(photo by Santa Monica History Museum)

Long before there was an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the famed Muscle Beach in Venice, there was another Muscle Beach that began its storied journey in the 1930s, in Santa Monica, just steps from the Santa Monica Pier. Known for being the “birthplace of the physical fitness boom for the 20th century,” it is also credited for bringing the sport of bodybuilding into mainstream culture.

Its beginnings are a bit murky but it is believed that, after the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, inspired by the game’s featured sport of gymnastics, local gymnasts and acrobats began to work out in the sand just south of the Santa Monica Pier. In 1933, the Long Beach Earthquake damaged Santa Monica High School and made the school, including the gym, uninhabitable for months. This forced students to walk the four blocks to the beach and join others on the sand for their workouts. During this time the area was reportedly to have gotten its first name, “High School Beach” for being located so close to the school.

Over the next 10 years, as more families began to own cars, Santa Monica became a prime tourist destination. This prompted acrobats and gymnasts from all over to flock to the beach and perform their daring stunts in front of the giant, rowdy crowds. A large, raised, wooden platform rimmed with seats was then constructed to better accommodate the sea of applauding, sun-glassed spectators.

After World War II, the area began to change and became more of a haven for chiseled, bronzed male and female bodybuilders who wooed crowds with their feats of strength and buff physiques. Soon many of the acrobats and gymnasts had disappeared and the place began to truly earn its name — Muscle Beach.

Muscle Beach then began to attract celebrities, such as Kirk Douglas, Mae West and Jayne Mansfield, who all reveled in being a part of this nutty circus and its literally larger than life performers. Ms. Mansfield actually found love here, marrying one of the bulging musclemen. Joe Gold, who founded Gold’s Gym, and other future icons of the fitness world, were also a part of this vibrant and eclectic scene. Even fitness celebrity Jack LaLanne made a point to drop by and get in on the action.

By the mid-50s, Muscle Beach was again changing and was now almost completely dominated by pumped-up men who strutted and preened as they lifted weights and posed wearing only thong-like bathing suits. It was becoming serious business at Muscle Beach as was the sport of body building, which was quickly gaining popularity throughout the country.

By the late ‘50s, most of the original cast of characters who had built and defined the spirit of the early days of Muscle Beach were gone and so was the fun and lightheartedness they had brought to the place. Muscle Beach’s image was then severely tarnished by a sex scandal involving underage girls and a couple of the well-known bodybuilders. This scandal and a series of injuries in the park and around Santa Monica were factors that led to City Hall eventually closing the park in 1959. It would be almost two decades before Muscle Beach would rise again in a place called “The Pit,” in Venice Beach.

Tom is a longtime Santa Monica resident who enjoyed a fulfilling 10-year career with the Santa Monica Red Cross. Tom currently is a writer and disaster management and recovery expert. Tell him your Santa Monica stories. He can be reached at tomviscount@yahoo.com.

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