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Vic Tanny, First Big Gym Chain Developer, Dies

June 12, 1985|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Victor A. Iannidinardo, an Italian immigrant's son who became Vic Tanny, the millionaire owner of the nation's first chain of gymnasiums and impeccably appointed health spas, died Tuesday in a Tampa, Fla., hospital.

Tanny was 73 and had moved to Florida several years ago after the empire he created from his first gym in his mother's garage came crashing down on him in a tangle of over-extended finances and back taxes. A spokeswoman at University Community Hospital attributed his death to heart failure.

At their peak in the late 1950s, the Tanny holdings included more than 100 gyms in the United States and Canada and grossed $34 million in a single year.

He was the first, said Jack LaLanne by telephone Friday, to reshape the concept of a gymnasium from a room where grubby men simply sweated under barbells into one where chromium-plated, controlled weights were set in carpeted suites with adjacent spas, tennis courts and swimming pools.

Made Gyms Affordable

Also, said Rudy Smith, president of Holiday Health Spa Clubs of California and a former Tanny employee, he made gymnasiums affordable to the working class by making membership fees payable on the installment plan.

"Vic Tanny was to the gym business what Henry Ford was to the automobile," Smith said.

Tanny grew up in Rochester, N.Y., where he and his brother, Armand, a body builder and former Mr. U.S.A., used broom handles and sand bags to create a primitive gymnasium in their garage.

"He was in school and charged his fellow students five cents a visit," said Tanny's niece, Mandy.

Tanny later opened a professional gym in Rochester. The family moved to California in the mid-1930s, some of them later changing the name to "Ianni" during the anti-Italian sentiment that accompanied World War II. Tanny evolved his professional name from that abbreviated surname.

LaLanne said that Tanny, then a school teacher, visited the gym LaLanne had opened in Oakland in 1936, again became interested in physical conditioning and three years later opened his first California gym on 2nd Street near Santa Monica's fabled Muscle Beach.

He began to attract the body builders who had been working out on the sand, but he lost the lease on that building. It wasn't until he took over a former USO building at 4th Street and Broadway in Santa Monica after the war that his business really began to expand.

There he began to develop merchandising techniques. He hired salesmen to offer memberships on what he called a "budget plan" and put a body builder and pitchman named Charlie Stahl on television to flex his muscles and hawk the Tanny name.

By 1960 the Santa Monica gym had grown into a nationwide chain of Vic Tanny's, and the broomsticks and sandbags were replaced by state-of-the-art equipment on which weights could be adjusted in seconds rather than minutes.

He offered to both men and women not just strength programs but also conditioning exercises for those who wanted to rearrange their physiques rather than add inches to their biceps. He added spas to soak out soreness and pools, tennis courts and even ice-skating rinks for those bored with moving metal up and down.

At one point he had a takeover offer from the Studebaker Corp., but because his concept of luxurious workouts was spreading so rapidly, he rejected the automobile firm.

He later came to regret that decision, as Tanny's expansions strained his cash supply.

By 1961 the government had moved to collect back taxes and the Teamsters were picketing some of the gyms in an effort to organize Tanny's employees. Tanny tried to sell stock to raise needed capital, but the effort came too late. He turned much of his equipment over to his employees but continued to receive income from the remainder of the gyms using his name.

Tanny's survivors include three daughters, his mother, a brother, two sisters and five grandchildren. A funeral service is pending.

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