Let’s Keep Talking About That Classic Equipment.
In the early to mid-Sixties, my garage or basement, dependent upon where I had my limited equipment set-up, would have reflected the era’s typical “home gym” for a serious trainee or at least one that wasn’t headed towards physique competition. The belief, and one that within limits was a legitimate one, was that a competition level bodybuilder needed more than the so-called basics and the equipment that could provide those movements. Thus the high level bodybuilders were seeking a broad selection of dumbbells, a high and low pulley arrangement, and numerous angled benches and they considered these to be necessities. I can recall sitting in the “Weider Headquarters” in California which was no more than a storefront with warehouse space behind it, on 5th Street in Santa Monica. My friend Dave Draper was in charge of running the place, greeting those who might have wandered in off of the street to purchase two pairs of ten pound plates or a set of Weider Aristocrat Power Stands (read that as dangerously flimsy portable squat racks). Even then the emphasis was on supplement sales and Dave had a large supply of what in New York bodybuilding circles was the ubiquitous Weider Super Pro 101 protein drink, similar to the ready-to-drink types that are currently the rage. When Dave moved from New Jersey and first arrived in California a few years previous to my visit, he trained in the bowels of the city, literally below street level in the basement of an old hotel bar. Dubbed “The Dungeon” by those who used the old, rusty, but wonderful equipment, it was a haven for the extremely dedicated which certainly included Dave who had won a great many top physique titles.
The Dungeon unfortunately, had been closed, the entire building abandoned and while there was a small area in the warehouse section of the establishment where Dave and others in the Weider stable who might have been working on any specific day could train, he was using the original Gold’s Gym in Venice. He asked how I liked the gyms I had trained at while in California which to that point included Bill Pearl’s Manchester Avenue gym that had originally been founded by George Redpath in 1949, the well known Vince’s Gym, Gold’s, and Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym down the coast in Costa Mesa. Explaining that I was most comfortable at Pearl’s, in part because Bill allowed me to train with him at 5 AM and it was close to the dirt-cheap apartment we had located in Inglewood, and at Zuver’s because it was full of powerlifters and football players like me, he agreed that those were excellent facilities.
I asked him why he didn’t set up a home gym for himself, knowing that Dave was not a social person. He explained that for the level of bodybuilding he was at and needed to maintain, he would require more room and more equipment than his house would allow. As a football player who was interested in being stronger, faster, and more resistant to injury, the equipment made by my father and me on the premises of Koenig Iron Works on 19th Street in Manhattan and a few store bought pieces from York and Weider, gave me a great facility by the time 1966 rolled in.
My decision to enter an odd lift contest came before I put the crowning touch on my home gym with a harrowing drive to York, PA, but my obsessive quest to have equipment I believed I needed to have in order to reach my potential is well reflected in that specific trip. My training partner Jack joined me on this memorable ride to York that had us taking turns literally hanging out of the windows to wipe away the snow, sleet, and highway slush that was continuously thrown up onto my windshield as we navigated the roads of small town Pennsylvania without operating windshield wipers. Covered from the waist up with highway sludge and mud, we struggled into the barbell company parking lot just as the first employees were arriving to open the doors to the famous York Barbell Club training gym, Hoffman’s strength museum, and small retail store. Although it was not the original York Barbell Club training headquarters that was used in the 1940’s, the building on North Ridge Avenue had the pedigree. Home to the best Olympic weightlifters in the country, it boasted heavy duty platforms, a stairstep squat rack, and tons of the famous York barbell plates and bars. Once inside, we were impressed by everything we saw but first ran to purchase the York “Model W.W.” Power Rack I had come for. The portable model that could be screwed into a plywood platform was all of $59.95, but big bucks for a working adolescent. That York did not open for retail sales of equipment on Saturdays but instead, catered to an influx of visitors who bought protein shakes and lots of Hoffman’s protein bars while they watched the greats throw weight around the training area, was but a minor deterrent to Jack and me. We bitched and moaned in a polite and soft-spoken manner, wonderful practice for Jack’s future profession as an attorney, and eventually worked our way up the chain of command until we were granted an audience with John Terpak.
Mr. Terpak ran the day to day operation for York Barbell Company, a former lifting champion and as was typical of the era for any business person, dressed to the nines in a suit, even though he was present to do little more than observe the lifters with Bob Hoffman. Explaining that we had braved a blizzard in order to get to York, had taken a Saturday off from one of our many jobs, and needed the rack so that we could continue to “get strong for football,” he and Bob thought we were the most dedicated and perhaps the most mentally ill visitors the place had seen in ages and after continuous pleading on our part, finally relented. We were shown to the warehouse in the back and let loose to carry our own rack out to the parking lot. Not wishing to miss any of the lifting activity, we ran out the back door, literally plunked the metal rack across the hood of my Ford and in our logical and brilliant manner, figured we could secure the thing to the roof after our observation of Bill March, Bill Starr, and Bob Bednarski. In a blinding snowstorm, who was going to walk away with the power rack? Thus, with my York 555 set, assorted “junk yard equipment,” saw horse squat, press, and bench press rack, our heavy duty from-the-shop flat bench, and literally more than a ton of plates we could do whatever had to be done. I cut short bars in the shop and my father and I welded large washers onto them to serve as inside collars. With the stash of small-holed plates I had accumulated, we used the bars and mismatched plates to make a wide range of dumbbells that lined one wall of the garage. I was convinced that we had all that was necessary for success. Supplementing our at-home training with visits to Tony Pandolfo’s storefront, we felt that we were enjoying the cutting edge of high technology training.
Tony’s place was a stereotype for the era (more fully described in Part Six, December 2008 installment of this series), a storefront that housed a desk, chair, and broken down couch in the entryway, all serving as “an office area”, an old-fashioned store display case that in this specific case, contained four pound tins of Rheo Blair’s milk and egg protein powder, and various bottles of Blair’s, Weider’s, and Hoffman’s nutritional supplements. No spandex, belts, gloves, or logoed tank tops, none of which were on the lifting scene until many years later. The gym members were all male, all street tough with a hard edge, and all strong no matter what their size because of the type of training that was done. The equipment consisted of a few small benches that could be used for various dumbbell movements and included a York standing inclined bench, something almost never seen since 1980 but a great piece that I enjoyed so much that I had two of them made for our Iron Island Gym in 1992. That one’s feet were placed into York Iron Boots that served as footrests in the original model of this piece, made it even more exotic. Two benches with upright racks and weight saddles, “professionally made” by York with the uprights closely spaced, non-adjustable, and with “Y”- shaped saddles that were perhaps an inch-and-an-eighth wide made a degree in physics a must to avoid launching an unevenly loaded bar across the gym, a not uncommon occurrence in the Sixties as some would unload one end of a bar completely, forgetting that even one 45 pound plate on the other side could be enough to cause a NASA investigation. The metal pulleys were wall and ceiling mounted and held barbell plates that were dropped onto a loading pin. God help the trainee who unhooked the S-hook that connected the cable from the loading pin that traveled around the pulley and finally attached to the pulldown bar if they did not first securely fasten that S-hook to an eye-hook in the wall. A rapidly falling pulldown bar striking the head and/or neck of the trainee himself or a nearby observer was enough to cause concussion and lacerations and often did. The power rack was homemade and the pair of portable squat racks were the infamous York pair that looked as if anything more than 100 pounds would cave them in. The very tiny “Y” weight saddle, a duplicate of that used on the bench press uprights, made it an exacting science to place the bar directly and cautiously into the “Y” when racking the bar. One can imagine this challenge after an exhausting set of 20 or 30-rep squats. Yet I took an ill advised squat-to-the-bench with in excess of 600 pounds and we had a number of lifters who weekly squatted various rep sets with 400-500 pounds on those very flimsy posts. A ladder arrangement that provided a hookup for a few sit-up boards lined the back wall while a variety of homemade dumbbells of varying denominations, all welded with what was for the most part non-matching plates, sat to one side of the gym. Of course, much more important than the equipment was the atmosphere, enthusiasm, and instruction provided by Tony and the more advanced men in this small, poorly ventilated but productive haven. Names such as Bob Van Dina and Nick Isoldi mean little to iron game historians and were not even immediately recognized by followers of the sport at the time but these were two among other truly strong and well developed men who pushed everyone else along. What we also had that marked our workout spot as “serious” was a grouping of very good York and Jackson Olympic bars and plates and it was only upon examining the two very different looking types of sets that I realized that one’s bars and plates did in fact matter a lot and constituted the most important part of one’s equipment arsenal.