In the huffing, puffing world of muscle culture, which has recently, thanks to the President's physical fitness program, taken a new lease on life, one man still stands out above all the others: Charles Atlas. Despite the streamlined competition of Vic Tanny, whose chromium-plated machines and hard-sell commercials have spread across the country, Atlas is still the king of them all, or, as one admirer put it, he is "to muscles what Tiffany's is to diamonds." Moreover, at 66 he is still in his prime, a silver-haired testimonial to the efficacy of the bodybuilding system he calls Dynamic Tension.
There are those, of course, who have called Atlas crazy. For some reason it is a trait of the bodybuilding world to impugn loudly, in the case of any disagreement, the other fellow's sanity. And those who attack Atlas maintain that stretching like a tiger or a baby or palm pressing cannot possibly produce the muscular development that pressing a few hundred pounds of weight can. And there are also those who find the whole physical-culture world very slightly tinged with lunacy, since—on the student level—it is a world that is populated so heavily with postadolescents, teen-agers and others not noted for their stability.
The Tiffany of muscles, however, is calm in the face of such criticism. He approaches his work with dedication, spirit and the belief that his calling may be the highest calling of all. "I desire," says one of his lessons, "to build a PERFECT RACE, a country of PERFECT HUMAN MASTERPIECES. I aim to make you powerful, graceful, magnetic." He continues with this advice: "At all times switch the mind from unpleasant to pleasant things. The mental influence plays a larger part in the promotion of health than most people realize. 'As a man thinketh, so he is.' "
Contented and successful though he is, however, there are some developments in the culture to which he practically gave his name which Atlas views with concern. His own motives are certainly unimpeachable, and Tanny's can perhaps be criticized only for the taste of some of his endlessly repeated TV commercials; but the motives of some others are, to say the least, unclear.
In general, all bodybuilders are motivated by one of three desires. A man decides to improve his physique either because he wants to feel better or because he wants to be stronger or—the third reason—for sheer vanity. Charles Atlas, of course, concentrates entirely on men who want muscle for the first two reasons. In the third, or Body Beautiful, branch of muscledom, things are somewhat different.
It is hard to know how much admiration of one's own elbow is, as it were, helpful, and how much is, shall we say, overly time-consuming or morbid. From a dispassionate interest in pectoral muscles and calf measurements, it is only the briefest possible hop to a kind of abject body worship. If you are of the Body Beautiful school of thought, too much muscle is displeasing. Droop of ear lobe, blemish of skin, cast of eye—all such can be considered serious disfigurements. There is no limit to how far this sort of thing can be carried, but an excellent illustration of what it can develop into was to be found, until recently, at a place called Muscle Beach in California.
Outwardly, Muscle Beach in early years seemed to have much to recommend it. On the sunny shore above the blue Pacific, with a WPA-built platform with gym equipment, it was, to many, a heartening sight to behold, with America's young men and women improving themselves athletically by stretching, flexing, doing double presses and performing some astonishing gymnastic and acrobatic feats. On weekends whole families disported themselves there. Many a Hollywood hopeful who, for one reason or another, felt that his or her appearance in the seminude might be more memorable than when clothed came, eager for attention, to Muscle Beach.
But then there came to be a breed of youngsters known, for lack of a better term, as "beach bums." These—many still in their early teens—seemed more interested in lying about in languorous poses than in exerting themselves with weight lifting and surf boarding. Muscle Beach, already a tourist attraction, became notorious. People traveled far—extremely far, it seemed—to visit it. Bars in the neighborhood did a thriving—too thriving, in many cases—business. Many Muscle Beachers seemed to have no jobs or other visible means of support, and yet, to Santa Monicans, it had long been apparent that those who wished to had no difficulty finding patrons in their audiences. In fact, as far as the respectable population of Santa Monica was concerned, Muscle Beach turned into a horror.
Three years ago a crazed pervert named Stephen Nash attacked and stabbed to death an 8-year-old boy under a Santa Monica pier, a stone's throw from the musclemen's lair. And, though Nash himself was no weight lifter, he was considered quite typical of the group who composed Muscle Beach's camp followers. After this, members of the Santa Monica police vice squad began to be regulars among the onlookers at Muscle Beach. They rediscovered, and arrested, some of their oldest and most familiar—if not necessarily favorite—customers. Among new offenders they discovered that the most popular reason for being in that section of the state was that they had "always wanted to see Muscle Beach." Something, as far as Santa Monica was concerned, had to be done. But it was not to be easy.
Though the Muscle Beach area was tax-supported and the province of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, the Muscle Beachers themselves were, as the saying goes, organized. There was a 400-member Muscle Beach Club, to which members paid $5-a-year dues. It took an explosive multiple arrest for crimes, felonies and misdemeanors ranging from suspicion of rape to child molestation to lewd vagrancy—in which the suspects were five of Muscle Beach's most popular heroes—to bring forth the public outcry that spelled Muscle Beach's doom.