SI Vault
Look, Mom, I'm An Institution
Bob Ottum
November 23, 1981
Good old Jack LaLanne may be 67 now, but the message on his license plate is for you—he's still perfect
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November 23, 1981

Look, Mom, I'm An Institution

Good old Jack LaLanne may be 67 now, but the message on his license plate is for you—he's still perfect

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A sense of excitement, of restless delight, carries over the transcontinental telephone, Los Angeles to New York, as if the West Coast caller is holding the phone in one hand and pacing while he talks. Listening, one can picture him just the way he used to look, with his chest all pumped full of air and his hair slicked and waved high in a semi-Ronald Reagan pompadour. "I'll tell ya," he says, "I don't know when I've been so excited about all the stuff that's happening to me. I'll tell ya, kid, it's great."

Fine, fine. But just what is it that he's so excited about? Jack LaLanne (pronounced LaLANE, as in let me ex-PLAIN) tells about it hurriedly. "You've got to come see this," he says. And he talks on, his words occasionally tumbling together.

The listener nods, holding the phone an inch or so away from his ear. He jots down a few notes. And privately, he wonders about LaLanne. Can the man be sauced? No, no, he hardly touches the stuff. Can't be stoned; he doesn't smoke. Nor can he be full of go-fast; he doesn't take speed or, indeed, any sort of drug. As the voice rolls on, still charged, the realization dawns.

LaLanne, as ever, is high on life.

This isn't the Los Angeles you hear about. This isn't the reflective glitter of Century City, or the Beverly Hills Hotel, or the perfumed corner of Wilshire and Rodeo. This is the old tan-stucco-and-red-tile-roof Los Angeles that was imprinted on the mind by Raymond Chandler in the 1930s and '40s. "There was the odor of wild sage, the acrid tang of eucalyptus, and the quiet smell of dust," he wrote in The Little Sister. "Windows glowed on the hillside."

The LaLanne house sits in the Hollywood Hills, tucked away on steep and winding La Presa Drive. The house is not quite above the smog line, and it's just a few blocks above Sunset Boulevard and Mann's (formerly Grauman's) Chinese Theater and the Scandia and the tourists peering hopefully into every passing face. All through these hills, the familiar Spanish influence persists: the heavy roofs and lacy black iron gates and curved driveways. That's all one ever sees from the street in the Hollywood Hills. The good stuff—the statuary and towering yews and swimming pools and cabanas—is always in the back. At LaLanne's, there's a two-car garage whose radio-controlled door ghosts up to reveal a Porsche 924 Turbo and a bone-white Stutz Black Hawk with bright chrome exhaust pipes curling out the sides of the hood. Sitting in the driveway is a new Mercedes sedan, Elaine LaLanne's car; her license plates read EXERCIZ.

This is not unusual or even particularly showy. The area is L.A. Establishment, money country of the longest standing; not all those folks migrated to Beverly Hills or Pacific Palisades or Palm Springs. Rudy Vallee lives in quiet splendor a few streets up the hill. Vintage movie stars, semiactive or retired, are hidden away in stuccoed gentility in the houses on all sides. No names; only numbers mark the mailboxes.

It is important to take note of such things, because suddenly, there at the scrolled gate, is LaLanne himself, 67 years old, handsome, grinning, doing a little mock tap dance in greeting. With which, of course, the setting becomes perfect. The mature palm trees, carefully coiffed, the full-grown yews, the jacaranda bushes, the comfortable, lived-in houses—and Jack LaLanne—are all of a certain age. They all belong in this Hollywood space, reinforcing each other, a perfect unity.

LaLanne's general dimensions are pretty much what they've been forever:

Neck: 17"

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