YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Jack LaLanne dies at 96; spiritual father of U.S. fitness movement

The ever-buoyant LaLanne opened what's believed to be the country's first health club in Oakland in 1936. In the '50s he started a TV exercise show geared toward housewives, and he sold a popular line of exercise equipment, supplements and health food.

January 23, 2011|By Claudia Luther, Special to The Times

Jack LaLanne, the seemingly eternal master of health and fitness who first popularized the idea that Americans should work out and eat right to retain youthfulness and vigor, died Sunday. He was 96.

LaLanne died of respiratory failure due to pneumonia at his home in Morro Bay, Calif., his agent Rick Hersh said. He had undergone heart valve surgery in December 2009.

Jack LaLanne: The obituary of fitness pioneer Jack LaLanne in the Jan. 24 LATExtra section, and a headline accompanying the article online, reported that LaLanne opened what is commonly believed to be the nation's first health club, in Oakland in 1936. Bodybuilder Vic Tanny, who died in 1985, has been credited with opening an earlier professional gym, in the early 1930s in Rochester, N.Y. —

Though LaLanne was for many years dismissed as merely a "muscle man" — a notion fueled to some extent by his amazing feats of strength — he was the spiritual father of the health movement that blossomed into a national craze of weight rooms, exercise classes and fancy sports clubs.

LaLanne opened what is commonly believed to be the nation's first health club, in Oakland in 1936. In the 1950s, he launched an early-morning televised exercise program keyed to housewives. He designed many now-familiar exercise machines, including leg extension machines and cable-pulley weights. And he proposed the then-radical idea that women, the elderly and even the disabled should work out to retain strength.

Full of exuberance and good cheer, LaLanne saw himself as a combination cheerleader, rescuer and savior. And if his enthusiasm had a religious fervor to it, well, so be it.

"Well it is. It is a religion with me," he told What Is Enlightenment, a magazine dedicated to awareness, in 1999. "It's a way of life. A religion is a way of life, isn't it?"

"Billy Graham was for the hereafter. I'm for the here and now," he told The Times when he was almost 92, employing his usual rapid-fire patter.

Another time, he explained, "The crusade is never off my mind — the exercise I do, the food I eat, the thought I think — all this and how I can help make my profession better-respected. To me, this one thing — physical culture and nutrition — is the salvation of America."

When he started, he knew that most people viewed him as a charlatan. That's when he decided to do the stunts that made him famous.

"I had to get people believing in me," he said.

He performed his first feat in 1954, when he was 40 and wanted to prove he wasn't "over the hill." He swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge — underwater. (He carried two air tanks.)

Other feats in his 40s: swimming from Alcatraz to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf wearing handcuffs; swimming the Golden Gate Channel while towing a 2,500-pound cabin cruiser; pulling a paddleboard 30 miles from the Farallon Islands to the San Francisco shore.

At age 60, he upped the ante by swimming from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, handcuffed and shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat.

The next year, he did a similar feat underwater. And at age 70, he towed 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen's Way Bridge in Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary — while handcuffed and shackled.

Why attempt such feats?

"I care more than — you cannot believe how much I care! I want to help somebody!" LaLanne explained. "Jesus, when he was on Earth, he was out there helping people, right? Why did he perform those miracles? To call attention to his profession. Why do you think I do these incredible feats ? To call attention to my profession!"

(Italics were essential in re-creating LaLanne's speech — most writers quoting him also used numerous exclamation points.)

Well into his late 80s, LaLanne continued his personal fitness routine of two hours a day — one hour of weight training and another hour exercising in the pool — beginning at 5 or 5:30 in the morning (a concession to his age; in earlier days, he started at 4 a.m.).

No one — not even Arnold Schwarzenegger — could argue that LaLanne wasn't the best. Schwarzenegger, who met LaLanne in the 1960s on Muscle Beach on the Venice Boardwalk, said LaLanne would try to see who could match him in numbers of chin-ups and push-ups.

"Nobody could," Schwarzenegger told The Times. "No one even wanted to try."

Francois Henri LaLanne (nicknamed Jack by his brother) was born Sept. 26, 1914, in San Francisco to French immigrant parents; his father worked at the telephone company and was a dance instructor and his mother, who was a maid, was a Seventh-Day Adventist, a religion that advocates "eight keys" to good health, including nutrition and exercise.

LaLanne grew up in Bakersfield, where his parents had moved to become sheep farmers, but the sheep contracted hoof-and-mouth disease, and the family moved to Oakland. LaLanne's father died of a heart attack at age 50.

Los Angeles Times Articles