By Carolyne Zinko
Chronicle Staff Writer
At 60, he swam to Alcatraz handcuffed. As he turns 90, LaLanne has
his eye on Catalina Channel. It's 8 o'clock on a Sunday morning, and the backyard patio of a home on a windy hillside in Morro Bay would be as quiet as the nearby pastures where horses silently munch, if not for one thing: a force of nature named Jack LaLanne.
In a red swim cap and a tiny blue bathing suit that a man seven decades his junior might feel bashful about wearing, the eternal fitness guru- the original fitness guru- is busy splashing away in a hot tub next to a lap pool.
"Get your bikini!" he shouts to a visitor. "Where's your bathing suit? You should be working out with me!" He is waist deep in water, sculling with hands covered in black webbed gloves that look like something out of "Creature From the Black Lagoon."
"These are Jack LaLanne hydronastic gloves!" he shouts, carving arcs through the water, pulling the gloves front to back and then back to front. "I pull with all my weight," he announces dramatically. "It works your biceps, your forearms, your obliques. I've been doing this since I was 16."
He jumps into the pool and tethers himself by a rope to a rung of the pool ladder, and then starts swimming in place. "You ought to try these mothers," he says. "You have to try twice as hard as you do swimming laps, just to keep yourself afloat."
He doesn't look exactly like his muscleman pictures from the 1950s anymore- his skin is sagging a bit on his barrel chest, his legs are a bit skinny- but that's because he's 50 years older. The fact that he's still going is what's amazing.
This is the guy who started America's fitness craze with a gym in Oakland in 1936, a TV exercise show that aired from the 1950s to the 80s (and the old 1960s shows are still rebroadcast on ESPN Classic), licensed his name to two fitness club chains, wrote exercise books, made videos, gives lectures, and even sells a juice machine on the Home Shopping Network. All this under his belt- and a daily hour-and-a-half weightlifting session in his home gym even before he gets into the pool.
Not bad for a guy who turns 90 on Sunday. "Other people work at dying," he likes to say. "I work at living!" The average person has trouble riding an exercise bike once a month, refraining from french fries, red meat and sweets. This is the person that LaLanne has targeted his entire life- hundreds, thousands, millions of average, everyday people around the globe who might need a little encouragement to eat healthier, exercise more and live better. He is a combination of evangelist, drill sergeant and salesman, but his life mission was never to become famous or make money (although he has).
"It's all about helping people!" he shouts more times than can be counted during a recent four-hour visit. LaLanne was born in San Fancisco on Sept. 26, 1914, to French immigrants, a house maid and a telephone installer. They lived in Berkeley, where LaLanne was a skinny, pimply kid with glasses who had a sugar addiction- he binged on ice cream, purged by throwing up when he got too full, and then ate more ice cream- and had horrible headaches and severe behavioral problems, attacking his brother, attempting suicide, trying to burn the house down. His overweight father died at age 50 of a heart attack; his mother became a Seventh Day Adventist to bring stability to their lives. But it was a next-door neighbor, Mrs. Joy, who helped turn things around by suggesting that Jennie LaLanne take Jack to a lecture at the Oakland Women's City Club. The lecturer, Paul C. Bragg, who opened the first health-food store in the nation in the 1920s, took one look at Jack and told the audience, "It matters not what your age is or your physical condition, if you obey nature's laws, you can be born again."
The lecturer advised against white sugar, white flour, red meat and processed foods. That night, Jack got down on his knees and prayed, asking God to help him turn his life around and promising to help others in return. He started eating vegetables, fruits, fish and vitamins. He started lifting weights, created a buff physique, and became captain of the football team. His physical transformation impressed his schoolmates, who began to work out with him in his backyard.
He read "Gray's Anatomy" in high school. He started pre-med studies at UC Berkeley because his mother wanted him to become a doctor and go to Africa. At night and on weekends,he went to chiropractic college, too. Mom didn't like it when he dropped out to open a gym with money he'd won from bodybuilding competitions and working as a personal trainer to local police and firefighters.
"Mother," he recalls saying, "there are more people who need help here than in Africa." The gym was "Jack LaLanne's Physical Culture Studio," in Oakland. Business was initially slow, so LaLanne offered massages to get people in the door. Once they started weightlifting, he became the ultimate personal trainer, monitoring their measurements, suggesting routines, calling them at home on the phone to ask where they were if they missed two or more workouts. "How am I gonna help you if you're not here?" he would say to his clients. "I don't want your money, I want to help you!"
He says he invented many of the weightlifting machines that have become staples in most gyms today. He didn't patent them, though, so his ideas were copied and improved upon by others. He ventured into national TV, doing 1,000 push-ups in 19 minutes on Art Baker's "You Asked for It," and appeared on the Bay Area's "Les Malloy" show, doing push-ups during the entire hour-long broadcast.
In 1951, he began hosting a live exercise show on KGO-TV. After a few years, he expanded into Los Angeles, appearing live there one week and live in San Francisco the next. On Alternate weeks, the show was hosted by his wife, Elaine Doyle LaLanne, who had worked on the Les Malloy show.
The "Jack LaLanne Show" went national in 1959, and ran for a total of 34 years in the United States, Europe and Russia, he said. The couple sold health foods, snacks and exercise equipment, and eventually added a juicer to their line of products. LaLanne says the juicer has outsold George Foreman's grill on TV.
"What did you have for breakfast this morning?" he asks a visitor as he sculls in the hot tub with his hydronastic gloves. When he hears the answer (toast and grapefruit juice), he frowns and shouts, "You need at least 50 grams of protein every morning! Eat four egg whites! Protein keeps the blood sugar stable." He looks around the patio. "Elaine! Elaine!" he barks. "Make a protein shake with the juicer!"
He turns back to his interviewer and says he just bought a Mercedes convertible. "Would you put water in the gas tank of the convertible? No? Why not?" he barks again. "It's the wrong fuel!" Pause. "What are you?" he asks. The interviewer is at a loss for where this line of questioning is going. "Dumb-dumb, think! You are what you eat!" he says. "I get so ticked off. People are so misinformed these days. They tell you to eat no starch, no fats, to sell a diet, to make money. Where can you get a better food than nuts and grains?"
"Would you give your dog a cigarette and a doughnut for breakfast every morning? People think nothing of giving themselves that for breakfast, and they wonder why they don't feel good," he shouts, still sculling, visibly irritated. "If I come across as mad, it's not you. I want to get the message across."
People are the fattest they've ever been, he says, because they eat too much fast food and don't exercise enough, and he is angry at superstar athletes who pitch hamburgers and soda on TV, since it's impressionable on children wanting to eat what their sports heroes eat who are the ones that suffer as a result.
"Why can't they endorse healthy things?" he asks. He's amazed people have so many sexual problems today - something he believes is a function of poor diet. "They have no energy, and if you don't eat right and don't exercise, you won't feel good," he said. As for his own sex life, "I'm not like I was at 21, but I have to do what I have to do. I do the best I can with the equipment. And Elaine's always smiling."
Aside from his sex life, it's difficult to get LaLanne to say something he hasn't said or been quoted saying before, except for when he unexpectedly jolts a listener by spontaneously belting out an operatic aria or an old show tune. It's part of the vast reserve of energy he's got going, apparently. If he hadn't been a gym owner, he said he would have been an opera singer because "that's helping people too- it's entertaining, making them feel good."
Still, much of the interview feels like an endless tape loop rolling over and over again. "Quick! Who is the most important person on earth? YOU! I want you to take care of YOU!" the pitchman interjects out of the blue, several times throughout the interview. "Junk in, junk out," he says, complaining about people's diets. On the other hand, LaLanne's been interviewed for 70 years now, so it's understandable that it seems a little canned.
But at 90, going strong, he may be living proof that he is his own best specimen. He eats six to 10 raw vegetables a day, takes 40 to 50 vitamins and herbal supplements a day (and sometimes a little Advil for aches and pains), and with an iron will as solid as his (still) rock-hard biceps and abdomen- stays positive no matter what.
Even at 90, he says there's nothing he can't achieve physically, if he just puts his mind to it. This type of thinking was apparently behind the publicity stunts he engaged in when he turned 40, 60 and 70. At 40, he towed a 2,000 pound cabin cruiser as he swam the Golden Gate channel. At 60, he put handcuffs on his wrists and swam from Alcatraz to Fisherman's Wharf while towing a half-ton boat. At 70, he swam a portion of the Long Beach harbor with 70 people in 70 boats tied to his back.
He says his next stunt will be to swim 22 hours underwater (with air tanks or a hose to the surface) the 26 miles from Catalina Island to Los Angeles, a claim that is met by skepticism. "The hell I'm not!" he protests, then he adds in an aside that his wife says she'll divorce him if he does. He persists, though. "Why can't I?" he asks. "Look at all the things I've done."
His 90th birthday will be marked by his family-stepdaughter Yvonne LaLanne, 59, stepson Danny Doyle, 56, and son, Jon Allen LaLanne, 43. (A daughter, Janet, died at age 21.) There will also be numerous newspaper, TV and radio stories, and two private parties, one sponsored by his juice machine manufacturer and attended by bodybuilding friends at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, and another at John's Grill in San Francisco on Oct. 16.
But LaLanne is not ready to stop yet, so don't count out 100. And he will be evangelizing all the way, because he still believes that his life was saved by diet and exercise and he wants to share that as long as he can breathe.
"The average person who is 70 or 80 is over the hill," he said. "They're fat, they're racked with aches and pains. Then you get people over 90 who are running marathons, because they worked at living. I have a lot of energy and you know why? Because I use it. It's use it or lose it, and it's believing in something. Most people just go through life existing, waiting for retirement. That's the death knell."