Entire Series Courtesy of Liam Tweed.
Part One is here:
Two Dreams Come True -
A Mr. Universe Win and a Gym of His Own
After Bill's Mr. America victory, things happened so quickly Bill still hardly dared believe it. It didn't sink in to him for a while as it just didn't seem possible. Bill remembers getting called out to receive his trophy and walking in a daze. Even with the trophy at his feet and the photographers calling for 'just one more' amidst the popping of flashbulbs, Bill felt he had to be dreaming. But there was Leo, smiling and as proud as punch for his man. Leo was as elated as Bill and all of a sudden the strain of the last few days was forgotten and the trip seemed very worthwhile to say the least.
They were immediately approached by some television people and asked to fly to Chicago that evening to make an appearance on the countrywide Dave Garroway show the next day.
That evening, however, they were guests of the Indianapolis Athletic Club. They were given a wonderful reception and dinner party. They met some fine people, and apart from the weather, both Bill and Leo have nothing but fond and happy memories of their visit to Indiana.
The Dave Garroway Show was only the first of many television appearances Bill has made throughout the world over the past 18 years.
Leo recalls that first appearance: "Immediately after the dinner we left for Chicago; let me say here that they were just first class in their handling of the whole situation. Everyone we met was extremely nice to us. They were all so helpful and friendly and we both felt completely at ease all the time around these people. We were immensely impressed by the high standard of efficiency of everyone connected with the television studios. It was an extremely pleasant experience."
After his startling victory in the Mr. America event, Bi8ll thought he would devote himself more to the game as he felt people would be looking up to him. He was determined to set a good example as a Mr. America, so he gave up his wrestling and other activities to concentrate solely on his training. Winning the Mr. America title spurred him on more than anything else. Whereas most people stop or ease up at that point, the goal having been accomplished, Bill thought he now had a big obligation to the sport. In fact, as time would bear out, it was to be only the real beginning for him.
Bill's Mr. America victory in Indianapolis resulted in his pictures appearing in all the leading physique magazines, and in no time at all he was being hailed as one of the leading bodybuilders in the world. His broad shoulders and wasp waist were to set a new trend in physiques. As Bill was riding the crest of an enormous wave of success, Leo urged him to have a crack at the Mr. Universe contest, by now firmly established as an annual event in London, England.
The N.A.B.B.A. Mr. Universe event was first held in London in conjunction with the 1948 Olympic Games. John Grimek won this initial contest with Steve Reeves runner up. There was no contest in 1949, but they were resumed again in 1950 with Steve Reeves beating out Reg Park in a close decision. Reg won the following year. In 1952 the contest was divided into two divisions, Amateur and Professional, and has been run in this fashion ever since. The winning of the Mr. Universe crown is considered to be the epitome of success in the bodybuilding world.
It being decided and agreed upon, Bill training like a demon and in the short period or time following the Mr. America event he made remarkable progress under the ever watchful eye of Leo Stern.
However, all the hard worked for gains seemed to be in vain just a few days before the contest. Both were so preoccupied with Bill's physical conditioning, neither had bothered to check out the strict regulations governing civilian travel by air. Different shots that Bill was required to have had that took some time for results to be verified, such as smallpox, etc., hadn't been taken. It looked like Bill was destined not to be able to make the trip, then miraculously the U.S. Navy saved the day with an operation that was to be a huge success.
This is how Bill recalls it: "The Navy was just wonderful to me at this time. They gave me military transportation across to England. In fact, they assigned me to the American Embassy in London so I could take part in the contest. The man who was largely responsible for all the Navy's help was Captain Ralph Styles who later became an Admiral. He asked me to boost the U.S. Navy and let it be known how the Navy feeds its personnel. It was easy for me to say these things because in my case they were perfectly true. To travel as a serviceman I had to wear my uniform, and I wasn't allowed too much in the way of baggage. To tell you the truth, being in the service I didn't have very much in the way of civilian clothes anyway."
When Bill arrived in London he was to get a pleasant surprise. Unknown to him, the York Barbell Company had sent Jules Bacon to London to compete in the professional division of the Mr. Universe competition. In fact, the NABBA officials had thoughtfully booked them into the same room. Jules, incidentally, had won the Mr. America title in 1943, exactly 10 years before Bill won it. Meeting Jules was a lucky break for Bill, as due to his traveling circumstances the only clothing he had with him was his Navy uniform. Fortunately, Jules Bacon brought along additional clothing, due to his planning a lengthy stay after the contest, and came to Bill's rescue, lending him a couple of suits and shirts. As Bill remembers, "It was just a bit of a squeeze, but thanks to Jules, it was nice to be able to take my uniform off for a couple of days. Jules and I had a terrific time over there and we got to know each other real well during that trip and have been good friends ever since."
This was to be the only contest that Bill has ever entered in which he felt pretty confident of winning. He had, in the six or seven months just past, swept the board and taken every major contest in the United States, so it seemed like the thing to do was win. Win he did, and very convincingly. This was Bill's first taste of the Mr. Universe method of judging which he holds in high esteem. In fact, in Bill's opinion, the Mr. Universe contest is the very best there is, with every judge being fully qualified in every respect. According to Bill, the Mr. Universe contest is the true mecca of the bodybuilding world, and to win you have to be the best man there, as they don't play favorites at all.
This was to be Bill's first meeting with Oscar Heidenstam, and I would like you to hear his comments on him: "I can't say enough about Oscar Heidenstam. He's always been extremely good to me. Any time Leo and I have sent photographs or anything else, even if we've sent them "free gratis," Oscar has always paid us by putting the money due in a bank account in England. It means we always have some money to spend whenever we go over there. Thanks to Oscar. I consider Oscar Heidenstam a true friend, and he would have to be one of the first people I would look up any time I set foot in Great Britain. I don't think he is appreciated anywhere near the amount he should be. I think it's a crying shame that the man doesn't get more monetary reward for his outstanding efforts. I mean he devotes 14 hours a day, every day, to the game. He has absolutely dedicated his life to physical culture or "PC" as he calls it, and his honesty and integrity are beyond reproach. He leads the judging panel of every Mr. Universe contest and I would like to say here that all the men on that panel are of the highest caliber possible. Bert Loveday, Colin Sheard, Dr. Ian McQueen, Ted White, Wag Bennett, Hal Wrigley, Dennis Stallard, Ivan Dunbar, Jean Coryn, Bill Stevens, and others who know the game inside out. These men are all experts in the field, and believe me, a person just has to be the best to win. Just like Oscar, these fellows are honest down the line. I have nothing but the highest regard for all of them."
The Mr. Universe contest made a big impression on young Bill and he speaks further of his trip: "The people I met over in England were extremely apologetic for how little they thought they were doing for me even though in actual fact they were all treating me like royalty. I've always found the British people to be just wonderful. It wasn't too long after the war and a lot of things were scarce, but they took me into their homes and shared their food with me. I didn't realize at the time the sacrifices they were making to feed me, because living in America and just being a kid during the war, I didn't fully realize the hardships these people had suffered.
"Regarding the contest, I had never been to such a well organized and professionally run physique show in my life. It was simply tremendous! Oscar and the other fellows ran that show just perfectly and it was of the highest caliber one can imagine. It was like being in another world. I was never more proud of being an American in my life than on that day. The Star Spangled Banner was played for me, and I really felt that I was representing the United States and carrying the flag of my country. For the first time in my life I really felt like somebody special, thanks to that wonderful audience, which has to be the most knowledgeable in the world. I was overwhelmed by the graciousness of the British people. I gave a few shows after the contest and I realized then what a novice I really was. My stage presentation wasn't very good at that time. Also, being so young I was unsure of myself, but the people over there accepted me just the way I was and I honestly felt I had left a good impression that first time.
"The people I met showed me all through London, in fact a couple of them talked me into becoming a coin collector, which I still am. That was the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and some of these people were kind enough to give me some of the special coins that were minted especially for the occasion. I still have these coins and they are what I consider the best part of my collection.
"One thing that has always impressed me about the British bodybuilders especially back in 1953, was the enthusiasm and drive they possessed, especially in view of the rather limited facilities most of them had to work out with. I couldn't understand how the standard could be so high because the postwar years had meant poor food and not too much of that either. I found it amazing at the time that they were doing as well as they were. I had nothing but the greatest admiration for everyone I met in England, and I came back home feeling really and truly proud. I can honestly say that winning the Mr. Universe title meant more to me than winning any other title, including Mr. America."
An amusing little story here. Even though Bill had messed around all those years at home with weights, he hadn't started to really develop until he joined the Navy and came to San Diego. He wasn't much of a letter writer, consequently the first his mother knew of his success was when she read in the local papers about Bill winning the Mr. America event. She could hardly believe it, and wrote and asked him if it was true. He wrote back and confirmed the newspaper report. Bill's mother wrote back straightaway very concerned, asking, "Bill, what on earth are we going to do with all your clothes? I've been saving them for you and they will never fityou now."
Bill got out of the Navy in 1954 and wanted very much to go into the gym business. He didn't want to start in San Diego, as much as he loved the place, because as he puts it: "In those days there was a certain amount of loyalty factor involved. I didn't want to take any of Leo's customers or didn't want any hard feeling at all with any of my friends down there that such a move might bring about. Do I did the logical thing and moved to a city that didn't have a gym so that I wouldn't be accused of stepping on anybody's toes. In this day and age that's a joke because somebody will move in right across the street and try to run you out of business. I went to Sacramento, as I heard there were no gyms in the area, and thus offered unlimited opportunity.
The man who was largely instrumental in persuading Bill to try Sacramento was a fellow by the name of Don Farnsworth. Don's home was in Sacramento and he told Bill he could stay with him until he got the gym going and everything was shipshape.
Bill's life savings at this time amounted to $2800 and he laughs now at the fact that it wouldn't go very far if he were to try it nowadays. He had saved this amount by taking out three war bonds every two months while he was in the Navy, determined to save enough to start a gym of his very own.
So 1954 found him in Sacramento looking for a place to open up a gym. Apart from being a little low on money, two other problems confronted him; one being the fact that there wasn't too much in the way of vacant rental property space in the town at that time, the other reason, believe it or not, was that most property owners refused to take his seriously, as Bill still had a rather boyish looking face at the time, and most of the people he talked to just wouldn't believe he wanted to lease a building and get into his own business. He finally convinced one real estate man who helped him locate a building that was fairly suitable.
About those first few weeks this is what Bill has to say: "I had to pay the first month's rent, also the last two months' rent in advance, so you can imagine what that did to my $2800. The remaining money was spent installing showers and putting in as much equipment as I could possibly afford. Most of it was used equipment and a lot of it was very crude looking. In fact, in the beginning the whole place was rather crude, but I had invested every dime I possessed into my gym and I had made up my mind I was going to succeed. If I had to do it today with what little I had there would be no way, in fact sheer fear would stop me even trying it."
Bill's gym wasn't situated in the best part of town; in fact it was almost downtown, and there was no parking around it. The railroad tracks in Sacramento ran right alongside the gym and huge passenger and freight trains would roar past not 30 feet from one side of the building. Each time this happened, which would be fairly frequently, the whole building would shake and plates would rattle and dance, and everyone would invariably think it was the start of a major earthquake! Bill says, "As with everything else, though, we got used to it, and apart from having to stop a conversation until a train went by, we got to where we didn't mind at all."
Those early days in Sacramento were hard ones for Bill. Every penny he earned he put right back into his gym. He recalls buying some equipment from a small gym that went out of business in Modesto, California. He was able to purchase some good used equipment from the well-known Ed and Alice Yarick Health Studio in Oakland.
Bill says, "Every cent I made bought either used or new equipment, and after that rather barren start I can honestly say we finished up with one of the finest equipped lifting and bodybuilding gyms in the world. Of course by today's standards it would be considered rather antiquated, but for that time the gym was fabulously equipped."
Bill's gym turned out to be a very successful operation. He did extremely well and is very proud of the fact that he trained some exceptionally well-built men. One of these was Ray Routledge who won the Mr. America title and subsequently took the Mr. Universe crown in London. His Sacramento gym also turned out some Junior Mr. America winners, and his men almost completely dominated the northern California scene for many years. His boys would win virtually all the contests that were held in the area at that time. Al Souza, Don Farnsworth, Walt Horton, and Mike Madigan being just a few of the top names that Bill trained about this time.
He still has many friends in Sacramento and I recently took a business trip up there and everyone I met connected with the game spoke volumes of praise for the man.
Bill recalls how hot it gets during the summers in Sacramento, and he said the temperature in the gym would get as high as 120 degrees in the evenings. This was the time that most of the guys would work out after their normal working day. He had no air conditioning in the place and there would be as many as 70 or 80 men working out at the same time. They would be working out like crazy in that stifling heat, but Bill says that apart from the occasional joke, nobody ever complained. In fact, they were a wonderful bunch of people, and the gym had a fantastic atmosphere of team spirit all the time. Bill and the guys would sunbathe on the roof, but first they had to hose the roof, then lie in the water; it was too hot to be up there otherwise.
So successful was Bill in Sacramento that he was eventually involved in a chain of seven gyms, but so much time was spent in running them his health was being affected, so he finally decided to cut back to his one gym on "P" street, crowded as it was.
It was during these years that Reg Park of England, then later South Africa, was at his peak. In the late 1940's the arguments used to rage about who was the greatest between Reeves and Grimek. I believe John Grimek proved his supremacy by twice beating Steve Reeves in open competition. From the early 1950's right up to this day the big question has always been, "Is Bill Pearl the greatest or could Reg Park beat him out?" It is doubtful if these two greats will ever meet in competition so the question will probably go unanswered in that respect. Of Reg, these are Bill's comments: "I have the utmost respect for Reg Park. I've stayed at his home in South Africa, and when he visited the USA he has stayed with me. Reg came along a couple of years or so before I did and he was the beginning of a new era. I think when he and I and a couple of others fall by the wayside it will be the official end of that era. Reg has a fantastic physique and I've always been impressed, really impressed by him. He has been a real credit to the game. I'm sure, like myself, if he had to do it all over again, he would change a few things, but then wouldn't we all?" Reg has been very successful and he always conducts himself like a real English gentleman. As far as being one of the greatest physiques in the world, there is no question about it, and like I said before, I really believe Reg was the start of a completely new era."
In Part Three:
Two Trips to London: Vanquished, then Victorious.