Joe Gold, 82; Legendary Bodybuilder

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Times Staff Writer

Joe Gold, the legendary bodybuilder who opened the first Gold’s Gym and later launched the World Gym franchise, died Monday at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey. He was 82.

Gold had been hospitalized for a few days, according to Mike Uretz, chief executive of World Gym International. The cause of death was not reported.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 17, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Gold obituary -- The obituary of bodybuilder Joe Gold in Tuesday’s California section gave the incorrect mailing address for the Salvation Army Bell Shelter, which was designated for memorial contributions. The correct address is 5600 Rickenbacker Road, No. 2A-B, Bell, CA 90201.

Gold opened Gold’s Gym in Venice in the mid-1960s. He sold it and the rights to the Gold name six years later, and the new owners franchised Gold’s Gyms, which grew to include hundreds of sites. In 1977, Joe Gold got back into the gym business with the World Gym chain, which now has more than 300 locations.


To bodybuilding insiders, Gold is known as much for the equipment he designed as for gyms.

A machinist, Gold developed workout machines that enabled bodybuilders to go beyond dumbbells and barbells.

John Balik, publisher of Iron Man magazine, said Monday that, along with Vic Tanny and Jack LaLanne, Gold was a groundbreaking figure in the fitness world because of his creative designs.

“Before Joe, a lot of things were designed for the ‘look,’ ” Balik said. “Joe loved to fiddle and create until he got things that felt right.

“The gym became, in a sense, a laboratory for his ideas on how to make pieces of equipment better.”

Among Gold’s devotees in the early days was bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to California in 1968 and won the Mr. Universe title before achieving Hollywood stardom and the California governorship. Gold’s Gym was famous as the place where Schwarzenegger trained and, when Gold opened World Gym on Main Street in Santa Monica, Schwarzenegger followed.

“Joe Gold was a bodybuilding legend, a pioneer, but above all, deep in his heart, he was a bodybuilding fan,” Schwarzenegger said in a statement Monday. The governor called Gold “a trusted friend and father figure” who was instrumental in his training during his days as a bodybuilder.


In 1991, when Gold fell ill, Schwarzenegger ran World Gym for Gold for a year or two.

“He did it out of friendship with Joe,” Uretz said. “As soon as he saw that Joe was better and needed something to do, he just gave him the whole thing back.”

Gold credited Schwarzenegger, who starred in “Pumping Iron” (1977), for popularizing bodybuilding. Much of the documentary was filmed at the original Gold’s Gym, which by then Joe Gold had sold.

In 1992, Schwarzenegger told The Times that when he began to work out at Gold’s Gym after arriving in Los Angeles from Austria, “I had no money and [Gold] let me train in his gym for free.

“He was the first person to give me advice,” Schwarzenegger said. “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.”

Gold was born March 10, 1922, in East Los Angeles, the son of a junk dealer, and attended Roosevelt High School. Classmate Harold Zinkin, who recounted Muscle Beach’s history in a 1999 book, said Monday that Gold, in junior high school, led a group of friends in creating the Dugout Athletic Club, a “workout gym” in an auto repair shop.


Zinkin, a champion weightlifter who invented the Universal Gym Machine and who remained a close friend of Gold, said Gold wore “high-top shoes and tight Levis and tight shirts that showed shoulders and arms,” prompting his friends to call him “L’il Abner,” after the muscle-bound comic book character created by Al Capp.

In his teens, Gold discovered Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach, where stuntmen, acrobats and bodybuilders gathered.

He began going there regularly to work out, play beach volleyball and be with his friends.

“We were like a family, comparing new tricks and helping each other,” Jack LaLanne told The Times on Monday. LaLanne, who said he would drive overnight from the Bay Area on Fridays to be at the beach on weekends, was also a close friend of Gold.

Gold opened his first gym in New Orleans, where he had gone as a member of the merchant marine. During World War II, he joined the Navy and was badly injured when his ship was torpedoed in the Philippines.

He spent six months in a veterans’ hospital and later suffered from crippling pain and spent much of his last years in a wheelchair.

“But when he came to the gym, it was a matter of pride that he walked in,” Uretz said, noting that Gold would use arm braces to help him walk. Even when Gold was in a wheelchair, Uretz said, “You never noticed because he was so powerful.”


After the war, Gold returned to Muscle Beach and occasionally served aboard merchant ships.

In the late 1950s, he was recruited from the beach by sultry film star Mae West, who got an idea for a “chorus line” of bodybuilders to back her up in an act she then created in Las Vegas.

Besides Gold, the eight-man chorus line included Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski and Mickey Hargitay, who also won the Mr. Universe title and married actress Jayne Mansfield.

“It’s a part of Vegas history,” said Kevin Thomas, a film critic for The Times who was friends with both West and Gold. “It was a terrific sensation.”

Gold was never married and had no children. Uretz said a memorial service will be held in a few weeks. Contributions can be made to the Salvation Army Bell Shelter, c/o Dr. Doug Loisel, 5600 Mansfield Way, Bell, CA 90201. About a third of Bell Shelter’s clients are veterans.