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Van Gordon Sauter

The Richard Simmons Death Walk

July 30, 1987|VAN GORDON SAUTER | Van Gordon Sauter is a print and broadcast journalist who lives in Los Angeles

"ARE YOU UP THERE EATING A PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH? I BET YOU'RE DRINKING ANOTHER OF THOSE BEERS!"

The shrill accusation streaks across the quiet street like an Exocet missile, detonating a cluster bomb of guilt in my study, the razor-sharp shrapnel devastating my daily minimum requirement of beer nuts, Screaming Yellow Zonkers, saltines heaped with Skippy's, Heath Bar ice cream, Godiva chocolate, double Oreos and chilled bottles of Pilsner Urquel.

I should never have gone into escrow without asking why the man across the street had a license plate reading "YRUFATT"

A lifetime of sloth and self-indulgence now teeters at the brink.

My neighbor, Richard Simmons--Richard the Lionhearted in the crusade against caloric excess--is on my sedentary case. He can hear a potato chip crunch at 75 yards. He can spot a tightly clenched handful of M&Ms two blocks away.

And thus I have been dragooned into the Richard Simmons Death March through Beverly Hills. Three times a week at 7:30 a.m. his lost platoon of those seeking therapeutic emaciation surges from the Slimmons Studio on Civic Center Drive and hits the pavement for a three-mile fandango of mortification through the hills, terrifying dogs, unnerving motorists and causing matrons with a passion for buttered blueberry muffins to shrink in terror behind their tightly drawn curtains.

The Avenging Angel of the God of Physical Fitness is loose in Lotus Land.

Heading west, the group quickly envelopes a startled pedestrian who had the misfortune at that moment to be walking toward work, carrying his breakfast in a small brown paper bag.

Simmons looks in the bag, and recoils with horror.

"IT'S A COKE!" he shrieks. "MY GOD! SAY A PRAYER FOR HIM, GIRLS!"

The group, most of whom no doubt suffered through hot water laced with lemon and honey for breakfast, evidence a communal disdain for the doomed lout, leaving him to contemplate the grim implication of his breakfast.

Closing swiftly on a parking garage, Simmons leads the assemblage--about 30 women and me--directly toward a set of stairs that go up and up and up, to the roof.

"Why are we cutting through the garage?" asks a chipper and immaculately dressed newcomer who has yet to realize she is on her first voyage to the outer reaches of human endurance. The veterans look upon her with a quiet sympathy.

Within minutes, the young woman, her tinted glasses steamed over, her spandex suit stained with sweat, is blindly clawing her way up the steps, as the group is flogged five times up and down the stairwells, gasping, wheezing, groaning, sucking wind.

"I had pizza last night at Spago," moans one of the women, making a pledge to live forever on spinach salad and mineral water if through divine intervention she survives the morning.

Simmons' urgent exhortations reverberate through the empty parking facility.

"TWO STEPS AT A TIME! TWO STEPS AT A TIME!"

Like cattle spooked by distant lightning, the herd accelerates its lumbering pace to panicky flight. Reduced to the instinctual level of a lemming, I flail hysterically toward the roof and the nearest precipice.

No such luck. It's down the ramps, across Santa Monica and up Crescent Drive. The group ranges from grandmothers to women in their 20s, from the Rubenesque to the svelte, from housewives to hard-charging professionals. The dress code spans the chic to the Hawaiian shirt.

A woman in her 70s, dressed in bright purple spandex and a festive shirt, sets a withering pace, leaving behind many half her age.

"You're not even breathing hard," I say to her in wonderment.

"I do this to get ready for the aerobics class at 9:30," she says. Cursing my flawed gene pool, I quickly fall back with the laggards.

At an intersection, a pickup truck halts for a stop sign and a man casually flicks a cigarette ash out the window.

"YOU'VE GOT TO STOP THAT SMOKING," barks Simmons.

The startled man looks out to a disapproving sea of faces.

"PROMISE ME YOU'LL STOP TONIGHT! PROMISE!"

The driver speeds through the intersection.

A few blocks north of Sunset the group turns around and heads downhill for the studio. The conversation grows a bit frivolous, and Simmons moves through the parade, offering encouragement and advice and good cheer. His voice is now modulated.

"You have to be a human locomotive to burn fat," he says to one of the marchers.

To Simmons, the ultimate illustration of California's aversion to walking are the people who park and shop at Saks on Wilshire Boulevard and then get in their cars to drive the few blocks to park and shop at Neiman-Marcus.

He started the walk for class members in February, and it now has so loyal a following that even when he is absent (he spends about 40% of his time on charity work, particularly with the handicapped) the marchers still turn out.

After crossing Santa Monica again, Simmons diverts the group to a construction site, which could be a short cut to the studio. Marching single file, they move along a narrow strip of earth between a chain link fence and a drop-off of at least two stories. Across the vast pit a construction foreman notices the bizarre procession and begins to scream "YOU CAN'T BE IN HERE. THIS IS A WORK SITE. IT'S DANGEROUS."

Simmons picks up the pace toward what he presumes will be an exit at the far side of the pit, but there is no escape.

"OK, ladies, about-face. Let's go." Simmons' voice is barely audible as the group adroitly effects a 180-degree turn and makes a swift but dignified retreat to the sanctuary of the studio. The ladies chuckle. It was a good day. Simmons is proud of them.

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