From that motley melting pot, a unique and wonderful camaraderie grew. The performers and contestants at the Muscle Beach shows (presented free of charge) made no money for their efforts, participating instead for the love of sport and for fun. Though they played to audiences of several thousand on a weekly basis, the muscle folk themselves remained a relatively niche group of around 50 members, and they exchanged health and nutrition ideas as well as gut-wrenching workouts. “People would ask us, ‘What can I do to get another inch on my arm?’ or ‘How can I get started with exercise?’” says Howard. “We were on the covers of muscle magazines that went around the world, so anybody who was interested in fitness was there.” It wasn’t long before nearby Hollywood came calling, snatching up champion lifters and bodybuilding pioneers such as Reg Lewis and Steve Reeves, and casting them as leads in the popular “sword-and-sandal” epics of the 1950s and early ’60s. And suddenly, the men lifting weights on the beach became celebrities. “It would be like you going into the gym and running into someone famous,” recalls Howard, “but it wasn’t a big deal for us. These were the people who were around you every day, and you could train with them.”
And so things continued... until one day in 1959, when Muscle Beach lost its innocence forever. A scandal erupted in which several bodybuilders were accused of raping underage girls. A week or so later, bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night and leveled everything. The particulars of the case are still highly controversial. “It’s not on any police records,” says Howard. “Many think the city squashed it.” Rumors abound: Some believe the incident was actually statutory rape between only one man and one girl; others say there were more pressing reasons for cleaning out space on the beach (such as to create parking for the city’s growing population). Since then, the conspiracy theory has only grown—especially since the charges against the accused were eventually dropped. But most people agree in the end that city leaders believed Muscle Beach had begun to attract a bad element and had to be closed.
Though one era had come to an end, weight trainers would not be out of a home for long. The seeds of bodybuilding culture had been sewn in Santa Monica, but they would grow to huge proportions just two miles south in Venice.
Bodybuilding’s New Mecca
By the early ’60s, some of the original Muscle Beach training equipment got the chance to resurface in a new facility in Venice. Nicknamed the Dungeon, the gym was a far cry from its old beachfront. Located in a basement that got no sunlight and offered only heavy weights, the locale became a refuge for hardcore bodybuilders and a harbinger of modern fitness’s transition from acrobatics to pure muscle. As such, it made the ideal training ground for many famous bodybuilders to get their start, including muscle-magazine icon Dave Draper. The camaraderie lived on as well. The Dungeon had no official owner, and everyone who trained there contributed a few dollars for rent. “It would be a horror story for anybody today,” says Draper, winner of several titles, including Mr. Universe, “because the equipment was so dilapidated. But it was wonderful to work under those circumstances. You had to improvise. You didn’t know anything better, because this was all you had.”
While the Muscle Beach lifters worked to regain their footing, other gyms began to pop up as well, all hoping to satisfy a new generation’s taste for iron. One such place was Vince Gironda’s gym in the San Fernando Valley. Of all the training gurus of the day, Gironda remains one of the most respected, as so many of his theories about exercise and nutrition have been proven true. He knew that ab exercises didn’t automatically trim the waistline and that fat intake supported testosterone. “Vince helped me win titles when I was in my 40s,” says Bill Howard, who took home the Mr. America title in 1974. “He was more into the aesthetic look of muscle,” he says. It was this change in thinking and training—a move from functional athletic skill to the idea of transforming muscle into art—that ultimately gave rise to the bodybuilding of today.