Mike Leifer has just finished arm-wrestling 150 pounds of iron in an exercise called the triceps push-down. He is in the basement of an always-open Nautilus Aerobics Plus, one of those high-tech glitter palaces commonly referred to as the singles bars of the ’80s. A stereo pipes in Elton John’s “Act of War,” serenading Leifer and the other body builders who are sweating bullets all over the chrome equipment.
Nautilus Aerobics Plus is on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. It is right across the street from Vince’s Gym, but it might as well be on a different planet. While the Nautilus Aerobics Plus is to physical fitness what McDonald’s is to fast food, Vince’s Gym is a down-home, meat-and-potatoes operation. Somehow, it has managed to survive nearly 40 years without a juice bar. Vince Gironda, the owner, doesn’t have a boutique like his competitor, but he does sell T-shirts, one of which says:
“Vince’s Gym: no pool, no music, no chrome, just iron.”
Among body builders, Vince’s Gym has a reputation as a serious place to get into shape. Real serious. A sign warns potential social butterflies: “Do not talk during workout.” And Gironda is just the guy to back it up. He’s got a 49-inch chest, a 29-inch waist (on a good day), arms like Popeye and a bite that’s worse than his bark.
“Vince places a great number of demands on people,” said his assistant, Madeleine Tambellini. “In fact, if you don’t do the things he says, he can be downright insulting.”
Across the street, interaction seems to be the rule. The Nautilus club is a place to be and be seen. It seems to attract more than its share of soap stars, performers and models, and it is also the quintessential yuppie hangout. Yuppie women love the club because they can show off their latest striped Spandex leotard and whip the circulatory system into a frenzy before rushing home to the Cuisinart. Yuppie men love the club because it combines two of their favorite activities: perfecting the bod and picking up girls.
“It’s cheap, it’s open late and it’s got a lot of good-looking girls,” said Leifer.
But if a stranger walked in for the first time, he’d assume that anybody over the age of 35 was excluded from joining. The club doesn’t discriminate. It just intimidates. More than 1,000 good-looking young people use the facilities each day. Flabby middle-aged people do become members, but as soon as they check out the firm, beautiful bodies, they usually don’t show up again, presumably resigned to live a life of video-taped Jane Fonda workouts in the privacy of their own homes.
Vince Gironda is an old-fashioned, no-frills guy. And he doesn’t think much of Nautilus Aerobics Plus. About the only compliment he’ll give it: “Working out there beats sitting around a bar and drinking.”
Paul Filipow, a manager at Nautilus, puts the rivalry in perspective. “We appeal to a different kind of person (than Vince’s),” he said, “and we want to make this a fun place where you can come in and do your thing and split. We’re a little on the social side, which is positive. But it’s natural for people who meet on a regular basis and are doing something in common to get together. It’s not like meeting in a bar. The whole sleaziness is gone.”
This a tale of two gyms. If you’re the type of person who yearns for the good old days, Vince Gironda is your hero. But if you think progress is our most important product, then Nautilus Aerobics Plus is your kind of place.
Gironda was there at the beginning. It was a time when Mom and Pop owned grocery stores and the only gyms in town were upstairs at the YMCA. When Gironda opened his gym in 1946, most body builders worked out at the beach (and you always thought Muscle Beach was named for the bivalve mollusks that also hung around there). Women came to ogle, not participate. The ideal male body was big and bulky. Gironda was the exception. Just 5-foot-6, he developed a highly defined body in the early 1940s with muscles that looked as if a sculptor had whacked away at them with a chisel.
“Vince was always ahead of his time,” said Jan Kuljis, an instructor at the gym.
Sometimes, he was too far ahead. During World War II, most able-bodied men were in the Army and those who weren’t, like Gironda, were considered “weird,” he said. And able-bodied men who weren’t in the Army and worked out with weights were, well. . . . “Body builders just weren’t accepted back then,” Gironda said. “It was a secret thing to lift weights. We couldn’t tell people or they’d think we were gay.”
A versatile athlete at Burbank High, Gironda became interested in body building when he saw a photo of a Mr. America in a magazine. He said he built his own barbell by putting a couple of flywheels on a pole, but “I didn’t know what to do with it.” When he was 21, he joined the Hollywood Y, “the first real body-building gym in the area.”
October 04, 1985 | JEFF MYERS | Times Staff Writer