TV icon Jack LaLanne dies at 96: founded first US fitness spa in Oakland

By Pamela Mays McDonald

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Nonagenarian fitness guru Jack LaLanne died at his home in Morro Bay of complications from pneumonia, it was announced today. He was ninety-six years old at the time of his passing, his longevity not a surprise to the millions who knew him from his years as a television host. As an exercise and nutrition fanatic, he earned the title “the founder of the modern physical fitness movement.” In later years, LaLanne often referred to himself as “The Godfather of Fitness.”

An article in the New York Times refers to the significance of his professional accomplishments. He started working out with weights when they were an oddity, and in 1936 he opened the prototype for the fitness spas to come — a gym, juice bar and health food store — in an old office building in Oakland.

“People thought I was a charlatan and a nut,” he remembered. “The doctors were against me — they said that working out with weights would give people heart attacks and they would lose their sex drive.”

So at the young age of 21, in 1936, the middle of the Great Depression, he opened what was later to become known as the first health club in America. It was called the Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studio on the third floor of a building on the corner of 15th Street and Broadway. According to an article in Business Week, “in order to recruit clients, he visited high schools wearing a tight t-shirt to emphasize his well-defined muscles. He singled out the scrawniest or most overweight students to ask if they wanted to become fit. He would then follow up with a home visit to win over parents and offer a few months of free gym membership.”

That studio eventually grew to include a string of clubs across the United States, and became the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar enterprise including, health clubs, a television show, health food products, health food preparation products (e.g., his famous juice-making machine), exercise equipment and more. By the 1980s, he had his name on more than 200 health clubs.

His television career lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s, from the early days of the TV medium, thirty years in which the enthusiastic host encouraged a national audience of millions to follow a healthy path of good nutrition and exercise, a radical notion at that time to housewives in everyday America. It was believed that exercise would make men sterile and women into muscle-bound andromorphs, a notion that LaLanne disproved by including his feminine wife in his on-air exercise segments. His career began on Oakland station KTVU-TV, effectively opening up the world of fitness to ordinary Americans.

Jack LaLanne was born Francois Henri LaLanne in San Francisco on September 26, 1914 to French immigrant parents. After running, then abandoning, a sheep farm, the LaLannes moved to Oakland. His father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 50, leaving young Jack behind to struggle alone with his mother. LaLanne often told the story that his mother spoiled him by giving him sweets. He said he became a “sugarholic” with a violent temper and suicidal thoughts. He was failing in school, his stomach was upset, he wore glasses, he had terrible headaches, he was weak, skinny and he had pimples.

His commitment to healthful living began as an unhappy teenager at the age of fifteen, when he was inspired by a nutritionist’s lecture to abandon junk food. His acne began to clear and he felt increasingly better and better. As his own fitness improved, he overcame his adolescent turmoil and sought converts to healthy living with a missionary’s fervor. He became a strict vegetarian and a dedicated high school athlete, a junk food-phobic who never even had a cup of coffee or tea after that lecture, and his entire world changed forever. “That’s what I wanted! I wanted to be an athlete, I wanted the girls to like me, and I wanted to be able to get good grades in school, and this man said I could do all that,” LaLanne said.

Jack eventually built his own backyard body building gym which he rented out to police and fireman. After graduation from Berkeley High, he attended a chiropractic college on the weekends. To earn money in the Depression, he sold healthy baked goods made by his mother. It was his mother, after all, who, concerned about her teen’s well-being, dragged him to the health and fitness lecture that was later to change his life — and American culture — forever.

Today, other Oaklanders have taken on the mantle of leadership in health, nutrition and the social issues surrounding Oakland’s youth. As he famously said, “The only way you can hurt the body is not use it,” LaLanne said. “Inactivity is the killer and, remember, it’s never too late.”




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