Joe Wheatley Productions will present a show Saturday, July 4th to celebrate 75 years of a fitness phenomenon that started in Santa Monica in the mid 1930s and moved to Venice in the 1960s.
There will be a contest for Mr. and Mrs. Muscle Beach and an induction of two new members to the Hall of Fame — Bernie Ernst, who was the star of the television show “Body Buddies,” and Relna Brewer McCrea, one of the first female bodybuilders who was known for her ability to single-handedly toss brawny men.
Throughout history, there has been a quest for fitness. While, in prehistoric times it may have been a necessity for successful hunting, from the beginning, good physical condition has been the basis for health and well-being. Ancient Greeks are thought to be the first to believe that development of the body was equally as important as development of the mind. Gymnastics was a popular sport to produce a strong, healthy body and, in turn, to maintain a sound mind.
Although bodybuilding put both Santa Monica and Venice on the map as physical fitness landmarks, unbeknownst to most, the birth of this remarkable cultural development actually began with gymnastics at the spot that became known as Muscle Beach (in Santa Monica, not to be confused with Muscle Beach Venice).
Santa Monica resident Paula Unger Boelsems was nine years old in 1934 when she was walking along the boardwalk just south of the pier with her sister and saw people doing gymnastics. She and her family had recently moved to Santa Monica from Denver, where she had been enrolled in a tumbling class. She was familiar with a lot of what the gymnasts were doing and she asked if she could join them.
One of the men, Cecil Hollingsworth, a football and gymnastics coach at UCLA who was working during the summer at what was then called the Santa Monica Beach Playground, recognized Boelsems’ talent. The encounter was the beginning of her lifelong love of flying through the air.
Paula has many photographs of Muscle Beach through the years, starting when she was a child. It could be confusing to the uninitiated, but she can tell exactly what decade the photo was taken by the height of the platform. When she started, there was no platform and canvas mats were used instead.
The first platform was about four inches above the sand and she remembers her mother bringing old carpet remnants from home to cover it. From then on, it got higher and higher until the 1950s, when the base became a box where bodybuilders would do their posing for the first time.
Another first was when Harold Zinkin, inventor of the Universal machine, performed a backbend with three men standing on his stomach, one on the shoulders of another.
A favorite activity for Paula as a child was being thrown in the air.
“Two fellows would take hold of an arm and a leg and swing me back and forth and let me go and then the third fellow would catch me,” she says. Stunt work also came her way. “I got my first stunt job because the stuntmen used to come to the beach to work out and keep nimble and they needed someone to throw around so they took me,” she says.
Russ Saunders, who was a model for artist Salvador Dali, became Paula’s acrobatic partner and they were well known for their adagio, which involves a base and a flier.
Muscle Beach in Santa Monica has not been forgotten. Bodybuilding is a true culture from which enduring relationships form. There was a Muscle Beach Alumni Association with a newsletter and periodic reunions but most of the members have passed away. Today, if you walk by the patch of grass south of the pier, you will see gymnasts and acrobats still strutting their stuff.
Zinkin and Bonnie Hearn’s book “Remembering Muscle Beach,” published by Angel City Press in Santa Monica, is a show-and-tell story of gymnasts, wrestlers and bodybuilders who helped change the shape of America’s bodies. Pictures show 14-year-old girls lifting 175-pound men, fabulous hunks building human pyramids four people high, women flying through the air, and both men and women balancing in positions that even Isaac Newton would have difficulty explaining.
Paula maintains, and people may agree, that Muscle Beach Venice would not exist if it had not been for the success of the Santa Monica Muscle Beach. In the 1960s, the Venice location was known as “The Pit” or “The Pen,” names given to the outdoor weightlifting platform. Its first evolution began with the increased interest in bodybuilding at Gold’s Gym.
In 1987, the City of Los Angeles officially designated the age-worn facility “Muscle Beach Venice.” By this time, the equipment was not working properly and the playing courts were cracked and broken. Many members of the “physical culture” left for state-of-the-art machines of nearby gyms.
So, with the new name came a facelift that was completed in 1991. The workout stage was doubled in size, all the equipment was updated and bleachers for spectators were constructed. Large barbell shapes on two sides of the indoor/outdoor weightlifting pen and an abstract representation of a person lifting weights were designed as “theme” sculptures.
Refurbished or newly built to competition standards were three regulation-size basketball courts, 11 regulation size paddle tennis courts, four outdoor regulation “three-wall” and three outdoor “one-wall” handball courts as —well as two volleyball courts. A children’s play area and a new bike path were also added.
Ten years later, additional improvements were made as part of the total Venice Boardwalk renovation. Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks employees now have an on-site office sharing a building with the Los Angeles Police Department Pacific Area substation.
The focus of the facility continues to be the weight pit and, with Wheatley officially taking over from Bill Howard in 2002 to produce the main shows of the season, Muscle Beach Venice is still a main attraction in one of the most famous locations in the world.
For more information, www.musclebeachvenice.com /.