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Mussel or Muscle : Whatever You Call It, It's a Beach That's Not Forgotten by Its Many Devotees

March 30, 1986|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

Legend holds that it was called Mussel Beach at first--named for the local bivalves whose feats of strength consisted of latching on to pilings.

"Then the muscle guys started showing up and people assumed that was how it got its name," recalls spears-and-sandals star Steve (Hercules) Reeves, who made the transition from the sands of Santa Monica to the battlefields of ancient Greece.

Whatever, by the 1940s, the one-time federal project just south of the Santa Monica Pier was known to everyone as Muscle Beach. "In those days, you could address letters to someone in 'Muscle Beach, U.S.A.,' and they'd get there," says acrobat Paula Boelsems. "I know because I received some."

It was where acrobat Glenn Sundby learned the art that would enable him to walk down the 898 steps of the Washington Monument on his hands, where body builders Jack La Lanne and the late Vic Tanny envisioned money in muscles, where stuntman/double Russ Saunders built the body that served as a model for a Salvador Dali painting of Christ (you don't double any bigger than that).

But residents had mixed feelings over the fame and attention lavished on their sleepy little town. With tensions rising, Muscle Beach came to an abrupt end in 1959, after the arrest of four weightlifters in a nearby apartment on statutory rape charges. Authorities tore out the beach platforms and equipment and declared the name non grata.

Memories can't be banned, though. And, with mussel-like tenacity, the notion of a Muscle Beach clings: Two loosely organized groups, one in Santa Monica and one in Venice, are seeking to revive the name.

Stuntman Saunders, 66, who helps train young acrobats near the Santa Monica Pier, says he and some former regulars would "like to have the platforms and equipment back in the old location, and the name, too. We'd welcome city supervision.

"Paula (Boelsems, his acrobatic partner) and I've been to several City Council meetings but we haven't had much luck," adds Saunders, who wears a Muscle Beach T-shirt of his own creation during his free-of-charge Sunday workouts.

Publisher/acrobat Sundby, immortalized in Ripley's Believe It Or Not for his hand-walk, is finishing up a book on Muscle Beach. He hopes to stage a retrospective of the old days, featuring home movies, slides and celebrities, at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium late this year or early next.

"We'd like the City Council to attend so they can see what a positive thing it (Muscle Beach) was," he said. "Then we'd like to have a plaque placed in the area and get back some of the old equipment there."

Meanwhile, a short roller-skate ride south, Joe Mack and other weightlifters at Venice Beach are pushing for their workout area, now known informally (if not romantically) as "The Pit," to be rechristened Muscle Beach and upgraded by the city of Los Angeles.

Like Saunders, Mack, 34, works out in a Muscle Beach T-shirt. Mack's is somewhat more eye-catching, bearing a logo that says, "Muscle Beach, Home of the Hog," and depicting a weightlifter with a muscular human torso and a hog's head.

"We'd like to make the logo official and paint it on the (Pit's equipment) shed," says Mack, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound construction worker known to fellow lifters as the Mayor of Muscle Beach. "But the city said women and senior citizens wouldn't like it."

Ah, well . . . it seems as though people have always had difficulty understanding Muscle Beach.

In pre-World War II days, long before fancy gyms, aerobics classes, and the emergence of the class of hero known as the "hunk," hardly anyone knew what muscles were. And to show them off in public!

"We were considered bohemians, health bohemians," says George Eiferman, who entertained Muscle Beach crowds by playing the trumpet with one hand and hoisting weights with the other.

Eiferman, a 60-year-old former Mr. Universe and Mr. Philadelphia (though not in that order), adds: "A lot of us were into nutrition . . . raw milk, orange juice, salads."

Weightlifter and pro football player Don (Hard-Boiled) Haggerty, who has made the transition from villainous wrestler to villainous actor, says: "When I wrestled, promoters would ask me not to even mention that I lifted weights."

"Lifting weights? Why, if you jogged in the sand back then, people thought you were a nut," Saunders says.

Workouts for Children

Originally, Muscle Beach was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project of the early 1930s. It grew out of the idea of Kate Giroux, a local playground instructor, to hold workouts on the sand for impoverished, Depression-era children. Soon, rings and parallel and horizontal bars were in place as well as a weightlifting pen, equipment shed, and tumbling platform, and areas for volleyball, chess and Ping-Pong. Santa Monica took over supervision of the activities.

UCLA gymnasts began training there. Vaudeville and circus performers came down to polish up balancing, tumbling, flying adagio (throwing and catching bodies) and ring acts. And amateurs came to learn.

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