"Muscle Beach"
Santa Monica, California








 

 

 


When "Muscle Beach" is referred to, no matter where in the world it may be mentioned, the words conjure up thoughts of muscular and toned bodies, sunshine and the Pacific Ocean -- and most certainly, Southern California.

Muscle Beach was established on the beach area south of the Santa Monica Pier in 1934  as a part of a beach front area refurbishment project funded by the national Work Projects Administration (WPA). 

Following the famous financial crash of Wall Street in 1929, the nationwide sustained economic  Depression that resulted created crisis levels of unemployment. The WPA engaged workers from local communities to obtain temporary employment in area construction projects.  For the City of Santa Monica, the beach area was cited to receive a new recreation and athletics center.

At the time of the completed new facilities in the mid-1930s, it was not officially titled Muscle Beach.  Rather, it was simply known as another one of the city "parks" operated by the Santa Monica Recreation & Parks Department.  Of course, as circumstances would unfold, the idea of having a perfect all-year climate of sunshine at a beachfront recreation facility made it destined for popularity.

In addition to the natural attraction for beach-goers and athletes who enjoyed the initial gymnastics, outdoor wrestling and general camaraderie, there was another element that helped form this 'particular' beach into a one-of-a-kind setting ... yet to be given its fame: "Hollywood".

With the burgeoning Hollywood film industry increasingly attracting varied talent from across the nation and throughout the world, this "beach park" in Santa Monica rapidly became "the place" to go for movie stunt people, actors and celebrities.  This meant that by the end of the 1930s, international fame was growing for the beach park.

Along the journey, a handful of the original gymnasts and athletes who frequented the setting contributed time and resources, including equipment, to help support the range of activities at the park.  As collaboration between the City of Santa Monica and volunteers from the gymnastics group occurred, the city made investments in the setting, too.

With the advent of World War II, the Santa Monica Beach also became a destination for a recreation and social setting for soldiers who discovered the beach while stationed in Los Angeles during tours from around the nation.  Collectively, by the early 1940s, the magnetic attraction and retention of the beach park had also made it a destination for weightlifters who initially often brought their own barbells and dumbbells to work out with for the day.

It was during the transition years of the late 1930s into the early 1940s that the site became known as a place where gymnasts, stunt people,  wrestlers, acrobats and circus performers and weightlifters could all be seen on any given weekend ... and hence the evolution of the site earning the fame and allure as the world's "Muscle Beach."

No beach in any other location of the nation, nor any other continent on the planet was as distinctly associated with the best bodies and athletes on the planet.  It is not that there were no other beaches with gymnasts, acrobats and weightlifters -- just that no beach area had ever developed the fame or become such an authentic and inevitable "destination" for talented athletes as the one and only "Muscle Beach" of Santa Monica. 

It is notable that for anyone who grew up in the area, hearing another nickname for a section of the Los Angeles beachfront coastline was nothing new.  There was "Brain Beach" north of the Pier where a contingent of students from U.C.L.A. were known to go, as well as a range of similar nicknames both north and south of the beach "park" that earned the singular celebrated fame as Muscle Beach.

In one of the most significant ironies of the history of Muscle Beach, the City of Santa Monica truly developed a "love-hate" relationship with the site.  Here's why:  What began as a beach playground intended to offer a range of recreation activities, from gymnastics to chess players and from volleyball to ping-pong, grew to be so "gymnastics-centric" and "bodybuilding-centric" that the other recreation activities became side shows, of sorts.

For the purists of the gymnastics and bodybuilding, this was welcomed.  Yet keeping in mind that during the 1950s when Muscle Beach had fully blossomed, it was in a period of conservative social conditions.  The idea of men and women down at the beach showing off their stunning physiques and professional-level athletic talents made some folks cringe.

Perhaps the site of biceps, beauty contests and airborne tumblers simply made people jealous and even more self-conscious because they weren't involved -- or into fitness themselves.  But, on the other hand that would cover most of society at the time , since weightlifting and bodybuilding was considered by many to be simply "weird."

Anyone can note today that there were key pioneers who changed the perception of weightlifting forever -- and to those athletes and physical culture stars, Santa Monica's Muscle Beach was their springboard to celebrated careers: Steve "Hercules" Reeves, Jack LaLanne who introduced the nation to fitness on television, as well as the commercial giant Joe Gold of "Gold's Gym" and "World Gym" fame.

Needless to say, Muscle Beach became a single site on the globe that can be identified as the latitude and longitude where the fitness explosion of the 20th Century had an epicenter.   The world's best weather, celebrities from Hollywood and the mix of the finest gymnasts, wrestlers and acrobats in the world all coming to practice and perfect their talents ... putting on "free" daily exhibitions in the process.  It was the recipe for one of the most intriguing "pop culture" stories ever.

At the top of the best years of Muscle Beach's popularity, an event occurred that served as the catalyst to collapse the saga into a dark moment.  In December of 1958, four weightlifters were found with several underage girls partying in an apartment.  As the 'perfect storm' would have it, the apartment was directly adjacent to Muscle Beach and the event was sensationalized in the local media and community.

Whether the police charges or media reports were accurate or not, this one event captured the fervor of the Santa Monica City Council and the groundswell of conservative Santa Monica populace overwhelmingly backed the ousting of Muscle Beach.  The gymnastics platform and weightlifting shed were bulldozed one morning at dawn reportedly without any warning or formal City Council action.

The dozens and dozens of core Muscle Beach members pleaded with City Hall to restore and rededicate their "home away from home."  The City reminded them that the facility was ultimately a "park" and belonged to the citizens of Santa Monica.  The formal City reference or signage identifying "Muscle Beach" was erased ... even though the original denizens of the site continued to come down and conduct gymnastics at the exact location  for decades to follow.   The name "Muscle Beach" was incredibly rejected by the city, like a child rejected by a family for having too much passion -- and, in this case, shinning talent, too.

As events would unfold, however, even as true "Muscle Beach" athletes continued to congregate at the setting and carry on their gymnastics and acrobatics, a slightly lesser-known outdoor weightlifting platform known as the "Weight Pen" in Venice was destined to gain increased attention.  Since the weightlifting was essentially banned from Santa Monica with the bulldozing of the weightlifting equipment shed and workout area, there was only one other location tourists could visit to see a similar site of what was most famous at "Muscle Beach" in Santa Monica.

The City of Los Angeles Recreation & Parks Department had recognized the success and popularity of Muscle Beach in Santa Monica and constructed a very similar outdoor weightlifting facility for LA's "Venice Beach Recreation Center" in 1951.  The initial setting was only a modest area of cement surface and storage for weightlifting equipment.  However, by 1959 when the City of Santa Monica closed down the original "Muscle Beach," both tourists and locals alike looked to the Venice Weight Pen to carry on the "beachfront barbells" ambassador of fitness role.

The contemporary "Muscle Beach Venice," which is host to physical fitness buffs and tourists alike, is located at the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks' Venice Beach Recreation Center. 

Its title "Muscle Beach Venice" distinguishes it from its predecessor and the authentic "Muscle Beach," just more than two miles north, where the location of the original Muscle Beach has been honored and memorialized with a contemporary refurbishment and landmark sign in Santa Monica (just south of the Santa Monica Pier).

While a new generation of gymnasts and fitness buffs congregate into the 21st Century at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, some of the "old timers" from the golden era of Muscle Beach in the 1940s and 1950s still stop by.

The names below are just a sampling of some of the international physical-fitness stars who became celebrities exclusively from Muscle Beach in Santa Monica:

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Santa Monica "Muscle Beach" Celebrities

- Steve "Hercules" Reeves
  International movie star and champion bodybuilder

- Jack LaLanne
  Television and international fitness celebrity

- Joe Gold
  Founder of Gold's Gym and World Gym
  Pioneer weightlifter, bodybuilder and star volleyball player

- George Eiferman
  "Mr. Universe"

- Bert Goodrich
  First "Mr. America")

- Russ Saunders
  Celebrated gymnast and Stuntman for Gene Kelley

- Harold Zinken
  Founder of Universal Gym fitness equipment and
  celebrity gymnast / bodybuilder

- Pudgy Stockton
  Pioneer woman weightlifter and bodybuilder

.... and dozens more

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The Evolution of the sibling "Muscle Beach Venice"

Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the  1980s, both tourists and local residents alike began to refer to the Venice "Weight Pen" as California's existing "Muscle Beach" -- mostly unaware that for more than 25 years, the actual world-famous name and reputation earned by the name Muscle Beach was exclusively in reference to the Santa Monica location.   

Among other reasons for this salute to authenticity of the original Muscle Beach is that the international popularity of the name can mainly be attributed to celebrated athletes who trained and became stars due only to their fame associated with Santa Monica's "Muscle Beach".  The main athletes  of fame associated with Santa Monica's Muscle Beach and did not workout at the Venice Weight Pen.  For them, Muscle Beach was their heaven on earth ... the outdoor gym that was beyond compare.

Still, for others who either comprised the earlier family of great athletes who established the Venice Beach "Weight Pen" as a serious training center between 1951 and 1959 while Muscle Beach was in full swing in Santa Monica, The "Pit" as the Venice site became known, was 'their' favorite home away from home, too.
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While the Venice Weight Pen was not the actual location of  "Muscle Beach", what happened during the decades between the 1960s and the 1980s was that  for an interim period when the City of Santa Monica had removed the sign and fitness equipment (that had served for decades as the foundation for Muscle Beach), a generation of the public and tourists -- who did not know better -- began to simply assume  that the Venice Weight Pen location was 'Muscle Beach' -- while genuine fitness and physical culture "insiders" knew that there was the one and only "Muscle Beach" site in Santa Monica.  As much as folks would want the Venice Weight  Pen to be "the" "Muscle Beach", the honor and truth of this story is that the Venice site is officially "Muscle Beach Venice".

Additionally, in much the same way as Jack LaLanne and Steve "Hercules" Reeves were related to Muscle Beach at Santa Monica, "Muscle Beach Venice" has been associated with such famous bodybuilding names as multiple Mr. Olympia title winners Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu, along with many other bodybuilding greats.  And many more champion physiques are destined to emerge from "Muscle Beach Venice" in the future.

During the evolution of the Muscle Beach reputation earned in Santa Monica and subsequently propelled by Muscle Beach Venice, which have been recognized as the world's most famous "outdoor" gyms, other spectacular "indoor" gyms have developed in the same area, and have further contributed to Southern California's leadership in the world bodybuilding community.

The striking result of the impact of the original location of Muscle Beach has been the proliferation of the international fitness trend that's gone around the world -- as well as the developments of famed locations of some of the world's most famous and outstanding gyms:  The original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Muscle Beach Venice, World Gym, Gold's Gym, Powerhouse Gym and the past locations of the Vic Tanny Gyms of the 1940s and 1950s  (long since evolved into the foundation gym chain for the later "Holiday Spa" gym empire that grew nationwide and became today's Bally's chain of gyms) and ... of course, all tracing roots in one form or another to the one and only "Muscle Beach" in Santa Monica ... where it all started!
                                                                                  

 

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