In the early 1950s, I lived in what was then rural Danville, California, over the hills east of Oakland. At 16, I got a driver's license and once a month would drive to Oakland to DeLauer's newsstand for the latest issues of Strength & Health and Iron Man (Perry Rader's Iron Man, not the magazine of today with the same name). I owned a York barbell set.
In those days most people thought lifting weights was pretty strange behavior. Coaches even warned athletes that weights would make them "muscle bound." Today's athletes would laugh, of course. But that's the way it was. Steroids had yet to offer up their ugliness and muddy clear waters.
So I was going against conventional wisdom. The muscle magazines promised that weight training would make me big and strong and I believed them. They also introduced me to bodybuilding's superstars, and I began to wonder if there was somewhere nearby where they trained.
I found out that a place called Yarick's Gym in Oakland was a gathering spot on the West Coast. Several Mr. Americas and Olympic weightlifting team members had worked out there. It was the legendary Steve Reeves' first gym and Ed Yarick had been his trainer. I scraped together enough money for a month's worth of workouts and drove to Oakland.
Now to imagine the Ed Yarick Gym you have to block out any image you might have based on today's modern health clubs. For better or worse, times have changed. As well known as it was in the subculture of bodybuilding and weightlifting, Yarick's was a tiny space, the blinds pulled down over the windows, and sandwiched between other small storefronts on a busy block of Oakland's Foothill Blvd.
Inside and immediately to your right was a small wooden desk that was Ed Yarick's office. That's where you paid your dues and he marked you down as a member. When the financial transaction was out of the way, he would measure and record the size of your arms, chest, waist and legs, and then walk you through the beginner's routine. If you read the muscle magazines you reasoned that you were being given the very same treatment he gave to Steve Reeves only a few years earlier. Man, you were ready to fly.
Like other gyms of the day, Yarick's had few exercise "machines." There was a lat pull-down, a cable row, a leg extension device, a vertical leg press, and a couple of basic wall pulley arrangements. That was it.
Along one wall the fixed weight barbells were racked vertically. Against the other wall was a long rack of dumbbells that went from fives to well over 100s. Above the weights were mirrors and framed photographs of famous bodybuilders and weight lifters. There were a couple of flat benches and inclines. Basic stuff.
More or less in the center of the room was a slightly elevated wooden platform. On it were two Olympic sets, lots of plates, a squat rack, and a heavy-duty flat bench. There was a rubberized kind of mat to protect the platform when weights were dropped during unsuccessful overhead lifts. There was a small box on the floor with chalk in it. The lifters would reach in and chalk their hands before gripping the Olympic bar.
Beyond the platform and farther back in the room was a slant board for sit-ups and the leg extension apparatus.
The room was a narrow rectangle and couldn't have been more than 40 or 50 feet deep. At the far end you entered the dressing room. Inside, there were two small, metal stall showers with plastic curtains, a tiny bathroom, and several old lockers. There was a bench to sit on. If you didn't have a locker, you hung your clothes on a hook. A door next to the stall showers opened to a small back yard. Outside, there were a few more dumbbells, barbells and benches.
The attraction to Yarick's was not its ambiance. It was the man himself, Ed Yarick. He knew his stuff and people liked him. He treated everybody the same, Mr. America winners and nobody teenagers like I was. I remember that he liked soy nuts and always offered them to the kids. "Have you tried these?" he would ask. "They're good and good for you."
He was a big guy, at least 6'4" and probably 250 lbs. If he wanted to be intimidating he could have been. But instead he was kind, good natured and friendly. He liked jokes. For a while he not only trained Steve Reeves but was also his training partner.
By the time I arrived, Reeves had won Mr. America (1947), Mr. World (1948), and Mr. Universe (1950), and had moved on to Los Angeles for opportunities in television and movies.
Another Mr. America (1949), Jack Delinger, was still a regular. Delinger was only 5'6" but weighed 195 and was powerful. He was also a super-intense trainer and the word around Yarick's was that he didn't go for any horseplay. One afternoon some young guys got too noisy and Delinger shouted out just two words: "Shut up!" And the gym went silent. It was the only time I ever heard him speak.
John Davis and Tommy Kono were members of the U.S. National Team and stopped to train while traveling through. I watched them one night practicing the Clean and Jerk with huge weights, weights approaching world records, while I, not 10 feet away, curled a ponderous 40-lb. barbell. A Little Leaguer tossing a ball around while a few feet away Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio took batting practice.
The evening that topped them all involved the great Canadian heavyweight, Doug Hepburn. Hepburn was born with a clubfoot that left him with one slightly deformed lower leg. It seemed a minor flaw but I guess he was self-conscious about it because he always pulled one sock halfway up the calf. People said he was the strongest man in the world.
While visiting, he and a few local strongmen got into a friendly competition of oddball feats of strength. One of the events was trying to explode a hot water bottle by blowing into it. Hepburn did it and no one else could.
Another event required balancing on your chin a tall ladder while walking around Yarick's backyard. Hepburn handled it with ease and grace, but one of the others was also successful. The tie had to be broken. So someone got a 12-inch ruler from Ed Yarick's desk. Hepburn won the contest by successfully balancing the ruler on his chin while walking around the gym as everyone cheered.
So it went in the first gym I ever belonged to. And I was hooked.