Monday, March 16, 2015

Joe Gold Interview - Laurie Golder

Mr. Gold ''set the tone for the gym (early Gold's) -- a tough-minded place where the only music was grunting and sweating.'' -- Mike Uretz, president of World Gym, attorney for Joe Gold.

Ric Drasin interview with Mike Uretz talking about some of the more interesting members from the early days of Gold's. 

 Decades ago, a young Austrian with the biggest biceps the world had ever seen came strutting into a small gym on the West Coast called Gold's At almost precisely that moment, something in the universe clicked. A feeling came over the gym that something special was happening or about to happen. Here was a man with so much charisma or magic or animal magnetism or whatever you want to call it that it literally affected everybody. This feeling started to spread out of Gold's and into the streets and byways of Los Angeles, and it began to attract people. At first, it was just other bodybuilders who came to Gold's to experience the phenomenon. Then, photographers and journalists and plain ole people from Kansas or wherever tourists come from wanted to see what was going on in this small gym.

Appropriately, the place became known as "the Mecca." And that name comes pretty close to capturing what Gold's Gym used to be. People eventually came from all over the world to be a part of this almost religious experience.

Would bodybuilding be as popular today had Arnold come to this country and begun working out at 24-Hour Fitness or Bally's or any one of those other cookie-cutter gyms? [Imagine it at a CrossFit Box.] Somehow, we don't think so.

Much of the credit has to go to the man who built Gold's. Up until the early '60s, there really were no true bodybuilding gyms. Instead, there were "spas" that smelled strongly of eucalyptus oil where people came in to take a sauna or sit on one of those machines that wobbles your fat away. Most had dumbbells lying in the corner, but they generally weren't the focal point.

Joe Gold -- sailor, strongman, bodybuilder and entrepreneur -- had a different idea, though. He had a vision of a place where bodybuilders, "muscleheads," could come in and train using heavy-duty equipment specially designed for bodybuilders. So he built Gold's Gym on a small lot in Venice, California. It became Arnold's home, the home to all the top bodybuilders of the day, and it became the subject of the hugely successful book and movie Pumping Iron. The rest, as they say, is history.

However, without Joe Gold's vision, things would, in all probability, be very, very different today. This magazine might not exist, nor might many of the others. Bodybuilding might still be the pursuit of a very select few loners and "freaks," instead of the fairly mainstream sport it is today.

[Allohistory. Counterfactualism, virtual history, or uchronia, also known as alternate history.
Speculating what might have happened if things had gone differently from the way they actually did.]

In an effort to find out more about our roots, we looked up the man who built Gold's Gym -- Joe Gold. He no longer owns Gold's Gym, having sold it years ago. Currently he heads World Gym, a very successful franchise of gyms around the country and, ironically, one of Gold's Gym's biggest rivals.

The Interview  

Joe Gold (JG): You got five minutes. Don't rush.

Muscle Media (MM): Uhhh, okay. Where were you born and raised?

JG: I was born and raised in East L.A. I'm a native Californian.

MM: How old a man are you (at time of interview), if you don't mind me asking?

JG: I'm 75.
[Born March 10, 1922. That puts this interview at around 1997.]

MM: What's the most significant thing you can remember about growing up?

JG: I grew up.

MM: I can see you're a man of many words.

JG: Okay, okay. When I was a kid, I got very interested in bodybuilding. I was about 12 years old. And the first thing I did -- I didn't know anything about working out, so I got myself a big, giant truck tire and a sledge hammer, and I used to swing that sledge hammer to build muscle. And I realized what it was I wanted to do. I had this old garage in front of my house in East L.A., and I build a neighborhood gym when I was about 13 or 14. All the kids in the neighborhood used to work out there.

MM: When did you first get the idea you wanted to start working out . . . ?

JG: (Without waiting for me to finish.) From the magazines, of course. My hero, though, was John Grimek. He had a fantastic body, and this was back in the '30s. 

MM: This was sort of a radical thing back then, wasn't it?

JG: [same initials as Grimek!] That's what I'm saying. We were all freaks, and when I was playing football, I was in high school, and the coach thought we were going to get musclebound, but all the guys who trained with weights made the team -- we were stronger than the other kids. I was young, 15 or 15, and I had a pretty fair body by the time I was 16.

MM: Had anybody ever heard of things like supplements or anything like that?

JG: My supplement was food. We knew enough to eat protein; I was always hungry for protein foods like meat and eggs and things like that. In that particular age group, when you're in your teens, you have all the natural hormones going through your body for growth -- the growth hormone, the testosterone, everything's natural, and you make tremendous gains during that period. The teens are the best time to work out -- ages 13 to 18.

MM: What was competition like back in the early days? That must have really been considered freaky.

JG: Basically, Bob Hoffman was in charge of those, so consequently, the contest were a little different than they are now. Lifting was his main love, so you had to sit through all the lifting before you got to the "bodybuilding." It was really a bore. It was a four-to-five-hour marathon.

 Bosco cartoon (by Harry Paschall) from Bob Hoffman's Strength & Health magazine illustrating Hoffman's preference for weightlifting over bodybuilding.

MM: What was your first show?

JG: I was in the Mr. Los Angeles. I took sixth. That was sometime after the war, maybe '47 or '48 -- something like that. We used to have pretty big crowds at the old auditorium down there at the corner of Ninth and Grand. They held 'em there for years and years, and then they moved them to other auditoriums. Ninth and Grand was a famous place for bodybuilding shows.

MM: What were you doing all this time to support yourself?

JG: I always worked. I was a sailor, or I worked in the studios as an extra; I supported myself, and the way I would do it was, when I would go to sea, I would save all my money, spend three or four months out on the oceans, then come back with a handful of money and then I would work in the studios as an extra. And in between when I didn't work, I picked up my unemployment. I always had some bucks in my pocket.

MM: When you say you were a sailor, you mean you were a . . . ?

JG: Merchant marine sailor. Sailed all over the world. Been to a lot of interesting places. The last time I sailed was to South America in 1978. I was in charge of the whole ship, the Santa Maria. I was the bosun. 

MM: I understand you used to do a traveling show with Mae West.

JG: It was 1954. They had a call for muscle guys at the beach, and I remember . . . you remember George Ackerman (a bodybuilder of the '50s who opened up a successful gym in Las Vegas)? He organized it and introduced us to Mae West. She lived downtown in Hollywood, so we all came off the beach -- there were about eight or nine of us at the time. Richard Dubois was the current Mr. America, and there was Armand Tanny. Do you remember these names? Myself, and some guys like Harry Schwarz -- he ended up owning a bunch of Vic Tanny gyms . . . I could keep on going with the names, but they won't mean anything to a lot of the readers, so what's the difference? 

MM: Was this a one-shot thing, or did you actually go on tour?

JG: We went on a tour. The first tour lasted a year. And actually, I got fired before the tour was over. I went on for ten months and then got fired. I went behind stage in Miami and was kissing this beautiful camera girl, but Mae West came by and threw daggers at me, and I knew I was getting fired, so I said, "I quit."

MM: That's kind of ironic, isn't it? The queen of sex firing you for kissing a camerawoman?

JG: She thought we should be with her. That's true. The manager said, "No, no, she's not going to fire you. You gotta come to Chicago." So I go to Chicago, and they fire me there.

MM: What did the act consist of? 

JG: It was a very unusual act for that time. All the guys were actual muscle guys. I'll give you a quick synopsis of the act. We'd come out wearing big, giant robes, and we flashed our robes at here, and her her expression would be, "Oh man, these guys are the greatest; they're hung like mules," and all this sort of shit, and we're all like Mr. Greece, and Mr. so-and-so, and the top guy in the show was Richard Dubois, Mr. America at that time. And then the next scene we'd come out in little bikini briefs, and we'd strip on the stage, and we'd go through a little dance act, and basically we were so clumsy to begin with, we couldn't keep time, but it really worked out fine because the audience went crazy when they saw us. And that's basically what it was.

MM: That must have been really wild . . . 

JG: Oh yeah. For that time, it was very risqué. I went out again with her in '56 -- she hired me back, and we went out again in '59.

MM: She forgave you, right?

JG: Well, she had nobody else. Plus she liked me.

MM: When did you first get it in your mind to open a gym?

JG: Like I told you, when I was a kid. I had that gym in my garage. I graduated from high school, and it wasn't long after that I went to war. I spent almost four years there, and I got wounded -- hurt pretty badly during the war. That has a lot to do with what I have today, with the crutches and the wheelchair. So anyhow, when I came back in '46, we were lying around the beach, tryin' to figure out what we wanted to do, but I really didn't make a move until 1950 or '51. I happened to end up in New Orleans on a ship, and I decided to open up a gym in New Orleans. It was called Ajax, after a great Greek warrior. I lasted a couple of years, I got bored to death, and I went back to sea again. New Orleans, naturally, was not my town. Being a Californian is a whole different world. 

MM: How were you injured in the war, if you don't mind me asking?

JG: Our ship took a hit, and I fell head over heels down the stairs.

MM: How did Gold's Gym actually evolve?

JG: That evolved . . . it was strange . . . I was still going to sea and everything, still doing the same thing, and there was this club at the beach called the Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club. 


    And it was right on he beach for years, and Santa Monica decided it didn't want it, and in the late '50s they chased all the guys off the beach, and they went indoors and opened up a club and called that the Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club. And they were moving from place to place, and it was very unsettled, so I told the guys, "Look, I own a lot here in Venice, and I'll build you a building," and I said, "I paid seven grand for the lot, and you can have it for nine, and I'll build the building for you, build the equipment, do everything for you, and we can all be charter members." They thought I was out to make on the deal when they figured I was going to make $2,000. So I said, "Okay, fine," but I decided we needed a gym in this area anyhow, so I built Gold's Gym. I built the building myself, built all the equipment, and I opened it up, and it was an instant success because everything I did at that particular time was new and innovative; they'd never seen equipment like that before. The first big member I had was Dave Draper. 

I wish I'd never read these Dave Draper columns . . .

so I could read them for the first time again!
No matter the weather, never think about stalling,
these individually voiced treasures will have you training post haste: 

MM: What was the size of the gym?

JG: At that time, the whole gym was 3,300 square feet. It was strictly a musclehead gym, this was not a health club, and 3,300 sq. ft. was pretty big back then.

MM: So you built all the equipment?

JG: Oh yes. I went to the scrap yard and bought steel at a nickel a pound and built everything. The big equipment maker back then was Paramount, and they made the health-club stuff that basically was pretty looking, even though it wasn't the best. And then Vic Tanny had his own factory, and he made a step above that, but it was still all for health clubs. The stuff I built was all for muscleheads. I built stuff you couldn't move. Most of the benches of he time were rickety-rackety, but I built stuff where the seats were adjustable; I put stands on the inclines which they'd never had; I built special machines -- rowing machines, all that sort of stuff.

MM: In the beginning, did you ever think you weren't going to make it?

JG: I never think negative, always positive.

MM: When did Arnold first walk into the place?

JG: That was 1968. I was forewarned about him. Chester Yorton -- I don't know if you remember that name -- Chester Yorton had just come back from Europe from the Mr. Universe contest, and he had just beat out Arnold.

This man (Yorton) never bragged about anybody but himself, but he said, "This kid's gonna be great. You gotta see this kid." He was putting the word of the gospel out. He was so impressed with this guy. Of course, he was talking about Arnold. When I saw Arnold, he was big, good looking, and you could talk to him. He was maybe 20 years old, and he had direction, and you knew by talking to him that this kid knew where he was going. That was my first encounter with Arnold.

MM: Did you have any insight that this guy was going to make this sport more mainstream?

JG: Well, that's what I just said. He knew which direction he wanted to go, knew what he wanted to do, and nothing would stand in his way.

MM: Can you think of anything particularly funny about those days?

JG: Well, I gave everybody nicknames. I called Arnold and Franco "Batman and Robin." They came as a team. And Arnold was on the smooth side, so I used to call him "Balloon Belly."

MM: Really? Arnold, Balloon Belly? [this was obviously before our modern GH gut stars bubbled to the surface]. What did he say to that?

JG: What could he say? I was the owner of the gym, so I called him Balloon Belly.

MM: Could you ever replicate the atmosphere of those old days?

JG: It's an era you'll never duplicate. You can't go backwards; you gotta go forwards. What you have to realize, at that particular time, Gold's was the only true bodybuilding gym in the whole world. There was Vince Gironda in the city of Los Angeles, and he had a nice little gym, and he was one of them. Later on, Bill Pearl had a nice gym, but here I came along in the '60s and built something better than either one of them. So, the word spread like wildfire all over the world, and the span that I owned it was not very long, remember. It was a six-year period. In that six-year period, i captured every bodybuilder in the world. I mean Sergio Oliva and . . . you can keep on going down the list. When you came to L.A., there was no place to work out other than Gold's.

MM: What did a membership cost back then?

JG: When I first opened up, it was 40 bucks a year. When I sold it, it was 60. And the new guys upped it to 75.

MM: What impact did the book and movie Pumping Iron have on the business?

JG: Well, I didn't own the gym at that time, but it had a tremendous impact. What it did to the business was make it known worldwide. It showed a different side of the bodybuilder that nobody had ever seen before, and it showed that all bodybuilders are not big dummies, and that they had something on the ball, and Arnold had the charisma about him that Hollywood embraced. And that's the reason he was able to do all those pictures he did. And, it just changed bodybuilding. As soon as Hollywood embraced it, it became a whole different world. It became respectable.

MM: What year did you build the gym?

JG: Built it in '64 and sold it in '70.

MM: Why did you sell the place?

JG: I got bored. There was no money in it those days. There was no money in bodybuilding. Money didn't start until the late '70s.

MM: So what happened after you sold the place?

JG: Well, I went back to sea. Like I told you, the last ship I was on was in 1978. And then Arnold and the guys came up to me and said, "Why don't you open up another gym?" That was in '75. I said, "Okay," and it took me a little while to open it. I did the same thing, I build all the equipment again, and I built the building again, and I opened World Gym. Because I sold the name "Gold's," of course. And then along came World, and all the guys came over to the gym. It was a strange situation because I had signed a covenant not to compete with Gold's Gym, and I broke it anyhow, and they tried to sue me, and I went through all this crap. So, anyhow, I had to make an agreement with them that I wouldn't do any advertising or take any pictures. But it actually worked against them. Photographers used to climb up on ladders and shoot the guys through the windows. The more they said I couldn't advertise, the more popular it became.

MM: It created a sort of a mystique, then?

JG: Yes.

MM: Is that first World Gym where you are now?

JG: Yes. In Santa Monica. It's where my home is, the corporate offices, and I built a penthouse on top.

MM: What's a typical day like now?

JG: Of course, I have to get up in the morning. I have a little tea for breakfast and a muffin, and I go to the gym and start my day. I take in a light little workout about every day -- at least I try to. You screwed up my workout today, by the way. And then, I go to the office after taking care of my gym affairs, and I see what's happening, see what's important, make decisions, and spend a couple of hours there. From there, I go to Englewood. In Englewood, I have a little shop, and I use it as a warehouse and shop. It's about 5,000 square feet. And right now, I'm building a set of dumbbells, from 160 to 200 lbs. And you can imagine how many guys can lift those. I'm making them very precise, right down to the ounce. And I'm making them for Lee Priest, who I think is the only guy in the world who can lift them right now. I did make a pair of 170's first, to see if he could do it, and he lifted them quite easily.

MM: When did World Gym start franchising out?

JG: We started, I believe it was in the late '70s, early '80s.

MM: Is it fair to say you're a fairly well-to-do man at this point?

JG: Ahh, yes and no. I've given things away . . . I'm comfortable, let's put it that way.

MM: Are you involved in actually giving training advice?

JG: No, I don't dabble in that. I have certain people I say things to, but I keep away from that.

MM: Arnold still works out there, doesn't he?

JG: Oh yes, he was here the other day, as a matter of fact.

MM: Do people leave him alone? Are they respectful of his privacy?

JG: In my gym, they know better. Nobody bothers anybody here.

MM: What do you think of what's going on in professional bodybuilding today?

JG: Well, I really don't want to get involved in that conversation. I have my own opinions. No steroids, none of that. Just change the subject.

MM: Can I just ask you what the differences are between modern bodybuilding and when it first started?


MM: I'd like to know your opinion.

JG: You ought to get an opinion on this one. Bodybuilders in the old days . . . we didn't have the "magic" they have in the modern days, let's put it that way. The bodies were entirely different. Nowadays, they look like clones. That's all you're going to get from me on that subject.

MM: What do you think about . . .

JG: What do I think about? Your time's almost up, kid. You better hurry.

MM: I understand you wanted to see bodybuilding in the Olympics. Is that a possibility?

JG: Not the way it's going today; it's not a possibility. You have to change it. You've got a lot of changes to do before that will happen. You have to clean up the sport. Clean up the promoters. Clean up everything. Give the sport a bath.

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