If there’s a heaven for guys who lift weights, it would have to be a re-creation of the original Muscle Beach of the ’40s and ’50s, and the bodybuilding scene in Venice, Calif., circa 1970. For a span of about 40 years, everything a guy could enjoy about the fit lifestyle was at his fingertips in Southern California. You could pump iron in a hardcore gym with your buddies all morning and chase girls on the beach all afternoon. You’d go to a restaurant, get a seven-egg omelet for a dollar, and then glance over at the next table and see Steve Reeves or Arnold Schwarzenegger looking back at you. And maybe one day, while you were showing o on the parallel bars on the beach or making a human pyramid with nine other guys, a director would stroll by and ask if you wanted to be in a movie.
Of course, a place this perfect couldn’t last. But the legacy of the eras survives, and it has transcended the bounds of Los Angeles County and the bodybuilders themselves. Their “good time” has become our everyday routine. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, every time we touch a dumbbell, cut a carb from our diet, or strike a pose for our girlfriends, we’re emulating an age in which a bunch of so-called muscleheads laid the foundation for modern fitness. And all they were trying to do was have fun in the sun.
The Cradle of Muscle
While the exact origins of Muscle Beach are in dispute, numerous sources credit one woman with starting it all. Kate Giroux, a local physical-education teacher, convinced the city of Santa Monica in the mid-1930s to supply the public with a tumbling mat (though some argue it was just a strip of carpet) and some gymnastics equipment, such as a pommel horse and rings. The gear was set up on 200 square yards of sand just south of Santa Monica pier. “During the Depression, the only recreation for people was the beach,” says Bill Howard, a former bodybuilding champion and resident. “It was free.” Naturally, local athletes—particularly gymnasts and acrobats, at first—took notice and began using the equipment to practice their flips and tumbles in the open air, while also escaping their economic blues for a time. Regular folks began to crowd around to watch the stunts, and as the site grew in popularity, city officials supported it, ultimately installing proper weight-training equipment and a platform for stunt shows.
Around this time, Muscle Beach found its first hero, another woman, named Abbye “Pudgy” Stockton. Despite her nickname, Stockton was regarded as 118 pounds of perfect feminine proportions—muscular and strong (she once clean and jerked 135 pounds) yet lean and soft enough to make any man drool. Stockton provided perhaps the earliest evidence that lifting weights didn’t have to make women bulky or masculine but could instead give them tremendous strength and athleticism. She and her future husband, Les, were early celebrities on the beach, taking part in weightlifting contests and acrobatics displays that included hand balancing, throwing people into the air and catching them, and stacking 10 or more men toward the sky, one on top of the other. Witness the events just once, people say, and it was impossible not to want to get behind the weights and see what you could do, too.
During this time, in the midst of World War II, word of the physical and cultural anomaly taking place in Southern California began to spread across the globe. GIs on leave in Santa Monica would get an eyeful and relay pictures and stories to people they met overseas. After the war, there was a buzz practically everywhere people exercised about “this place in California where people run around with their bodies hanging out,” says Howard. Though at the time weight training and bodybuilding were considered strange pursuits adopted mostly by narcissists and insecure men, the message most were getting was that on Muscle Beach, no such rebuke existed. By the mid-’40s, everyone who trained, including bodybuilders, circus performers, and movie stunt people, was doing it in Santa Monica.