Jack LaLanne in 1961 (Public Domain)
Long before L.A. Fitness memberships became a sign of pride (and in certain cases examples of egotistical personalities), before Jazzercise, Power Yoga and Zumba there was Jack LaLanne of Morro Bay, California. Later christened “The Godfather of Fitness”, from 1951 to 1985 “The Jack LaLanne Show” became the longest-running exercise show on television. With a sparse television set often consisting of a desk and chair with his dogs Happy and Lucky, LaLanne’s audience tended to be housewives whom he implored to eat better and exercise as a way of life seven days a week. Indeed, he became one of the most highly regarded motivationalists to the present day.
(Photos by Michael Bitsoff)
It’s impossible to walk into any fitness gym at a high school or college campus without encountering a leg-lifting machine first developed and hand tooled by Jack LaLanne.
The trim, handsome man who wore the trademark jumpsuits with an 18” waistline and solid muscular physique experienced a life-changing event at the age of 15 when he attended a Paul Bragg lecture on the importance of avoiding meat and sugar food products. “I was born again”, LaLanne famously stated. He never consumed sugar from 1930 to the end of his life.
An indefatigable keynote speaker who infused excitement and energy into his lectures on the importance of living well and living long with the advent of disciplined exercise, LaLanne established himself with what he also termed “certain standards of pride and discipline” – two tenets he would become disappointed to see erode in society later in his life with the advent of badly behaved kids who used foul language and walked around with their shirts untucked, “looking like bums” as he stated.
As a pioneering television legend, Jack used the medium to implore young children at home to go tell their mothers “that Jack LaLanne was on the television and said to come watch the show”. Using a simple chair, he would encourage housewives that they too could firm up their figures and turn back the clock on aging. LaLanne was a living example of this with his wife Elaine, who today at age 90, makes regular appearances as a keynote speaker across the United States at Fitness and Wellness Expositions. She works out daily.
While entire generations may not know who Jack LaLanne is, all they need to do is access his YouTube videos to become acquainted with a man who launched “the fitness craze” into a way of life today with the plethora of gymnasiums and nutritional supplements available across the country. Eventually his string of health clubs were licensed to the now defunct Bally’s Total Fitness. His book publications aside, current generations of viewers will recall the Jack LaLanne Juicer machines that he and Elaine advertised on television. Two popular quotations from LaLanne include, “Anything is possible if you make it happen”, and “People don’t die of old age. They die of inactivity.”
Each year on the occasion of his birthday, he would create and implement a stunt involving an extraordinary feat of physical fitness and endurance. In 1954 at age 40, he swam the entire 8,981-foot length of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco under water with 140 pounds of air tanks attached to his body, earning Jack a world record.
These feats continued and in 1984 at the age of 70, LaLanne was handcuffed, shackled, and fighting significantly strong winds as he towed 70 rowboats with guests, from the Queen’s Way Bridge in the Long Beach Harbor for one mile to the Queen Mary ship.
Among his many awards, in 2002, Jack LaLanne was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2008, then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger inducted Jack into the National Fitness Hall of Fame. Jack died in 2011 at age 96 from complications arising from pneumonia. He is forever an example to all Americans that positive change is possible, if we “make it happen”.