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Muscle Beach

America's love affair with fitness began a long time ago in Southern California (where else?) at a place called ... Muscle Beach

In the beginning, it really wasn't about muscles. It was about fitness and fun. The focus of attention at the original Muscle Beach, back in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, was acrobats — strong young men and women who did somersaults and handstands, built human towers and threw each other around. Later the venue moved to another Muscle Beach in Venice, and the emphasis shifted to bodybuilding.

But in the good old days, huge crowds gathered in Santa Monica to watch muscle men bench-press bathing beauties instead of barbells. The colorful cast of characters included Paula Boelsems, who taught an elephant how to water-ski; George Eiferman, who played a trumpet with one hand while lifting weights with the other; and Abbye "Pudgy" Stockton, a dainty acrobat who was the first great female weightlifter. A number of other Santa Monica regulars have long since become household names, including Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne and Joe Gold, all of whom made fitness their business.

The original Muscle Beach was a sunny universe, a place of cheerful optimism that had a certain sweetness to it. The message it sent the world was largely that there was a connection between body and mind--that the body, in fact, could rule the mind. It was, Jack LaLanne once said, "such a perfect place to show kids that anything was possible." A lot of people today are in bodybuilding for money and fame. Old-timers complain that it's not as much fun as it used to be. "Every day," the aging acrobat Glenn Sundby remembers, "was a day to look forward to."

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