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"No summer shows were complete without the beauty contests. The charm, the grace and the glowing smiles of all contestants made every entrant a winner by the joy and experience of participating."

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Bodybuilding Competition

Welcome to Muscle Beach – Santa Monica

Muscle Beach was established on the beach area south of the Santa Monica Pier in 1934  as a part of a beach front area refurbishment project funded by the national Work Projects Administration (WPA).

Following the famous financial crash of Wall Street in 1929, the nationwide sustained economic  Depression that resulted created crisis levels of unemployment. The WPA engaged workers from local communities to obtain temporary employment in area construction projects.  For the City of Santa Monica, the beach area was cited to receive a new recreation and athletics center.

At the time of the completed new facilities in the mid-1930s, it was not officially titled Muscle Beach.  Rather, it was simply known as another one of the city “parks” operated by the Santa Monica Recreation & Parks Department.  Of course, as circumstances would unfold, the idea of having a perfect all-year climate of sunshine at a beachfront recreation facility made it destined for popularity.

In addition to the natural attraction for beach-goers and athletes who enjoyed the initial gymnastics, outdoor wrestling and general camaraderie, there was another element that helped form this ‘particular’ beach into a one-of-a-kind setting … yet to be given its fame: “Hollywood”.

With the burgeoning Hollywood film industry increasingly attracting varied talent from across the nation and throughout the world, this “beach park” in Santa Monica rapidly became “the place” to go for movie stunt people, actors and celebrities.  This meant that by the end of the 1930s, international fame was growing for the beach park.

Along the journey, a handful of the original gymnasts and athletes who frequented the setting contributed time and resources, including equipment, to help support the range of activities at the park.  As collaboration between the City of Santa Monica and volunteers from the gymnastics group occurred, the city made investments in the setting, too.

1940s

With the advent of World War II, the Santa Monica Beach also became a destination for a recreation and social setting for soldiers who discovered the beach while stationed in Los Angeles during tours from around the nation.  Collectively, by the early 1940s, the magnetic attraction and retention of the beach park had also made it a destination for weightlifters who initially often brought their own barbells and dumbbells to work out with for the day.

It was during the transition years of the late 1930s into the early 1940s that the site became known as a place where gymnasts, stunt people,  wrestlers, acrobats and circus performers and weightlifters could all be seen on any given weekend … and hence the evolution of the site earning the fame and allure as the world’s “Muscle Beach.”

No beach in any other location of the nation, nor any other continent on the planet was as distinctly associated with the best bodies and athletes on the planet.  It is not that there were no other beaches with gymnasts, acrobats and weightlifters — just that no beach area had ever developed the fame or become such an authentic and inevitable “destination” for talented athletes as the one and only “Muscle Beach” of Santa Monica.

It is notable that for anyone who grew up in the area, hearing another nickname for a section of the Los Angeles beachfront coastline was nothing new.  There was “Brain Beach” north of the Pier where a contingent of students from U.C.L.A. were known to go, as well as a range of similar nicknames both north and south of the beach “park” that earned the singular celebrated fame as Muscle Beach.

1950s

In one of the most significant ironies of the history of Muscle Beach, the City of Santa Monica truly developed a “love-hate” relationship with the site.  Here’s why:  What began as a beach playground intended to offer a range of recreation activities, from gymnastics to chess players and from volleyball to ping-pong, grew to be so “gymnastics-centric” and “bodybuilding-centric” that the other recreation activities became side shows, of sorts.

For the purists of the gymnastics and bodybuilding, this was welcomed.  Yet keeping in mind that during the 1950s when Muscle Beach had fully blossomed, it was in a period of conservative social conditions.  The idea of men and women down at the beach showing off their stunning physiques and professional-level athletic talents made some folks cringe.

Perhaps the site of biceps, beauty contests and airborne tumblers simply made people jealous and even more self-conscious because they weren’t involved — or into fitness themselves.  But, on the other hand that would cover most of society at the time , since weightlifting and bodybuilding was considered by many to be simply “weird.”

Anyone can note today that there were key pioneers who changed the perception of weightlifting forever — and to those athletes and physical culture stars, Santa Monica’s Muscle Beach was their springboard to celebrated careers: Steve “Hercules” Reeves, Jack LaLanne who introduced the nation to fitness on television, as well as the commercial giant Joe Gold of “Gold’s Gym” and “World Gym” fame.

Continue on a History Journey

Needless to say, Muscle Beach became a single site on the globe that can be identified as the latitude and longitude where the fitness explosion of the 20th Century had an epicenter.   The world’s best weather, celebrities from Hollywood and the mix of the finest gymnasts, wrestlers and acrobats in the world all coming to practice and perfect their talents … putting on “free” daily exhibitions in the process.  It was the recipe for one of the most intriguing “pop culture” stories ever.

At the top of the best years of Muscle Beach’s popularity, an event occurred that served as the catalyst to collapse the saga into a dark moment. In December of 1958, four weightlifters were found with several underage girls partying in an apartment.  As the ‘perfect storm’ would have it, the apartment was directly adjacent to Muscle Beach and the event was sensationalized in the local media and community.

Whether the police charges or media reports were accurate or not, this one event captured the fervor of the Santa Monica City Council and the groundswell of conservative Santa Monica populace overwhelmingly backed the ousting of Muscle Beach.  The gymnastics platform and weightlifting shed were bulldozed one morning at dawn reportedly without any warning or formal City Council action.

Archived Reference Documents:

Muscle beach Steve Ford and Bert Goodrich

The dozens and dozens of core Muscle Beach members pleaded with City Hall to restore and rededicate their “home away from home.”  The City reminded them that the facility was ultimately a “park” and belonged to the citizens of Santa Monica.  The formal City reference or signage identifying “Muscle Beach” was erased … even though the original denizens of the site continued to come down and conduct gymnastics at the exact location  for decades to follow.  The name “Muscle Beach” was incredibly rejected by the city, like a child rejected by a family for having too much passion — and, in this case, shinning talent, too.

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