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Mussel or Muscle : Whatever You Call It, It’s a Beach That’s Not Forgotten by Its Many Devotees

Times Staff Writer

Legend holds that it was called Mussel Beach at first--named for the local bivalves whose feats of strength consisted of latching on to pilings.

“Then the muscle guys started showing up and people assumed that was how it got its name,” recalls spears-and-sandals star Steve (Hercules) Reeves, who made the transition from the sands of Santa Monica to the battlefields of ancient Greece.

Whatever, by the 1940s, the one-time federal project just south of the Santa Monica Pier was known to everyone as Muscle Beach. “In those days, you could address letters to someone in ‘Muscle Beach, U.S.A.,’ and they’d get there,” says acrobat Paula Boelsems. “I know because I received some.”

It was where acrobat Glenn Sundby learned the art that would enable him to walk down the 898 steps of the Washington Monument on his hands, where body builders Jack La Lanne and the late Vic Tanny envisioned money in muscles, where stuntman/double Russ Saunders built the body that served as a model for a Salvador Dali painting of Christ (you don’t double any bigger than that).

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But residents had mixed feelings over the fame and attention lavished on their sleepy little town. With tensions rising, Muscle Beach came to an abrupt end in 1959, after the arrest of four weightlifters in a nearby apartment on statutory rape charges. Authorities tore out the beach platforms and equipment and declared the name non grata.

Memories can’t be banned, though. And, with mussel-like tenacity, the notion of a Muscle Beach clings: Two loosely organized groups, one in Santa Monica and one in Venice, are seeking to revive the name.

Stuntman Saunders, 66, who helps train young acrobats near the Santa Monica Pier, says he and some former regulars would “like to have the platforms and equipment back in the old location, and the name, too. We’d welcome city supervision.

“Paula (Boelsems, his acrobatic partner) and I’ve been to several City Council meetings but we haven’t had much luck,” adds Saunders, who wears a Muscle Beach T-shirt of his own creation during his free-of-charge Sunday workouts.

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Publisher/acrobat Sundby, immortalized in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for his hand-walk, is finishing up a book on Muscle Beach. He hopes to stage a retrospective of the old days, featuring home movies, slides and celebrities, at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium late this year or early next.

“We’d like the City Council to attend so they can see what a positive thing it (Muscle Beach) was,” he said. “Then we’d like to have a plaque placed in the area and get back some of the old equipment there.”

Meanwhile, a short roller-skate ride south, Joe Mack and other weightlifters at Venice Beach are pushing for their workout area, now known informally (if not romantically) as “The Pit,” to be rechristened Muscle Beach and upgraded by the city of Los Angeles.

Like Saunders, Mack, 34, works out in a Muscle Beach T-shirt. Mack’s is somewhat more eye-catching, bearing a logo that says, “Muscle Beach, Home of the Hog,” and depicting a weightlifter with a muscular human torso and a hog’s head.

“We’d like to make the logo official and paint it on the (Pit’s equipment) shed,” says Mack, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound construction worker known to fellow lifters as the Mayor of Muscle Beach. “But the city said women and senior citizens wouldn’t like it.”

Ah, well . . . it seems as though people have always had difficulty understanding Muscle Beach.

In pre-World War II days, long before fancy gyms, aerobics classes, and the emergence of the class of hero known as the “hunk,” hardly anyone knew what muscles were. And to show them off in public!

“We were considered bohemians, health bohemians,” says George Eiferman, who entertained Muscle Beach crowds by playing the trumpet with one hand and hoisting weights with the other.

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Eiferman, a 60-year-old former Mr. Universe and Mr. Philadelphia (though not in that order), adds: “A lot of us were into nutrition . . . raw milk, orange juice, salads.”

Weightlifter and pro football player Don (Hard-Boiled) Haggerty, who has made the transition from villainous wrestler to villainous actor, says: “When I wrestled, promoters would ask me not to even mention that I lifted weights.”

“Lifting weights? Why, if you jogged in the sand back then, people thought you were a nut,” Saunders says.

Workouts for Children

Originally, Muscle Beach was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project of the early 1930s. It grew out of the idea of Kate Giroux, a local playground instructor, to hold workouts on the sand for impoverished, Depression-era children. Soon, rings and parallel and horizontal bars were in place as well as a weightlifting pen, equipment shed, and tumbling platform, and areas for volleyball, chess and Ping-Pong. Santa Monica took over supervision of the activities.

UCLA gymnasts began training there. Vaudeville and circus performers came down to polish up balancing, tumbling, flying adagio (throwing and catching bodies) and ring acts. And amateurs came to learn.

“It was the only place of its kind in the world,” says Sundby, 64, a vaudeville acrobat for 18 years. “Anywhere else, performers, circus or stuntmen, would stay to themselves. Here, they’d teach you the tricks of their profession. It was where I learned my balancing.”

Professional wrestlers like Lord Blears, Baron Leone and Gorgeous George found Muscle Beach an ideal place to heft weights and practice their picturesque falls and devious maneuvers.

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“I was born in England, so it was heaven to see the sun,” says Blears, 60, who moved to the United States after World War II. “There was everything (at Muscle Beach) back then, body surfing, weights, volleyball, Ping Pong.

Home on the Beach

“And it was clean,” adds Blears, a Hawaii wrestling promoter much friendlier out of the ring than he was inside. “There was no smog or freeways. I lived at the Kensington Hotel on the beach and raised three children there.”

Beauty and muscle shows drew thousands on the weekends. One of the female stars was Abbye (Pudgy) Stockton, whose childhood nickname, one writer noted, “became a libel” as she grew into a 38-20-36 frame.

The most famous of the male physiques at Muscle Beach belonged to Reeves. He wasn’t yet a movie star, but he stood 6 feet tall, weighed 215 pounds and sported a 51-inch chest and a 29-inch waist.

“He’d just walk down the beach and throngs would follow without knowing who he was,” remembers Eiferman. “God gave him a one-in-a-trillion body.”

Reeves, 60, now a horse-breeder in north San Diego County, still lifts, runs and “power-walks” (taking long strides while breathing in time with the steps). Looking back, he says, he’s proud that “I never used any of these chemicals, like steroids, that weightlifters use today. It’s too bad how they bloat themselves up. When your arms begin to look bigger than your head, something is wrong.”

A Record of Stunts

Photos from the Muscle Beach era attest to awesome human high-rises: Saunders holding a partner aloft while he (Saunders) is standing on the head of strongman/balancer Johnny Collins. Pudgy supporting her 185-pound husband in the acrobat’s high hand-to-hand position. Saunders poised on the shoulders of his smiling mom, Mary, 67 (well, it was Mother’s Day).

“On road maps back then, ‘Muscle Beach’ was in bigger print than ‘Santa Monica,’ ” says writer Armand Tanny, Vic’s brother. “I think that irked the city.”

“They (the beach performers) were entertainers in a sense but some people thought because they were emphasizing the physical side, they were show-offs,” says Sundby, publisher of International Gymnast magazine. “Sure, there might have been a couple of bad people down there. But Muscle Beach changed the lives forever of many people for the better, including me, a skinny kid with asthma who learned about fitness.”

After Muscle Beach was disbanded, some of the weightmen banded together into a club that continued workouts in a converted garage. But, a few years later, most of their equipment was stolen, and that ended that.

Today, the Pit ranks up there with the resident chain-saw juggler as one of Venice’s top tourist attractions. But the Pit lacks a bit of the glamour of the new order. After all, Arnold Schwartzenegger lifts indoors. The Pit only has one mirror.

The Price Is Right

Still, Venice’s 100 or so lifters like the fresh air and the membership rates ($30 per year).

“The rates some of the gyms charge--$250 a year--are ridiculous, especially for my budget,” says Jeffrey Alan Woods, 27, a 6-foot-tall, 205-pound actor. His goal: “Hopefully, if I get ripped (develop rippling muscles) I’ll get more roles.”

Up the beach, the city of Santa Monica has reinstalled rings and bars where youngsters like Miranda Whittle, 7, and Sheila Marshall, 12, train under the supervision of Saunders and other old pros.

“This has got to be the only place in the world where someone can just walk up and receive free gymnastic instruction from pros,” says Saunders, who doubled for Gene Kelly and Alan Ladd and now judges international acrobatics championships.

The beach’s link with the entertainment world endures: Miranda and Sheila were discovered on the Santa Monica rings, and recently appeared in a granola bar commercial on television.

Erasing a Stigma

But as for reinstatement of the Muscle Beach name in Santa Monica, Don Arnett, director of recreation and parks there, holds out little hope.

“There was a stigma about Muscle Beach that caused its demise and it still sort of hangs around here,” Arnett says. “Besides, we wouldn’t want to get back into weightlifting. They have that at Venice. That’s really where Muscle Beach is.”

Los Angeles isn’t positive it wants a Muscle Beach, either.

But Fae Taylor of the Recreation and Parks Department says Venice’s Pit could conceivably be renamed as such.

First, though, Mack’s hog logo would have to be redrawn, she says, explaining, “It has sort of a bad connotation, especially among the police down there.”

“I’m trying to come up with a new one,” the Mayor of Muscle Beach says good-naturedly. “I didn’t mean anything negative with the hog image. They (city officials) don’t understand that hogs are just determined people--like the (football) Redskins’ ‘Hogs’ (offensive line).”


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