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Charles Atlas playing tug of war with the Rockettes atop Radio City Music Hall (Charles Atlas LTD)

Charles Atlas: Muscle Man

How the original 97-pound-weakling transformed himself and brought physical fitness to the masses

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Like tens of thousands of young men and boys before him, Tom Manfre first caught sight of Charles Atlas in the back pages of the comic books he read so voraciously. With a sculpted chest, leopard briefs girdling his hips, a piercing look on his granite-jawed face, Atlas seemed to be jabbing his finger at Manfre as he commanded: "Let Me Prove in 7 Days That I Can Make You a New Man!"

It was 1947, Manfre was 23 years old, and the man in the leopard-pattern briefs was the toast of New York City. He'd helped President Franklin Roosevelt celebrate his birthday at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. He cavorted on radio with Fred Allen and Eddie Cantor and on television with Bob Hope and Garry Moore. He stripped off his shirt at a Paris dinner party tossed by the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. His measurements had been entombed in the famous Crypt of Civilization, the repository of records at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta intended for unsealing in the year 8113. Scarcely a day went by that a newspaper columnist didn't feature an item about Atlas—dropping by to bend a couple of railroad spikes, perhaps, or ripping a Manhattan phone book in half.

Manfre stuck a check for $29.95 in the mail and got back a 12-lesson course of exercises the author called Dynamic-Tension. For 90 days, Manfre did the prescribed squats and leg-raises and sit-ups. He followed the tips on sleep and nutrition. He remembered to chew his food slowly. Pleased with the results, he sent a photograph of his new and improved body to Atlas and was invited to drop by to meet the man himself.

"I felt like a kid in a candy store," Manfre, 86, says today. "I was thrilled! He put an arm around me and said, ‘God was good to me, and I'm sure he'll be good to you.'" When Manfre won the Mr. World contest six years later, the first person he called to thank was Charles Atlas.

Manfre was not alone in his gratitude. During Atlas' heyday—the 1930s and '40s—two dozen women worked eight-hour days to open and file the letters that poured into his downtown Manhattan office. Grateful knock-kneed boys with scrawny arms and sunken chests reported that their lives had been turned around. King George VI of England signed up. Boxers and bodybuilders gave Dynamic-Tension a whirl. Mahatma Gandhi—Gandhi!—wrote to inquire about the course. A 1999 A&E biography, "Charles Atlas: Modern Day Hercules," included testimonials from Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jake "Body by Jake" Steinfeld.

This year marks the 80th that Atlas' mail-order company has been in business. Atlas himself is long gone—he died in 1972—and Charles Atlas Ltd. now operates out of a combined shrine, archive and office over a nail salon in the northern New Jersey town of Harrington Park. But the Internet has given Dynamic-Tension a new life. From all over the world, letters and e-mails continue to pour in, testament to one of the most successful fitness programs ever devised. And to its mythic founder.

The man who made history marketing his muscles was an unlikely hero. Born in Acri, a tiny town in southern Italy, he arrived with his parents at Ellis Island in 1903 at age 10. His name was Angelo Siciliano, and he spoke not a word of English.

He didn't look like much, either. Skinny and slope-shouldered, feeble and often ill, he was picked on by bullies in the Brooklyn neighborhood where his family had settled, and his own uncle beat him for getting into fights. He found little refuge at Coney Island Beach, where a hunky lifeguard kicked sand in his face and a girlfriend sighed when the 97-pound Atlas swore revenge.

On a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, he saw statuary depicting Hercules, Apollo and Zeus. That, and Coney Island's side­show, got him thinking. Body­building was then a fringe pursuit, its practitioners consigned to the freak tents beside the fat lady and the sword swallower. Alone at the top was Eugen Sandow, a Prussian strongman discovered by showman Florenz Ziegfeld. Sandow toured vaude­ville theaters, lifting ponies and popping chains with his chest. Atlas pasted a photo of Sandow on his dresser mirror and, hoping to transform his own body, spent months sweating away at home with a series of makeshift weights, ropes and elastic grips. The results were disappointing, but on a visit to the Bronx Zoo one day he had an epiphany, or so he would recall in his biography Yours in Perfect Manhood, by Charles Gaines and George Butler. Watching a lion stretch, he thought to himself, "Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?...And it came over me....He's been pitting one muscle against another!"

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