WHITTIER — The musclemen from Uptown want their gym back--now. Hoisting signs instead of barbells, a group of more than 30 bodybuilders and weightlifters converged on Central Park on Sunday to denounce closure of the Uptown Gym, a popular workout place for serious bodybuilders.
Gym members are upset because they have paid dues to use a gym that has been closed since Sept. 6. The facility has been locked tight since a court-appointed management company fired Jon Bailey, the gym's only employee.
The gym's owners have no say in the matter because the business was seized last year in a drug raid. Co-owner Rick Weaver, who awaits trial on drug charges, said he will fight in court to regain control of the gym. In the meantime, he wonders how much of a business will be left if the gym remains closed.
Some members want refunds of membership dues, but most, including Steve Rivera, just want the doors of the Philadelphia Street gym to reopen.
"I need this gym because bodybuilding is part of my job," said Rivera, 28, a former truck driver who now performs with a male strip show and revue. The 5-foot-9 Rivera works out three hours a day, four days out of five, to maintain his 18-inch biceps, 29-inch waist and 26-inch thighs.
"I've been working out here since the gym's been open," he said. "It's kind of like home. A lot of my closest friends train here."
For Rivera and others, the Uptown Gym has become a temple of almost religious devotion to exploring the upper limits of biceps expansion and bench pressing, without an excess of rules or interference.
"This gym is for serious bodybuilding, as opposed to the chrome-plated, light-weighted pseudo-gyms in the area," said tanned, muscular Steve Salazar, 38, who worked out one or two hours daily with his attractive blond wife, Michelle. "It was built by bodybuilders for bodybuilders, not by business for making money."
The hard-core membership at Sunday's gathering remains solidly in the camp of Bailey, who organized the meeting and would like his job back, even if it means remaining the only employee at a gym that is open seven days and 98 hours a week.
"I worked 400 days in a row without taking a day off," Bailey said proudly. "I worked the day of my girlfriend's daughter's wedding. I couldn't get my truck registered."
Bailey, 40, said he has sold his truck to get money to hire a lawyer and make payments on his mobile home. The balding, heavyset former bodybuilder descends from one of Whittier's founding families. "Not one Bailey has ever been fired from a job," he said. "I don't like this distinction."
Besides being let go, Bailey has other gripes with Asset Forfeiture Services Inc., the Corona company appointed by U.S. marshals to oversee the gym. Bailey said he has not received his final paycheck and that his three previous paychecks arrived anywhere from eight days to three weeks late. He also accused the company of repeated mismanagement.
The fault for any bad management belongs to Bailey, who will not be rehired, said Brian Tanner, the president of Asset Forfeiture Services. In a termination letter, Tanner wrote that Bailey refused to follow maintenance and bookkeeping instructions, which among other things, resulted in the late paychecks. Tanner wrote Bailey that the proverbial last straw was when Bailey did not open the gym Sept. 6.
On that morning, Bailey posted a sign on the gym door reading: "Sorry folks. Haven't been paid. No pay, no work. Had to go get rent money. Will open up as soon as possible."
When Bailey returned several hours later, the locks had been changed. The gym has remained closed since.
"Not an ideal situation," was the way U.S. Marshal Craig Meacham described the gym controversy. The Uptown Gym has earned only $1,800 over expenses since being seized in June, 1989. Meacham said he understood that Bailey agreed to work long hours in order to keep the gym open and in the black.
For running a seized business, the government pays management companies, such as Asset Forfeiture Services, set monthly fees, ranging from $250 to about $1,000, Meacham said. Within the last year, marshals have received and managed $226 million worth of property in Los Angeles County, from "oceangoing boats to jewelry to gymnasiums," Meacham said.
The gym takeover resulted from a cocaine investigation of co-owner Richard Gill, said Sgt. Don Desmaretz of the Whittier Police Department. He said officers found two ounces of cocaine and packaging material at Gill's house during a raid June 15, 1989. Officers then searched the gym for further evidence, and found two ounces of cocaine in co-owner Weaver's gym bag.
The major and unexpected find, however, was illegal steroids.