Gold, Sidney (“Joe”)

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Gold, Sidney (“Joe”)

(b. 10 March 1922 in Los Angeles, California; d. 12 July 2004 in Marina del Rey, California), Muscle Beach stalwart and founder of Gold’s Gym and World Gym who popularized bodybuilding and physical fitness through his gymnasiums.

Gold was one of four children of Abram Mordechai Goldglejt, a junk dealer, and Zelda (Fieierman) Goldglejt. At the age of twelve, Gold created weight-lifting equipment from car parts and buckets of cement, and founded the Dugout Athletics Club, a “workout gym,” at an auto repair shop. His penchant for high-top shoes, tight jeans, and shirts to show off his muscular physique earned him the nickname “Li’l Abner,” a reference to the muscular character created by the cartoonist Al Capp. Gold was attracted to Muscle Beach, an enclave of bodybuilders, stuntmen, and acrobats at the beach in Santa Monica, California, which was a twenty-minute drive from his home. Though Muscle Beach was best known for acrobatics, which were performed in front of weekend crowds, Gold spent his time at the beach playing volleyball and lifting weights. Some of the regulars achieved renown, including Jack La Lanne, a television fitness expert and a spa owner, and Harold Zinkin, a classmate of Gold at Theodore Roosevelt High School and the inventor of the Universal Gym.

A machinist by trade, Gold enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and in the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines suffered a spinal injury, which sent him to the hospital for six months. He suffered pain the remainder of his life and spent much of his final years in a wheelchair. A self-described “beach bum,” he found employment in the merchant marine and as a machinist. In the late 1940s he opened the Ajax Gym in New Orleans, where he worked as a merchant seaman. He decided against opening a gym in his native Los Angeles because Vic Tanny, a noted physical fitness buff, had already opened health clubs there. Though only five gyms operated in Los Angeles during the years immediately following the war, Gold and his partner, Chuck Krauser, believed the area could not support another gym.

After serving in the merchant marine during the Korean War, Gold moved to Santa Monica and rejoined the Muscle Beach scene. He continued to work occasional stints in the merchant marine. In 1954 the actress Mae West recruited Gold and eight other bodybuilders to serve as her chorus line for a revue that toured for five years. A sometime stuntman, Gold appeared in 1956 as a movie extra in Around the World in Eighty Days and The Ten Commandments, playing one of the two men who dragged a tortured Moses to the feet of Rameses.

In the 1960s Muscle Beach relocated to Venice, California, a Los Angeles beach community immediately to the south of Santa Monica. Gold, a charter member of the Muscle Beach Weightlifting Club, had been trying to persuade fellow members to join with him in building an indoor gym. No one showed any interest, so in 1965 Gold’s Gym opened in Venice, and it became the hangout for competitive bodybuilders who liked the workout equipment built by the machinist Gold. Though the serious environment discouraged more than brief conversation, Gold became known for the sarcasm he used to encourage the bodybuilders. He was a hands-on owner who was fussy about the condition of the gym’s equipment.

In 1968 Arnold Schwarzenegger, a bodybuilder who had recently moved to the United States from his native Austria, began working out at Gold’s. Schwarzenegger could not afford the gym’s dues, so Gold let him use the facility gratis. The two remained close friends until Gold’s death. Schwarzenegger referred to Gold as a father figure and credited Gold with the success of his bodybuilding career, which served as a springboard to fame and wealth as an actor, a director, and a film producer, and to election as governor of California.

Schwarzenegger and other world-class bodybuilders, who made Gold’s their training facility, brought wide attention to the gym, which Gold sold in 1970. The subsequent ownership developed Gold’s into a worldwide franchise. Gold’s protégé Schwarzenegger was featured in the highly successful documentary Pumping Iron (1977). Pumping Iron, which was filmed at Gold’s Gym, enhanced the public view of Gold’s connection with this fast-growing sport even though he no longer owned the establishment. In 1977 Gold retired from the merchant marine, an occupation he had pursued sporadically since 1947, and opened the World Gym in Santa Monica.

Serious bodybuilders joined the World Gym, which prospered under Gold and Michael Uretz, an attorney, friend, and bodybuilder, who licensed the World Gym name for gyms, clothing, and accessories. After Schwarzenegger wore a World Gym sweatshirt in his film The Running Man (1987), World Gym flourished. Gold went to his gym regularly as he viewed it more as a way of life than as a business, cherishing time spent with fellow bodybuilders engaged in rigorous training. When illness sidelined Gold in 1991, Schwarzenegger ran the franchise for him. Gold never married and had no heirs when he died of congestive heart failure.

Gold contributed greatly to the sport of bodybuilding as a competitor, an enthusiast, and a businessman, placing bodybuilding and gym workouts in the mainstream of the physical fitness movement, which gained momentum in the 1970s. Relatively few people knew Gold, but his name became synonymous with fitness and sculpted bodies through the franchised operations of Gold’s Gym and World Gym.

Joe Gold, The World Gym Musclebuilding System (1987), written with Robert Kennedy, gives some history, others’ perceptions, and Gold’s philosophy. Harold Zinkin, Remembering Muscle Beach: Where Hard Bodies Began: Photographs and Memories (1999), provides valuable information about the famous fitness venue and Gold. Kim Brizzolara, “Bodybuilding Business Bulks Up,” New York Times (27 Mar. 1989), links Gold with the fitness movement. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (13 July 2004), New York Times (14 July 2004), and Club Industry (Sept. 2004).

Paul A. Frisch