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Jack La Lanne – A Berkeley (not Oakland) Original

By Steven Finacom
Tuesday January 25, 2011 - 12:32:00 PM
Jack La Lanne in the Fall, 1934 about four years after his fitness revelations.
Olla Podrida, the Berkeley High School yearbook
Jack La Lanne in the Fall, 1934 about four years after his fitness revelations.
2430 Spaulding Street in 2009; this was the La Lanne family home in
            the 1930s.
Hal Reynolds
2430 Spaulding Street in 2009; this was the La Lanne family home in the 1930s.
The seven Bragg lecture titles, as presented in an October 6, 1930 Tribune advertisement.
The seven Bragg lecture titles, as presented in an October 6, 1930 Tribune advertisement.
Oakland Tribune advertisement, October 12, 1930, for a Paul Bragg
            series of lectures.
Oakland Tribune advertisement, October 12, 1930, for a Paul Bragg series of lectures.

Sunday, January 23, 2011, new stories began to appear about the death that day of famed fitness guru Jack La Lanne at age 96. But some of them contained one striking error—apparently based on a mistaken AP wire service account, in which La Lanne was described as coming from “his native Oakland.”

While he started his fitness business in Oakland in the 1930s, La Lanne actually lived as a teenager in Berkeley on Spaulding Avenue, west of Downtown, attended Berkeley High School, and began his weight training and fitness regime in the back rooms of the Downtown Berkeley YMCA on Allston Way and Milvia and his own backyard and Berkeley parks.  

He was one of Berkeley’s most notable home-grown national figures of the 20th century, right up there in terms of public visibility with another Berkeley native of similar vintage, David Brower. Both changed the way people thought about, and acted in, important aspects of their lives. 

La Lanne died from respiratory failure Sunday at his home in Morro Bay, California. He had hoped to survive to 100, living proof of his theories and practice of better eating, exercise, and fitness as the way to a long, healthy, life.  

Anyone old enough to have watched television in the 1960s or 70s will remember the trim, energetic, La Lanne and his TV show which brought simple exercise techniques and fitness advice into millions of American homes. 

Although his life was recounted in numerous interviews and articles over the years, his local story was well told by Berkeley resident Hal Reynolds who interviewed him in 2008 and wrote about La Lanne in an article for the Berkeley Historical Society newsletter.  

Reynolds is part of the McGee Spaulding Hardy Historical Interest Group, a dedicated cadre of neighbors and volunteers working to research and document the heritage of their neighborhood west of Downtown and south of University Avenue. 

La Lanne was born in San Francisco in 1914, the son of French émigrés. His family lived on a Bakersfield ranch, but returned to the Bay Area in 1928 after that property went into bankruptcy. They moved to a one-story house that still stands at 2430 Spaulding Avenue, on a wide, quiet, block of bungalows between Sacramento Street and Downtown Berkeley. 

“According to La Lanne (Reynolds wrote) he was a scrawny, sugar-addicted, unhealthy kid with boils and pimples and an uncontrollable temper. He says he tried to kill his brother Norman twice…” and also set the house on fire. 

“In 1928, at age 15, his mother took him to hear health advocate Paul C. Bragg at the Oakland City Women’s Club. His mother had heard about Bragg from Mrs. Joy, a neighbor on Spaulding. Bragg was originally from Indiana but had established health centers in Los Angeles beginning in 1926. He advocated using deep breathing, water fasts, organic foods, drinking distilled water, and exercise as methods of promoting health and prolonging the life span. In 1929 he began a series of health lectures in various cities, including Oakland”, Reynolds writes. 

A few years ago I tried to track down more information on the Bragg lectures, and finally found an advertisement placed in local newspapers for one set in October 1930. It’s not clear if there were 1928 or 1929 lectures in Oakland, although there may well have been. 

I’m not sure about the discrepancy between 1929—La Lanne’s recollection—and 1930. Perhaps there was an earlier set of lectures, or perhaps decades later he was one year off in remembering the date. (Bragg would return to Oakland in March, 1934 to give a similar series of inspirational talks, and was still at it in 1959, when he came back to Oakland for yet another series of lectures on the same themes.) 

In any case, Bragg gave seven evening lectures in 1930, all at the Women’s City Club Theater at 1428 Alice Street. They ran, with a Wednesday break, from Friday, October 10 through Friday, October 17, including a Sunday talk.  

The topics were, in order “How to Banish Disease and Live 100 years: Cancer healed Nature’s Way”; “Constipation—the Curse of Mankind Today”; “Perfect Eyesight Without Glasses”; “The Secret of Vitality—Breathing”; “Why We Are A Nation of Physical Wrecks”; “How to Build Your Body Back to Health”; and“The Truth About Your Sexual Problem.” 

Which one did the young La Lanne attend? I’ve never seen an account that specified. But we can make an educated guess. It’s likely it was not the lecture on “Your Sexual Problem” since La Lanne recalled his mother as a strict Seventh Day Adventist quite stern about sexual morality. Talks specifically on constipation, better breathing, and perfect eyesight also seem off the mark to inspire a youth to lifetime physical fitness, as does a theme of healing cancer.  

That leaves “Why We are A Nation of Physical Wrecks” (October 14) and “How To Build Your Body Back to Health” (October 16). Both sound plausibly inspirational in relation to La Lanne’s story. At the latter talk, Bragg was promised to “appear in athletic costume and exhibit his magnificent physique.” 

La Lanne told interviewers that, arriving late, he had to sit on the stage in the crowded theater and was mortified when Bragg pointed him out to the audience of 3,000, and called him a “walking garbage can.” Bragg then, however, more kindly took the boy backstage after the formal lecture and talked to him one-on-one about fitness. 

The lesson took. La Lanne prayed that night at home to change his habits, and did. He reformed, swore off sweets and unhealthy foods, and began working out.  

Reynolds writes he went to the Downtown Berkeley “Y”, and “there he became an avid swimmer and trained with weights.” He found two men working out in a back room, who kept weights in a locked box. “When he asked them if he could use their weights, they laughed at him and said ‘Kid, you can’t even lift those weights.’ So he challenged them both to a wrestling match with the bet that if he could beat them, they would give him a key to the box. After he beat them both, they gave him a key and he used their weights until he was able to buy his own.” 

At Berkeley High School, then as now across the street from the Y, La Lanne played quarterback on the football-team for two years but then suffered a leg injury. He graduated in 1935. His yearbook photo, included by Reynolds in his article, shows a tie-wearing young man, broadly grinning, in a diverse array of classmates. The row of five pictures includes three white boys—last names of Krausch, Lalanne (sic) and Lathrop—a Japanese-American boy, and an African-American girl. 

In one account I remember reading a few years back, La Lanne told an interviewer “I had to take my lunch alone to the football field to eat so no one would see me eat my raw veggies, whole bread, raisins and nuts. You don’t know the crap I went through.”  

An amusing story today, since that description reads like standard lunch fare for the stereotypical Berkeley child of the 21st century. Today, the Berkeley child a MacDonald’s meal might have to hide behind the bleachers. 

La Lanne also told Reynolds in their interview that he remembered the names of two of his school girlfriends and “he admits that he’s always been ‘girl-happy’ and that he wanted to have a good body in order to attract girls.” (La Lanne would later marry, and Elaine, his wife of 52 years survives him.) 

The youthful La Lanne set up a fitness regime and gymnasium in his Spaulding Street back yard, also trained at San Pablo Park where he met and learned from African-American athletes and, by the late 1930s, was ready to take his message beyond Berkeley. 

“By 1936 he had established La Lanne’s Physical Culture Studio on 15th and Broadway in Oakland…a place which many call the first modern health club” Reynolds writes. Reynolds found a city directory ad for 1938 describing the program as “Body Building, Weight Correction, Self Defense, also Complete Massage Service.”  

The studio moved a couple of times, remaining in Oakland. La Lanne’s father died in the 1930s but he continued living with his mother on Spaulding Street until 1940, when they moved to Shattuck Avenue in North Oakland. 

After a stint in the Navy during World War II he moved to Southern California, opened a gym and became a personal fitness trainer. In 1951 he was hired by KGO-TV in San Francisco to do a “half hour program of exercises and health advice”, Reynolds writes.  

In 1959 it became a national program, and stayed on the air until 1985. Berkeley’s Jack La Lanne became a household name, branched out into selling his own brand of juicer, opened a chain of health spas, and kept his name in the news through stunts like swimming between Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz, handcuffed and towing a boat. 

In the 21st century the gracefully aged, and still vigorous, La Lanne was honored by Berkeley High School, then the Downtown Y, and the State of California. In 2008 he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame, with a citation that read, in part: 

“He went on to establish the first modern health and fitness club, to develop new weight lifting machines and fitness devices, and to become a TV star on one of the longest lasting TV programs ever. He turned his activities into commercial success by establishing a chain of fitness centers, and by marketing a juicer and a powdered breakfast substitute; and he performed a series of incredible feats of strength and stamina. La Lanne became one of Berkeley’s most famous former residents, a health and fitness guru who has motivated millions to improve their lives.” 

And there you have it. Jack La Lanne, Berkeley native, despite the Associated Press, has passed away. “Guess he couldn't live forever. What a character!” Hal Reynolds told me this week. 

(My thanks to Hal Reynolds for permission to quote extensively from his fine article. I should also note that San Francisco Chronicle writer, Matthai Kurvila, a Berkeley resident, and Demian Bulwa got the Berkeley connection right in a January 24, 2011, story on La Lanne.)