"I Can't Die, It Would Ruin My Image"

Posted

Decades before Jane Fonda sent millions of American women into their living rooms with her pop-in exercise videos, Jack LaLanne was busy preaching and practicing the benefits of active living.

The godfather of modern fitness died over seven years ago but you wouldn’t know it from his namesake website, which celebrates LaLanne as if he were still with us, flexing his muscles and drinking power juice concoctions.

“I can’t die, it would ruin my image” was one of LaLanne’s colorful quips. Another was “Exercise is king, nutrition is queen, put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.”

Born in 1914 to French immigrants who settled in California, Francois Henri LaLanne was a self-described teenage wreck until he heard health lecturer, Paul Bragg, expound on the benefits of exercise and nutrition. The youngster was an instant convert.

His new religion, a body-building and nutrition-obsessed regimen, would eventually define his life and become a fixture in large segments of American culture.

At 21, LaLanne made the U.S. Olympic wrestling team and later on even flirted with professional wrestling. But it was in 1936 when LaLanne opened the country's first health club in Oakland, California, calling it the “Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studio”.

He actively sought clients with the promise of reshaping their bodies through physical training and nutritional diets. Business was slow at first, so he offered massages to get people in the door. He then had a captive audience to suggest weights and exercise routines. LaLanne’s fitness center grew and he eventually sold the chain to Bally.

The exuberant trainer developed several workout devices including the first leg extension machines, the squat machine now known as the Smith machine, and other cable-pulley weights that are standard in most gyms today.

At the time, LaLanne was dismissed as a charlatan by doctors who advised against his workouts, warning that lifting weights risks heart attacks, diminishes sex drive and reduces a woman's feminine physique.

But the health guru was also an inveterate salesman, performing publicity stunts throughout his career to convince skeptics and promote himself and his products.

In 1954, the 40-year old athlete showman swam the length of the San Francisco Golden Gate bridge underwater with 140 lbs. of air tanks and equipment. A year later, he swam handcuffed from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf and a year after that, he set a world record captured on TV by completing 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes.

LaLanne’s trim down, eat well, and pump iron gospel found its way to American households when he landed his own TV program in 1953. Beginning as a 15-minute morning show in San Francisco, it went nationwide by the end of the decade.

With his trademark jumpsuit and bulging bicepts, the “Jack LaLanne Show” ran until 1985, becoming the longest running exercise program on TV and the forerunner to today’s get-off-the-couch exhortation videos.

Jack the fitness evangelist wouldn’t have achieved his wide cultural and commercial success if it weren’t for Jack the consummate pitchman.

Well into his 60’s, the workout celebrity was still staging media stunts. In 1976, commemorating the ‘Spirit of ‘76’, he swam a mile in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed and shackled and towing 13 boats with people in it. Three years later, he repeated another jaw-dropping aquatic stunt outside Tokyo, Japan.

LaLanne published books, delivered lectures, and hawked juice machines, protein powders and nutrition snack bars. But most importantly, he sold the fitness message to millions of Americans who marveled at his physical feats and were seduced by his passion for healthy living.

LaLanne died in 2011 at the age of 96, but in many ways the “Exercise King” never left us.

Other articles enjoyed: Hollywood's Favorite Athlete, Last Bare-Knuckle Champion, From Personal Tragedy To Olympic Gold, Barefoot Marathon Champion

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

OLYMPICS October 2, 2009  Rio de Janeiro is awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, beating out other favored bids from Madrid, Tokyo and Chicago. Over 11,000 athletes from 207 countries participated in 28 different sports. It was the first Olympics held in South America and the 2nd in Latin America; Mexico hosted the games in 1968.

20 years ago

BASKETBALL October 12, 1999  Former basketball star Wilt Chamberlain dies of heart failure at the age of 63. The 7’1” Chamberlain was a Harlem Globetrotter in the late 1950s before joining the NBA to play for the Warriors, 76ers, and Lakers. One of the greatest in the sport, he is the only player in NBA history to score 100 points in a single game.

30 years ago

FOOTBALL October 2, 1989  Art Shell becomes the first African-American Head Coach in the NFL’s modern era. Shell played for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1968-82 before becoming the team’s Assistant Coach and then Head Coach. Shell later led the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons and compiled a career coaching record of 56-52.

40 years ago

BASEBALL October 6, 1979  The Baltimore Orioles take the American League series championship by defeating the California Angels 3-1. It was the Angels’ first post-season trip in franchise history. With Manager Earl Weaver at the helm, the Orioles clinched their 6th pennant race but would lose to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series 4-3.