A Return to the Golden Age – Part 2

A New Interview with Dr. Ellington Darden

Categorized under Training

Uncovering Muscle Beach

When many of us think of perfect physiques, we think of those belonging to Golden Age bodybuilders. These champions of the past were muscular, strong, healthy, and athletic. It’s cliché but it’s true: women wanted them; men wanted to be them.

But how did these Golden Agers train? How did they eat? What was the vibe like back in the glory days of bodybuilding? How did it all begin? One person who knows is Dr. Ellington Darden.

Dr. Darden knows because he was there through much of the Golden Age. He won his first contest in 1964, which of all things was called Mr. Muscle Beach. The contest was held in conjunction with the grand opening of a movie called Muscle Beach Party. This beach parody starred Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, and featured bodybuilders Larry Scott, Peter Lupus, and Chet Yorton.

In Part 1 Dr. Darden talked about full-body training and bodybuilding in the 1960s and 70s. In this installment, he talks about what can be done to save modern bodybuilding, and he delves further into the past, into what many consider to be the beginning of American physical culture: the real Muscle Beach.

T-Nation: Most people have heard of Muscle Beach, but few know much about it. Where was Muscle Beach and exactly what went on there?

Dr. Darden: The original Muscle Beach, California, was located on 200-square yards of sand, just to the south of the main pier in Santa Monica. From 1940 to 1958, Muscle Beach was the most famous playground in the world for bodybuilding, weightlifting, and gymnastics. The long pier shielded the nearby beach from prevailing winds and allowed fitness activities to be practiced year-round.

An aerial photo of Muscle Beach, which was located to the
south of the famous Santa Monica Pier.

At the center of the beach activities was an L-shaped platform/pen, with an enclosed shed at one end. The shed was designed to house a selection of barbells, dumbbells, benches, and racks. The equipment was stored in the shed each night and organized outdoors for use each morning. The open-air gym buzzed with participation and fan appeal. Eventually, the pen was surrounded by a short fence and became officially known as the “Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club.”

Approximately 50-yards east of the club area was a 12-foot by 60-foot, raised wooden platform, which extended north to south. Acrobats, gymnasts, hand-balancing teams, and adagio acts trained and performed on this improvised stage.

In between both platforms were various high bars, parallel bars, flying rings, and volleyball nets. Perhaps most important, the entire beach-training atmosphere was enveloped by the renowned California sun and surf, with a dash of Hollywood mystique thrown in for amusement.

This Muscle Beach shot from the summer of 1948 shows
the gymnastics platform.

Athletes came from all over to display their acrobatic, gymnastic, weightlifting, and bodybuilding skills. As the years went by and the popularity increased, portable bleachers were brought in to appease the spectators. From 1947 to 1958 – when strength and physique contests were scheduled on holiday weekends – the audience might number more than 5,000.

Look closely and you’ll see the noonday, physique line-up for
the 1951 Mr. Muscle Beach contest. The winner was
Ken Cameron, who was on the far right.

T-Nation: Interesting. So, everything we’ve heard about Muscle Beach and the training that originated there, actually took place outdoors on the beach?

Dr. Darden: Some of it did, especially on the weekends. But a lot of the so-called Muscle Beach training took place five blocks away in Vic Tanny’s Gym. Shortly after World War II, Tanny converted a 7,000-square-foot USO center, which was located in a basement on 4th Street, into the best-equipped gym in the United States. To serious trainees, this beloved gym became known as the Dungeon.

The Dungeon was where a long list of famous bodybuilders trained, men such as Steve Reeves (1947 Mr. America), George Eiferman (1948 Mr. America), Armand Tanny (Vic’s brother and 1950 Mr. USA), and Joe Gold (original owner of Gold’s Gym), just to name a few.

Steve Reeves performs a hack squat at the Dungeon in 1947. That’s Vic Tanny in the background.

T-Nation: Did you ever visit Muscle Beach?

Dr. Darden: No, not the original Muscle Beach. I was too young in the 1950s and really didn’t develop an interest in training until the 1960s.

Muscle Beach, from my research, was forced to close in late 1958. The politics surrounding certain problems caused the Santa Monica city council to mandate that the weightlifting and bodybuilding equipment be removed, athletic contests be suspended, and the name “Muscle Beach” be discontinued. According to several people I’ve talked to about this, the decisions and equipment removal happened literally overnight.

Afterward, the beach regulars united and moved their training a mile south to Venice Beach. In 1959, Venice Beach, with newer and better outdoor facilities, became the new hangout for the muscle crowd.

When I became interested in bodybuilding, there was a guy in our town who was into karate. He wasn’t very big – about 5 foot 3 inches tall – but he had some big arms for his height. Anyway, this guy had a large collection of muscle magazines from the 1950s that he let me borrow. They were mostly Weider’s Muscle Builder magazines and each one had a column about Muscle Beach gossip. Over several weeks, I eagerly read over a hundred of these magazines. I became well versed in what was going on at Muscle Beach, even though I was always from three to ten years behind the actual happenings.

And, of course, Weider’s magazines from the 1960s reported on activities at Venice Beach. But I had never talked to anyone who’d actually been to the original Muscle Beach or Venice Beach until I met Dan Ilse in Waco in 1963. I mentioned Dan in the first interview, as he had won 1962 Mr. Texas.

Ilse had actually hung out there for a while and he was always talking about the guys and the atmosphere. Ilse told me that if I ever decided to drive out to California, he’d go with me. In the summer of 1963, I made up my mind to go, but Ilse backed out, and I went alone. I checked into a cheap hotel, two blocks from the Venice Beach outdoor weight pin, and my adventure began.

T-Nation: Okay, so it’s the summer of 1963 and you’re in California training at Venice Beach. What was that like?

Dr. Darden: There was always something interesting going on at the beach. And I met a lot of guys I’d read about. For example, I talked with Reg Lewis, who won the IFBB Mr. America later that year, as well as his wife Shari. Shari was the first woman I’d ever seen who could do chins and dips. They were both tan, lean, and in great shape.

An athletic-looking Reg Lewis lights up the cover of the
March 1964 issue of Muscle Builder magazine.

I got a chance to workout with Hugo Labra, Chuck Collras, and Bernie Ernst. Ernst was winning most of the California contests at that time, and he was particularly helpful to me.

The guys who impressed me the most, however, were a couple of powerlifters: Steve Marjanian and Billy “Peanuts” West. Marjanian was 6-feet tall, weighed 285 pounds, and was incredibly thick through the chest and shoulders, so thick that the only thing that he could wear over his upper body was a blanket with a hole in the middle for his head. Many mornings he’d come striding down the beach wearing beige shorts and this colorful blanket over his upper body, with a shaved head sticking out. He was a friendly guy and he always sported a big grin.

Slightly behind him was West, who was smaller and who couldn’t match Marjanian’s long stride. West carried their training logs and he was more talkative and always seemed to be charting their progress.

Marjanian’s specialty was the incline press and I remember seeing him do 480 pounds, which at that time was probably close to a world record. Steve Marjanian had the thickest upper chest development that I’ve ever seen, before or since.

Someone told me that Marjanian and West did their squats and deadlifts down the road in a basement training area called the Dungeon. Several days later, I visited the Dungeon. It was dark, dank, and filled to the brim with bars, benches, and weights. I didn’t make the connection at that time, but that was the original location of Tanny’s gym, which had changed hands several times since the late 1950s.

All in all, my six weeks in California were meaningful. I came back to Texas with more enthusiasm than ever for bodybuilding.

On another note, when I entered the 1970 AAU Mr. America, which was held in Los Angeles, I visited Venice Beach and had a look at the outdoor area where I’d trained in 1963. The scene, however, had changed. It wasn’t the friendly “come on in and join us” atmosphere that it had been seven years earlier. And in Santa Monica, the Dungeon had been uprooted and the entire building turned into a parking lot.

T-Nation: You’ve mentioned Vic Tanny several times. How did you meet him?

Dr. Darden: Vic showed up one day at the Nautilus headquarters in Lake Helen, Florida, in 1980 to visit Arthur Jones. Jones had trained for a couple of months at Tanny’s Gym in 1947 and Vic remembered him.

Let me tell you, Arthur Jones had a lot of stories, but Vic Tanny had just as many – and he loved to share them. Tanny, perhaps more than any single individual, helped bring modern weight training to the masses. During the 1950s and 1960s, he owned and operated more than 100 Vic Tanny Health Centers throughout the United States.

Furthermore, while he had his landmark club, the Dungeon, he wrote a popular column for Strength & Health magazine called the “West Coast Scene.” As much as anyone, Vic helped make Muscle Beach into the mecca for bodybuilding that it became famous for.

T-Nation: Didn’t Tanny sponsor the Mr. USA contest in the late 1940s that featured the famous John Grimek/Steve Reeves confrontation?

Dr. Darden: Yes, Vic told me all about that event. It was the 1949 Mr. USA, which was perhaps the best-promoted and best-attended physique show ever. This was the contest that brought John Grimek out of retirement to face Steve Reeves, George Eiferman, and Clancy Ross, all of whom had previously won the AAU Mr. America. It was held at the Shrine Auditorium and 4,500 people attended.

John Grimek (left) and Steve Reeves battled for the
1949 Mr. USA. Grimek was the eventual winner.

In those days, John Grimek – who’d been in the 1936 Olympic games in weightlifting and who’d won the Mr. America in 1940 and 1941 – was a living legend. His posing routine included acrobatics, muscle control, and flexibility feats. In some 15 years of competing, John Grimek had never lost a physique contest. “Because of who he was,” Tanny remembered, “Grimek could have won the contest wearing his street clothes. Was he the best-built man there? No, that belonged to Steve Reeves. But I couldn’t say that then, and I even have difficulty admitting it now. That’s how much we all admired Grimek.”

The final outcome of the 1949 Mr. USA was 1) John Grimek, 2) Clancy Ross, 3) Steve Reeves, 4) George Eiferman, and 5) Armand Tanny.

Vic went on to say that he supervised Reeves training for the better part of a year, and that Steve Reeves – more than anyone else he’d ever seen – had the complete physique. Here was Tanny’s revealing, off-the-record sidebar:

He said that if the situation had been reversed: if Reeves had been older than Grimek, and if Reeves had starred in his Hercules movies first (similar to Grimek going to the Olympics and winning the first two Mr. Americas), then Reeves’ presence would have had similarly invoked the enigmatic star-quality expectation that seemed to have produced such a profound psychological effect on the pro-Grimek judging panels of the day. Had this been the case, then in Tanny’s assessment, no one would have ever defeated Steve Reeves in a bodybuilding contest. In fact, no one would have even entered against him.

Steve Reeves not only had the ideal body to play Hercules –
but his face was also heroic, especially with his beard.

T-Nation: I’ve often wondered if the early contests had some of the same political overtures that exist in today’s professional contests. Did you ever talk to Steve Reeves in person?

Dr. Darden: I sure did. Reeves had a chronic shoulder problem and visited the Nautilus headquarters in 1978 to consult with our sports-medicine physician. When we asked him how he injured his shoulder, his response was anything but typical:

“I was racing in a chariot,” Reeves said calmly. “The thing got out of control and slammed into a tree, and I jammed my right arm. The next morning, chased by a crocodile, I had to swim 50 yards under water while oil burned on the river’s surface. With every stroke I could feel my right shoulder tear a little more. But there was no turning back.”

The picture Reeves painted caught everybody by surprise. No one smiled since Reeves was very serious. Finally, Arthur Jones said, “Damn, Steve, that last bit of action would make a dramatic scene for Tarzan. Have you ever thought about getting into the movies?”

That cracked everybody up and we all had a good laugh. Unfortunately, there was little we could recommend for Steve’s shoulder (except specific strength-training exercises, which he was already doing, and surgery, which he didn’t want to go through).

Later that afternoon, Reeves told me that he was thoroughly burned out on the bodybuilding scene, that he wanted nothing to do with it. Casey Viator and I both could tell by looking into his eyes that he’d been disappointed numerous times by disingenuous people and probably taken advantage of too many times to remember.

But Reeves continued to hang around the Nautilus gym, which was just off my office. He interacted with some of the regular trainees who dropped by to workout that day. And he continued to chat with Viator and me. Slowly he began to open up – especially when I brought up the topic of Muscle Beach and his training time at Tanny’s. Then he alluded to something that I won’t forget.

He said he missed those hard training sessions at Tanny’s and he remembered how quickly his body had responded. But most of all, he said that he missed those innocent times when the older bodybuilders at Tanny’s offered help, sincere help, to the younger guys who had just joined. He used the word “mentoring” several times and noted that he seldom saw such behavior in the gyms he visited today. He graciously thanked Viator and me and said the workout area we had at Nautilus reminded him, at least the atmosphere, of what went on inside of Tanny’s.

As he was leaving, we asked him to show us his calf. Steve slowly rolled up his left pant leg and contracted a mound of muscle that must have easily been 17-1/2 inches in circumference – and he said he hadn’t performed a calf raise in years. Oh, to have such genetics!

T-Nation: The lack of mentoring appears to be even more common in 2006. In most gyms, to get any kind of help at all, you have to hire a personal trainer at $50 to $100 an hour – and this personal trainer probably doesn’t know, or care to know, the difference between Steve Reeves and Steve Martin or between a regular curl and a reverse curl.

Dr. Darden: So true. Which reminds me, last year I spent four hours with the manager at Tanny’s Gym from 1947 to 1949. Ben Sorenson is his name. Sorenson was well versed in what went on in what he called not only the world’s best, but also the world’s “friendliest” gym.

“The bodybuilders at Tanny’s,” Sorenson recalled, “made the place special. Need a spot? No problem, George Eiferman would hand you a heavy barbell and stand by. Need a new chest routine? Steve Reeves would show you what he did last month. Need a training partner? Joe Gold would alternate exercises with you every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 6:00 P.M. Almost everyone over 30 years of age was a mentor to someone under 20. That’s the way it was at Tanny’s and that’s the way it was on the weekends at Muscle Beach.”

And that’s pretty much the way it was in gyms and training rooms all over the country in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Pumping iron the efficient way was a privilege, a privilege that was passed down from older to younger and from advanced to novice. This privilege involved a long dose of the basics and hard work; plus simplicity, as opposed to complexity; and confidence that what you were doing was going to produce results, and it did!

Come to think of it, I believe one of the reasons why you guys at T-Nation have been so successful is in one word: mentoring. Your T-Nation team welcomes the beginning trainee or newbie into the fold with all kinds of helpful guidelines. If he has a question or two, he’s encouraged to ask it on your forums, where he can expect a prompt answer.

T-Nation: You know, the more I talk with you the more I realize that the historical aspects of weightlifting and bodybuilding run deep and are indeed meaningful.

Dr. Darden: Speaking of history, Chris, there’s a fellow Texan, Terry Todd, who has a fascinating museum associated with the University of Texas at Austin. If you haven’t visited his museum, then you should put it on your list of places to see. Todd also has a newsletter and a Web site: www.irongamehistory.com.

Along those same lines, I was lucky enough last summer to visit Kim Wood, an old Nautilus buddy of mine from the 1970s, who was also strength-training coach of the Cincinnati Bengals for almost 30 years. Kim is retired now and has a home in Cincinnati that contains a most remarkable collection of vintage barbells and dumbbells.

I counted 42 antique barbells, and that was in just one section of one of his multiple training areas, which he has located in and around his home. Many of his barbells are true collector items and a few are more than 100 years old. Talk about adding some variety to your workout, you’d probably never become bored from rotating in and out of Kim Wood’s old-school equipment.

This photo reveals a small section of Kim Wood’s collection of old barbells and dumbbells. The large blue dumbbells on the floor are from the Milo Barbell Company, which was started by Alan Calvert of Philadelphia in 1902. Above the blue dumbbells, resting on boxes, is a huge globe barbell, which was lifted in the early 1900s by strongman Warren Lincoln Travis. The green globe barbell in the racks is a Milo Tri-Plex, and to the right are two Milo Du-Plexes. Mixed in are several solid Sandow barbells, which came from England. On the floor and on the wall are a few Milo kettlebells, with the original weights still inside. Along the back windows are some chromate-finished kettlebells from Black Iron Strength and on the floor are globe dumbbells and kettlebells made by Osmo Kiiha. On the racks to the near right are some retro barbells from Atomic Athletic.

T-Nation: Now, we’re talking a lot about classic physiques, but what about classic diets? Do you have any insights to how these guys ate for muscle?

Dr. Darden: When I started training in the 1950s, there was only one health food store in metro Houston, and that was downtown. Funny, it was called Sunshine Health Foods, and it was anything but sunshine.

It was dark and vitamin smelling, and there was this little old woman, who must have been at least 80, who ran the place. She looked like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.” She told me once that she didn’t even take a bath in tap water, that she had all her water flown in from Hot Springs, Arkansas.

But my oh my, that old woman was a super salesperson. She carried Bob Hoffman’s products and sold Strength & Healthmagazine. She even had me take off my shirt one day and show her my muscles, which weren’t much to look at when I was 15 or 16 years of age. But according to her, I had what it took to be a “real he-man,” as she called the guys in Hoffman’s magazines.

So, I’d leave every three or four months with a sack full of hi-protein powder, vitamin pills, wheat germ oil, and liver pills. And everything tasted awful. You had to hold your nose to get it down. But I took the stuff for a couple of years.

But I also ate three good square meals a day of what was called the Basic Four Food Groups: milk, meat, breads-cereals, and fruits-vegetables. I think most bodybuilders at that time did pretty much the same: they consumed protein powder (if you could get the stuff and could tolerate the taste) and ate plenty of nutritious food. No one back then had ever heard of the word “ripped.” We all wanted what was called “muscular bulk.” I never knew you were supposed to diet down to enter a physique contest until I read about it in 1967.

When I first visited California in 1963, many of the bodybuilders out there were consuming two or three quarts a day of certified raw milk. Most bodybuilders and lifters were big milk drinkers.

So, classic eating for bodybuilding was far different then the eating for bodybuilding today. There has been a huge improvement in products manufactured today, as far as taste, mouth feel, and nutrition. Of course, it’s debatable whether many of the products are necessary or needed.

T-Nation: You know, what always strikes me looking at these classic physiques is that they seem very attainable. In fact, I know a lot of guys who are always disappointed with their physiques, yet they look as good as many bodybuilders of the 50’s and 60’s who scored magazine covers! What’s going on here? Have steroids wiped out the idea of what a healthy, muscular body can look like? Have we forgotten… or developed unrealistic expectations?

Classic symmetry and muscle: Steve Reeves through the years.

Dr. Darden: You know, I believe a lot of it goes back to unrealistic expectations. A training buddy of mine from the 1960s used to say that if he ever got maximum development throughout his body, then he’d “overdevelop” two areas: his shoulders and his triceps. His reasoning was that he never saw a man whose shoulders were too broad, or who’s hanging triceps were too large.

I’d have agreed with him back in the 1960s and 1970s. But now, it’s ridiculous. In the pro contests you see overdeveloped shoulders and triceps, plus overdeveloped everything else: buttocks, quads, hamstrings, pecs, traps – and most grotesquely – bloated, disproportionately shaped midsections.

I believe you’re right, Chris. Steroids and other drugs, as well as the injectable shaping agents, have almost destroyed the image of how those healthy, athletic physiques of the 50s and 60s looked. That’s why most of the bodybuilders who competed from 40 to 50 years ago can hardly even thumb through the current group of muscle magazines.

And to actually attend a professional bodybuilding show is downright embarrassing – not only what you observe on the stage, but what you see in the audience. Can you imagine, Chris, inviting your parents and relatives to join you in Las Vegas for the next Mr. Olympia? After the contest, you might never be welcome in West Texas again!

T-Nation: Probably not! I find the classic physiques (pre-1980) inspiring. I have no desire to look like today’s pro; I don’t think many people do. But can pro-bodybuilding ever make a return to the Golden Age physique? Or is that like trying to get toothpaste back into the tube?

Dr. Darden: That’s a very good question. If we could unite enough guys who possessed enough savvy to just say “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more,” then maybe a movement back to more of a Golden-Age type of physique could emerge.

You know, T-Nation has a big influence on the bodybuilding community, not only in the USA, but worldwide. Perhaps a challenge needs to go out to T-Nation regulars.

Recently, in fact, I talked with Tim Patterson about reinventing that Golden-Age look. The Iron Game needs the next Steve Reeves, Boyer Coe, or Casey Viator – a teenager with the potential and drive to succeed – to step forward, avoid the drugs and distractions, and lead theway back to the future. No doubt, this would bring real excitement – and perhaps, sanity – to bodybuilding.

T-Nation: Sounds like something that’s much needed. Thanks for the interview, Dr. Darden!