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“The Mecca” is Forever The Original Gold’s Gym Still Stands – In More Ways Than One

They file in the storefront in shifts similar to factory workers. The men arrived and did an entire day’s work in a two or three-hour period. Then they were replaced by the next group who more or less just repeated what the previous group had done.

The sound of banging metal resonated down the block on Pacific. Open doors and windows amplified the noise for the passersby who probably shook their heads when they saw what was taking place at building number 1006. After all, this was during the late 1960s and early 1970s – a time when weightlifting was something only “those” guys did.

A man named Joe Gold was responsible for causing so much commotion on the strip a short walk from Venice Beach in sunny California. When he opened what has been described as a “modest fitness center” in 1965, no one could predict that 44 years later, it would become the most famous gym franchise it is today.

Compared to today’s standards, the gym would be considered archaic. Gold welded much of the equipment himself in his garage. His setup included sets of dumbbells ranging from five- to- 150 pounds. Gold debuted cable and pulley machines in his gym.

The original Gold’s Gym, also known as “The Mecca of Bodybuilding” was a veritable second home to names like Dave “The Blond Bomber” Draper and Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski. These pioneers set the pace for a new crop of patrons.

“That would be Arnold (Schwarzenegger), Robby (Robinson), Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, Ken Waller, Denny Gable and myself,” said Bill Grant, who won the 1972 Mr. America and 1974 Mr. World titles.

Waller, who had a stint as a professional player in the Canadian Football League, also doubled as the gym’s manager.

“You name it, they were there,” Grant said. “The gym was bristling with energy. We had the back and front doors open and there would always be a nice breeze coming in  – even if it were 90 degrees outside. You would walk in and they had the sky lights there – perfect for taking pictures.”

There were times when Joe Weider would come into Gold’s Gym with the late Art Zeller to do photo shoots for his magazine “Muscle Builder,” which was later renamed “Muscle and Fitness.” For effect and extra detail, Zeller would shoot the bodybuilders in black and white and they became some of the most famous photographs of the era.

“He (Zeller) would say to us, ‘Guys, just act like I’m not even here. I’m going to take photographs and they’ll be the greatest that you have ever seen,’” said Grant. “You never even noticed that Artie was there. He would be walking around, slipping around there, standing in the corner, taking shots while we were working out.”

A different set of those early photographs was depicted in the book “Pumping Iron” (1974, Fireside Publishers) by Charles Gaines and George Butler. Adorning the 221 pages are pictures taken by Butler of the same bodybuilders that filed in and out of Gold’s Gym. These photographs were probably the earliest introduction of Schwarzenegger to many people who did not read the muscle magazines of the day. 

Gaines’ description of the immigrant from Graz, Austria is filled with accolades such as the “best bodybuilder alive” and “very possibly the most perfectly developed man in the history of the world.” Always drawing a crowd, even amongst other bodybuilders, Schwarzenegger is easily the crowned prince of Gold’s Gym.

The gym is described as having a quality of festiveness and a strong sense of celebration, something that sets it apart from other gyms. The biggest names in the sport all flocked to Gold’s every year to prepare for their respective competitions because the gym is “where it’s at.”

Although these men may have been enjoying themselves, it was all business. Both business and pleasure could easily be seen in the 1977 film “Pumping Iron.” Gold’s Gym is portrayed heavily in the film and became popular in the mainstream, as did bodybuilding itself and the man who would go on and become the most recognized name in Hollywood. But Schwarzenegger’s popularity may have rendered the original location obsolete, even in his absence from the stage.

“The Austrian Oak” retired from competing in 1975, the same year that Gold’s Gym moved from Venice to Santa Monica. The new owner was Ken Sprague and he had been correct in his vision that a bodybuilding craze would take off once moviegoers were exposed to it and Schwarzenegger.

“Ken decided that we needed a bigger place so he bought (one) at 1452 Second Street and it almost kind of duplicated what the old Gold’s Gym looked like,” Grant said. “It was incredible. Every movie star that you could think of was coming into the gym.”

The new owner capitalized on the gym’s popularity by marketing it with a clothing line that included the famous T-shirts that still grace the bodies of everyone who ever touched a weight set in their life. The baldheaded weightlifter logo, which was created in 1973 by Ric Draslin (just one of Schwarzenegger’s many training partners over the years), has been worn like a badge of honor.

Perhaps the demand for the T-shirts was epitomized during a parade the day before the 1977 Mr. America contest, which was held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Grant looked back on that special day and how he pleaded with Sprague to let him ride on top one of the elephants that were part of the procession down Ocean Boulevard, but had to settle for an AAU float. During the parade, Grant estimated that Gold’s Gym sold close to $10,000 worth of T-shirts. “Kent Kuehn was working the front counter and was pulling out the drawer and pouring the money into paper bags,” he said. “There was so much money in them (the drawers) just from selling the shirts.”

Dave Johns proved victorious that evening and was presented the award by Mae West, who said one of her famous lines to the newly crowned Mr. America. “Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?” The association of West with bodybuilders goes back to 1954 when she was looking for a troupe of muscle men for one of her acts. Joe Gold was among those attending West’s casting call. Gold’s Gym’s popularity was not limited to the West. Grant attended one of early “Night of the Champions” competitions promoted by Wayne DeMilla in the late 1970s in New York City and brought with him a sample of merchandise from Gold’s Gym. “I had a whole duffel bag full (clothing),” he said. “The bag was about two or three feet long and I sold every one of them and they (the fans) wanted more.” By 1979, Sprague sold Gold’s Gym to a group of three men who turned it into an entire franchise. Pete Grymkowski, Tim Kimber and Ed Connors ended up moving what is still considered the “original” Gold’s Gym back to Venice in 1982 where it stands today.

With more than 600 locations worldwide, what began as a 4,000-square foot property has spanned more than 30 countries and is still associated with the greats of the sport. Many professional bodybuilders still train at Gold’s and large photos of all the past Mr. Olympia winners adorn the walls in Venice. Although there hasn’t been a set performed for more than four decades at the place that Joe Gold opened, the building still stands as it did back then.

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