheering a heel or any number of elements — but either way, the move impacted Curtis' young career. "I almost started smiling when they were doing it just because that 'Monday Night Raw' was unbelievable. For me being a wrestling fan, that was one of those crowds that kind of reminds me of the old ECW [Extreme Championship Wrestling] arena where the fans became part of the show. Anyone that got to go out there that Monday night after 'Mania got to enjoy that crowd. First thought in my head was, 'Oh, can we make some money off of this?' That's all I thought about honestly," says Curtis, who is much more affable once slipping out of character. Shortly after that Raw, he and WWE trekked to Europe for a tour. "The crowd reaction over there was unbelievable, so maybe I'm like the new Hasselhoff where I'm just big over in Europe."
This kind of break was a major boon for Curtis, 31, who is billed at 6 feet, 4 inches and 244-pounds and had a so-so WWE run before Fandango came along. Curtis became a fan of wrestling during the late 1990s/early 2000s boom and was around 15 years old when he caught a wrestling-themed episode of the MTV doc series "True Life." The show featured the New England-based Eastern Wrestling Alliance. As big wrestling fans who were amazed by how close this company was to them, Curtis and his friends tracked down EWA management and began to worm their way into the fold. Curtis went from setting up chairs and tables to refereeing to training as a wrestler. His journey through wrestling to WWE is littered with dramatic ups and downs — the chief down of which was when his close friend and fellow wrestler Kevin Mailhot died in a 2005 auto accident. (Though the caddish Fandango was clearly promoted as a heel during WrestleMania, Curtis still came out for the match with "Kevin" written across his wrist tape.) Along his route upward, Curtis also had jobs lugging bricks and working at Applebee's.
In WWE, Curtis appeared — and won — a major competition on the upstart-talent-oriented program "NXT" but otherwise languished without any real direction or character. He briefly had a bizarre, cringe-inducing persona where he would interpret idioms literally, doing things like referencing "crying over spilled milk" while emptying a half-gallon of the stuff over himself and pretending to weep.
For as much of a phenomenon as it has produced, even Fandango had a bad early omens with the text on a pre-debut vignette for the character advertising him as "Fandangoo." Curtis also discusses how Vince McMahon initially envisioned him as a Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing-like stripper who was then 86'ed because it was too risque for the currently PG WWE. McMahon revamped Fandango into the ballroom dancer of today, and Curtis gamely took on his new role. "Thing is, if you can play a hard character, a real complicated character like this or the Undertaker — anything that's really far out there — I think you can make money with it if you really embrace it, you know what I'm saying? If you just go into it not really into it, people are going to see right through it and see just a guy playing a character. I'm like, 'This is an opportunity I've been waiting for 13, 14 years. I've either got to really embrace this thing or just go back to working for EWA in Maine making 50 bucks a night,'" he says before I bring up one of his old jobs. "Or Applebee's, and I'm not doing that, bro."