I guess I was about 13 when I decided to be the strongest man in the world. It was over a girl named Betty Lou who, at the time, was both taller and stronger than I. I had run across an advertisement in a comic book (we still called them "funny books" in those days) that promised to solve my problem. It showed a skinny guy on a beach with his girl. They were getting along fine until a couple of husky bloods came galumphing along, tossing a big beach ball, and one of them—either accidentally or on purpose—kicked some sand in the skinny fellow's face. When the skinny one started, ineffectually, to protest, he was taunted, shoved and pushed on his backside in the sand. And, because the victor always gets the spoils in funny books and elsewhere, his girl went waltzing off arm in arm with the bully.
My case, of course, was a little different. I had tried to put my arm around Betty Lou one morning when we were parked, side by side, in the bike rack. And Betty Lou, a magnificent specimen, had kicked my kick stand out from underneath me and sent me sprawling on the asphalt. I didn't want revenge. I wanted muscle and authority enough to be able to stand up to her and assert my rights. So I did what the skinny type in the funny-book ad did. I somehow scraped together enough money (I think it was $25 in those days) for the bodybuilding course which, if it didn't make me the strongest man in the world in 13 weeks' time, would put me, I decided, well on my way.
I was reminded of this the other day when I discovered that a particularly persistent and annoying series of television commercials, advertising the gymnasiums of a Mr. Vic Tanny, had begun to have the effect of "selling" me. "Fifty cents a lesson, only 50� a lesson!" kept buzzing through my head, along with a vision of myself restored to a state of bouncy fitness, more wiry than an innerspring. The frequent intrusions on my television screen of Tanny's corps of cavorting, leotard-clad men and women had driven me almost to the point of distraction but also to the point, in salesmen's language, of purchase. I felt myself submitting, as if by posthypnotic suggestion, to the pitch.
If anything stepped in to save me it was only the thought that by giving in I would simply be joining a national fad. Tanny and his fellows have been exploiting and promoting a kind of health hysteria that has got, it appears, a half nelson on America's mentality. For instance, a check-out girl in our local supermarket, recently manfully hoisting a heavy carton of groceries to her shoulder, disdainfully rejected my offers to help and said, "Don't worry about me. I'm in great shape physically and spiritually and I owe everything to Vic Tanny and Billy Graham." And she smiled the smile of the blessed.
I have looked into the Vic Tanny story a bit, and he is certainly what would be called an enterprising fellow. With nothing more than The American Dream behind him, Tanny—the son of a poor tailor—has managed to parlay a minor talent into a business that is reported to bring in something close to $15 million a year. His gyms, which have been sprouting like wild flowers (in pink and charcoal gray, his favorite colors) in cities across the country for the last nine years, now number more than 70. There are 10 in the New York area alone. So far, more than a quarter of a million people have subscribed to his courses, but, as we all know, there are many more people than that in the United States. The market has only begun to be tapped.
Tanny's pupils work out in air-conditioned, deodorized elegance, hoisting chromium-plated bar bells, with soft music playing in the background ( Tanny gyms, for sheer glossiness, are running neck and neck with Slenderella salons). And for the person who succumbs to the lure of "fifty cents a lesson" there are a number of possibilities—all somewhat more costly. (For sheer ingeniousness and aggressiveness, Tanny's merchandising methods far outshine those of Arthur Murray.) Prices run from $60 a year on the West Coast (they're higher in the East because of the fancier facilities) to $339 for a Lifetime Membership. But there are so many "price deals" available that firm prices should probably not be quoted. There are, for example, Family Memberships, and in this area Tanny is fortunate in having, right in his own family, an example of his course's effectiveness with older people and specifically with women. Angela Tanny, his white-haired but still shapely 66-year-old mother, lifts weights joyfully and regularly. And Tanny, who is 46, swart, swaggering, with a California tan and wide shoulders, often works out with her.
One of the most surprising developments in bodybuilding is that during the last five years it has become a family affair. What was once a pastime for prepubescent youths is now a hobby for men and women of all ages. "There seems to be a feeling around here," says a gym instructor, "that the family that weighs in together stays together." And it was this phenomenon as much as anything else that determined me to re-explore the whole huffing, puffing, physical-culture world to see what had happened since I first dreamed of being stronger than Betty Lou.
I decided to go back to the very beginning. In the old days, of course, there was only one bodybuilder, and I was somewhat relieved to find that among purists of bodybuilding he is still No. 1 and Vic Tanny strictly a parvenu. If the bodybuilding population were to arrange itself in a human pyramid, the one man to be given top spot would be Charles Atlas, even though there would be a number of disgruntled shoulders in the lower tiers. Atlas is the unquestioned leader of his field by virtue of his success, his fame and the number of his admirers. "There's only one Charles Atlas," one of these said to me. " Tanny is no Atlas. Lionel Strongfort was no Atlas. Joe Bonomo was no Atlas. Hargitay is no Atlas. Only Atlas is Atlas! He's to muscles what Tiffany's is to diamonds."
Atlas was obviously the man to talk to, and I telephoned him for an appointment. When I met the great man in the still-resplendent flesh I reported the above remarks to him. I discovered that he is not in the least fazed by such extravagant praise. He has heard it often. And at 66—Vic Tanny's mother's age, to be sure—he feels that after 30 years spent producing stronger, healthier, cleaner-living and cleaner-thinking young men at the approximate rate of 50,000 a year, he is hugely entitled to it.
I also mentioned to Mr. Atlas that I had once been one of his pupils. But I confessed that I had not been a good one. Thirteen weeks, to a 13-year-old, seems an eternity, and, though I applied myself to the lessons for the first week or so, I gradually lost interest. Betty Lou may have moved away, or maybe I decided to become a saxophone player in Glenn Miller's orchestra, or something. When I told him this, Mr. Atlas expressed surprise. "You should've kept it up," he said. "You'd be a lot better off today if you did. You'd have a physique you could show off and they'd say, 'Oh,' and 'Ah,' and 'Wow,' and you wouldn't, like now, have a middle that has a very slight tendency to very slightly paunch." (The Atlas style of speech is just as gravel-voiced, if slightly easier to follow, as Casey Stengel's.)