Jack LaLanne was the first person to have TV exercise show, which he used to help popularize exercise to Americans, something he has continued to do ever since. (Photo by Brian Smith.)
Jack LaLanne is chiefly responsible for many firsts in the fitness industry. He was the first person to have a national exercise TV show. He was the first to truly preach the benefits of combining exercise and nutrition. He was the first to develop several types of equipment, including the leg extension machine, the weight selector machine and machines with cables and pulleys.
LaLanne was at the forefront of many radical movements, including women working out with weights, seniors working out with weights and athletes working out with weights. One could argue that LaLanne was the first real honest-to-goodness personal trainer. Oh, and instant breakfast? He created that, too.
Perhaps none of LaLanne's firsts is more important than his creation of what is believed to be the first health club in the United States. Jack LaLanne's Physical Culture Studio opened in 1936 on the third floor of an office building at 409 14th Street in downtown Oakland, CA. LaLanne, just 21 at the time, paid $45 a month for rent.
Without health clubs, people would have no place to work out, no place to lift weights, no place for a juice bar, no place for personal training.
Without question, all of LaLanne's innovations could have made him a millionaire a thousand times over. But money has never been as important as helping his fellow Americans get healthier and lead happier lives. He used to tell clients who failed to show at his club for training sessions, “I don't want your money. I want to help you!”
Few people could doubt why LaLanne is the recipient of this year's Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. The question is, how many should he get?
“You'll probably need two Lifetime Achievement Awards,” says LaLanne's longtime friend, Kevin O'Connell.
One will do just fine for one lifetime. But what a lifetime it has been.
FROM RAGE TO RICHES
Jack LaLanne was born to French immigrants on Sept. 26, 1914, in San Francisco. As a teen, Jack was anything but the picture of health. He was a “sugarholic” and had bouts with bulimia. He had headaches and pimples and boils on his face. Because of the anger and rage that had built inside him, he tried to burn down his house. He also tried to kill his older brother, Norman, twice. He even tried to kill himself.
Everything changed one night at the age of 15 when LaLanne's mother, a Seventh-day Adventist, took him to hear a lecture by nutritionist Paul Bragg. Arriving late, an embarrassed LaLanne had to sit in a chair on the stage where Bragg spoke. The result of Bragg's speech was a healing, a rebirth, a young man transformed. From that day on, LaLanne dedicated his life to the virtues of nutrition and good health that he has been preaching for 80 years now. He cut out sugar, stopped eating meat and began eating raw vegetables, whole grains, nuts and fruits.
Before opening his first club in Oakland, LaLanne set up a gymnasium in his backyard in Berkeley, CA. There, he began to build the muscles that would make him an attractive bodybuilder. Soon, he began to invite high school friends over to show them how they could sculpt their bodies. Few did it better than LaLanne, who won a national World's Best Built Man contest at age 19 and later finished as a runner-up to Mr. America.
Exercise wasn't widely accepted when LaLanne began his fitness journey. The local YMCA did not have a weight room, so men would sneak into the back room to lift weights. LaLanne privately trained police officers and firefighters. When he opened his club in 1936, LaLanne was called a “crackpot,” among other names.
“You can't believe the crap that I went through, boy,” LaLanne says from his 4-acre estate in Morro Bay, CA, on the Pacific coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I'm telling you, it's something. Working with weights saved my life. If something saved your life, you'd be enthusiastic about it, wouldn't you?”
LaLanne went out to “sell” his business. He'd take the heaviest and the skinniest kids he could find and go to their houses at night to ask their parents if he could help them get in shape.
Ringing those doorbells wasn't easy for LaLanne. Although he appears to be an extravert, he's really an introvert.
“He'd walk around the block three times before ringing the bell to ask to help train students,” says his wife of 50 years, Elaine LaLanne. “Once he got in there, everything was fine.”
One of the people LaLanne reached was a teenager named Charles McCarl, who stopped by the gym a few years after it opened. However, being only 16, McCarl needed his parents' permission to join the gym, so LaLanne went to McCarl's house to convince his parents to let him do so.
“He was so enthusiastic that he made my parents enthusiastic, too,” McCarl recalls. “We had about six or seven chairs, and he managed to sit in each one of them during the conversation. I have never regretted going down and working out with him.”
The first LaLanne club didn't look much different from clubs that other operators built through the years. It had large mirrors, plants and, of course, the equipment that LaLanne himself designed. A friend of his named Paul Martin was a blacksmith and made the equipment. LaLanne never had a patent for all that equipment.
“He didn't waste any time getting things done,” says McCarl, who at 87 is still a practicing family doctor in Williams, CA. “He woke up in the middle of the night sometimes thinking about how a piece of equipment should work.”
On a floor below his club's weight area was the first juice bar, where LaLanne sold vitamins and other products. McCarl had his first taste of carrot juice there.
LaLanne and McCarl became partners and did workout programs for people all over the San Francisco Bay Area. Later, in the 1940s, LaLanne began working with bodybuilder Jimmie Payne, and they put on bodybuilding shows at fairs, high schools and churches.
“He was kind of my idol,” Payne says. “Jack was amazing. He had one of the great beach bodies of anybody. He had a body you stopped to look at.”
AS SEEN ON TV
Eventually, LaLanne brought his exercise skills and nutrition beliefs to a larger audience through a relatively new technology at the time — television. It started when LaLanne was asked to do push-ups during an entire 90-minute TV program called the “Les Malloy Show,” a popular variety show on San Francisco's KGO-TV.
While there, LaLanne noticed Elaine Doyle, who booked him for the show. She did things he didn't do, such as eat a doughnut, smoke a cigarette and drink coffee. Eventually, LaLanne convinced her to give up those bad habits for fresh fruit. Later, he also convinced her to marry him. To Elaine, also known as LaLa, he was more than just a muscle man.
“I fell in love with his brain,” Elaine says. “He was funny. He sings, too.”
Not long after the appearance on the “Les Malloy Show,” KGO general sales manager Vince Francis had an idea for an exercise show for housewives, and he needed to find a host. Francis asked LaLanne what he would do if he hosted the show. LaLanne, who at the time was a successful club operator and didn't care much about television, showed Francis exercises using a chair, then explained how he would share nutrition tips with the audience. Francis hired LaLanne on the spot.
In 1951, “The Jack LaLanne Show” aired for the first time in San Francisco. At first, critics panned the show, but the housewives who watched it loved the show and LaLanne.
The show went national in 1958. For a short time, LaLanne had a contractual obligation to continue producing the show live in San Francisco, while taping the show in Los Angeles for national syndication. Elaine LaLanne would do the show in San Francisco for a week while Jack taped the show in Los Angeles. The two would then switch places the next week.
LaLanne demonstrated simple exercises on the program — nothing like the two-hour workout he did on his own each morning. Some of the routines on the show were as simple as finger exercises and facial exercises (“trimnastics,” he called them). Once again, LaLanne was way ahead of his time, reaching out to a deconditioned market and encouraging them to exercise.
Sponsors were few and far between on LaLanne's show. Cigarette companies wanted nothing to do with LaLanne's anti-smoking stance. Bread companies cringed when LaLanne would take a loaf of white bread and smash it in his hands on the air, telling viewers to avoid the sugary stuff. Instead, LaLanne bought his own air time and pitched his own products, such as vitamins and equipment.
On Feb. 16, 1959, LaLanne introduced his 2-month-old German shepherd, Happy, to the audience. If kids got their mothers to watch the program, LaLanne would have Happy do a trick for them. Happy caught the fancy of children all over America.
“As kids, we used to walk him down Hollywood Boulevard, and he was as recognizable as Lassie, Bullet or Rin Tin Tin,” says LaLanne's stepson, Dan Doyle. “People loved being photographed with him.”
A tailor in the Bay Area created LaLanne's trademark jumpsuits, which made it easier for him to move around on the air (even though they were made of wool). LaLanne also wore ballet shoes, a fact not lost on Doyle's classmates.
“I took a lot of flak for that in high school,” Doyle says.
At the end of each show, LaLanne would sing his famous goodbye song. Had he not caught the fitness bug, LaLanne might have become an opera singer. (He once made a record with Connie Haines.) Instead, the 5-foot-5-inch LaLanne became a TV giant, earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He also became a giant in the fitness club industry.
THE JACK LALANNE CLUBS
Two sets of Jack LaLanne-branded health clubs popped up in the late 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s — one on the West Coast and the other on the East Coast.
Ray Wilson owned and operated the West Coast clubs, called Jack LaLanne's European Health Spas. Other co-owners included Arlan Marshall and Carmen Baratta, two disciples of longtime club operator Vic Tanny. At the time, the public didn't have the best impression of health clubs, Wilson says, but LaLanne improved that image when he became a partner in the company.
“Jack's body, face and image became our great trademark,” Wilson says.
When LaLanne came aboard, Wilson asked him to work with his management staff and his salespeople to improve their business ethics.
“Jack and I got along great. I don't recall us ever even arguing about anything,” Wilson says. “However, Jack was never shy to me or any of my people to correct us if he saw anything in the clubs or in our advertising that didn't meet his standards. Jack never put making money above honesty or ethics.”
Rudy Smith, chairman of the board of Las Vegas Athletic Clubs and a longtime friend of LaLanne's, says LaLanne was a “master team builder” and commended him for his marketing skills.
“Jack made it clear from the beginning that exercise was for everyone, not just muscle heads,” Smith says.
Chuck Broes was one of the investors in the West Coast Jack LaLanne clubs, which were sold to U.S. Industries in 1970. Broes says putting Jack LaLanne's name on health clubs made perfect sense.
“It was like attaching Fred Astaire's name to a dance studio in those days,” Broes says.
LaLanne never shied away from preaching the gospel of health and fitness. Broes recalls a time when LaLanne met with civic leaders at a country club. The meal served at the lunch was hamburgers and French fries. To prove a point about nutrition, LaLanne stood up and squeezed the grease out of the French fries on his plate with his bare hands. About half the people at the lunch didn't touch another bite, Broes says.
On the East Coast, Harry Schwartz opened Jack LaLanne clubs in New York and New Jersey. The clubs went by various names (Jack LaLanne Fitness Centers and Health Spas, for one), but LaLanne's name and image remained paramount. LaLanne flew to New York for club openings and public appearances. Often, when in his own clubs, he would correct people who were doing an exercise improperly.
People often recognized LaLanne and stopped him on the busy streets of New York. LaLanne never hesitated to ask them about their fitness, recalls Richie Ornstein.
“He stops to talk to everyone,” says Ornstein, a former instructor, manager and supervisor of Jack LaLanne clubs. “He treats everybody with kindness and respect.”
In 1983, the East Coast Jack LaLanne clubs were sold to what is now Bally Total Fitness. Around that time, health clubs began to grow by leaps and bounds.
Wilson says LaLanne's influence helped the club industry reach unprecedented levels.
“Jack certainly paved the way,” Wilson says, “and without his educating the masses on the benefits of exercise, the health club movement would have failed, or at least been much less successful.”
Widely known as “The Godfather of Fitness,” LaLanne continues to receive admiration from TV audiences, just as he did last month on “The Jay Leno Show.” LaLanne showed actor Vince Vaughn how to do chair exercises, the ones LaLanne used to do on his show some 60 years ago.
Within the past couple of years, LaLanne has also appeared on “The Today Show,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Bonnie Hunt Show” and made several other public appearances. LaLanne's most recent infomercials include the popular Jack LaLanne's Power Juicer. He's written several books, including his recent release, “Live Young Forever.” He and Elaine also have produced a number of exercise videos and DVDs.
LaLanne's opinion on matters concerning health and health clubs still resonates to this day. Regarding the current state of health clubs, LaLanne says that club operators should personally supervise their members and educate staff so they can properly train people. He says everybody should maintain a healthy diet, too.
“You can exercise your butt off, but if you're not eating right, you'll never get the fat off, will you? No way,” LaLanne says. “We've got to invent more good equipment. We've got to get more incentives to keep these people working out. People are like little kids. You've got to really set down laws and follow them.”
LaLanne still works out twice a day in one of his two home gyms, with an emphasis on weights and swimming. He changes his routine about every month, just as he has for years. He also eats twice a day (never between meals), with a diet that consists of raw vegetables, fresh fruit, eight hard-boiled eggs (white parts only) and about 30 vitamins.
Sweets are still out of the question, even though there were plenty of temptations during LaLanne's 95th birthday celebration last month. And no, LaLanne didn't do any crazy feat on his birthday like swim handcuffed and shackled while towing boats, which he has done several times in the past.
As for the Lifetime Achievement Award, one of several honors in his career, LaLanne is humbled.
“It means everything to me,” he says. “Everybody wants a pat on the back instead of a kick in the butt.”
Ninety-five years later, LaLanne is still kicking butt.