Muscle Beach Memories

Santa Barbaran Honors the Iconic Weight-Lifting Hot Spot

<b>MUSCLE BOUND:</b> “It was mostly acrobatics and gymnastics,” said Larry Morris of the antics at Santa Monica’s famous Muscle Beach. Larry was a regular in the ’40s, hitchhiking almost 25 miles from the family home in Burbank to hang around weight lifters such as the legendary Steve Reeves. Muscle Beach closed in 1958 after a 24-year run, but Larry and his younger brother Steve (left) keep the memories alive thanks to a garage full of memorabilia that Steve has amassed.
Paul Wellman

As far as Steve Morris knows, there is no formal event celebrating the 80th birthday of Muscle Beach, site of a long-running spectacle (1934-1958) that glamorized strong and agile bodies on the beach at Santa Monica. Morris calls it “the birthplace of the physical-fitness boom of the 20th century.”

In lieu of a party, Morris welcomed visitors into his garage on the Westside of Santa Barbara, where a weather vane displays the silhouette of a muscleman. Inside, the walls are covered with vintage photographs and other Muscle Beach memorabilia that Morris has amassed. He is especially proud of the 14 magazine covers featuring Steve Reeves.

“They are from 1947, when he won the Mr. America competition, and 1949, the year I was born,” Morris said. “My brother got to choose my name, and he named me after Steve Reeves.”

Larry Morris, Steve’s oldest brother by 17 years, started visiting Muscle Beach in the ’40s. He would hitchhike almost 25 miles from the family home in Burbank. Larry had put together his own gym in the garage. “He got kicked off the Burroughs High football team when the coach found out he was lifting weights,” Steve said. There was a belief that big muscles would be a hindrance in most sports, a myth that has been dispelled by everybody from Bo Jackson to LeBron James.

Courtesy Photo

Steve followed in the path of his second-oldest brother, Ron Morris, and took up pole vaulting. Ron won the state high school championship at Burroughs and was the silver medalist in the pole vault at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Steve never quite achieved those heights in his youth, but he has never retired from the sport. Santa Barbara, where he started Steve Morris Defensive Driving School almost 40 years ago, is an ideal place to practice. Morris won the ages 60-64 pole vault at the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento. Early this year, about to turn 65, he cleared 11 feet at a meet in Las Vegas.

It was out of compassion for Larry that Steve launched his Muscle Beach binge. “Larry lived alone in Glendale after the passing of both his wife and daughter,” Steve said. “To lift his spirits, I would quiz him over the phone about the old Muscle Beach and my namesake, Steve Reeves. The stories that he told about the days he and his buddy, Vincent, would hang out there in the ’40s and ’50s fascinated me. Being a collector at heart — I used to collect pennies, soda-pop bottles, and Reyn Spooner Hawaiian shirts as a kid — I started collecting Muscle Beach memorabilia 10 years ago.”

Larry Morris, 82, has since moved to Carpinteria. The displays in his brother’s garage gym send him back six or seven decades. “It was mostly acrobatics and gymnastics,” he said of the scene at Muscle Beach. Larry’s memory is borne out by the old photos, depicting human pyramids and bodies somersaulting through the air. He pointed out “Moe” Most, who held up the bottom of many pyramids and was known for doing 50 one-handed giant swings on a high bar. Several women, notably “Pudgy” Stockton and Relna Brewer, participated in the feats of strength.

The focal point of the activity was a platform installed by the Works Progress Administration on the beach south of the Santa Monica Pier. Weight-lifting equipment attracted such bodybuilding pioneers as Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne, and Joe Gold. Then there was Steve Reeves, as described by author Harold Zinkin (Remembering Muscle Beach: Where Hard Bodies Began): “His was the most perfect body on Muscle Beach or any beach. During the fifties no one in Hollywood personified fitness and the ideal physique more than he did.”

Larry remembers Reeves as a nice guy. “I talked to him lots of times,” he said. Steve Morris never met his namesake, who died in 2000, but he can see him in old movies. Reeves had the starring role in Hercules (1957), the first film featuring the mythological hero.

Santa Monica dismantled the Muscle Beach facility after the summer of 1958. “People were complaining about the tremendous crowds,” Larry said. “The city wouldn’t support it any longer.” There is now a latter-day rendition of Muscle Beach in Venice, but Larry would rather spend his days with memories of the original, a 25-year phenomenon (before steroids, by the way) that promoted physical fitness as a good cause.

WORLDLY GAUCHOS: It was a grand weekend for former UCSB athletes in international competition. Todd Rogers teamed up with another Gaucho grad, Theo Brunner, to place third in the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball tournament in Long Beach. It was the first podium finish for the 40-year-old Rogers since 2012, his last go-around with Phil Dalhausser (they were the 2008 Olympic champions). Sean Rosenthal is now winning events with Dalhausser, but Rogers has not faded away. He and Brunner had to fight their way through the qualifying rounds and were seeded No. 25 in the main draw, but they made it to the bronze-medal match, where they outlasted Germany’s Alexander Walkenhorst and Stefan Windscheif, 21-17, 18-21, 15-12. Third place was worth a sweet $40,000 out of a record $1 million purse….Barbara Nwaba, another UCSB alum now representing the Santa Barbara Track Club, was a runaway winner of the heptathlon at the Thorpe Cup multi-event competition between U.S. and German athletes at Marburg, Germany. Nwaba, boosted by clearing 6’¼” in the high jump, finished with her second-best point total ever (6,205).

ON TO WICHITA: After taking their last two league games from the Conejo Oaks, 5-3 and 2-1, the Santa Barbara Foresters will enter the 80th National Baseball Congress World Series with a record of 36-10-1. NBC games will be going virtually around-the-clock at the Lawrence-Dumont Stadium in Wichita, Kansas, starting Friday afternoon.… The Santa Barbara Soccer Club has won a U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship for the third consecutive year, this time by the U-18 team. It blanked Lehigh Valley United (Pa.) 3-0 in the final at Germantown, Maryland.