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Historic club seeks secret of youth

Long a refuge for the elite, the L.A. Athletic Club looks to keep its traditional members yet lure a younger crowd.

November 11, 2002|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

For nearly 60 years Wafe Risner has been making his four-day-a-week trek to the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday the 90-year-old Pasadena retired aircraft industry executive hits the sauna, the handball courts, and does a lap on the indoor track. He ends the day with a beer he keeps in the refrigerator in a private dressing area.

Priya Sopori, a 29-year-old corporate lawyer, has a rather different workout regime at the downtown club. Nearly every weekday morning she spends 45 minutes on an elliptical trainer or treadmill, 30 minutes doing weights and occasionally attends a yoga class. After a shower, she heads back to her downtown law office.

This is the membership of the Los Angeles Athletic Club, a 122-year-old private club straddling two worlds and struggling to live in both. Begun by the city's founding fathers, it has prided itself for years on attracting the best and brightest. Telltale remnants of the past are found in the hunter green carpets, dark wood bars, high-ceilinged banquet halls and hotel rooms. But there's also a small business center with Internet access, a Pilates studio and high-tech cardiovascular machines.

As the club tries to hang on to the old guard while recruiting the new, a question looms: Is a private club like the LAAC still relevant in the 21st century? Other private athletic clubs around the U.S. are also experiencing growing pains, including the Indianapolis Athletic Club and New York's Downtown Athletic Club, which has long been mired in financial problems.

"We're definitely seeing venerable private athletic clubs under siege," says Bill Howland, director of research for the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn., a nonprofit trade group. "They're facing head-to-head competition from places like the Sports Club/LA, which positions itself as an urban country club. They're having to not only re-evaluate their physical plant, but the services they offer as well. A few decades ago they were about the two-martini lunch, and now people want to be able to bring their clients to play squash and then have a vegetarian lunch."

For a club like the LAAC to thrive, suggests Howland, it needs to take a cue from commercial clubs that are carving out a following in a competitive market: "Crunch is edgy, the San Francisco Bay Club is a downtown, white-collar club, and some clubs appeal to families," he says. "If these older athletic clubs do the same kind of thing, figure out what kind of services they have that meet the market need, then they can achieve relevancy. If you talk to the people behind Sports Club/LA and see how much thought went into the color schemes and the staff uniforms, they don't leave anything to chance. I don't know that these private clubs historically have operated this way."


Club of power brokers

In 1880 the Athletic Club opened its first location on Spring Street, founded by 40 prominent citizens on a motto of "health, recreation, grace and vigor." The initiation fee was $5, monthly dues were $1, and gymnasium equipment included a trapeze, flying rings, a long horse and dumbbells. Women were permitted only at social events and exhibitions. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the club's location changed but its roster always included the city's power brokers, names such as Huntington, Doheny, Chandler, O'Melveny, Dockweiler and Slauson. And there was an array of celebrities, including Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Charlie Chaplin.

During the 1920s the club expanded along with the city, opening the California Yacht Club in San Pedro, a gun club near Bakersfield and the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. It also purchased a number of struggling health clubs around town, but when war came in the 1940s membership dropped and some of those acquired clubs were sold.

The LAAC underwent a major overhaul in the 1950s, adding new pools, equipment and strengthening its athletic programs. It became a training ground for Olympic athletes, and the club began to add ethnic members. Membership peaked at about 5,000 in the 1970s, as L.A.'s downtown boomed. But recessions, tax law changes and the flight of corporate headquarters from downtown during the next two decades eroded the club's numbers. By 1995, it counted only 2,700 members, about the same as it has today.

Not half-a-mile away from the LAAC is a new Gold's Gym franchise, just over a year old, with a pool, boxing ring, spa services and saunas. It's competing for the same downtown office workers and loft dwellers as the LAAC, says Ben Amante, Gold's senior vice president of franchising, who boasts that the gym's "hip, up-to-date" facility is a draw. Already, Gold's has 5,200 members -- nearly double the number at LAAC -- including a few defectors from the venerable downtown club, Amante says.

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