Man-o-man was Muscle Beach the best. The original ‘Beach’ was just south of the Santa Monica Pier but by 1959 it became such a big deal that it was moved south to less developed land in Venice.
Established in the 1930s as a place to grease up and lift weights it became such a phenomenon that by 1955 it drew crowds of 10,000 on a big day. It has been often said that the physical culture movement in America sprang from this tiny stretch of sand. Vic Tanny, Joe Gold and Jack LaLanne could be seen pumping and primping. The greatest of them all was Steve Reeves.
Most of the power lifters were the size of gymnasts but Steve was considered a giant at 6’-1”. Although compared to The Rock at just a tad over eleventy feet tall I guess it isn’t that impressive now. Most folks today haven’t even heard of Steve but he actually had one of the most successful movie careers around. He made dozens of movies and in 1959 was the most highly paid actor in Europe. But you see that’s it. Who cares about Europe? Europe, shmeroup! In any case Steve was a glistening sword-and-sandal guy specializing in playing colossal gladiators, and other rippling he-men wearing a simple loincloth and half a pound of baby oil. It was Steve who convinced Sylvester Stallone to go into the movies telling him that it wasn’t about the acting (and in Stallone’s case it certainly wasn’t about looks).
Steve’s first movie was the 1955 Ed Wood classic, Jail Bait, in which he had a small part as a detective. But then bursting suddenly out of his shirt and onto the screen he hit his stride playing Hercules. His were Italian movies predating the spaghetti western. Italy was fertile ground for this bulging talent principally for the fact that Italian movies were filmed without sound. Really, no sound at all. They recorded it in postproduction. This is due to the fact that after the War (hey kids, this always means WW2) Italian Neorealist was a shoe-string affair and sound cost money. They turned it to a benefit and the movies were distributed all over the world in different languages. There was no attempt to sync the lips and the results are at once erratic and charming. Sort of like Muscle Beach.
Before it was discovered that the human body could be blown-up into comic book characters Charles Atlas advertised in actual comic books.
The famous take was a skinny kids gets sand kicked in his face at the beach and with just “15 minutes a day” you could become the bully.
Long before Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan showed up in the 70s there was a real innocence at The Beach. Of course that could be because I was kid. But it’s more than that. They didn’t just lift weights but also performed elaborate gymnastics and erected spectacular human towers so the performances had a carnival air. Back then, no doubt, some of the body builders were using dare I say it? … DRUGS! to make their muscles bigger. I mean look at Steve. It’s like he was hot-cast in bronze. Back then no one cared about steroids. But, and this part was scandalous, a few (read most) of these fellows were psst, psst (whisper) homo-sexual! Now if that news got out it would really rock the house, or in this case, the sand. Today gay is passé and it’s the juice that’s scandalous. Next, I fully expect pork rinds and Ritz Crackers to make a comeback as health food.
It’s hard to believe now but back when Liberace was famous many of his fans didn’t realize he was gay. Hummm. somehow I don’t think they were looking very closely.
There were lots of women body builders as well as men and there were even little kid body builders. The women were generally quite tiny with dramatic chests.
Near the end of her million year career of Mae West recruited at Muscle Beach for talent for her traveling stage show. She reprises songs long thought buried and as far as I know she is still touring at the age of about 130. In this clip from 1977 she stars as a 20-something at the age of 87 with Timothy Dalton and Ringo Star.
Today Muscle Beach is pretty tame though you can still find a lot of Instagram candy featuring chisel-cut abs and greasy skin.
The sun has set on old Muscle Beach but the memory lingers on.