The History of Muscle Beach – Part 1
“This is where my sport started.”
The physical street address is 1700 Ocean Front Walk, Santa Monica, California, and it’s nothing more than a swath of beach located just south of the historic Santa Monica Pier. But, every weightlifter and strength athlete can point to that spot and state, with authority…
BY MARK COSGROVE
This is Muscle Beach. And like any great movement there was a convergence of happenings and people that made this particular site the founding venue for these sports. In 1933, the Santa Monica Recreation and Parks Department was looking to refurbish their beach front. One of the early advocates for a “playground on sand” was Kate Giroux, a local playground instructor who wanted an open space for less fortunate children to be able to play and work out. At that very same time, against the backdrop of the Great Depression in the United States, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was formed by President Franklin Roosevelt. The WPA was meant to create local construction projects to combat the epidemic joblessness created by the depression. The Santa Monica beachfront project was a perfect fit for this program. By 1934 the “playground on sand” was created on Santa Monica beach with parallel bars, horizontal bars, rings, a weightlifting pen, an equipment shed and a tumbling platform. Other improvements to the recreational area included volleyball courts, tables for chess, and ping pong. However, it was the athletic equipment that became the star attraction. The success of the venue was immediate as it attracted gymnastics athletes, stuntmen from the Hollywood studios, acrobats from the nightclub circuits, wrestlers and weightlifters. Besides the thoughtful installation of the athletic equipment and the near perfect year-around weather, one of the other driving forces of this near instant success was the number of gyms and athletic facilities in the Los Angeles area closed due to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake. The earthquake forced the closure of many of these facilities and school gyms. The athletes, without an athletic home, now had a brand-new facility that was outdoors. Soon, there were weekend exhibitions and competitions and throngs of fans attended these events. There were strength and wrestling competitions as well as beauty contests and beach play. There were also stunts that became unique to this beach – the creation of human pyramids, the tossing of beautiful women between strong, muscular men, and a mixture of strength and fitness that had never been on public display before. People came to see the “muscle-men” at the beach, thus earning the name, “Muscle Beach.” (This was not to be confused with “Brain Beach”, located on the north side of the Santa Monica pier, and was a place of congregation for UCLA students.) By the end of the 1930’s, the strength-sports started to dominate the beach activities as weightlifters started to bring their own barbells. Gymnasts worked with the city to expand the facilities with more bars and rings being added as well as a gymnastics platform. As an outgrowth of this success at the beach, private gyms started to open in the neighboring blocks as newcomers to strength sports sought out the skills (and bodies) of the participants at the beach.
In 1939, the bodybuilder Vic Tanny, opened a gym two blocks from Muscle Beach. However, unlike other private gyms that were aimed toward men and serious athletes, Vic started a program aimed and priced for the working man and his family. This fledgling program later developed into a 100-gym network that is now a part of Bally Fitness. Similarly, fitness guru and body builder, Jack LaLanne saw the success of Muscle Beach first hand as a participant.
He thought that it was validation of his belief that there was a demand in the United States for fitness and healthy lifestyles. He opened his first gym in Oakland, California in 1936.
World War II had a tempering effect upon the activities at Muscle Beach. But, it remained a popular social gathering spot, especially for the servicemen who were stationed in and around the Los Angeles area. Like many reflections of the war effort at home where women came to the fore, it was no different at Muscle Beach. One of those women that broke-out as a leader and figure of the sport was Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton, later known as the “Queen of the Quads.” Initially taking-up calisthenics for weight control, she and her boyfriend – later husband – Les, began performing gymnastics and acrobatics routines on the beach. At 5’2 and 115 pounds, she wowed the crowds with her feats of strength, such as supporting her 180-pound husband, Les, over her head in a hand-to-hand stand. Not only was Pudgy a popular figure at the beach, but she became a media star. She was featured in newsreels and national magazines, such as Life. In 1944, she began writing a magazine column aimed at woman’s weight training and fitness. Later, she became the organizing figure in staging weightlifting contests for women, including the first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sanctioned competition in 1947 in Los Angeles. Another area of the sport that Pudgy Stockton blazed was in costume and appearance. With the help of her mother, she basically tore apart and then re-sewed a one-piece bathing suit. She created an original “fitness” garment that, by all appearances, was a two-piece bathing suit. And that was another part of the evolution and revolution of Muscle Beach, the display of the body in public. These strength athletes were free from many of the conscripts of the social norms with their public displays and routines. What they wore to show-off their near-perfect forms was pushing that envelope even further. Although these fashions and attitudes were widely embraced, they were starting to fall into conflict with what was, basically, a conservative beach community.
The 1950’s saw the height of the popularity of Muscle Beach. What started 20 years before as a beachside improvement aimed at the community at large, was now the world famous venue for strength athletes. The number of participants was larger than ever as fitness and weight training became more popular. This trend was aided by the migration of the population from east-to-west following WW II. The migration was also present in the fitness industry. The east-coast based barbell companies, such as Bob Hoffman’s Atlas Barbell and Joe Weider’s Weider Barbell Company, sent their sales reps to the west coast along with their public relations writers. Each of these companies had their own fitness magazines, (Hoffman had Strength & Health and Weider had Muscle Power), and each created an almost idealized vision of Muscle Beach for their readers. Many their readers were used to working-out indoors in the wintery north, and certainly not on the beach in the perfect weather of California. One by one, bodybuilders of acclaim in the east were making their way west. Many of them found the perfect living situation in what was later to be called, “The Muscle House” or “Muscle House by the Sea”. Located only feet from Muscle Beach, this popular boarding house was owned by Joy Crettaz, an older single woman who had a soft spot in her heart for bodybuilders. She charged her tenants only $100 a month and provided three meals a day, all vegetarian courses. As for sleeping accommodations, bodybuilders were jammed 12 to a room, adding to their Spartan and focused existence. And, as former tenants recall, the “aroma” of the housing situation was such that the windows were always open. Nonetheless, some of the greatest strength athletes called the Muscle House home. Amongst them was Steve Reeves who, with his 29” waist and 51” chest, became best known for his film role of Hercules. Other notable names included Jake Delinger, George Eiferman and Dave Draper. Probably the most famous resident was Vince Edwards, a standout athlete and dedicated weightlifter who later went on to television fame as Dr. Ben Casey. Bill “Peanuts” West arrived at Muscle House weighing in at 85 pounds with a peanut-focused diet to gain weight (Joy gave him his nickname). He eventually developed into one of the great powerlifters and instructor to powerlifters. To this day, Bill West is referred to as “the Godfather of Powerlifting.”
As more and more bodybuilders moved to the epicenter of their sport, the local fandom was also exploding as weekend exhibitions would draw as many as 10,000 people to Muscle Beach. This stunning popularity began a love/hate relationship with the city of Santa Monica. Although the city appreciated the number of visitors to the beach, they nonetheless had complaints from shop owners and citizens about the behavior and dress of the strength athletes and their fans. To many in this conservative community, the weightlifters and their followers were “bums” and “weirdos”. Their lifestyle, that focused on the beach, was certainly counter to the concept of having a 9-to-5 job and “working for a living.” The culmination of these complaints and the clashing of cultures were building to a point where the city was looking for an excuse to curb the activities of Muscle Beach. In December 1958 they found that excuse. In an apartment directly adjacent to Muscle Beach, four weightlifters were found with underage girls. The story was sensationalized in local news and although no charges were ever brought against the weightlifters, the incident was enough to bring the city to action. One morning, at dawn, a bulldozer cleared the beach of all the athletic equipment and signage. There was no edict by the city to commence this action, nor was there any warning of such an action or even a public hearing. The bulldozer’s blade was the singular devastating move that brought about the end of Muscle Beach. Remarkably, that same morning, and for decades of mornings to follow, gymnasts still showed-up on that exact spot for their workouts.
The banishment of the strength athletes, especially the weightlifters, from Muscle Beach was barely a speed-bump in the onward progression of the sport and for those particular athletes. For a while, they moved their activities to Vic Tanny’s gym, in the basement of a 7,000-sq. ft. building that was a former USO club. In the weightlifting world, this was called “The Dungeon.” The facility also lived up to its name in another way. It was way past its prime. Vic Tanny sold the place, and the new owners let the condition of the facility slide so all that remained were four damp concrete walls and weights. But, that was enough for some of the greatest bodybuilders in the world at the time, like George Eiferman, Dave Draper, Bill McArdle, and Chuck Ahrens. While it was the new “home,” what was missing from their routine was the beach, which was more important than they realized. The serious lifters had a weekly routine. They mixed not only heavy gym workouts, but also elements that were always performed at the beach. The elements may have remained in their routines, but the beach was gone. To the lifters, that meant that their routine was changed. Eventually, the elite weightlifters moved from “The Dungeon” and followed their brother lifters two miles south to “The Pit.”
In 1951, the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department built a weightlifting pen on the beach near Winward Avenue in the community of Venice. This was less than two miles south, down the Ocean Walk from Muscle Beach. The site was modest in both size and facility, but it was made specifically for weightlifters. This new site became known as “The Venice Pen” or “The Pen” or “The Pit.” Eight years after its founding, the displaced weightlifters from Muscle Beach made “The Pit” their new home. It was an easy transition for them. Not only was the venue sport-specific, but the Venice community was far more accepting of weightlifters and the weightlifting community. Furthermore, Venice embraced the idea of being the new Muscle Beach.
In Part II of the History of Muscle Beach, Venice will emerge as the “Mecca of Bodybuilding.” From that come the stories of Joe Gold and Gold’s
Gym as well as the greatest bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And, ironically, from the success of Muscle Beach Venice would come the rebuilding of the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica…
Continue: History of Muscle Beach Part 2