Skip to main content
Original Issue

Look, Mom, I'm An Institution

Good old Jack LaLanne may be 67 now, but the message on his license plate is for you—he's still perfect

A sense of excitement, of restless delight, carries over the transcontinental telephone, Los Angeles to New York, as if the West Coast caller is holding the phone in one hand and pacing while he talks. Listening, one can picture him just the way he used to look, with his chest all pumped full of air and his hair slicked and waved high in a semi-Ronald Reagan pompadour. "I'll tell ya," he says, "I don't know when I've been so excited about all the stuff that's happening to me. I'll tell ya, kid, it's great."

Fine, fine. But just what is it that he's so excited about? Jack LaLanne (pronounced LaLANE, as in let me ex-PLAIN) tells about it hurriedly. "You've got to come see this," he says. And he talks on, his words occasionally tumbling together.

The listener nods, holding the phone an inch or so away from his ear. He jots down a few notes. And privately, he wonders about LaLanne. Can the man be sauced? No, no, he hardly touches the stuff. Can't be stoned; he doesn't smoke. Nor can he be full of go-fast; he doesn't take speed or, indeed, any sort of drug. As the voice rolls on, still charged, the realization dawns.

LaLanne, as ever, is high on life.

This isn't the Los Angeles you hear about. This isn't the reflective glitter of Century City, or the Beverly Hills Hotel, or the perfumed corner of Wilshire and Rodeo. This is the old tan-stucco-and-red-tile-roof Los Angeles that was imprinted on the mind by Raymond Chandler in the 1930s and '40s. "There was the odor of wild sage, the acrid tang of eucalyptus, and the quiet smell of dust," he wrote in The Little Sister. "Windows glowed on the hillside."

The LaLanne house sits in the Hollywood Hills, tucked away on steep and winding La Presa Drive. The house is not quite above the smog line, and it's just a few blocks above Sunset Boulevard and Mann's (formerly Grauman's) Chinese Theater and the Scandia and the tourists peering hopefully into every passing face. All through these hills, the familiar Spanish influence persists: the heavy roofs and lacy black iron gates and curved driveways. That's all one ever sees from the street in the Hollywood Hills. The good stuff—the statuary and towering yews and swimming pools and cabanas—is always in the back. At LaLanne's, there's a two-car garage whose radio-controlled door ghosts up to reveal a Porsche 924 Turbo and a bone-white Stutz Black Hawk with bright chrome exhaust pipes curling out the sides of the hood. Sitting in the driveway is a new Mercedes sedan, Elaine LaLanne's car; her license plates read EXERCIZ.

This is not unusual or even particularly showy. The area is L.A. Establishment, money country of the longest standing; not all those folks migrated to Beverly Hills or Pacific Palisades or Palm Springs. Rudy Vallee lives in quiet splendor a few streets up the hill. Vintage movie stars, semiactive or retired, are hidden away in stuccoed gentility in the houses on all sides. No names; only numbers mark the mailboxes.

It is important to take note of such things, because suddenly, there at the scrolled gate, is LaLanne himself, 67 years old, handsome, grinning, doing a little mock tap dance in greeting. With which, of course, the setting becomes perfect. The mature palm trees, carefully coiffed, the full-grown yews, the jacaranda bushes, the comfortable, lived-in houses—and Jack LaLanne—are all of a certain age. They all belong in this Hollywood space, reinforcing each other, a perfect unity.

LaLanne's general dimensions are pretty much what they've been forever:

Neck: 17"

Chest: 47"

Biceps: 16½"

Waist: 27½"

Hips: 35"

Thigh: 23"

Weight: 160 pounds

Height: Well. It's listed at 5'7¼" in his publicity handouts. That may be stretching things just a bit, though he almost makes it with Cuban heels on his loafers and with the familiar old upsweep hairstyle. Not that it matters. LaLanne came on as a dynamic pixie right from the start, and it just wouldn't have worked at any other height.

He points to the house hidden by shrubbery across the street and says, "The gentleman who lives over there does his Jack LaLannes every day. He's in fine shape. And you know what? He's 101 years old! And my friend Gilbert Roland, the actor. He's 75. He does my exercises. And you know what? He looks wonderful!"

LaLanne spreads his arms as he says it. It's still familiar: Here is the exercise and nutrition evangelist who dazzled much of the nation in the years of television's black and white innocence. He would come on doing jumping jacks to De Camptown Races. "Good morning, students!" he would croon. He always appeared in a skintight, one-piece jumpsuit and ballet shoes, crackling with energy. His smile was full of healthy promise, no sexual innuendo in any of it. "All right, everybody stre-e-etch! There now. What a wonderful morning it is!" And in their living rooms, an estimated five to six million women responded, many in leotards or shorts or slacks, others still in bathrobes or pajamas, hair in curlers, all grunting, puffing and throwing themselves about to his commands. And with LaLanne whispering, urging, pleading, right into the camera, there was a sense of intimacy entirely new to the medium at the time.

The LaLanne show played in the '50s, through the '60s and beyond. His word became gospel during a time when Americans were more malleable and trusting. "I'm going to build a new and lovelier you!" LaLanne would promise earnestly. "A brand-new you, looking the way the Lord intended you to look when He made you." And on to a series of sit-ups. "Let's get back to Trimnastics!" he would say. "Come on, now, girls. We're going to work on the..." and he would pat himself on the fanny, "on reducing the old back porch."

It is only now, many years later, that one can understand why in the world this cornball stuff worked: because there was no guile in any of it and it came across that way on the television screen. LaLanne is a consummate pitchman, but he's not complicated, or a cynic. "Oh, Jack," as an old lady once wheezed at a reception for him, "you're the only man in the world that I'd get down on the floor for." What LaLanne was selling was a sort of fundamentalist religion that he devoutly believed in—and still does; he was simply a physical culturist, like Charles Atlas or Vic Tanny, but he had the congregation and they didn't.

All of this went on for 26 years, a run that fixed the show in the national sub-consciousness. It expanded to 140 stations and was accessible at one time to 45% of the population. And then, after a gradual decline, one day in 1977 it all folded.

The show. Not LaLanne.

A dramatic pronouncement, one finger pointed in the air: "Would you believe," he says, "that I was once a sugar junkie?"

In the pause that follows, one feels that one should reel backward and clap a hand to the forehead and say, "Oh, my God, no!"

"Yes, I was," he says. "As a kid, I was stoned out of my mind on sugar. A freak. It made me weak. I had boils, pimples, fallen arches. I was nearsighted. Listen, little girls used to seek me out just to beat up on me."

LaLanne acts out everything—all of his stories, his anecdotes, reminiscences. He does all of the parts. Even his dinner menus—he acts out the broccoli and boneless chicken breast. Now he leaps to his feet, in blue slacks and a crisp monogrammed shirt that's a sort of half-Eisenhower jacket, tightly fitted and tapered to accent the outcropping of chest and shoulders. He starts to pace—a little dance step, turn and pace again. He sketches images in the air with both hands as he talks. And even when he's standing absolutely still—or when he thinks he's standing absolutely still—things move faintly and elusively. His pectorals jump reflexively; he makes constant little adjustments of his shoulders, the sure giveaway sign of an oldtime iron pumper. Often, when he is between declarations, gathering in more air, his hands will stray up and lightly pinch the skin just below his rib cage, as if to make sure that a fold of fat hasn't suddenly appeared there since breakfast.

"I got cured of sugar addiction by the late Dr. Paul Bragg, who was a sort of pioneer nutritionist. I heard him lecture. I'll tell ya, kid, that man was a real spellbinder." LaLanne wheels and imitates Bragg, a thunderous voice: "Obey Nature's laws and you can be born again!" Then he does an impressionable young Jack, sugar-bombed, undergoing a miraculous transformation. He clasps his hands prayerfully under his chin and looks up at the living room ceiling. They don't do this any better at Lourdes. And then, in quick sequence, he does his metamorphosis, building a new life-style based on proper nutrition and exercise. Pimples vanish. Swoooosh. Boils disappear. His blood clears. Perfect vision returns. No more cavities. His disposition turns sunny. He does a little dance step: "Get thee behind me, Twinkies!"

LaLanne has a large repertoire of such admonitory goodies:

•"You love your pets, right? Well, would you get your dog up every morning and give him a cup of coffee and a cigarette?"

•"I certainly don't recommend alcohol, but, I swear, I'd rather see you drinking whiskey than drinking Coca-Cola. That swill!"

Elaine LaLanne, an effervescent blonde of 56, hears all of this—as, no doubt, do Rudy Vallee and the 101-year-old man as well—standing at the entrance to the room with her head cocked approvingly. She's LaLanne's second wife: they've been married for 22 years. She is also his cheerleader, fiercely devoted to their life-style—with a single exception. She swims daily, she works out faithfully, she plays a lot of golf. She is proud mom to stepdaughter Yvonne, 35, a social psychologist; son Danny, 32, a photographer; and son Jon Allen, 20, a student at Pepperdine. But she flat refuses to rise at 4:30 in the morning to exercise in the family gym. "When Jack rolls out," she says, "I roll over."

But now LaLanne is really swinging, and in the hours before lunch, hidden away inside this Raymond Chandleresque house in the Hollywood Hills, he synopsizes the rest of his life. If this were a movie, the screen would show pages fluttering from a calendar.

In the years after kicking sugar, LaLanne literally sculpted himself a new body, piling on muscles here, creating dramatic ridgelines and hollows there. He lifted weights incessantly, of course. He also became a nutrition buff, and his idea of light reading was an evening spent with Gray's Anatomy. He became a gymnast, a handstander and a grand-stander. Before long, he had a gym going in the family backyard in Berkeley, where he took on pupils at $5 or so a week, whatever they could afford. The gym featured weights of uncertain measure, created by pouring cement into old paint cans.

"It isn't what you have," LaLanne says, "it's what you do with what you have. We were a French immigrant family, settled on the West Coast. My dad died in his 40s, in the prime of his life. We needed money. So sometimes..." He leaps up and pumps out his chest, a quick transformation. "So sometimes, I even posed nude for the life drawing classes at local art schools." He strikes a fleeting pose, vaguely borrowed from Rodin's The Thinker and Mitzi Gaynor at the Riviera and, somehow—perhaps because of the look that flickers across his face—he manages to look momentarily naked. "I got so I could expand certain muscles and hold them that way. You know what I mean? I was looked upon as the neighborhood nut. The filbert. Filbert! Now there's a term you don't hear much anymore."

LaLanne opened his first health club in 1936 in downtown Oakland. It was definitely not a runaway success. "There was strong resistance in those days," he says. "You can't appreciate it now, in this era of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu and Gayle Olinekova, but it was a fact of the time. I would get a guy about half recruited and he would come back to me and say that his doctor wouldn't let him join. 'You'll get a hernia,' all the doctors said then, remember? Or, 'You'll get muscle-bound.' For example, the local jeweler wanted to join, but he was fearful about something. He got me aside on the street one day and he stood there whispering to me." LaLanne jumps up again and does the jeweler, looking around nervously, as if he might be overheard. He lowers his voice: " 'Is it true,' " he says, " 'that weightlifting gives you hemorrhoids?' "

All the while, the dynamic pixie was out promoting himself. There's something strongly contagious about LaLanne's enthusiasm; it's an elusive, shared sense of ain't-this-a-kick-in-the-head? Mickey Rooney has it, and Betty Hutton, and Bandleader Phil Harris. Jimmy Durante had it. It's an ability to communicate a joy in performing. By day, LaLanne would parade endlessly in tight T shirts—"I was in a constant state of flex"—making the scene at all the muscle beaches. He'd leap into a handstand if anyone so much as blinked at him and was forever organizing human pyramids of oiled bodies glistening in the sun. He was no less visible by night. "I bought the best car I could afford," he says, "plus some really nifty tailored clothes—tight-fitting, to emphasize my chest and shoulders. I dated the very best-looking girls, and I made sure that we were seen at all the best restaurants in town. It's dumb. I mean, I sat there eating lettuce—but I was seen."

And, finally, the word got around. "I began to get hushed calls at home. From folks who didn't want to be seen in the company of bodybuilders, a lot of doctors among them. 'Jack,' they would whisper, 'can you take me at 5 a.m.?' Sure I could. And housewives, of all people. This was in 1936, remember. 'Jack, can I slip over to the gym at two o'clock while my husband's at work?' "

Bodybuilding? More like empire building. In the years that followed, he not only became respectable, he became downright chic. There are now 111 LaLanne-licensed spas around the country, with more on the way. LaLanne is a star on the banquet circuit as an inspirational speaker, guaranteed—at $4,000 per show in his skintight tux—to bring an audience to its feet, whooping for fitness. He is writing a new series of fitness books, running the sales campaign for his private-formula food supplements and considering a chain of health food restaurants. And then—Glory be!—there's the reason for LaLanne's new excitement. A few weeks ago his world came full circle. The old show is back on television.

L.A.'s Channel 9 carries Jack LaLanne and You five days a week at 8 a.m., and the familiar, feisty drillmaster is out to charm an entire new generation. On camera, he's as puckish and as convincing as ever. "I'll tell ya, it's the greatest thing that's happened to me in years," he says. LaLanne is offering the show for syndication and anticipates that he'll be carried by a couple of hundred stations by next summer.

He leaps up and strikes an oldtime life-drawing-class pose, his arms cocked up and his biceps bulging sinfully. "Look, Mom," he says, "I've become an institution."

It is all a form of gentle insanity, brought on by excess energy. On the off-chance that there was still someone out there who hadn't heard about the virtues of diet and exercise, LaLanne launched his once-a-year series of astounding, amazing feats. Well, all right, all right. What they were, really, were goofball stunts pulled off somewhere near the date of his birthday, which is Sept. 26. Before his birthday or after, it didn't matter.

Birthday Feats: At 40, he swam the Golden Gate underwater, wearing 140 pounds of scuba gear. The water was cold, 55°, and he covered the two miles in 45 minutes, 10 to 15 feet down, with his progress marked by a red balloon bobbing along on the surface. At 41, LaLanne swam the two-plus miles from Alcatraz to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf—this time wearing handcuffs. What's more, he lurched up out of the water, threw himself down and did 30 push-ups. At 42, LaLanne pumped off a world-record 1,033 pushups in 23 minutes on a TV show.

And so on until, at 60, he repeated the Alcatraz swim, this time handcuffed and shackled at the ankles—and towing a 1,000-pound boat. At 62, he invoked the Bicentennial Spirit of '76 with a 1½-mile swim in Long Beach Harbor, handcuffed, shackled and towing 13 boats—the 13 original colonies, get it, kid?—containing 76 waving and screaming YMCA youngsters in life jackets. The weight of this armada was estimated at 25,000 pounds. LaLanne made it in 1:18.24 in the exaggerated frog-kick style that is regulation form for manacled swimmers, and at the finish his pulse was a mere 76 against a normal pulse of 60. "That's what this is all about," he chortles. "Strength is energy, see?"

And even with his TV revival in full swing, he's still restless. Life is more than pumping iron, rising at 4:30 a.m. daily to exercise. It's the feats that are fun, the stuff that gets you on the nightly television news, which is much better than the old Fox Movietone newsreels. "I'll tell ya, it has to be something big this year," he says. "It'll come to me suddenly someday and I'll just up and do it with maybe no advance notice. Something that'll show how we feel about a physically fit America. And, ya know, our society is getting older; there has been a steady increase in Americans who are over 90. I've got to do something that old folks can identify with. Something that will give them new hope and courage to carry on."

This is clearly a very special moment. LaLanne has been fidgeting while sitting at a poolside table at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club. Now, explosively, he jumps to his feet, looking toward the bowered entryway. "There he is," he murmurs.

And there he is, indeed: The gentleman approaching is wearing a classic panama hat, a soft sports shirt, casual slacks and loafers. He walks gracefully, with the ease of an old athlete. The jaw-line is firm and his tanned face is deeply cragged and seamed around the thin gray mustache.

This is Gilbert Roland, the former Luis Alonso, son of a Mexican bullfighter, at 75 years of age. Lured by the bright lights of Hollywood early in the '20s, Roland was once indisputably the handsomest leading man of the silver screen, offering a profile as chiseled as profiles ever get. In 1927 he wowed the nation as Armand Duval in Camille, with Norma Talmadge. Then, over the years, his roles eased gradually into character parts; a series of films as the Cisco Kid in the 1940s; a matador in 1951's The Bullfighter and the Lady; in 1977, a boat captain in Islands in the Stream. Roland is still working, and he still has the 28-inch waist of his youth.

"It's because, at Jack's urging, I still do his exercises every morning," Roland says, with a slight bow toward LaLanne. He explains that he does about an hour of heavy LaLanne workout and then, just as the sun rises over Beverly Hills, he sits quietly and meditates. Sometimes this is followed by tennis at the club, more often by hard-fought bridge games at the club, but always, always, there is lunch at the club—at this, Mr. Roland's poolside table, in these, Mr. Roland's favorite deck chairs.

Roland and LaLanne tell stories to each other over their tossed salads; they're clearly old pals. Then Roland leans forward and lightly rests his fingertips on his friend's muscular forearm. "And what will you do for your birthday stunt this year?" he asks.

LaLanne shrugs. "Well," he says, "I was going to carry a 350-pound barbell on my shoulders for one mile up Sunset Boulevard. To the corner of Sunset and Vine. You know, to protest the dope and prostitution that's currently going on there. And in training, I got so I could carry the barbell—double my weight, you know—for up to 15.5 minutes at a time. At the end of the stunt, I would offer $10,000 in cash to anyone who could do the same distance carrying double their weight. But I banged up my knee when someone hit my Porsche, so that's out for now." He sighs. "Probably I'll swim from Catalina Island to Los Angeles underwater. That's about 25 miles. I'd like to do it in maybe 24 hours, going day and night, with divers bringing me down fresh air-tanks."

Roland nods. "And next year?"

"Next year I might tow a yacht through the Panama Canal. If I can get their permission. Handcuffed and shackled, of course."

"Of course." Roland nods thoughtfully at the correctness of swimming handcuffed and shackled. "Tell me," he says, "would you mind if an aging old Mexican fan of yours went along to watch?"

LaLanne sees that Roland is serious and he blinks away tears. "Why, I'd be, I' honored," he says.

"Then it's done."

And Gilbert Roland turns to the guest at the poolside table and explains his own impression of his antic old friend. "LaLanne is a good man," he says. "There is no cynicism in him, no subterfuge. He simply loves everybody so much that he—well...You know what he wants to do, really? He wants to reach out to them all and say, 'Hey, there! Take better care of yourself!' "



At home in the Hollywood Hills, LaLanne poses with a larger-than-LaLanne lookalike.



Exercises, his and theirs. LaLanne works out alone at home in the early morning, and then sometimes gets together with the girls at one of his spas in the Los Angeles area.



Son Jon helps Dad s(train) for stunts.



Old friends Roland and LaLanne could still buy their belts in the kids' department.



LaLanne plays a supporting role, second from the top, at Muscle Beach in 1943.