LaLanne, Jack (1914—)

views updated

LaLanne, Jack (1914—)

"Stop! Look! Listen! It's time for The Jack LaLanne Show. " So began Jack LaLanne's daily exercise program, syndicated on television stations nationwide from 1959 to 1985. The muscular man in the jumpsuit led simple exercises, often of his own invention, and urged his audience along with the enthusiasm of an evangelist: "If your back porch is draggin' and your shoulders are saggin' and you have no pep in your step, it's time for a change!" In this age of fitness gurus, personal trainers, and exercise videos devoted specifically to achieving "buns of steel," it seems impossible to imagine a time without health clubs, when weight training and aerobic exercise were viewed by doctors as extreme and potentially dangerous activities. However, in 1936, when Jack LaLanne opened the first fitness club in the United States, many considered him a kook and a fanatic. Though he is arguably a fanatic on the subject of health, LaLanne's exercise show foreshadowed a national obsession with fitness, and LaLanne himself set many of the current trends by inventing the first weight machines and producing the first exercise video. LaLanne's simple and accessible approach to exercise continued to gain wide popularity into the late 1990s, and LaLanne, still active in his 80s, continued to practice what he preached.

Jack LaLanne grew up in California, first in the desert town of Bakersfield, then moving to Berkeley while he was still a child. His father's early death was caused in part by poor nutrition, and young Jack was addicted to sweets. Plagued by headaches, bulimia, and a nasty temper, LaLanne was labeled a troublemaker and had dropped out of school by age 14. That year he attended a lecture at the Oakland Women's City Club that changed his life. The subject of the lecture was health, nutrition, and the evils of meat and sugar, and LaLanne was, in his own evangelical words, "born again." He changed his diet and began to work out daily. He went back to school, made the high school football team, and went on to college where he studied to become a chiropractor.

Instead, in 1936, LaLanne opened the Jack LaLanne Physical Culture Studio in Oakland, the first fitness club of its kind. He offered clients nutritional advice and supervised exercise programs, including weight training, which was almost unheard of at the time. Doctors advised their patients to stay away from the new health club, warning that LaLanne was an exercise "nut" whose programs would make them muscle-bound and give them hemorrhoids or heart attacks. LaLanne persisted, however, and with the assertive marketing that would become the hallmark of his career, he went out and approached prospective clients, promising that he would help them make the desired changes in their bodies or refund their money.

In 1951, a local health food manufacturer sought someone to host their television fitness show, and Jack LaLanne seemed the natural choice. Often aired in the early morning hours, LaLanne's exercise program was simple and unaffected. Using no more complicated equipment than a chair, LaLanne, with his broad shoulders and narrow hips encased in a one-piece jumpsuit, led a series of calisthenics, encouraging his audience to jump and pump along with him. Though his set was minimalist, and his message simple, LaLanne was not above using tricks to attract his audience. One of these tricks was Happy, the white German shepherd who appeared on the show. Knowing that the most avid early morning television viewers were children, LaLanne introduced the dog to attract children to the show. Then, he told the children to go find their mothers, fathers, and grandparents and bring them to exercise with him. It was as clever a ploy to boost ratings as any concocted by network executives.

Another maneuver LaLanne used to attract both viewers to his television show and converts to his cause of fitness, was the amazing physical feat. Beginning in 1955, when he swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater while pulling 140 pound weights, LaLanne has performed increasingly astonishing acts of strength and nerve. In 1956, at age 41, he swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco wearing handcuffs. At 45, he did one thousand push-ups and one thousand chin-ups in an hour and 22 minutes. In 1975, when he was 60 years old, he repeated his swim from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf, this time handcuffed, shackled, and towing one thousand pounds. In 1985, he swam handcuffed and shackled for a mile and a half across Long Beach Harbor, celebrating his 70th year by towing 70 boats holding 70 people. When asked to explain these Houdini-like performances, he replied, "Now, I'm not comparing myself to Jesus, but why do you think Jesus was such a success? Because he performed miracles. This drew attention to his philosophy, which is why he had this terrific impact on civilization. I just want to help as many people as I can."

The Jack LaLanne Show ran Monday through Friday mornings for 34 years in syndication, and even after the end of his program LaLanne maintained his status as fitness expert by writing books, producing videos, and speaking on his favorite subjects. He continued to appear on television in various commercial spots highlighting his longevity, and there was talk of a new incarnation of his television show at the end of the century. Determined to maintain his "superman" image as long as possible, LaLanne quips, "I can't die. It would ruin my image."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

"Jack LaLanne." Current Biography. Vol. 55, No. 10, October,1994, 26-30.

LaLanne, Jack. Revitalize Your Life after 50: Improve Your Looks, Your Health, and Your Sex Life. Mamaroneck, New York, Hastings House Book Publishers, 1995.

Ottum, Bob. "Look, Mom, I'm an Institution. (Jack LaLanne)."Sports Illustrated. Vol. 55, November 23, 1981, 64-69.