When I first moved to Venice, I lived in an apartment building on Ocean Front Walk. At that time, I had my weekends free and used to join other residents of the building on the front stoop to work on my tan and people watch. It was an incredibly entertaining pastime. Not being the “athletic type” I never paid much attention to the activities that were available only a couple of blocks away. Now that I´m older and wiser and community oriented I have come to fully appreciate the world-class facilities that have put Venice Beach on the map.
Venice´s “Muscle Beach” began in the early 1960s after the original location in Santa Monica started its decline. In those days it was known as “The Pit” or “The Pen”, names given to the outdoor weight-lifting platform. Its first evolution began with the increased interest in bodybuilding at Gold´s Gym in the mid 60s and the arrival of Arnold several years later. During its early heyday, the workout area attracted other posers such as Franco Columbo.
In 1987 the City of Los Angeles officially designated the age-worn facility “Muscle Beach Venice”. By this time the equipment was not working properly and the playing courts were cracked and broken. Many members of the “physical culture” left for state-of-the-art machines of nearby gyms. So, with the new name came a face-lift that was completed in 1991. The workout stage was doubled in size, all the equipment was updated and bleachers for spectators were constructed. Large barbell shapes on two sides of the indoor/outdoor weightlifting pen and an abstract representation of a person lifting weights were designed as “theme” sculptures. Refurbished or built new to competition standards were three regulation-size basketball courts, eleven regulation size paddle tennis courts, four outdoor regulation “three-wall” and three outdoor “one-wall” handball courts and two volleyball courts. A children’s play area and a new bike path were also added.
Ten years later additional improvements were made as part of the total boardwalk renovation. A fourth full NBA size basketball court was added and the Damson oil site was demolished to make room for a skate park. The Department of Recreation and Park employees now have an on-site office sharing a building with the Pacific Area Police Substation.
The focus of attention continues to be the weight pit and with Joe Wheatley officially taking over in 2002 to produce the main shows of the season it becomes more popular each year. Joe had volunteered at Muscle Beach since 1999 and was asked to stay on after Bill Howard retired. “I´m a big proponent of volunteering,” he says. “I think a lot of good things can happen. People can realize their strengths … and weaknesses.
I met Joe because he volunteered to help Jill Prestup with the Venice Centennial Parade. “I felt it was a way for me to give back to the community,” he says, “and I realized that I could be part of such an important event sharing in the 100th year anniversary.” Not only did Joe impart his infectious energy into the parade, he also saw to it that Muscle Beach had its own float. It´s not too often that a grown man admits to getting emotional but Joe fesses up to that feeling when he first saw the float prepared by Festival Artists in Azusa and sponsored by BodyBuilding.com. “I wasn´t quite prepared for it,” he says. “It was just a moment where I realized what a wonderful representation Muscle Beach was going to make and what an opportunity it was and how fortunate I was to be involved in such an important event.” More than that went through his mind. “I kept thinking we´ve got to do this right,” he adds. “When you do a parade like this you don´t get a chance to practice.” Joe acknowledges the hard work that went into producing the parade. “I´ll never forget when we crossed Pacific Ave. that morning,” he says. “It was like we scored a touchdown.” Friendships bloom when you cooperate in working together on projects. “Jill turned out to be a dear friend, more than just an acquaintance,” Joe says. “We talked to each other every morning about two months prior to the parade and I guess we´ve forgotten that it´s over because we still talk every morning. It´s hard to let go.”
The Labor Day competition on September 5th will be the last event of the season. Gold´s Gym, celebrating their 40th anniversary, is the title sponsor. Joe acknowledges Gold Gym Senior Vice President of Marketing Derek Barton for his assistance. Derek also did a great job as Master of Ceremonies for the Venice Centennial Opening Day Ceremony on June 26th. In addition to the customary bodybuilding competition there will a figure event. “For those of you who do not know what figure is about,” says Joe, “figure is a new class that rewards the girl who gets into the gym and tones her body. It´s not the female bodybuilding class but it´s still bikinis and heels at the beach and a really fun competition.” Also new this year is bodybuilding couples where a man and woman bodybuilder will join each other and perform their routine to music. That should be fun too!
I asked Joe what he does after September. He takes a week or two off and then starts planning for the next year´s events. “People don´t understand that there´s a lot of work in putting together the three shows,” he says. “Initially I go through severe withdrawal,” he adds. “About 30 days before May I´m running on so much adrenaline and that carries me through the summer until Labor Day and about an hour after the show, and this has happened on two occasions, I´m in tears because I´m so emotionally drained, not from that one show, but working on all three shows during the summer.”
There are other projects that will keep Joe busy too. One is the formation of a teen program to educate young people who have chosen to participate in bodybuilding about not having to use steroids. “As you know,” he says,” steroids are at the top of the list and we want to be at the cutting edge and set an example nation-wide and lead the way in teaching our young people not to use steroids.” A doctor will speak about the dangers of steroids during the athletes´ briefing prior to the Labor Day competitions. “Letting an individual man or woman, boy or girl,” says Joe, “understand that this sport is more about genetics and not having to use steroids is very important to us. It´s about choices and not making the wrong ones.”
In 2003 Joe initiated the “Muscle Beach Hall of Fame” Award.” It gave him the idea to construct a “Muscle Beach Hall of Fame” Museum. “I started to think, why couldn´t Venice California have their own Canton, Ohio, their own Springfield, Massachusetts, their own Cooperstown, New York, if you will,” he says. “There´s no other place that a bodybuilding hall of fame should be than right here at Muscle Beach,” he says. “Muscle Beach is about grass roots, it´s about beginnings and, more important, we´ve got to find a way soon, real soon, to honor the people who have given so much of their lives and so much dedication to this sport.” Joe took his plan to the Venice Beach Park Advisory Board and it was approved at that level. About two months ago, after speaking in front of six commissioners from the Department of Recreation and Parks, it was given their stamp of approval. Joe really appreciates the support he has received from the department in his many endeavors. Now he is in the process of starting a not-for-profit foundation. Donations will be welcomed. People can sign at www.PetitionOnline.com/MBHOF/petition.html to show their support. Part of the petition reads, “It´s time to acknowledge the foresight and courage of the men and women of the early fitness movement with a permanent Muscle Beach Hall of Fame, a facility to house replicas and memorabilia that will attract visitors from throughout the world.”
Stop by to see Joe. Other than during the winter and on his event weekends, you usually can find him in a booth selling “Muscle Beach” tee shirts. Also, you might avail yourself of the incredible membership prices to work out at the pit 3; $5 a day and $119 for the whole year. “It´s the best membership in the world,” says Joe, “and it´s outdoor and a healthy environment.” Check out the website at www.MuscleBeachVenice.com.
By the way, were you as surprised as I was at the booming noise overhead on Memorial Day? There´s a streaming video on the website of the F16 with sound in case you missed it. It was truly frightening! Joe wants to apologize to residents for rattling their windows that day. Be warned, he´s going to do it again next year.