Saturday , January 22 2022

Ancient Bodybuilders Harold Zinkin and Jack LaLanne: One Gone, One Going Strong at 90

I love these crazy old bodybuilders and fitness freaks – they carved out a niche in the culture when bulging muscles and a serious fitness regimen was considered freakish and obsessive, and they were inventors and entrepreneurs as well. The first “Mr. California” and inventor of the Universal exercise machine, Harold Zinkin, died last week at 82 after a fall:

    Born in San Francisco, Zinkin dropped out of high school in Los Angeles when his father died.

    During World War II, he was a physical therapist in the Navy and continued working as a rehabilitation therapist for sailors returning from the war.

    He relocated to Fresno in 1953 and married his wife, Betty, on Valentine’s Day the following year. It was a second marriage for both of them. She survived him. Also surviving are his son, DeWayne, from his first marriage; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was among those who recalled Zinkin on Thursday. “Some of my fondest memories of our friendship are of the two of us doing balancing acts together on Muscle Beach,” Schwarzenegger said in a written statement.

    “Harold was a great mentor,” Schwarzenegger said. “I am deeply indebted to him for the friendship we shared and the counsel he gave me. He was a trusted confidant and supported me personally and professionally throughout my bodybuilding, movie and political careers.”

    ….As a teenager in Los Angeles, Zinkin became a regular at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, and fell in with a group of athletes who were not only bodybuilders but also had an acrobatic bent. They would form human pyramids, and Zinkin, who was just 5 foot 7 inches tall and in incredible shape, was often the guy at the bottom.

    “Harold was an exceptionally well-rounded athlete,” longtime fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who met Zinkin in the late 1930s, told The Times on Thursday. “He was a bodybuilder, an acrobat, a tumbler. He was a champion in every way: physically, mentally, morally and spiritually.”

    The beach was a training center for a number of future fitness legends. In addition to LaLanne, there were Joe Gold — Zinkin’s high school classmate and the founder of Gold’s Gym — and Vic Tanny, who went on to start one of the first national chains of health clubs.

    Some of the young athletes brought their own weights to Muscle Beach, an oddity in those days, and used them to build strength for their acrobatic routines that drew spectators every weekend.

    ….Perhaps their most memorable trick was a four-man pyramid, which Zinkin believed was never repeated in the United States.

    Astonishingly, Zinkin was the man on the bottom anchoring the other three while his body was in a backbend. A photograph of the stunt shows the three other acrobats — LaLanne is the third from the bottom — standing on his torso. A small crowd — including spotters, who stood ready to catch any falling acrobats — is gathered around what looks like an impromptu performance.

    ….In the 1940s, Zinkin belonged to the Professional Strongmen’s Assn., an elite group of weightlifters. He won a number of weightlifting competitions. In 1945, he was first runner-up in the Mr. America bodybuilding competition.

    “Harold was the strongest in the bunch,” said Gene Mozee, a bodybuilding historian who was also the founder of the now-defunct Pasadena Gym and Health Club.

    When Zinkin developed his Universal Gym weight training system over several years in the mid-1950s, barbells and dumbbells were the main equipment available. His multistation machine allowed as many as eight people to work out at one time, exercising different parts of the body. The equipment was compact, with adjustable weight plates that were easy to use.

    Within a few years it was standard machinery in several gyms, including Tanny’s chain. A number of professional football teams used it. College coaches discovered it and brought it into school gyms for their athletes.

    “Harold did more for the acceptance of weight training by college athletes than anyone,” Mozee told The Times on Thursday.

    “If a coach wants to move 30 athletes through training in a short period of time, he can do it on that machine. No one has to stand around waiting for another guy to put down the barbells,” Mozee said. [LA Times]

Who hasn’t used the smelly old tried-and-true Universal machine, a staple of almost every high school, college, and commercial gym in the country: compact, efficient, easy to use.

And as totally flipping cool as Harold was, Jack LaLanne is even cooler, and Happy Birthday! Jack turns 90 today:

    Jack LaLanne, America’s first TV fitness guru, is posing for a photographer. At the direction of his wife, Elaine, LaLanne lifts barbells, does bench presses, performs abdominal exercises.

    He doesn’t breathe hard, break a sweat or even look tired, which isn’t bad for a man who turns 90 — yes, 90 — on Sunday.

    But there are limits even for this ageless bundle of energy, and there is a trick Elaine doesn’t want Jack to attempt.

    “Until last year, I was still jumping up into his arms for the cameras,” said Elaine, who at 78 appears to be in just as good shape as her rock-solid husband. “But I don’t want him to hurt his back.”

    LaLanne, though, is not one to back down from a challenge. This is a guy who, on his 70th birthday, towed 70 boats carrying 70 people in the Long Beach Harbor while shackled and handcuffed.

    He beckons his wife. She lightly jumps into his arms — and he easily catches Elaine, holding her like a man carrying his new bride. [mercuryNews]

I can easily picture LaLanne on the black-and-white TV of my youth, patiently, enthusiastically doing endless jumping jacks in the center of that screen, radiating health, strength, amiability, optimism at the perfectability of imperfect flesh.

    From 1951 to 1984, he urged millions of viewers to get off the couch and do a few sit-ups.

    LaLanne still is living what he preaches. He gets up at 5 a.m. every day at his home on 3 1/2 acres of Central Coast foothill property and works out for two hours — first in one of their two gyms and then swimming laps. He does not eat meat or products containing white flour or white sugar.

    And he patiently answers the same questions about the secret to a long, healthful life.

    “I work at it,” LaLanne said. “Most people work at dying. I work at living. It’s a pain in the ass. You have to eat right and exercise. Most people, when they reach a certain age, let down and talk about what they used to do. Well, who gives a damn about what you used to do? It’s what you’re doing now.”

    In fact, he’s enjoying a pop-culture comeback thanks to ESPN Classic, which is running black-and-white episodes of “The Jack LaLanne Show” twice each weekday morning. But the reason LaLanne remains synonymous with good health is because, frankly, he’s still alive.

    “The great thing about Jack LaLanne is that because he’s lived so long, he’s the only guy who really has the credentials,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. “He can say, `Look at all the stuff I told you to do. Now I’m 90 years old. Enough said.’ The subtext is that if all those other people had listened to him, they’d be coming to his 90th birthday party.”

    ….“I’ve got no aches and no pains,” he said. “If I get a sniffle, it’s gone the next day. Everything’s working. Just look at my wife. She’s smiling.”

    Spending a few hours with him can be exhausting. Even when he’s sitting on a sofa, LaLanne is constantly in motion — waving his arms to emphasize a point, flexing his biceps, cracking jokes, breaking into song. You would swear he’s on a caffeine high, except he never touches the stuff.

    It can also be humbling hanging with Jack.

    “What do you do to work out?” LaLanne asked one recent visitor, with a quick check of his arm muscles and a poke to an abdomen that’s a few cans short of a six-pack.

    “Well, run mostly.”

    “You’ve got to lift weights, too,” LaLanne said. “What’s your diet like?”

    “Uh . . .”

    “You should try juicing fruits and vegetables,” he said. “We’ve got a great juicer.”

    ….Born in the East Bay, he spent 10 years of his youth in Bakersfield before the family returned to the Bay Area. LaLanne describes himself as an underweight, troubled teen who dropped out of high school and was plagued by headaches.

    Then, at 15, his mother took him to a nutrition lecture at the Oakland Women’s City Club. He adopted a sweets-free lifestyle with religious zeal, returned to school, became captain of the Berkeley High football team and made fitness his life’s work.

    “It all changed for me in one day,” he said. “It was like somebody going to a revival meeting and giving himself to Christ, if you believe in that. If something saved your life, wouldn’t you be enthusiastic about it?”

    LaLanne opened what is believed to be the nation’s first health club, in 1936 in Oakland. He invented equipment that is standard issue in gyms today, such as the leg-extension machine. He encouraged people — including women and seniors — to lift weights at a time when many doctors believed it was unhealthy.

    Even when he was dismissed as, in his words, as “a laughingstock and charlatan,” LaLanne kept plugging away.

    “I’d be 6-foot-2 if the medical profession hadn’t beaten me down for so long,” said the 5-6 LaLanne.

    Doctors, however, now see the world in much the way LaLanne always did. “He was ahead of his time when it comes to pushing the idea of fitness and weight training,” said Dr. Ron Davis, an American Medical Association board member.

    ….On ESPN Classic, his old shows look campy. A chair is often his only prop, and he’s accompanied by organ music. The hyper LaLanne — his V-shaped torso highlighted by a tight, short-sleeve jumpsuit that reveals ripped biceps — begs viewers to join him.

    “He was perfect for the intimacy of television,” said Syracuse’s Thompson. “This guy had some of the same stuff that Oprah has and Johnny Carson had: the ability to insinuate themselves in the domestic space of people’s lives.”

    His TV career had the added bonus of introducing him to Elaine, who worked at KGO.

    “I would come into the studio with a cigarette and a bear claw,” she said. “He would say, `You need to be eating apples, oranges, bananas, and I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t like you.’ But I’d blow a smoke ring in his face.”

    LaLanne wore her down — they have three children, including one each from previous marriages — and she has been his partner for five decades through thick and thin. OK, in LaLanne’s case, it has always been thin.

    ….LaLanne concedes that his own training schedule is extreme. He recommends people work out in moderation — about 30 minutes a day, three or four times per week. “You don’t have to work out seven days a week. That’s stupid,” he said. “But it’s what I do. I’m a nut. I just want to see how long I can keep this up.”

    For years LaLanne talked about swimming underwater from Catalina Island to Los Angeles, about 26 miles, on his 90th birthday. But Elaine threatened to divorce him.

    So what will he do Sunday?

    “Tow my wife across the bathtub,” LaLanne said.

How can you not admire, no, love this guy? Live long and well, Jack – oh wait, he already has.

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: [email protected],, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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