ST. PAUL — From his earliest memories, Karl Raschke knew his father as both Dad and as the professional wrestler Baron von Raschke.
“My dad started wrestling well before I was born,” Karl Raschke said. “As soon as I was watching TV, he was being a bad guy, but he was my dad and I thought he was a superhero. And I knew that he was play-acting, to some extent, because I knew him as this sweet (guy).”
Raschke had seen his father wrestle hundreds of times, but in 1983, the then-13-year-old attended his first Baron von Raschke bout alone, without his family. He sat in the middle of a sold-out crowd at the St. Paul Civic Center and watched his dad take on various opponents, including one Jesse “The Body” Ventura.
As the night progressed, the crowd got increasingly agitated and wild. Raschke knew he was watching the match through a different lens than those around him, but the sheer intensity of the fans was starting to scare him.
“Out of nowhere, with the sense things are out of control, over the top rope he goes,” said Raschke, who watched his father get thrown out of the ring and onto the floor below. Almost immediately, two or three men appeared with a stretcher and lifted the elder Raschke onto it as he was writhing in pain.
“I’m terrified,” Raschke said. “I know something is very wrong … it’s, like, this is the end.”
Raschke was sobbing, both as a 13-year-old kid in the crowd and as a 50-year-old man recounting the story. Eventually, someone rescued Raschke from the crowd and brought him to his father’s dressing room. The Baron von Raschke, it turned out, was just fine. He was simply selling, or making the wrestling believable … at any cost.
“You get sucked in. Boom,” Raschke said. “It’s a magical thing.”
That’s the first scene in “The Claw,” a wildly entertaining new documentary about Baron von Raschke that will make its worldwide debut May 14 as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. That evening, it will be shown outdoors at the Como Lakeside Pavilion in St. Paul. “The Claw” will then be available for online streaming from May 15 through 23.
The crew actually began shooting “The Claw” back in 2010. Karl, a co-producer of the film, and director Philip Harder encountered numerous hurdles along the way, including Harder’s relocation to New York in order to find more work in his day job as a director of music videos, commercials and other projects.
A limited budget Karl said was in the tens of thousands — not hundreds of thousands — of dollars proved to be a challenge as well.
“Another reason it took so long,” Karl said, “is that I really wanted to get this right. My dad did everything we asked of him and I took his trust in me to tell his story correctly and very seriously.”
The Baron was ‘scary as hell’ to director
As a kid, Harder spent his weekend mornings watching wrestling on TV with his brother. The pair were certain they were the only people on the planet to have figured out that maybe not everything they were seeing on the screen was actually as dangerous as it looked.
“We thought we had the inside scoop on this grand conspiracy theory,” Harder said with a laugh.
Still, when Harder watched the imposing Baron growling his way through on-air interviews, he was genuinely disturbed by a man he described as “German, psychotic and scary as hell.” Harder’s father chimed in with his own take: “Boys, wrestling may be fake, but I’d hate to meet that guy in a dark alley.”
Cut to 1995. Harder has long since established himself as an in-demand music video director, for local as well as national and international bands. He was preparing to shoot his second video for Duluth’s minimalist trio Low. Harder wanted to feature an older man in the video and he hit up a local casting agency for help. As he was flipping through a stack of photos of older actors, he spotted a photo on the wall. “What about that guy,” Harder asked the casting agent. “Do you know him?”
The photo turned out to be none other than the Baron von Raschke. “That’s Jim Raschke,” the agent said. “He lives here in town. He’s a really nice guy.”
Harder cast the Baron — or as he now knew him, Jim — in the video. “He was so happy to play a role that was not the Baron,” Harder said.
The pair hit it off and Harder continued to cast Jim in other videos. At one shoot, Jim brought his son, Karl, along. Soon Harder got to know the entire Raschke clan.
Years later, Karl co-wrote the stage play “The Baron” with Cory McLeod. It was first staged in 2006 as part of the History Theatre’s “Raw Stages” series, the St. Paul theater’s program to test new scripts. The following year, “The Baron” returned for a well-received five-week run, with Jim himself playing the title role.
Harder was among the many Raschke family members and friends who saw “The Baron.” A few years later, Karl approached Harder with an idea to use the stage show as the inspiration for a documentary.
The pair assembled a crew and began work on what would become “The Claw.”
The creation of the Baron
Through vintage photos and footage, along with remarkably well done re-created sequences, “The Claw” tells the story of James Donald Raschke, a self-described short, chubby and bashful boy who grew up in Omaha.
“I almost failed public speaking in high school,” Jim said. “I was a mumbly, shy kid.”
In high school, Jim decided to join the wrestling team, even when the coach predicted he’d get his clock cleaned and quit the sport in frustration.
Thanks in part to a timely growth spurt, Jim excelled at Greco-Roman style grappling — which forbids holds below the waist — and went on to win the 1958 Nebraska state heavyweight wrestling championship as a senior. That led to a number of colleges hoping to recruit the young athlete.
Jim chose the University of Nebraska, where he went on to win further championships and a spot on the 1964 Olympic wrestling team. But he was injured just days before he was set to fly to Japan, which forced him to miss the Olympics. In “The Claw,” Jim calls it the worst day of his life.
After a stint serving in the Army, an Omaha wrestling promoter introduced Jim to Verne Gagne, co-founder of the Minneapolis-based American Wrestling Association. Jim relocated to the Twin Cities and began training under Gagne’s watchful eye and soon found himself working for the AWA, tearing down and setting up the ring at matches and doing some refereeing.
“Verne would have me sit in the control booth and watch everything that happened,” Jim said. “I was learning as much as I could.”
Jim made the most of the experience and carefully studied the wrestlers who would come through town, picking up tips on technique and stage presence. He found a mentor in Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, a Canadian wrestler with a gruff, barking and completely over-the-top persona. Vachon convinced Jim and his young wife, Bonnie, to move to Montreal, where Jim would join Vachon as a tag team.
Vachon helped Jim fashion what would become the Baron von Raschke character, a crazed German looking to destroy anyone in his path. In this business, Vachon told Jim, 90% of it is the between-game interviews and 10% of it is actual wrestling. On camera, the formerly shy kid transformed into the monster that went on to scare the young Harder boys as well as impressionable youth around the country.
“From that time on, I wasn’t afraid of speaking up,” Jim said. “I got much better at it in a short time. Overall, it was a tremendous learning experience.”
After a car accident sidelined Vachon, Jim and his family moved back to the States. They bounced between several cities and while he was in St. Louis, Jim battled former NWA champion Pat O’Connor. During their match, O’Connor told Jim to use The Claw, a move where you dramatically incapacitate your opponent by grabbing them by their head. Jim didn’t know the move, which was popularized by Fritz Von Erich, but he loved the reaction it got. It soon became his signature.
Eventually, the family returned to Minnesota, where The Claw helped propel the Baron into serious stardom.
‘The Claw’ is about far more than just wrestling
Wrestling allowed Jim to provide the family what Karl called a solidly middle-class life. In “The Claw,” Karl and his sister, Heidi, both speak at length about how Jim was a doting dad and total sweetheart to them when they were growing up. The real one to watch out for, Heidi said, was Bonnie, who liked to call herself Mrs. Claw.
“He really was just a regular, very loving dad and not larger than life in any sort of scary way,” Karl said. “He was just a teddy bear.”
Despite his growing fame as the Baron, Jim remained an independent contractor. As he explains in the film, that meant if you weren’t wrestling, you weren’t getting paid.
“There were times when he was injured or had surgery on his shoulder,” Karl said. “He didn’t have health insurance and if he did, he was paying for it. I know there were some lean years, but he never shared his financial stress with us.”
“The Claw” isn’t just a profile of the Baron von Raschke. It’s the story of the Raschke family and also the story of Jim’s wrestling family. Those worlds often collided, with vintage footage showing backyard barbecues full of hulking beasts of men chatting each other up as kids ran around them, oblivious to the sheer star power surrounding them. (In the film, Heidi explains that unlike her father, many of the other wrestlers weren’t always able to leave their persona in the ring, leading to divorce and broken families.)
In addition, “The Claw” is also what Harder called a “bit of a love letter to Minneapolis,” which was a major wrestling hub during the AWA’s heyday. The crew shot the re-created wrestling matches at First Avenue and captured many of the on-screen interviews at Mancini’s in St. Paul. They also filmed at the Walker Art Center and a handful of Twin Cities bars, using locals, many of whom were non-actors, but simply people Harder thought had the right look.
“Whenever we asked people for help, people were excited. We’d hear ‘The Baron? Cool! What a great project!’ I think that’s a testament to my dad’s impact on this community in particular,” said Karl.
Revisiting the Baron in his 70s
Before the crew started shooting, Karl asked Jim to participate, by giving contemporary interviews as well as playing himself in the flashback sequences.
What was Jim’s reaction? “They couldn’t get George Clooney, so they settled for me,” he said with a laugh.
“I’m not a trained actor, I just did what they wanted me to do,” Jim explained. “If I had some ideas that would help, I’d let them know. Having been in that play, which I didn’t think I was capable of doing, helped. I followed my natural instincts and took it one day at a time.”
Harder said that Jim sometimes stumbled when reading narration, but nailed every one of his fiery monologues as the Baron. One of the most remarkable things about “The Claw” is watching how effortlessly Jim can slip in and out of the Baron persona. It’s also a treat to see old photos of a bloodied, screaming supervillain bumped up against shots of a grinning, bespectacled suburban dad playing with his kids at the beach.
“He calls the Baron his alter ego,” Karl said. “He can flip the switch on and off from sentence to sentence. It’s an amazing talent. He always says he’s not an actor and he’s not, but he has this amazing alter ego and wrestling is the medium for it.”
Jim began shaving his head in the late ’60s, giving him a sort of timeless appearance throughout his career. Many of the wrestlers he came up through the system with were 10 to 15 years older, a fact lost among many fans. (“Is Baron von Raschke still alive” is a common Google search.)
In the reenactments in “The Claw,” it’s clear Jim has aged since the peak of his career, but he still pulls off the moves and proves to be every bit as nimble, charismatic and bare-chested as he ever was.
“It’s pretty surreal to see this old guy playing himself around younger people,” Harder said. “I also think it’s cool. He’s a trouper. He was bending over backwards to help us make this movie.”
As for Jim, he hasn’t seen “The Claw” yet, but he’s eager to.
“The Baron isn’t that bad of a guy, really,” he said. “But I can’t live like that. I enjoy being the Baron and getting to do stuff where I’m the Baron again, but the Baron is my alter ego.”
- What: A new documentary about professional wrestler Jim “Baron von” Raschke makes its worldwide premiere during the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.
- When/where: An outdoor screening of the film will take place at 8:20 p.m. May 14 at St. Paul’s Como Lakeside Pavilion. It will also be available for online streaming May 15-23.
- Tickets: For the in-person screening, tickets are $50 (two bench seats), $75 (two seats) and $175 (four seats), with discounts available for MSPIFF members. Streaming tickets are $15.
- Details: MSPIFF runs May 13-23 and offers virtual screenings, along with select outdoor screenings, and with other special events. For the full schedule, see mspfilm.org.