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Men of Steel : For Arnold Schwarzenegger, It’s No Sweat Taking Over for Joe Gold

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Gold, the venerable maverick of bodybuilding, sits behind the front desk at World Gym doing what he has for decades--ribbing his loyal customers and greeting them by nicknames he has coined: “Alice” is a towering man named Alan; “Nine-One-One” is a man who looks like he needs paramedics after a workout; “Snail” is a man who moves slowly.

Silver-haired and tanned, Gold is usually pedaling an exercise bicycle alongside fitness devotees in his Venice gym. But these days, a still-tender knee, recently replaced in surgery, keeps Gold from his daily ritual.

On most mornings, Gold’s longtime friend and the gym’s most famous member can be seen checking weights and pulleys on exercise machines and tidying up. The Desert Storm Humvee with “Terminator” stenciled on it, parked in a reserved stall beneath a brass nameplate, is a giveaway: Arnold is in.

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Schwarzenegger’s gym-keeping, a rite previously reserved for Gold or employees, is perhaps the only hint of a changing of the guard at World, described by members as the “Zen Temple of Bodybuilding” for its solemn mind-over-muscle ambience.

Earlier this year, Gold stepped down as chairman of World Gym and World Gym Licensing, passing the reins to Schwarzenegger. Close-mouthed about the specific financial arrangements, Gold says only that he is now a consultant for World Gym Licensing and the no-frills gym located at Main Street and Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

“I am no child anymore,” Gold said. “I am 70 years old and I figure it is time to step down and let a younger man who loves bodybuilding and loves the sport of working out run the operation. (World Gym) far exceeded my expectations. I figured (Schwarzenegger) would carry the name of World and that he’d be the best one to keep it going.”

For all his celebrity, Schwarzenegger has a tough act to follow, for Gold is to bodybuilding what Eli Whitney was to the cotton industry. As one of the pioneers, Gold studied the needs of weightlifters, then designed his own rugged machinery at a time when lightweight chrome equipment was standard. Gold’s equipment, which he never patented, is still being copied today. He internationalized the sport too; his seminal gyms have been franchised around the world.

An original member of the Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club in Santa Monica, Gold opened Gold’s Gym in Venice in 1964. He sold the gym and rights to his name six years later. The new owners franchised Gold’s Gym, and there are now 389 worldwide.

After bodybuilding and fitness became a mania in the ‘70s, Gold opened World Gym on Main Street in Santa Monica in 1976 (he moved to the larger quarters in Venice in 1987). It quickly gained a reputation as a no-nonsense place for serious bodybuilders, attracting the likes of Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno and, of course, Schwarzenegger. World Gym Licensing, run by Mike Uretz, a fellow bodybuilder and lawyer, started in 1980 to franchise the operation, and today there are 150 World Gyms.

Schwarzenegger, who said he was astonished when Gold asked him to take over the gym, said Gold’s signature style and efficient weightlifting equipment epitomize the bodybuilding Zeitgeist .

“When I came here (in 1968), I had no money and he let me train in his gym for free,” said Schwarzenegger. “And he was the first person to give me advice. He also gave everyone nicknames. I kept thinking he would call me, ‘Hey, Big Arms!’ or ‘Hey, Monster!’ And he called me ‘Balloon Belly.’ He thought I had this massive body and that my abdominals were not defined enough. Instead of saying define your ‘abs’ more or train your waist more, he would say, ‘Hi, Balloon Belly.’ It inspired me to kill myself working out my abs.”

Returning the compliment, Gold attributes the mainstreaming of bodybuilding to Schwarzenegger, who catapulted the sport into the public eye when he starred in the classic 1977 cult film “Pumping Iron,” and, later, through other mass media.

“Arnold had a great part in popularizing the sport when he got on television . . . when he was working out like he did on talk shows,” Gold said. “People liked him. And then Hollywood embraced him. They also embraced bodybuilding.”

But despite an exponential increase in the number of gyms since the ‘70s, World Gym remains the sanctum sanctorum of bodybuilding. Champions and everyday folk, men and (since the early ‘80s) women are equals in the communion of daily sweat.

There is no juice bar, no music, no sauna to distract one from the task at hand. And at $300 a year for membership, it is less expensive than Gold’s or the Sports Connection. Furthermore, World Gym members say, there is less attitude about physiques than at other establishments. Almost religiously loyal to Gold, many of World’s 1,500 members practically prostrate themselves when they pass him.

“I figured if I built a better mousetrap they would come to me,” said Gold, who grew up in Boyle Heights during the Depression and now lives above World Gym Headquarters in Santa Monica with three Jack Russell Terriers he calls “the Terrorists.”

“I built a special kind of gym,” he said. “I don’t stand any nonsense, no fighting or arguing and I eliminate all the frills and hype. People come here to work out. You do your thing and then you leave.”

Schwarzenegger said he doesn’t foresee any significant changes ahead. “Joe always treated the gym like it belonged to us all,” he said. “Everyone always felt like it was sort of their place, so to me there is no difference now the way I feel about it than I did a half a year ago.

“The way he always said it to me was: ‘Listen, you have been a part of this gym and you have been responsible for a lot of what happened to the gym and I want to make sure it goes into the right hands before anything happens to me.’ But it will always be his place.”

While some gym members seem concerned about the change, others are simply sentimental about Gold’s stepping down.

One female gym member, who requested anonymity, expressed concern that Schwarzenegger would, over time, “increase membership, raise fees and make the gym more exclusive to his type of clientele and his friends.”

“I have noticed more actors and actresses coming to the gym,” she said. “Arnold is a business person and likes to be surrounded by his fans and friends.”

Sam Wilson, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who has followed Gold from gym to gym since 1968, was more optimistic.

“I don’t think anything negative will happen,” he said. “I would miss Joe if he wasn’t around though.

“A lot of the success of the gym is because of Joe’s personality, integrity and loyalty,” Wilson said. “He will not stand for any kind of show of bigotry or prejudice--he’ll throw them out or refund their money. I’ve seen him write refund checks and kick people out for that kind of stuff. He is a real strong, loyal character.”


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