April 17, 2024 The Best Source of News, Culture, Lifestyle for Culver City, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Palms and West Los Angeles

Looking Back

The beginning of Muscle Beach was quite modest. In 1934, Paul Brewer and Jim Pfeiffer, students at Santa Monica High School began practicing gymnastics, tumbling on the sheltered beach area just south of the Municipal Pier.

At first, they used an old carpet on the sand to designate their area. Then later, the young men found a friend in Al Niederman, a mechanic/handyman, and a former gymnast, who built for them a wood platform. The city reluctantly agreed to provide materials for parallel bars and high rings; Niederman put them together. By 1938, a second larger platform, raised 3 feet above the sand, created a stage.

In 1935, Santa Monica hired UCLA coach Cecil Hollingsworth to teach gymnastics at the beach. Word spread quickly all across Los Angeles and young men…and often their sisters and female friends…came from far and near, interested in learning gymnastics and having fun. By the late ‘30s, there were 50 or more young men and women who were regulars. It was more than exercise. Lifetime friendships were forged and close camaraderie developed. Kay (Crosson) Starkey said, “They were family, no, more than family because there wasn’t any criticism.â€

Every week, the watching crowds grew. Times were hard and free entertainment was welcome. Grandstands were built for the audience. 10,000 people might show up on holidays and several thousand was commonplace on a weekend.

And it was wonderful entertainment! The stunts involved balancing, pyramids, tumbling, acrobatics, and adagio – several of these events occurring simultaneously. Adagio was a favorite. A man lifted a woman into a high, graceful pose and then pitched her to a “catcher.†  Harold Zinkin said, “You didn’t just toss your partner. You sailed her like a kite and she landed…like a ballerina.†The pyramids were truly amazing. A remarkable formation, called the bookend, involved a breathtaking eight people.

Both men and women participated in the stunts, with “spotters,†or as Zinkin called them “human safety nets,†always present. Spotters were ready to step in and catch a falling pyramid or save a trick gone wrong. Serious injuries were rare.

By 1939 Muscle Beach was on the map. World War II took many of “the gymnastic family†into the Armed Forces, where they served with honor. A Look magazine cover from November 1942 featured a bare-chested Muscle Beach regular, John Kornoff, holding a rifle. According to Zinkin, it was “the beginning of a change of attitude regarding fitness.†Soldiers came as often as furloughs and obligations allowed and it was a “must-see†for those passing through Los Angeles.

After the War, the Beach began to change. The “kids†from the ‘30s, now thinking about career and families of their own, had moved into the world of business. Some started gyms (Joe Gold began his Gold’s Gym), some were hired as trainers or stunt doubles. The late ‘40s and the ‘50s were the days of “Miss Muscle Beach†…and the focus shifted toward weight lifting and body-sculpting.

In November 1959, Muscle Beach suffered a sudden death. Several weight lifters were accused of statutory rape. The City of Santa Monica was quick to jump on the incident as cause to destroy Muscle Beach. The crusade was led by the Evening Outlook, Santa Monica’s conservative paper and was supported by nearby businesses who complained of parking problems and charged that the Beach was drawing “perverts†and “undesirables.†Within a week, the equipment was torn down and the platforms razed.

In 1999, Santa Monica replaced the exercise equipment, in a $10-million refurbishing of the beachfront. But magic is fragile. Muscle Beach is a memory, no matter what the sign just south of the Pier says.

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