The LookOut columns

What I Say

About Frank Gruber

Email Frank

City with a Past

By Frank Gruber

Last week I wrote about my intention this summer to live Santa Monica as a tourist lives it.

I'm working on it.

Thursday night my wife and I walked over to The Vic, a weekly jazz/supper club in the second floor of The Victorian on Main Street.

One enters from the back and walks up an outdoor stairway, as if to add to the charm.

I ordered a whisky and my wife a glass of wine. Non-touristically, we had already eaten dinner at home, but fortunately I had the foresight to change from my jeans to black pants.

This was a crowd who, contrary to Santa Monica fashion, took care about appearances.

The singer Rhiannon worked fabulously with a terrific piano-bass-drums trio.

Lovely, elegant, civilized.

But nursing our drinks I began to worry. What if The Victorian operated under one of those bluenose City of Santa Monica permits that limits the amount of money they can make from alcohol to 25 percent of their gross?

There we were -- with nearly 20 dollars worth of drinks and no offsetting food? What kind of reprobates did that make us?

So I ordered a crème brûlée, notwithstanding that that morning I had weighed three pounds more than I wanted to.

* * *

A week ago Sunday I attended the opening of an exhibit about the history of Santa Monica's Muscle Beach at the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum.

The event was a reunion of many participants in Muscle Beach's fabled past. More than a few were in their 90s, but they all looked more likely than me to do a handstand.

Those attending included the fearless acrobat Paula Unger Boelsems (in photos you often see her flying through the air, or high up in a human pyramid), who led the discussion, as well as Glenn Sundby (who not only walked down the 898 steps of the Washington Monument on his hands, but also became an important force in international gymnastics) and his sister, Dolores Foster (who performed with him for many years on Broadway and in vaudeville), Moe Most (the strong bottom man on many of the pyramids Muscle Beach was famous for), the elegant Dolores Abro, and Armand Tanny (brother of Vic, and famous in his own right, especially in the weight-lifting world).

Acrobat Paula Unger Boelsems recalls Muscle Beach's colorful past. (Photos by Frank Gruber)

The acrobats and body-builders who worked out and performed on Muscle Beach in the 30s, 40s, and 50s had a huge impact on American culture, as much as any other performers, as it is hard to imagine today's obsession with fitness without the contributions of people like Vic Tanny, Joe Gold, Harold Zinkin (inventor of the universal weight machine), Jack LaLanne, Pudgy and Les Stockton, George Eiferman, and many others who had associations with Muscle Beach.

The irony is that in 1959, just before President Kennedy would make physical fitness a national phenomenon, the burghers of Santa Monica used a convenient sex scandal, involving a handful of weight lifters, some from out of town, as an excuse to close down Muscle Beach.

Although Santa Monica had historically been more tolerant of eccentricity than the rest of Southern California, a place where the urban sea met the sea itself, population growth and change in 40s and 50s, and the prevailing 50s ethos of prudish conformity, changed the political climate.

The nearly nude, muscular men and women of Muscle Beach were disquieting to residents who wanted to believe that they lived in an idealized suburb, not a factory town adjacent to a world famous resort and honky-tonk.

It didn't help that body-builders attracted gay men; the Evening Outlook charged that Muscle Beach had become "a favorite haven of the sexual athletes and queers of Southern California," a place for "athletes and their followers of all three sexes." (I'm lifting these quotes from the excellent history of Muscle Beach written by Marla Matzer Rose: Muscle Beach: Where the Best Bodies in the World Started a Fitness Revolution, which is available at the Historical Society.)

It probably also didn't help that the strong and fearless women of Muscle Beach projected an unabashedly feminine yet pre-feminist image not consistent with 50s female docility.

A few years ago the City restored some semblance of Muscle Beach by improving the equipment and providing a space for tumbling, but there was no attempt, by rebuilding the old performance platform or by providing viewing stands, to restore the exhibitionist or entertainment side of Muscle Beach that was integral to what the beachfront was in the days before urban renewal and oppressive family values.

New Muscle Beach lacks flair of old.

The City has brought back some sense of the Pier's history with the Thursday evening concerts and with Pacific Park, although with the latter the City Council wouldn't allow a roller coaster big enough to amuse teenagers.

Glenn Sundby announced at the Historical Society that he has formed a Santa Monica Muscle Beach Foundation with the aim of turning Muscle Beach into a California historical site, with not only a monument, but also a new performance platform that would be the setting for exhibitions and competitions in gymnastics, acrobatics, cheerleading, juggling, Special Olympics, and a renewal of the once popular "Mr. and Miss (Ms.?) Muscle Beach" contests.

More power to Mr. Sundby, but it's hard to imagine anything succeeding in Santa Monica these days that might attract more tourists.

We're beyond fearing the homosexual menace and no one these days will complain about the beefcake and cheesecake, but imagine the howls about the traffic.

* * *

I'm proud that physical fitness started at Muscle Beach and I'm proud that within 20 years after the City shut Muscle Beach down, a few blocks away a bunch of local kids created skateboarding as the world now knows it, and a hugely popular pop culture to go along with it.

Hey, I'm proud that while body-builders were pumping iron on Muscle Beach, a few blocks east, at RAND, Herman Kahn was devising "Mutually Assured Destruction."

I'm even more proud that not long before the Dogtown skateboards had discovered Bicknell Hill, Daniel Ellsberg copied the Pentagon Papers here.

I like living in a city that is famous. I like having neighbors who do great things.

I'm proud that Brecht and Diebenkorn lived and worked here. That Douglas built planes here. That Gehry built his house here.

I'm proud that in fiction Santa Monica was Philip Marlowe's Bay City and that in real life Tony Cornero sailed the Rex off our shore.

I'm proud that in the 60s and 70s the Civic Auditorium hosted the Oscars and rock 'n' roll, instead of antique shows.

I'm even proud that Britney Spears buys pets here.

Of course, I could go on. And on. There are other beaches in Southern California, and other beach towns, but Santa Monica has a history. We were never a sleepy beach town, we were never a suburb. We're famous, and that's why the tourists come and why I like it here, too.

Because an important history implies an important future.

This year is a political year. The candidates are positioning themselves. The next City Council will oversee the writing of new land-use and circulation elements of our general plan.

When the candidates debate, there will be a lot of questions about the homeless, and traffic, and school funding and preferential parking. But what I would most like to know from them is what they believe our common destiny is.

What's the next big thing that's going to come from Santa Monica?

Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon