Vince Gironda's Gym was a modest, dark, old-fashioned kind of muscle factory out in the Valley, not far from the many Burbank studios.
Not quite as famous as Gold's, Vince's Gym was established in 1948 by Vince Gironda, a bodybuilder known as the "Iron Guru". No fancy machines here, no music, just basic free-weights and hard training.
The walls were lined with pictures of bodybuilders who have trained at Vince's over the years, including "Body by" Jake Steinman, Lou ("The Incredible Hulk") Ferrigno, and even Arnold ("The Terminator") Schwarzenegger.
Vince also helped the studios whip their stars into shape for the movies; he helped train the likes of Cher, Clint Eastwood, Denzel Washington, James Garner, Brian Keith, Tommy Chong (of Cheech & Chong) and Erik Estrada.
It is said that in the late 1960's, before bodybuilders started to use steroids, Vince's Gym produced more top physique stars than any other gym in the world.
Stories about Vince and his gym are legendary and in Vince's gym, you either followed his methods or suffered his wrath.
Once, after Vince had spent several hours coaching an upcoming bodybuilder, he noticed the trainee wasn't following his instructions. "What the hell are you doing?" he demanded to know.
When the bodybuilder in question said he wanted to "change around a few things," Vince banished him from the gym! When the man complained that he'd paid for a six-month membership, Vince went to the cash register, took out payment for six months, and threw it at him, shouting, "If you aren't going to listen to what I say, I don't want you in here!".
The End of a Legendary Gym
(Musclemag 168 May 1996)
In September I placed a call to Vince's Gym and got an operator's message to call a different number. With anxious concern I quickly dialed the referred number and heard a recorded message by Madelaine Gironda. I started to leave my message and suddenly Madelaine picked up the phone and said, "Hi, Pete!"
..."H!, Madelaine. I just called to see how things are going out there. Also, I want to bring a couple of my California clients to the gym so that I can take them through new workout routines."
"Well, Pete, as a matter of fact," she replied, "Vince has closed the gym."
Wham! The hard reality struck me like a 100-pound dumbell falling on my foot. After some more conversation Madelaine got Vince on the line. I voiced my shock and sadness to the Iron Guru.
"Hell, 50 years is long enough," he responded.
"Yeah, I guess you have a point there, Vince. So you gonna kick back and take it easy now?"
No, Im concentrating on my mailorder business," he replied. I'm doing that too, Vince. It's a good way to do business."
"Have you heard of L.L. Bean?" he interrupted. "Yes, of course," I answered. "Well, that's where I want to be in a few years."
Our conversation then turned to the subjects we have discussed at length scores of times before - high-protein diet combined with proper utilization of fats, low carbs, etc., etc. I asked about the photos that graced the walls of the gym.
"I still have them," he said, "but it is not a large collection."
"I have a huge collection myself of photographs of the oldtime physique stars, but you have some that I sure wish I had, like that old shot of Monty Wolford."
"Monty had the same measurement in his midthigh as he had in his upper thigh. That became a goal of mine too," he said, "but I haven't reached it yet." (How do you like the operative word yet?)
After some discussion of training for a shapely body and how it has become a lost art. I inquired, -So where do I take my clients now, Vince?" He gave me the name of another gym in the area as well as the phone number. "Thanks, Vince. See ya soon." After hanging up, I spent some time looking at the gym photos from the golden era, and reminiscing.
A couple of weeks later my wife Patti and I loaded up the truck and headed for California. On our arrival in the San Fernando Valley late at night, I was tempted to go by the gym and check things out. Instead we decided to catch some sleep (after the long drive from Las Vegas) and go over there in the morning.
As we drove up to 11262 Ventura Boulevard early the following day, my heart sank to see guys tearing the place apart. An empty feeling came over me as I walked inside the former gym. A worker came up to me and said, "Can I help you?" I explained that it was my friend's gym. "I used to work here, train here, and I lived upstairs in the '60s."
"Look around all you want upstairs if you wish," he responded. I did just that.
I started reconstructing the gym in my mind. I thought to myself, "Let's see, the short pull (which paved the way for today's low-row machine) was right here. The crossover pulleys (another Gironda original) was over there." I remembered the special decline bench that was stationed between the two pulleys. I recalled once walking up to Clint (Cheyenne) Walker, asking if I could do a set of decline dumbell presses while he was resting.
"Sure, but where are your dumbells?" he asked.
"Oh, I'll just use yours," I said.
"Oh sure!" he smirked. (He was a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than I.) I lifted the pair of 90s to my upper thighs as I dropped back on the bench and knocked off 8 reps. I then placed the dumbells back on the floor and said, "Thanks, Clint"
He looked at me and said, "Are you trying to make a fool out of me?"
"Who, me?" We both laughed.
I glanced over to where the original preacher bench was located. Thoughts of grueling low-biceps workouts with my old buddy Larry Scott rushed to my mind. After a while I walked up the flight of stairs to what was originally Vince's living quarters.
When Vince bought a house in Toluca Lake, he rented the upstairs apartment to a stuntman named Chuck Hicks. When I used to work in the gym, I had a key to the pace, so I would go in and train at 6:00 a.m. because I liked working out in seclusion when possible. One such early morning Vince phoned me and yelled, "Hey, you're waking up Chuck and his wife!"
"But, Vince," I said, "I'm working out as quietly as possible."
"He can hear the crossover pulleys!" Dammit! I wasn't thinking about the fact that the two pulleys were screwed into the ceiling! "What will I do if I lose my tenant?" Vince hollered over the phone.
"Hey, if he moves out, I'll rent it from ya, okay?"
A month later I was living above the gym - and so it happened that for a period of time Vince Gironda was simultaneously my friend, my mentor, my employer and my landlord-a totally unique arrangement.
When he was visiting the west coast, Freddy Ortiz stayed in the rear upstairs apartment. (That story is too wild to print.) Then Don Howorth lived in the rear quarters after Freddy had to go back east rather suddenly. Don and I would train our brains out in the gym and then go upstairs and make Blair's protein shakes. Between the front and rear quarters was an open area for sunbathmg. We had it made.
Patti and I returned to the gym the next morning to take name photos, and at that time we ran into the new owner of what was fast becoming an upholstery shop. He said that he was two weeks away from opening for business. He mentioned that many people were coming by and that they were stunned to discover the gym was gone. Someone had said to him: "How could you do this? This gym was an institution." With the owner's blessing I took a couple of souvenirs that I had stumbled upon.
I headed over to the Prime Fitness gym in Toluca Lake - the one that Vince and Madelaine had recommended. As I was getting ready to train my first client I glanced at the scales to see good old Vince weighing in. I rushed over, we chatted briefly, and then he sat at the calf machine and began repping away, Gironda style. Madelaine was busy doing personal training with one of their clients. When the workouts were completed, Vince said, "Hey, Pete, show me your brochure." He scrutinized it and nodded with approval. I think he appreciated the fact that I gave him credit for being the source of my advanced bodybuilding techniques.
On leaving the gym, Patti and I joined Vince and Madelaine at a local eatery where we used to have breakfast in the old days. While our wives got into the subject of nutrition, Vince looked me in the eyes and muttered, "Have you ever seen so many **!!#*! fat women in this town? Too much carbohydrate!" he snapped. Madelaine gave Vince a stern look and said, "Hey, can you hold it down? There are people here who can hear you."
"No!" he replied. "I'm Italian."
I chimed in, "Hey, Vince, if you Italian, how come you no speaka wit you hands, huh?"
"I gave up speaking with my hands," came the hasty reply. We all broke up with laughter at this point.
The waitress started giving us dirty looks because we were only having tea and lemonade and people were lined up outside waiting to get in. As we walked out, Vince said: "How come they're lining up here? Don't they know the food is lousy?"
Yes, the whole visit was vintage Gironda, a man I accepted for who he was (and is) some third of a century ago. He remains brutally blunt and to the point, but remember, this man has forgotten more advanced bodybuilding concepts than most ever learn. I'll admit I spent years absorbing the wisdom of the Iron Guru. No more can I (or others) make regular pilgrimages back to that unique gym with its own special chemistry. Instead I'll just think fondly of that point in history when bodybuilding was so much fun. You just never forget those workouts alongside people like Larry Scott, Don Howorth, Bill McCardle, Ray Routledge, Don Peterson, Freddy Ortiz, Clint Eastwood, Clint Walker, Foster Brooks, Michael Landon and, of course, the man who put it all together, Vince Gironda.