Crabbe, Clarence Linden ("Buster")

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CRABBE, Clarence Linden ("Buster")

(b. 7 February 1908 in Oakland, California; d. 23 April 1983 in Scottsdale, Arizona), champion Olympic swimmer who broke five world records and earned more than fifty world and national championships; movie actor; and promoter of physical fitness and nutrition via the lecture circuit, television, and publications.

Financial circumstances compelled Crabbe's parents, Edward Clinton Simmons Crabbe, Jr., a real estate agent, and Agnes Lucy McNamara Crabbe, a homemaker, to move the family to Hawaii, home of Crabbe's paternal grandparents, when Crabbe was two years old. After attending local schools, he enrolled at Honolulu Military Academy, which, by the time he graduated in June 1927, had merged with Punahou High School. Crabbe and his younger brother Edward ("Buddy") learned to swim and surf at an early age. Crabbe also excelled in football, baseball, track, and horseback riding, and he earned sixteen sports letters (including three in swimming) in high school. When his father prohibited Buddy from traveling alone with a Honolulu swimming team to Japan, Crabbe qualified as another teammate.

As a freshman at the University of Hawaii, Crabbe qualified to compete on the U.S. swimming team (which included the Olympic swimming champ and film star Johnny Weissmuller) heading for Amsterdam for the summer Olympic Games in 1928. Crabbe won a bronze medal for the men's 1,500-meter freestyle at 20.28.8. One-tenth of a second prevented him from winning the bronze for the men's 400-meter freestyle.

On 22 August 1928 in Graz, Austria, Crabbe broke the world's record for the men's 300-meter backstroke. In 1929, he led the Outrigger Canoe Club of Honolulu, a team that included his brother, to victory in the national outdoors team championship, held for a second year at San Francisco; he won 21 of the 23 points for the team. Crabbe decided to transfer that year to a prelaw track with a major in political science at the University of Southern California; he graduated with a B.A. in June 1932. From 1927 through 1931 Crabbe held the one-mile swim title. He cautiously safeguarded his amateur status as he prepared for the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Among other jobs, the six-foot athlete played an extra in a few Hollywood films as well as a stunt man (at no fee) for Joel McCrea in the motion picture The Most Dangerous Game (1932).

The American men's swimming team (this time without Weissmuller) was concerned about the powerful Japanese in the 1932 Olympic Games. During 1931 meets in Japan, the American team, with Crabbe as captain, placed fourth in the 400 meters and fifth in both the 800 and 1,500 meters. Crabbe proudly led the parade of 1932 Olympians. By this time officially known in competition as "Buster Crabbe," he became the only non-Japanese to win a 1932 gold medal in a major men's swimming event. He set a new Olympic record in the men's 400-meter freestyle at 4:48.4, as he defeated the world record holder, France's Jean Taris, who won the silver at 4:48.5. Crabbe acquired no medal for his final event when he placed fifth in the men's 1,500-meter freestyle. He soon retired from amateur sports. His fastest amateur time was said to have been 4:38 for the 400-meter freestyle.

From among two dozen athletes, Crabbe won the Paramount screen test search at the 1932 Olympics for a potentially new Weissmuller-type athlete–screen star; his contract was renewed until 1939. Crabbe's first starring role was in King of the Jungle (1933) as a Tarzan-like lead named Kaspa, the lion man. Crabbe married Adah Virginia Held on 13 April 1933, and they eventually had one son and two daughters. Two months after the wedding the studio lent him out to play the lead in a twelve-part serial entitled Tarzan the Fearless.

Paramount had presented Crabbe in so many westerns that a 1936 poll ranked him tenth among the most moneymaking western stars. But that year Universal borrowed Crabbe to star in what turned out to be his most popular series, the million-dollar, thirteen-part Flash Gordon (1936), one of the studio's biggest profitmakers.

Crabbe became the "king of the sound serials." His amateur swimming achievements highlighted his exceptionally masculine good looks and impressive physique so that he readily became a serial matinee idol in Hollywood; he represented a real-life American hero to many young people as he continued appearing in more feature films during the 1930s and 1940s and more serials during the 1950s and 1960s. Two final films, The Comeback Trail (1971) and Swim Team (1980), passed into oblivion.

Crabbe never let his swimming prowess fall into disuse. (There is even a color photograph of him swimming and looking robust just days before his death in 1983.) After Weissmuller's departure in October 1940, Crabbe joined Eleanor Holm in Billy Rose's Aquacade at New York's World's Fair, swimming in the specially constructed 275-foot pool at Flushing Meadows. Later, Crabbe and Weissmuller appeared together in two films: Swamp Fire (1946) and Captive Girl (1950). During World War II Crabbe toured the nation with his own Buster Crabbe's Aquaparade; during a three-month period at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he and Al "Fuzzy" St. John (a comic costar in his later western features) made instructional field artillery films.

Television attracted Crabbe during the 1950s, and he and his wife presented a fifteen-minute weekday morning exercise show, Figure Fashioning (WOR-TV, New York). With a proper diet, regular workouts at the gym, and at least two days per week at the pool, he maintained his own weight close to that of his Olympic days, around 188 pounds. He also hosted an afternoon children's show, The Buster Crabbe Show, in which he presented some of his serials and feature films and responded to children's letters. From 1955 to 1957, Crabbe starred in the television series Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion.

In addition, Crabbe appeared on top dramatic and comedy programs as well as talk shows, especially between 1952 and 1961. Dial M for Murder marked his 1955 stage debut, in Kennebunkport, Maine. During the mid-1960s he recorded a spoken-record album on Flash Gordon; New York's public television network aired his entire Flash Gordon serial in 1975.

In the summer of 1951 Crabbe relocated his family from California to Somerville, New Jersey, and for the next eighteen years he worked on available Saturdays as director of water sports at the Concord, a prominent Catskills resort hotel in Kiamesha Lake, New York. He was also a silent partner in the Shelton Hotel Health Club in New York City. He served as vice president and then executive director of Cascade Industries in Edison, New Jersey, which was responsible for producing Buster Crabbe swimming pools. In 1952 he cofounded what became known as Buster Crabbe's Camp Menaga for Boys (it was coeducational the first three years) on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks; he sold it in 1964. Crabbe was among the first honorees of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1965. Along with Weissmuller and Holm, he served as a guest commentator with Jack Whitaker for the first international meet sponsored by the ISHOF (Sports Spectacular, CBS) and joined Weissmuller on The Ed Sullivan Show to endorse the ISHOF in 1967.

Crabbe still competed, particularly during the 1970s, with the national AAU, and he won the men's 1,500-meter freestyle in the 60-to 65-year-old group in 1972. By the 1970s he was living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He and Weissmuller were feted at City Hall (10 September 1976) upon their election to the World Body Building Guild Hall of Fame. In an article for the New York Times (23 July 1979), Crabbe commented on the improvements in competitive swimming techniques, diet, and even the pools themselves since his Olympic days; he exclaimed that he "couldn't even match the girls" in current Olympic timing. He served on the Organizing Olympic Committee for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and on 30 July 1982 he led into the Los Angeles Coliseum fellow athletes from the 1932 Olympics who were joining in the fiftieth anniversary celebration of those Los Angeles games. Crabbe died of a sudden heart attack at his home on 23 April 1983, before the games were played. His remains were cremated and given to his family.

Crabbe's positive, energetic, and earnest personality helped to convey at the pool and on the large and small screens his lifelong commitment to the importance of exercise and nutrition. When interviewed for sports fans, he was proud of and content with his amateur swimming achievements but never failed to conclude that each generation of swimmers outshone him in endurance, dedication, and speed—because that is the ever-progressive nature of the sport.

Crabbe authored two fitness books: Energistics: The Simple Shape-Up Exercise Plan (1976), and, with Raphael Cilento, M.D., Buster Crabbe's Arthritis Exercise Book (1980). James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players, The Thirties (1976) provides information about Crabbe's film career. Karl Whitezel, Buster Crabbe: A Self-Portrait (1997), was published fourteen years after Crabbe's death. Extensive interviews from the 1960s appear in Don Shay, Conversations, vol. 1 (1969). Interviews in the New York Times include Val Adams, "Children and Women Come First: Buster Crabbe Tries to Entertain One and Help the Other" (13 May 1951); and "Then and Now" (23 July 1979), with a brief discussion about competitive swimming. William Oscar Johnson, "A Star Was Born," Sports Illustrated 61 (18 July 1984) contains detailed text and stills. Obituaries are in the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times (both 24 Apr. 1983), and the New York Times and Chicago Tribune (both 25 Apr. 1983).

Madeline Sapienza