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Commentary: Hey Arnold Schwarzenegger, how about a fitness museum?

Los Angeles would be the perfect home for such an institution, and the bodybuilding legend (and actor and former governor) could help make it happen.

September 19, 2011|Roy Wallack | Gear
  • Schwarzenegger himself is a key player in the L.A. fitness phenomenon, which has its origins in the 1930s.
Schwarzenegger himself is a key player in the L.A. fitness phenomenon,… (Getty Images )

Things look a little rough for Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. But as tarnished politicians (think Eliot Spitzer), businessmen (Michael Milken) and Hollywood stars (Robert Downey Jr.) have proved, it is possible to resuscitate one's image with purposeful hard work. And there might be no better avenue for Schwarzenegger than to go back to his roots and invest his celebrity, powers of persuasion and vast array of connections in a grand public project that would educate, entertain, boost the economy and properly enshrine Los Angeles' rightful place in the development of a world-renowned industry: the International Fitness Museum.

A world-class museum spotlighting the history, iconic figures and influence of fitness in America and throughout the world does not exist. But it should — and it should be in L.A. Fueled by sunshine, sandy beaches and Hollywood star power, the City of Angels has been the epicenter of fitness practically since the word existed.

"When you think of fitness, you start with the Greeks, then instantly go to Muscle Beach," says Joe Moore, president of Boston-based IHRSA, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. "The great pioneers all did it in L.A."

Schwarzenegger himself — a champion bodybuilder from Austria who moved to Venice Beach, became a seven-time Mr. Olympia and rode the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron" to fame and fortune — is a key player in the L.A. fitness phenomenon, which has its origins in the 1930s.

That's when East Coast bodybuilders began to congregate at the original Muscle Beach, an area studded with gymnastics rings, ladders and pull-up bars just south of the Santa Monica Pier, according to "Legends of Fitness" author Stephen Tharrett. The coastal locale provided more workout and tanning time, and by 1939 it had lured a Bay Area fitness buff named Jack LaLanne, who went on to set several world records, including doing 1,033 push-ups in a row. Before long, LaLanne and several regulars were drawing large crowds with their 20-foot human pyramids and other electrifying gymnastic feats. (By the time Schwarzenegger arrived, Muscle Beach had moved south to Venice.)

They also became pioneers of a new industry. Harold Zinkin, who won the first Mr. California bodybuilding title in 1941, invented the adjustable Universal weight-stack machines in use today in almost every gym. The first health clubs were founded in the late '40s and early '50s in Santa Monica and Pasadena by Vic Tanny and Ray Wilson, the latter licensing LaLanne's name. Millions of Americans were first exposed to exercise by watching LaLanne on his Los Angeles-based TV show, which was broadcast nationally for 27 years.

"L.A. was everything to him," says the late guru's stepson Dan Doyle, caretaker of the treasure trove of LaLanne memorabilia, inventions and videos gathering dust at his Morro Bay home and at an Oakland gym.

L.A. has long been "everything" to much of the fitness world. It boasts the highest per-capita density of health clubs in the country and a better-mousetrap mentality that makes it ground zero for nearly every modern major fitness trend and product. Consider:

• The LifeCycle (first marketed by Newport Beach's Augie Nieto in 1972) brought electronic aerobic training to gyms.

• The personal trainer (in demand after Bo Derek told Johnny Carson she used one to get in shape for the 1979 movie "10") became a must-have for stars and executives.

• Aerobic dance (which exploded with Santa Monica-based actress Jane Fonda's "Workout" tape in 1982) got women to work out in large numbers for the first time.

• In-line roller skating (patented in 1984 in Minnesota but popularized on the Venice boardwalk) made Rollerblades a necessary Christmas gift for baby boomers and kids alike.

• Spinning (the pedal-to-the music sensation created in West L.A. in 1987 by trainer-to-the-stars Johnny Goldberg) still packs millions of indoor cycling addicts into classes around the world.

Name the cutting-edge fitness trend, and inevitably it went viral in Los Angeles, be it step aerobics (invented in Atlanta by Gin Miller but mass-marketed from here in 1989), cardio kickboxing (the 1976 brainchild of Massachusetts native Billy Blanks, who popularized it here in the '90s) or kettle bells (a late 1990s Russian import from immigrant Pavel Tsatsouline). The L.A. area is also a beach volleyball destination, a triathlon hotbed, the incubator of CrossFit and the place where yoga went mainstream.

"It seems clear that Los Angeles has played a pivotal role in this field and that there may be a need to memorialize it," says Selma Holo, director of the International Museum Institute at USC.

But how?

What it could be

A museum wouldn't be a bad way to go, according to Michael McDowell, senior director of cultural tourism at the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Health and fitness is a huge multibillion-dollar market," he says. "A museum dedicated to it could certainly be a destination for tourists."

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