The season for bodybuilding and figure contests in Venice begins over Memorial Day weekend with the first of a series of three annual shows, but one Muscle Beach Venice tradition will not make a return to the stage this year, according to organizers Joe Wheatley Productions and the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. Bill Howard, the Muscle Beach bodybuilding champion who has emceed, organized and kept the contests alive since 1963, will not be permitted to officially participate in the shows any longer due to a rift between him and promoter Joe Wheatley, the two men say.

The 73-year-old Howard, known for his feisty stage charisma and one-line zingers, stepped aside as the show’s main organizer and emcee in 2003 and began a battle with throat cancer. Since beating the cancer, he has returned energized, albeit taking a significantly smaller role in the show.

This season, department officials informed Howard in a letter that he is no longer an official part of the show and will “no longer be asked to narrate the history of Muscle Beach at the show, the Bill Howard Award will no longer be given at the shows, and The Medallion Ceremony will be completed by a representative from [the Department of] Recreation and Parks” rather than Howard.

In addition to winning several bodybuilding titles, Howard, who has ties to the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica dating from his arrival in the area in the 1950s, led the push to secure $500,000 in funding to build the current weight training area at Venice Beach, dubbed “The Pit,” in 1991. He is also credited with sticking with Muscle Beach Venice during its roughest decades. Now, he says he plans to attend the contests as a member of the audience this season.

Since stepping down as the main organizer, Howard and Wheatley have had frequent clashes of egos and ideas — a clash of the Muscle Beach Venice titans.

“He’s trying to take Muscle Beach and commercialize it,” Howard alleges, pointing out that his more than 40 years of volunteer efforts were a labor of love, while Wheatley is paid by the city to organize the shows.

“What Joe doesn’t understand is that you just can’t walk into a culture and take it over. You have to be a part of that culture,” says Howard.

Wheatley, on the other hand, says Howard’s ego was just too much weight to carry.

“Bill Howard proved too difficult to work with,” Wheatley alleges. “He’s not coming back. If he wants to come, he can sit in the grandstand.”

“Bill is his own worst enemy,” Wheatley says. “At one point, he wanted us to make a tissue paper cutout of himself that he could tear through on stage and say ‘I’m back!’ The last time he was up there, we couldn’t get the microphone out of his hands.

“When he didn’t get his way, he threatened to picket the event. Would you hand a microphone to someone who threatened to picket your event?”

Howard denies telling Wheatley he would picket the event and calls it “made-up nonsense.”

Lydia Ritzman, principal recreation supervisor with the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, who sent the notice barring Howard from participating in the show, did not return an Argonaut call seeking comment.

In spite of the feud, the 2007 Muscle Beach International Classic, will take place Sunday and Monday, May 27th and 28th, at the Venice Beach Recreation Center, 1800 Ocean Front Walk, Venice. Spectator admission is free. Amateur bodybuilders looking to participate in the event must pay a $75 entry fee.

Registration and preliminary judging will begin Sunday morning, May 27th, and continue into the afternoon. The competition finals begin at noon Monday, May 28th. Each year, the competition features amateur male and female bodybuilders from around the world, and presents awards to icons of Muscle Beach’s past.

In recent years, Wheatley has added a portion of the show that pays tribute to men and women who have served in the military.

A flyover by a C-17 Globemaster from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside County in honor of Memorial Day is scheduled to be a part of this year’s show. Each branch of the military will have static displays of military hardware, as well as uniformed personnel at information booths.

In addition, Wheatley says a group of recruits will be sworn in, and the 36-piece Band of the Southwest jazz ensemble from the 562nd Air National Guard (Port Hueneme) will perform at 2 p.m. Sunday; and 3 p.m. Monday.

Inductees into the Muscle Beach Venice Bodybuilding Hall of Fame at the show will include Tony Pearson, who won approximately 20 titles, including Mr. America 1978 and Mr. Pro Universe 1980; and Deforrest “Moe” Most, one of the pioneers of Muscle Beach Santa Monica, who died September 2nd, 2006, at the age of 89.

Information, (310) 399-2775 or www.musclebeachvenice.com/.

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