Skip to main content
Original Issue


Whirlpool baths have come out of the training rooms and into more plush settings as the Good Life's new totem, thanks to the Jacuzzis

Palm Springs. Saturday afternoon. Inside the men's bathhouse at the Palm Springs Spa. Bob Gans, a San Diego stationer in town for a convention, lies submerged in a body-contoured tub filled with churning hot water. Almost dreamily he says, "I played 18 holes of golf today but this Jacuzzi should keep me from getting achy." Note the word he uses. Jacuzzi.

Across town at the Canyon Hotel, Dante Maimone, a vacationing executive from Columbus, Ohio, who has just played three hours of tennis, stands in a similar, but larger, pool of roiling water. To the two men and one woman sharing the pool with him, he exclaims, "The Jacuzzi is a great way to get the kinks out." That word again. Jacuzzi.

Elsewhere in Palm Springs, from trailer parks to mansions, others are sloshing around in Jacuzzis. Technically, the name for such activity is hydrotherapy; less formally, sportswriters let you know they are on such intimate terms with an athlete that they can interview him in "the whirlpool." It's the same thing.

There is no gainsaying the value that the sports world, not just journalists, attaches to whirlpool therapy, which is used both for physical rehabilitation and as an almost spiritual refuge from the rigors of competition. Along with massive tackles trying to wash away the weekend's collection of contusions, hydrotherapy has been used to combat lameness in racehorses and to shine the coats while calming the nerves of show dogs. Virtually every professional and major college team owns at least one stainless-steel whirlpool tank and some boast of four or five. Whirlpools are also showing up in high schools. "I get letters from high schools asking what they should put in their training rooms," says Kansas City Chiefs' Trainer Wayne Rudy. "I tell them the whirlpool is the most important piece of equipment we have."

In the sports spin-off boom that buffets the land it would be unthinkable that such vital gear should long stay confined to locker rooms. People now enjoy whirlpools in health clubs, hotels and their own bathrooms and backyards. They do so in color-coordinated fiber glass "spas," in prefabricated in-the-ground "therapy pools," in anything from ordinary bathtubs fitted with portable "aerators," or "aspirators," up to multi-kilodollar installations featuring tumbling waterfalls and mosaic tiles. Today the whirlpool is more than therapeutic equipment; it is a meeting place, a supertranquilizer, a status symbol.

And the name for it, often as not, is Jacuzzi. Turn to your favorite gossip columnist and read where Ann-Margret has a sunken Jacuzzi in her bathroom. Leaf through Playboy and see Hef & Friends playing rub-a-dub in their Jacuzzis. Or flick on the TV and catch Johnny Carson kidding about New York's gangland slayings: "There are so many bodies dumped into the East River that it looks like one big Jacuzzi."

Anything mentioned by Johnny, of course, is ipso facto a cultural phenomenon. That fact is borne out in Southern California, where the Jacuzzi has all but replaced the three-car garage as a totem of the good life.

In addition to the sports boom, the craze for Jacuzzis has been accelerated by the health boom, the luxury boom and the gadget boom. Palm Springs, the self-styled "golf capital of the world," probably has more whirlpools per capita than any other city. But Palm Springs is also a health resort popular with the elderly or infirm, and for many, Jacuzzis are less supplement for sport than substitute.

At the city's Canyon Estates, silver-haired gents and matronly ladies continually beat a path to the pool of gurgling water, ignoring the 25-yard swimming pool adjacent to it. Seated in a deck chair, shirt off and eyeglasses in hand, Jerry Graham, a retired ladies-apparel buyer from Los Angeles, looks on. "I just don't understand it," Graham confesses. "Myself, I'm on an exercise program I worked out with my doctor. I swim 10 or 12 laps two or three times a day. But these people, all they do is sit in the Jacuzzi."

Like Xerox, Levi's, Thermos and Kleenex, Jacuzzi is a trade name that has become almost generic. People tend to say "Jacuzzi" and let it go at that, even if the label says Aquassage, Swimquip, Scandia or Hydraquip, not to mention Montgomery Ward.

Part of the allure has to be that name. Jacuzzi. It is Italian, and the most casual student of history knows about the Roman baths, yet the name is sometimes mistaken for being Japanese, another culture big on baths. It also happens that words with "zz" in them—terrazzo, jazz, Zsa Zsa—have a sort of, well, razzmatazz. And the name onomatopoetically fits the product: just close your eyes and let the water bubble and flow: ja-cu-zziiiiiiiiiii. It could easily have been called something like, say, "Swirl-O-Matic," but it wouldn't have been the same. Then, too, you don't build a multimillion-dollar business on rhythmic syllables alone.

The benefits of hydrotherapy were known to the Egyptians and Greeks, and by the time the seven Jacuzzi brothers, immigrants from Italy to northern California, got into the foam two decades ago, firms like Ille Electric, Whitehall Electro Medical and Dakon had pretty much wrapped up the hospital and sports markets in whirlpool equipment. That left only the consumer market, and the close-knit Jacuzzi clan had a grim personal entry into that area. In 1943, one of the brothers' infant sons contracted rheumatoid arthritis, leaving the boy crippled and wracked with pain. His parents took the child to Bay Area hospitals for whirlpool therapy, which was being used on World War II casualties and soon would receive even greater impetus from the postwar polio epidemics.

In later years Jacuzzi Research, a division of Jacuzzi Brothers, would advertise that its whirlpool grew "out of a father's love." This was melodramatic but accurate. Realizing that the whirlpools used on his son were essentially adaptations of the type of water pump Jacuzzi Brothers was making, the father, Candido, had his engineers develop an aerating jet pump that would enable the boy to receive therapy at home. Next Candido came up with a unit that sat right in the water and could be moved from one bathtub to another. Other sufferers learned of this "portable Jacuzzi" and the firm found itself turning out special orders.

The decision to market the portable unit came in 1955, with the new product to be sold in drugstores and bath-supply shops and by a corps of high-powered salesmen enlisted to make free home demonstrations. Then, thanks to a former Oakland sportswriter named Ray Schwartz, who handled Jacuzzi Research's publicity until his death in 1961, portable Jacuzzis were doled out as prizes on TV's tear-jerking Queen for a Day. The pitch was directed mainly at people with rheumatism, bursitis and the like, but Schwartz, by soliciting testimonials from Randolph Scott and the late Jayne Mansfield, got across the idea that whirlpool could also be used by the beauteous and the sound of limb.

Over the years some 200,000 Jacuzzi portables have been sold, which encouraged the company to move into whirlpool bathtubs and components and has helped it gross $67 million in 1974. Nonetheless, by far the major portion of Jacuzzi Brothers revenue comes from sales of water pumps, marine jets and swimming pool equipment.

While cautioning that it seldom cures anything in and of itself, doctors generally agree on the salubrious effects of whirlpool therapy. By providing moist heat and a kind of gentle massage, whirlpool treatment stimulates circulation and often hastens healing of muscle pulls, torn ligaments and strains. "The only harm is in thinking it does more good than it actually does," says Dr. Robert Kerlan, the Los Angeles sports orthopedist. "Otherwise it's a very restful, relaxing treatment. A lot of people with arthritic problems, for example, use it to get themselves moving in the morning and for comfort before going to bed."

The marriage of whirlpool and sport goes back many years. In the early '30s the Brooklyn Dodgers went in for whirlpool treatment and New York Knick Trainer Danny Whelan recalls a similar contraption when he was with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League in the '40s. "The whirlpools we used then leaked and weren't grounded," Whelan says. "It was fortunate somebody wasn't electrocuted."

Today Whelan and other trainers use gleaming full-body tanks, with adjustable headrests and rubber hand grips. Ille, Whitehall and Dakon still dominate the market, but until the recent proliferation of health clubs, many teams took a Jacuzzi portable along on road trips.

Joe Namath's knees, Sandy Koufax's elbow and Singh's right hock have all been dunked in whirlpools, as have the corporeal parts of most other sports figures. "The whirlpool is the trainer's best friend," says Ralph Salvon of the Baltimore Orioles. It also has provided a boon to clubhouse comedians who like to slip rubber duckies into the tanks whenever photographers come around.

Bath toys aside, hydrotherapy is a serious business. Rather than risk the equivalent of dishwater hands, which might affect their grip on the ball, pitchers sometimes take the precaution of wearing rubber gloves while soaking their throwing arms. And Dean Nesmith, the University of Kansas' longtime trainer, warns that "whirlpool can be downright harmful. By letting the jet play directly on an injury, you can bruise the area and increase bleeding."

Tricky, too, is the matter of temperature. Condominium dwellers in California seem to feel that pool baths should be maintained between 100° and 108°, but trainers find that excessive heat often causes injuries to swell. After an injury they generally prefer cold treatment, sometimes in the form of a whirlpool filled with ice water. Hot whirlpool is usually withheld for 24 to 96 hours, then introduced for what Dr. Anthony Daly, physician for the U.S. track team that toured China in May, calls "long-term recuperation." Even then, some trainers seek to stimulate circulation with "contrast baths": hot whirlpool followed by ice, the cycle repeated over and over.

Hot whirlpool can also be debilitating. Some athletes have fainted after stepping out of the water, and doctors warn that even the briefest soaking just before competition can sap energy. There is also the danger of passing out right in the tank, a possibility that was vividly demonstrated when Jockey Milo Valenzuela, after being thrown at Santa Anita, took to nursing his bruised body in one of Dr. Kerlan's therapy tanks. Looking in on his patient, Kerlan was horrified to find him under water. "We had to pull him out and give him artificial respiration," Kerlan says. Of course, it may have been that the whirlpool in question was simply too big for the tiny Valenzuela: In honor of one athlete who used it often, it is still known around Kerlan's offices as the S.S. Elgin Baylor.

At the moment the public-relations pillar upon which the Jacuzzi whirlpool was built seems to be tottering a bit. Last year Underwriters' Laboratories, an independent watchdog for product safety, dropped its long-standing approval of portable whirlpools whose unit, motor and all, goes into the water. Jacuzzi has since introduced a new model that clamps to the bathtub, the motor remaining free of the water. A few individual dealers also got in hot water with the government for some Lourdes-like claims made several years ago.

But perhaps the most embarrassing hurdle is the cloud of scandal hovering over Candido Jacuzzi. In 1969 C.J., as he is known to the family, resigned as president of Jacuzzi Brothers Inc. after being indicted by a U.S. grand jury in San Francisco on five counts of income-tax evasion. He has been a fugitive ever since, dividing his time between Italy and, more recently, the seaside Mexican resort of Puerto Vallarta, where he and his wife Inez live in a two-bedroom condominium while awaiting completion of the villa they are building on the flat, windblown coast north of town.

At 72, with wavy white hair, a great sloping forehead and a salesman's charm, C.J. cuts an Onassian figure in Puerto Vallarta. Lunching with a visitor at an oceanfront hotel, he angrily declared, "I had reasons for not facing trial but I'm guilty of nothing. Nothing! The government was trying to persecute me." C.J. also admitted to being unhappy about reports reaching Mexico of family friction. "I didn't sleep last night, I was so worried," he complained. "When there were just us brothers we'd put a bottle of wine on the table and solve our problems. Today there are too many of us to do that."

Perhaps he is right. The original 13 Jacuzzi brothers and sisters begat 35 children and they all married and begat children and—well, now there are nearly 300 Jacuzzis scattered to the winds. Kenny Jacuzzi, the arthritic who caused Jacuzzi to enter the business, is now living in Italy, where he heads Jacuzzi's European manufacturing subsidiary. He is just one of many second-and third-generation family members who occupy high positions in Jacuzzi Brothers Inc., but C.J.'s successor as president is Ray Horan, an outsider. It is a standing joke within the company that any Jacuzzi who tried to grab the corporate reins would be summarily devoured by next-of-kin and, in fact, it often seems that Horan's chief duty is to referee feuds among various family members.

Given the deep family involvement, it is appropriate that Jacuzzi continues to focus its marketing on the home. Candido Jacuzzi foresaw the days when there would be a whirlpool in every household, and his successors are encouraged both by the phenomenon of family "health rooms" and by an apparent trend toward the sybaritic in bathrooms, which are outfitted with saunas, gold-plated sinks and hand-carved toilet seats. Predicting that whirlpool-equipped bathtubs are the waves of the future, Giocondo Jacuzzi, a vice-president of Jacuzzi Brothers, says, "The whirlpool is like the refrigerator. People used to think they could live without the refrigerator, too, you know."

True, the uses for whirlpools have grown. The portable Jacuzzi has been used with literally mixed results—to aerate fish tanks, wash silverware and defeather chickens. It has also been urged on readers of The Sensuous Woman as a "heavenly" means of self-gratification. Larger tanks and tubs are employed for every imaginable communal purpose, making them almost as popular with the counterculturists as with the staid gentry, and the whirlpool division of Jacuzzi Brothers, Jacuzzi Research, recently came out with a new "tub for two." At $1,500-plus for that model orders are backed up eight to 10 weeks.

Whether alone or in groups, people find something comforting, even womblike, about sitting in warm sloshing water. A year ago Norm Bloomfield, a CPA in Encino, Calif., joined a health club and was launched into a regular program of calisthenics topped off by a few minutes in the whirlpool. With an air of helplessness Bloomfield relates today, "Soon I was spending less and less time exercising, more and more time sitting in the Jacuzzi. Now when I go to the club, all I do is sit in the Jacuzzi. There's just something about it I like."

There is also something that makes pedestrians passing Jacuzzi's showroom on Manhattan's Third Avenue stop and gaze trancelike at the window display featuring water swirling in a tub. The hope, of course, is that they will be enticed to step inside and put themselves under the spell of Showroom Manager Karel Frohlich, a courtly, European-born concert violinist. Frohlich will rhapsodize that with a Jacuzzi whirlpool, "tiny exploding bubbles dance across the skin and burst against the body." He will promise that because the force of the water flow can be adjusted—ranging, in effect, from minuet to jitterbug—the Jacuzzi can either "help cure insomnia or perk you up." He will note helpfully that adjustments can also be made in the air-to-water mixture. And he will conclude, with a flourish, "The air corresponds to vitality, the water to our basic drives."

In his best-selling novel The Betsy, Harold Robbins included an ode to a portable Jacuzzi. "The water began to churn and sing its soothing song. I leaned my head back against the wall behind the tub and sighed." At the onset of Watergate, Richard Nixon installed a Jacuzzi tub in his White House bathroom. That tub has been inherited by Gerald Ford, who now has a second Jacuzzi in which to escape from the cares of state: the new swimming pool on the White House lawn has Jacuzzi inlets at the shallow end.

The physical and psychic benefits of whirlpool tend to get all mixed together, like so many of those exploding, dancing, bursting air bubbles. Take the case of people who use whirlpools primarily because aerating water exerts pressure against the body—six pounds per square inch—expecting to get "passive exercise" out of it. "You just sit there—the water does the swimming," is how Anthony Spas, a manufacturer, puts it. Dr. George Schroeter, a podiatrist, once claimed in a book called The Miracle Healing Power of Body Mechanics Therapy that half an hour in a whirlpool provides as much exercise as 18 holes of golf. If so, a 75-year-old Chicago widow named Pauline gets in 144 holes a day while wintering in Palm Springs; she spends four hours daily in the Sun-Spot Hotel's Jacuzzi, which is known as "Pauline's pool."

On the other hand, athletes ostensibly using whirlpools for physical therapy may really be soothing the savage breast. Running Back Ed Podolak of the Kansas City Chiefs immerses himself up to his shoulders in ice water for 10 minutes the first couple of days following a game, later in the week switching to hot whirlpool. Podolak's vision of everlasting bliss is one doubtlessly shared by many athletes. "When I finally get around to building a house for myself," Podolak confides, "I'm going to install a whirlpool. Every evening when I come home from work I'm going to open a beer. Then I'll lie in the whirlpool while I drink it."

The only question is whether Podolak, once his playing days are over, will break down and start referring to his cherished whirlpool as a Jacuzzi. It seems likely. And yet, when a fellow no longer has to worry about opposing linebackers—or the rubber duckies—who knows what might happen?


In his $15,000 spa, John Steen, a manufacturer and champion off-road racer, bubbles away the aches accompanied by Christi Fontenrose.