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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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•"I certainly don't recommend alcohol, but, I swear, I'd rather see you drinking whiskey than drinking Coca-Cola. That swill!"

Elaine LaLanne, an effervescent blonde of 56, hears all of this—as, no doubt, do Rudy Vallee and the 101-year-old man as well—standing at the entrance to the room with her head cocked approvingly. She's LaLanne's second wife: they've been married for 22 years. She is also his cheerleader, fiercely devoted to their life-style—with a single exception. She swims daily, she works out faithfully, she plays a lot of golf. She is proud mom to stepdaughter Yvonne, 35, a social psychologist; son Danny, 32, a photographer; and son Jon Allen, 20, a student at Pepperdine. But she flat refuses to rise at 4:30 in the morning to exercise in the family gym. "When Jack rolls out," she says, "I roll over."

But now LaLanne is really swinging, and in the hours before lunch, hidden away inside this Raymond Chandleresque house in the Hollywood Hills, he synopsizes the rest of his life. If this were a movie, the screen would show pages fluttering from a calendar.

In the years after kicking sugar, LaLanne literally sculpted himself a new body, piling on muscles here, creating dramatic ridgelines and hollows there. He lifted weights incessantly, of course. He also became a nutrition buff, and his idea of light reading was an evening spent with Gray's Anatomy. He became a gymnast, a handstander and a grand-stander. Before long, he had a gym going in the family backyard in Berkeley, where he took on pupils at $5 or so a week, whatever they could afford. The gym featured weights of uncertain measure, created by pouring cement into old paint cans.

"It isn't what you have," LaLanne says, "it's what you do with what you have. We were a French immigrant family, settled on the West Coast. My dad died in his 40s, in the prime of his life. We needed money. So sometimes..." He leaps up and pumps out his chest, a quick transformation. "So sometimes, I even posed nude for the life drawing classes at local art schools." He strikes a fleeting pose, vaguely borrowed from Rodin's The Thinker and Mitzi Gaynor at the Riviera and, somehow—perhaps because of the look that flickers across his face—he manages to look momentarily naked. "I got so I could expand certain muscles and hold them that way. You know what I mean? I was looked upon as the neighborhood nut. The filbert. Filbert! Now there's a term you don't hear much anymore."

LaLanne opened his first health club in 1936 in downtown Oakland. It was definitely not a runaway success. "There was strong resistance in those days," he says. "You can't appreciate it now, in this era of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu and Gayle Olinekova, but it was a fact of the time. I would get a guy about half recruited and he would come back to me and say that his doctor wouldn't let him join. 'You'll get a hernia,' all the doctors said then, remember? Or, 'You'll get muscle-bound.' For example, the local jeweler wanted to join, but he was fearful about something. He got me aside on the street one day and he stood there whispering to me." LaLanne jumps up again and does the jeweler, looking around nervously, as if he might be overheard. He lowers his voice: " 'Is it true,' " he says, " 'that weightlifting gives you hemorrhoids?' "

All the while, the dynamic pixie was out promoting himself. There's something strongly contagious about LaLanne's enthusiasm; it's an elusive, shared sense of ain't-this-a-kick-in-the-head? Mickey Rooney has it, and Betty Hutton, and Bandleader Phil Harris. Jimmy Durante had it. It's an ability to communicate a joy in performing. By day, LaLanne would parade endlessly in tight T shirts—"I was in a constant state of flex"—making the scene at all the muscle beaches. He'd leap into a handstand if anyone so much as blinked at him and was forever organizing human pyramids of oiled bodies glistening in the sun. He was no less visible by night. "I bought the best car I could afford," he says, "plus some really nifty tailored clothes—tight-fitting, to emphasize my chest and shoulders. I dated the very best-looking girls, and I made sure that we were seen at all the best restaurants in town. It's dumb. I mean, I sat there eating lettuce—but I was seen."

And, finally, the word got around. "I began to get hushed calls at home. From folks who didn't want to be seen in the company of bodybuilders, a lot of doctors among them. 'Jack,' they would whisper, 'can you take me at 5 a.m.?' Sure I could. And housewives, of all people. This was in 1936, remember. 'Jack, can I slip over to the gym at two o'clock while my husband's at work?' "

Bodybuilding? More like empire building. In the years that followed, he not only became respectable, he became downright chic. There are now 111 LaLanne-licensed spas around the country, with more on the way. LaLanne is a star on the banquet circuit as an inspirational speaker, guaranteed—at $4,000 per show in his skintight tux—to bring an audience to its feet, whooping for fitness. He is writing a new series of fitness books, running the sales campaign for his private-formula food supplements and considering a chain of health food restaurants. And then—Glory be!—there's the reason for LaLanne's new excitement. A few weeks ago his world came full circle. The old show is back on television.

L.A.'s Channel 9 carries Jack LaLanne and You five days a week at 8 a.m., and the familiar, feisty drillmaster is out to charm an entire new generation. On camera, he's as puckish and as convincing as ever. "I'll tell ya, it's the greatest thing that's happened to me in years," he says. LaLanne is offering the show for syndication and anticipates that he'll be carried by a couple of hundred stations by next summer.

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