Jack LaLanne

Transformation on Spaulding Avenue: 

The Story of Jack LaLanne in Berkeley

Copyright By Hal Reynolds (March, 2009) 

At a time when all of America was suffering through the first phase of the Great Depression – and the tail end of Prohibition -- a young French American living on Spaulding Avenue in Berkeley underwent a transformation that would make him into one of the most famous fitness and nutrition gurus in the country. 

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Jack LaLanne was born in San Francisco in 1914. His parents were both born in the Aquitaine region of southwestern France and migrated to the US as children. They met at a dance in San Francisco and married there around 1906. After losing all of their household belongings in the great earthquake, they moved to Oakland and then, some time later, back to San Francisco. LaLanne recalls leaving there for his grandfather’s sheep ranch in Bakersfield around 1918 where he lived with his parents, his older brother Norman (born 1908), his maternal grandfather Francois “Frank” Garaig, and two uncles on his grandfather’s ranch. Grandfather Garaig died in 1923 and the family moved back to the Bay Area around 1928, after the ranch went bankrupt due to an attack of hoof and mouth disease among the sheep. LaLanne recalls that the ranch was taken over by the Bank of Italy (which, after a merger in early 1929, became the Bank of America). By 1929 the family had settled in a rental house at 2430 Spaulding in Berkeley. 

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2430 Spaulding Ave., Berkeley, March, 2009

 LaLanne recalls speaking only French at home until the age of 4, and being called frog and frenchy by other kids in the Spaulding neighborhood, and “tête de mulet” (mule head) by his mother. (Apparently he was stubborn from an early age.) He remembers being very poor and the household being quite strict because his mother Jennie, who worked as a house maid, was a devoted Seventh Day Adventist. (According to LaLanne,"No lipstick, no radio, no nothin'. I was afraid to look at my penis because that was a sin.") (Katz) LaLanne attributes her later nervous breakdown to bad nutrition though she lived till the age of 89 (she died in San Bruno in 1973). (Katz) LaLanne’s father Jean “John” passed away in 1939 at the age of 58. (LaLanne thinks he also died from bad nutrition habits). (Katz)

According to LaLanne, now 95, who lives in Morrow Bay, California with Elaine, his wife of 52 years, he was a scrawny, sugar-addicted, unhealthy kid with boils and pimples and an uncontrollable temper. He says that he tried to kill his brother Norman twice: "Once with an ax and once with a big butcher knife. My mind was psychotic. I had a terrible temper from all the sugar." (Katz) In 1929, 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. 

After hearing Bragg, LaLanne totally changed his eating habits, cutting out sugar and almost anything “made by man,” and he began to work out, starting at the Berkeley YMCA on Allston Way. There he became an avid swimmer and trained with weights. He tells the story of two husky guys at the Y who worked out with weights of their own that they kept 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. 

 Another Berkeley location that played an important part in LaLanne’s physical development was San Pablo Park, Berkeley’s oldest park. There he did chin-ups on the bar and practiced rope climbing. He remembers learning a lot about how to use the rings from a husky black man there named Eastman. The park was one of the few places in Berkeley – or anywhere else – where this kind of inter-racial activity could take place. 

The largest ethnic community in the park area at the time the park was founded in 1907 was Finnish, and the area was popularly called Finntown. Later middle class blacks bought property and built homes around the park and the area became a center of African American Social life. But Asians and whites continued to live in the area and in the ‘20s and ‘30s it was an area characterized by racial mix. 

Another white kid, like LaLanne, who interacted with the blacks, and learned things from them that would shape his life, was Greek American Johnny Valiotis, whose Greek parents owned a grocery store in the area. He later changed his last name to Otis and his racial identity to African American, becoming the legendary rhythm and blues band leader and composer Johnny Otis. [Berkeley Daily Planet, Aug. 24, 2007]) 

Within two years, LaLanne was starring at quarterback on the varsity football team at Berkeley High School. He played on the team for three years (from fall, 1931 through part of fall 1933). He vividly remembers the fall 1932 football season when Berkeley High won every game except one, against Piedmont High, (not counting a 6 – 0 non-league loss to the UC Berkeley Freshman reserves). The 20 – 0 loss to Piedmont caused Berkeley to lose the Alameda County Athletic League football championship for the first time in 14 years, since American football had displaced rugby in 1918 . This was such a traumatic event for the high school that Principal Biedenbach’s introductory comments to the fall yearbook focused exclusively on the loss. He titled his comments “Victory,” praising the value of good sportsmanship. 

LaLanne sustained a leg injury mid-season in the fall of 1933 in a game against Vallejo High, cutting short his football career. A drawing in the high school year book in December, 1933 shows him on crutches, punting, with the caption “Maybe Jack LaLanne could kick some this way.” (He was known as an outstanding kicker.) 

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 In the fall, 1934 yearbook, when his photo is included among the seniors, another drawing depicts him as “Barrel chest LaLanne” holding a can of spinach in one hand and carrots in the other. His devotion to bodybuilding and good nutrition was apparently already quite well known among his high school peers. 

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LaLanne still remembers his pals from those days – Ernie Green, and George Ellis, who lived across the street on Spaulding, and Babe Rose, whose grandfather built and ran the bakery on the corner of Sacramento and Dwight Way (where the Homemade Café stands today). Babe’s father was well-known Oakland builder Moritz A. Rose of Covey and Rose Construction. And he remembers at least two of his old girlfriends – Louise Peterson and Margie Ellis. Even today, he admits that he’s always been “girl-happy” and that he wanted to have a good body in order to attract girls. 

LaLanne graduated from Berkeley High in 1935 (barely, he says, because he was only interested in bodies and nutrition and he almost flunked out), but unlike his older brother Norman, who was studying engineering at UC Berkeley, LaLanne threw himself into his newfound regimen, while at the same time, developing ways to earn money from it. In addition to selling healthy home-baked bread, he was whipping out-of-shape youths into shape, youths he found “by going around to the homes of overweight and underweight adolescents. He sold their concerned parents on memberships as a way to save their children's lives.” (Katz)

 By 1935, LaLanne says he began using his backyard gym on Spaulding Ave. to train aspiring policemen and firemen to become fit enough to meet the demanding physical standards. For a while after graduation, he also studied chiropractic medicine at the Oakland Chiropractic College in San Francisco.

By 1936 he had established LaLanne’s Physical Culture Studio on 15th and Broadway in Oakland (409 – 15th St.) , a place which many call the first modern health club. The ad in the 1938 Residential Directory yellow pages lists the offerings at the Studio: “Courses Given in Body Building, Weight Correction, Self Defense, also Complete Massage Service.” Within a couple of years he moved the Studio around the corner to 1629 Telegraph Ave, 2nd floor, then later to 388 17th St.

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 (The photo above shows 1629 Telegraph Ave. today. There is no longer a 409 on 15th St.)

 LaLanne and his mother continued living on Spaulding through 1940 (retaining his Studio address in Oakland), then they moved to 6214 Shattuck Ave. in north Oakland, where she lived until around 1947. He enlisted in the navy during World War II, (though he says he had some difficulty getting accepted because of the football injury to his knee) and served in the South Pacific where, he says, he brought all his weights on the ship and had everyone working out.  After the war, he moved to Hollywood and became one of the well known figures on Santa Monica’s famous Muscle Beach, all the while running a gym and serving as a fitness trainer to many Hollywood actors. His breakthrough to celebrity fame came in 1951 when an ABC affiliate, KGO-TV in San Francisco, hired him to do a half hour program of exercises and health advice. (That was when this writer, as a young teenager living in Burlingame, first saw LaLanne) The program went national in 1959 and was broadcast until 1985, the longest running health program in the history of American television, and one of the longest running TV programs of all time.

 LaLanne’s business sense stayed with him all along the way. He developed a juicer, the “Juice Tiger,” which sold more than 600,000 copies. His nutritional supplements became very popular (he was the first to market a powdered breakfast substitute). He opened a string of health spas across the country. And he developed some of the first weight lifting machines that worked on the principle of constrained weights. LaLanne is proud of being “the first one in the world to have women and older people and athletes work out with weights.” His sense of showmanship also helped to keep his name in the public view. From the 1950s through the 1980s he performed a number of feats of strength and endurance, including, among other things, swimming the entire length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater with 140 pounds of equipment, swimming between Fisherman’s Wharf and Alcatraz while handcuffed, performing more than 1000 pushups in 23 minutes, and towing 65 loaded boats on a lake near Tokyo while swimming handcuffed and shackled.

LaLanne fell into relative obscurity for some years in the eighties and nineties, but in recent years he has made a comeback, once again touting his juicer and vitamin supplements with his wife Elaine on late night TV. He has also received a number of awards that have brought him back into the public limelight. On Nov. 6, 2008 The Downtown Berkeley YMCA honored LaLanne and Elaine with its Impact Award for their contributions to family fitness. On Dec. 15 in Sacramento he was inducted into the California Hall of Fame along with 11 other outstanding Californians (Jane Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Dave Brubeck, Linus Pauling, Mexican-born artist Robert Graham, Quincy Jones, Alice Waters ,Julia Morgan, Leland Stanford, Theodor Geisel “Dr. Seuss”, and Dorothea Lange ) Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a famous body builder, who has acknowledged his debt to LaLanne, and First Lady, Maria Shriver (who initiated the idea for the Hall of Fame), presented the award to LaLanne. 

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Grandson of a French shepherd … son of a French-born electrician and a French-born housemaid … Berkeley High football star and graduate … a regular at the Berkeley YMCA and Berkeley’s San Pablo Park … Jack LaLanne underwent a momentous transformation in his eating and exercise habits while living with his family in Berkeley’s quiet working class Spaulding tract during the Great Depression . 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. LaLanne became one of Berkeley’s most famous former residents, a health and fitness guru who has motivated millions to improve their lives. 

Note on sources: Unless otherwise noted, LaLanne’s recollections and quotations are from a taped telephone interview with him on December 3, 2008. Other recollections and quotations are from an article by Donald Katz, “Jack LaLanne Is Still an Animal,” in the November, 1995 issue of Outside Magazine.(also available online) Biographical information is from the Federal Census Bureau, LaLanne’s own web sites, emails from LaLanne’s assistants, and Wikipedia. Residential addresses are from Polk’s Oakland Directory. Information regarding LaLanne’s time at Berkeley High School is from Olla Podrida, the Berkeley High School yearbook. Information about Paul Bragg is from Wikipedia. Information on other sources is available by contacting the author at hgr3@berkeley.edu.

 Note of appreciation: I am indebted to my colleagues Lynne Davis, Pat Edwards and Alice Scheelar of the McGee Spaulding Hardy Historical Interest Group for their invaluable assistance in preparing this article.

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