Walking along the coast of Southern California, the hapless, wandering weightlifter finds himself pale-skinned and pumpless. Suddenly, a vision presents itself before his weary eyes: a fenced-off weight pit. Is it a mirage or a gift from God? Muscle Beach Venice the sign reads, and the lifter says, “Far out.” A squat rack, a barbell, a sun that shines and the fresh sea breeze. Far out, indeed.
On this particular day in the new millennium, there’s no reason to walk further north. Muscle Beach is found, the pump renewed. Praise be the Iron. But the musclemen who walked these same sandy shores just six decades ago knew better. Muscle Beach isn’t in Venice, bub! Follow the faithful, a small group they may now be. The wise know where they’re headed. Santa Monica is the real promise land!
Starting Off With a Bang
When an earthquake ripped through Santa Monica on March 10, 1933, the city was already in bad shape. The quiet community on the Pacific coast had prided itself in being socially elite and culturally refined, but that pride hadn’t stopped the Great Depression from sinking its dirty claws in and tearing the town a new one. The worst to be hit by the quake was the schools. Without the funds to rebuild, local kids were taught out of tents.
It was Kate Giroux’s idea for the city to build a park on the beach. She’d been a playground matron for an elementary school before it was reduced to rubble. Building one playground for everyone would be a faster and cheaper fix until all of the schools could be rebuilt.
City officials agreed. By 1934, work had started on the new playground. The project was paid for by President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA), an organization set-up to employ local people to build public developments and stimulate the economy. The site chosen was a stretch of sand just South of the famous Santa Monica Pier, known by locals as Mussel Beach for all of the shellfish that clung onto the Pier there.
The park soon became a hit with cash-strapped locals looking for some cheap entertainment – especially after the neighboring Pier filed for bankruptcy in 1935.
The playground also caught on with local vaudeville performers and acrobats who appreciated the soft landing that the sand could give them. Finding work in their field wasn’t so easy in Great Depression-era America and the practice didn’t hurt to keep the rust away. At first the gymnasts brought their own mats down to the beach, but as the locals crowded around to watch these impromptu performances, the city doubled-down. A gymnastics platform was built and more bars and rings were added, as well as ping-pong tables and volleyball nets – all courtesy of some more Uncle Sam cash.
Word started to get around pretty quick about the great outdoor gym in Southern California. Santa Monica became the Capitale de la Culture Physique on the West Coast as well as a Must-Stop-Spot for traveling performers from across the country. If you were in the Golden State, you had to make your way over to Santa Monica to practice your stunts and learn from the best in front of the appreciative crowds.
Around this time, the spelling of Mussel Beach got changed to Muscle Beach as the number of meat-heads outnumbered the mollusks.
Play a word-association game today and Muscle Beach equals bodybuilding. That wasn’t the case in the ‘30’s. Physical Culture was the name of the game. Gymnastics, acrobatics, and weightlifting was the way to play it. The doctors of the day warned their patients against the strenuous movements the kids were performing on the Beach, saying it could lead to heart disease and an early death. When the spectators saw the rippling muscles and the strength that came from all that dangerous exercise… Well, we all know which group had it right, don’t we?
A bodybuilder would have called the bodies at Muscle Beach in the ‘30’s “Functional Physiques.” Lean and hard, but not with the kind of size that heavy weight training earns a man. Still, it was enough to make them stand out from the Average Joe.
On top of that, the stretch of sand North of the Pier had already been christened Brain Beach by locals, on account of its popularity with the college crowd. Brains and Brawn. Poetic, right? Santa Monicans are very literal when it comes to naming beaches.
The early 1940’s saw things quiet down on the beach. Uncle Sam didn’t take the equipment in as scrap metal, but he almost might as well have. The people were too busy fighting the Japs to be swinging from rings. Barbells were traded in for rifles and the only bicep that was flexed was in the middle of a military salute. God Bless America.
After the War, the Beach got back to her old step – and then some.The thought of returning to the Beach in one piece was enough to keep the guys serving overseas fighting the good fight. Alright, so that’s a little melodramatic. Still, sitting in the trenches, tales of Muscle Beach were told as a way to pass the time and keep from feeling down. When the boys came back home, many stopped in Santa Monica to check it out for themselves.
Postwar America saw a sizable migration from East to West, and the Easterners brought their barbells with them. Weightlifting for size and strength had been more of an East Coast scene in the 1940’s and earlier, in no small way thanks to Bob Hoffman’s Strength & Health magazine and his York Barbell Co.
If there’s one man who pulled the crowds into Muscle Beach more than any other, his name is Earle Liederman. Liederman moved to the West Coast in the early 1940’s and became editor for Joe Weider’s new Muscle Power magazine in ’45. Anyone who’s ever read any of Liederman’s articles knows the cat can write. Each month when he waxed lyrical over the scene in Santa Monica, more and more readers dropped it all to head westward. Sure, his articles were romanticizing, but all the good writers do that.
All of these new kids in Southern California meant there could be as many as 10,000 sun worshipers crowding the Beach on any given weekend in July. Maps across the country started to print the words Muscle Beach in larger type than Santa Monica, much to the embarrassment of city officials. The emphasis was still on gymnastics and acrobatics, but weightlifting was definitely a contender for public attention, especially once the weight platform was built.
The devoted few had been towing their own barbells and dumbbells to the Beach since the 1930’s, but it was with the permanent weightlifting platform that things really started to get serious. Keep in mind, weightlifting was still seen as a risky thing to do in the 1940’s and ’50’s. If a school had a weight-room, the key to it was safely guarded by the football or wrestling coach, to keep the other athletes from becoming “musclebound.” To have a weight platform out in the open like it was at Muscle Beach was pretty remarkable.
The traffic was so overwhelming that Santa Monica designated an official Director of Muscle Beach in Deforrest “Moe” Most, a local acrobat who’d been there since day one. Moe organized all of the Muscle Beach contests – weightlifting and oddlift contests, beauty pageants – you name it. 1946 saw the very first Mr Muscle Beach contest held, a contest that continued on ’til the day the Beach closed.
Every weekend when the weather cooperated (and it almost always did) a whole variety show was put on, as directed by Moe. All of the guys and gals at the Beach had a chance to show the audiences what they could do, amateurs and pros alike. A Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club was founded and grew to over 1,000 members – at least 20 of which were women!
The Heroes of Muscle Beach
On a weekend trip to Muscle Beach, you were sure to meet some of the guys you’d read about in the muscle books. Literally everyone who was (or hoped to become) anyone had to make their way to Santa Monica at least once.
Muscle Beach was home to many of the pioneers of the fitness world. Jack Lalanne was a regular, as were gym-tycoons Joe Gold and Vic Tanny. Harold Zinkin, inventor of the Universal Gym, could be found tumbling on the Beach with professional hand-balancer Gene Miller.
Champion bodybuilders called the Beach their home. When John Grimek visited for the first time in 1940, the locals’ collective jaw dropped. Never had such muscularity been seen before, even on a beach named for it. Steve Reeves got a similar reaction a few years later. By the time Reg Park traveled halfway across the world to see how it was being done in California, people were almost used to seeing 18″ muscular arms. Almost.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary for the bodybuilders to join in on the acrobatic shows. George Eiferman was famous for his stunt where he’d play a trumpet with one hand and balance a barbell (or a pretty girl) with the other.
Muscle Beach saw the likes of some world-famous powerhouses, like Paul Anderson, as well as strongmen of a more anonymous nature, like Chuck Ahrens – commonly referred to in the magazines of the day as “Mystery Muscle Man.”
They call Venice the “Mecca of Bodybuilding” today, but in the 1940s and ’50s, Muscle Beach was the absolute center of the fitness universe. Part of that was because of the stars listed above (and many more, of course), but the other part was equally important: It was the local lifters and gymnasts that trained there every day that made the atmosphere of Muscle Beach possible.
The House That Muscle Built
Although many of the Santa Monicans weren’t so happy about the musclemen that were invading their town, a few (generally older ladies) welcomed the iron addicts with open arms and throbbing hearts. But none helped so famously as Fleurette “Joy” Crettaz.
Joy owned a cozy spot right off of Muscle Beach that she would rent out real cheap for the weightlifters and bodybuilders that trained nearby. The rooms were almost always packed. Coming in for the night from a day of lifting in the sun, you’d have to carefully step over snoring bodybuilders and weightlifters to find a spot to rest your head. Rent was cheap and got you a bunk for the night plus 3 square meals a day.
The meals were always vegetarian. Joy was a vegetarian herself and was very strict about it. Of course, hardly any bodybuilders cut meat from their diet back in those days. All of the guys would secretly get an extra meal at local restaurants to shovel in all the chicken and steak they could manage.
Talk about shoveling in, Joy would sometimes have to cram a dozen guys to a room when it was busy. As you can imagine, a room full of sweaty he-men could create a certain odor after a day spent in the sun. The windows were always left open.
Ms. Crettaz really did love the muscle men that stayed at her place and gave many of them nicknames – Bill West’s nickname of “Peanuts” probably being the most famous. The lifters gave her a nickname, too – “Joy” – on account of how she was always in such a good mood.
Muscle House wasn’t for everyone and the more claustrophobic of fellows found like-minded roommates to rent out nearby apartments with. For the people who boarded at Muscle House, though, the atmosphere was like being at summer camp with all of their best buds.
Muscle Beach Memories
During the week, Muscle Beach was teeming with the hard tanned bodies of locals looking to get a good pump. On the weekends, the place was packed with gawkers and Möchtegerner. Looking for parking in the middle of summer? Forget it, bub. Muscle Beach was a non-stop beach party from the end of May to the first of September.
Local businesses caught on and catered to the crowd. Restaurants like the Muscle Beach Café popped up with hearty meals to satisfy the kind of guy who spends his days working out, even if they were overpriced. A dime for a burger? How do they get away with these prices!
As far as gyms go, Muscle Beach was decent for its time.
What had started out by the old BYOBB (Bring Your Own Barbell) rules ended with a fine hand-built weightlifting arena with wooden racks and benches to choose from. The commercial-grade equipment wasn’t invented yet, but what was there on the Beach was good enough to build a world-class physique with.
In those days, you were lucky if the local Y.M.C.A. had a barbell and a bench to work with. To be lifting in the sun with the fresh sea breeze filling your lungs between every rep – man, that’s just a dream!
Lots of the guys training on the weight platform weren’t really lifters. There were boys trying to impress their dates, tourists who were there to cross it off their to-do list, stuff like that. Not much unlike the modern scene, really.
Unlike today, there was definitely the hardcore crowd, too. Real Mr Californias and Mr New Jerseys trained daily at Muscle Beach. And, if you were sincere, they’d teach you a trick or two and whip that too-heavy barbell off your chest for you. No sweat.
If the clouds ever came out and gave Santa Monica a rare rainy day, there were a few choice gyms set up nearby, too. Vic Tanny had a gym that was ahead of its time in how professional it was, with wall-to-wall mirrors and chrome weights; a real prototype of the commercial gyms today. Tanny’s Gym membership nicknamed his place The Dungeon because it was underground, dwelling in the 7,000 square foot basement of a converted USO Center. It wasn’t dark and dank like a real dungeon, though. Not yet. That came later.
Pudgy Stockton had a clean set-up where the women could lift and the men could only watch. There were also some good gyms in the surrounding LA area. Bert Goodrich’s Gym in Hollywood was a good one in the 1950’s and of course Vince Gironda’s famous gym was available, too. But the sunny weather and good vibes in Santa Monica meant you could train on the beach everyday no problem, year round.
You might have heard of the classic Muscle Beach training split. That full body, three days per week jive. Maybe some fellas trained that way, but you can bet that most guys and gals were out at the Beach just about every day, doing some training or other. It wasn’t uncommon for a lifter to get some upper body training in at the beach in the morning and then to head over to Tanny’s place for a leg workout in the evening followed by some arm and shoulder training back at the Beach again the next day. Other times, if the surf was up, a training session might have to be cut short. To keep some energy for the waves, you know?
This was before the Men in White [lab coats] told lifters how to lift, when to eat, or what was “optimal.” The guys listened to their bodies, did what felt right, and most importantly, had fun!
Billy West and Zabo once spent an afternoon doing a 100-set squat session. Yes, you read that right – 100 sets! A couple coolers full of food handled lunch and dinner for the determined duo as they slugged through their marathon workout. The survivors didn’t walk away, they crawled. Zabo, ever obsessed with his 8-pack abs, did his leg raises between sets, afraid he wouldn’t have the energy to do it afterward. Absolutely crazy!
Bummin’ it on the Beach
Muscle Beach had attracted bums from the get-go. Maybe bums isn’t the right word. Weirdos, outcasts, nuts – one of those words is closer. First it was the vaudeville entertainers and circus performers. Later it was Hollywood hopefuls and stuntmen. People who’d do anything but quit goofing off and make an “honest living.” People who knew their time on earth was short and who wanted to enjoy it while it was there to be enjoyed. Guys and gals who weren’t afraid of their bodies or what would happen if they used ’em … and all of the people who were happy just watching.
Much like the surfers or the skaters in the coming decades, the guys and gals at Muscle Beach were living life their own way, with their own culture. They worked a day job to live, not the other way around. Fully grown men rushed from work down to the Beach like kids hurrying through their homework to get to the local playground. In conservative Santa Monica, that was just shameful – something to raise your nose at and waggle a finger about. Young girls were warned to stay far away from “those narcissistic perverts” by concerned mothers and fathers, which of course only got them down to the Beach that much faster!
End of an Era
As Muscle Beach became more popular, so too did the idea that it should be shut down among city officials. Santa Monica wanted to reclaim her title as a high-class center of culture and refinement; the musclemen were cramping her style. A bunch of free acrobatic shows was one thing, but a crowd of young men strutting their tanned bodies was something the city would do well without. All Santa Monica needed was a reason to show the lifters the door.
In 1958, they got it.
Santa Monica all but tripped over itself pushing the musclemen out of the city limits. The official story was that four weightlifters were caught partying with underage girls in an apartment right off of Muscle Beach. Though no one was ever charged or convicted, the story spread quick and was used by the enemies of Muscle Beach to light their torches and fuel their protests like high-octane gasoline.
As Old Saint Nick was up on the good boys’ and girls’ rooftops (click, click, click), Santa Monica was busy bulldozing the platforms and weight area at Muscle Beach (crash, smash, trash). Merry X-Mas, kiddies.
When the Former Citizens of the Beach demanded an explanation, the city told them the equipment had to be removed for safety reasons. The musclemen knew they were being screwed over by some Flat-head politics – none were too naïve to miss the words between the lines. Santa Monica was tired of sharing the sand with the group that made it famous and that was that.
Unfortunately, Muscle Beach was a place decades ahead of its time. Like all things that society doesn’t understand, it had to be destroyed. Almost overnight it was like Muscle Beach had never existed, had never created a brand new culture of fitness, health, and strength. A sign was put up on the spot reading “Santa Monica Beach Park #4,” cementing the city’s own denial. It was a denial that would last for decades.
Enter The Dungeon
Whether Santa Monica liked it or not (and it seems it really, really didn’t), the Iron had come to California, and it wasn’t going anywhere that easy. From the rubble of Muscle Beach, the muscle men gathered what weights and bars and racks that they could and headed underground.
Into the basement they went, down the familiar creaky steps four blocks from The Beach Formerly Known As Muscle. In their desperation, the Muscle Beach Boys retreated to Vic Tanny’s old place. Unfortunately, the place wasn’t Vic’s no more. Vic had packed up and moved to brighter pastures years ago. The Dungeon was many moons past its former glory now, but like a man who clings to an old photograph of a love lost, it had to do. The bars were bent and the plates were rusty, but for these serious muscle men, it was good enough.
To the average or mildly interested, it was The Dump. To the dedicated iron heads, it was known as The Dungeon.
The Dungeon was dark and damp and smelled of old beer, but it was also a hardcore gym for hardcore lifters. The equipment was mostly hand crafted by men who were in a hurry to get bigger and stronger, with rusty nails sticking every which way and dumbbells held together by shoe strings. It was an example of function over form, (and even then it barely functioned) but it was also home to some of the strongest men in California.
Men like Chuck Ahrens, George Eiferman, Bill McArdle, and Dave Draper pushed each other to lift more weight for more reps in the days before “overtraining” was considered with more than a passing thought. And they grew all the more muscular for it.
Membership was cheap: the lifters just split the rent evenly each month and then got back to training.
It was a small group of elite that lifted there. Not because anyone was denied entrance, but because most took one cautious look into the place before hurrying back up the steps to safety and sunlight.
If the sights didn’t chase off the more timid lifter, the sound might. The Dungeon was about 6,000 square feet larger than it needed to be for the crowd that was there. Cries of encouragement –
“Come on!” “Git ‘er up!” “One more!”
– bounced off the bare walls and assaulted the eardrums like they were a snare in the Texas A&M marching band. And that’s not even mentioning the orchestra of heavy iron on cold steel.
Eventually, this Iron den was also abandoned and left to rust as the muscle men headed further south to Venice Beach, Gold’s Gym, and a new weight pit…
[To be continued…]