Santa Monica and the Queen of Muscle Beach
Many people have heard of Muscle Beach in Venice Beach, California. However “The O.M.B.,” Original Muscle Beach, was located in Santa Monica. Female weight lifting was introduced and popularized by Pudgy Stockton, the Queen of Muscle Beach.
Muscle Beach started in the 1930s, when the City of Santa Monica built a playground on the beach for children during the Depression. However, the area was soon taken over by gymnasts and elite athletes. They practiced their tumbling on the Santa Monica sand.
“Stacked on top of each other in human pyramids, they beam with delight. Flung over the sand in daring tosses, they are captured in thrilling midair swan dives. It was this sense of shared exuberance, a revel in the pleasures of a vibrant life…that made Muscle Beach such a special phenomenon and a mecca for athletes and bodybuilders.”Jonathan Black, Making the American Body
Locals came to watch the tumbling and the area attracted tourists. In response, the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) built a 24 by 80 foot wooden platform and installed gymnastic equipment including parallel bars and high rings. They also created an area for weight lifting with barbells and benches called “the pit.”
The Heyday of the Original Muscle Beach
The platform provided a proper stage for the tumblers. Athletes, stunt people and circus people joined the fun. Historic footage shows how they balanced on their hands, tossed women through the air, and did amazing physical feats. Performers would pull children from the audience and incorporate them into their act.
The platform was also used for beauty competitions and strongmen contests. Hollywood bombshells Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell were frequent visitors.
Muscle Beach helped Mae West reinvent herself. West had a famous film career as a naughty sexpot quipping perfect one-liners. In 1954, at the age of 62, she started a nightclub act. She went to Muscle Beach to find beefcakes. She cast six of the men and went on a nationwide tour, opening at the Sahara in Las Vegas.
“They strutted their stuff in tiny toga-style briefs and sandals. The revue proved a huge hit, playing to sellout crowds, a ribald finale to West’s career.”Jonathan Black, Making the American Body
The End of Santa Monica Muscle Beach
Unfortunately, the conservative zeitgeist of the midcentury forced Muscle Beach to close down. Locals complained about the “unsavory crowds” that the platform attracted.
Men who shaved their entire bodies and posed in tiny trunks were suspect. Hints of homosexuality and promiscuity circulated. Even the muscle magazines Strength and Health spread rumors in its 1957 issue.
“Rumors may have reached you that some queer proceedings transpired on the Beach. We have heard some pretty odd goings-on ourselves, but never actually caught anybody in flagrante delicto on one of our personal visits.”Making the American Body
The final straw was a sex scandal involving two Muscle Beach weightlifters and some underaged girls. In 1958, the City of Santa Monica removed the platform and equipment. They bulldozed the sand and laid down a parking lot. However, by 1960, the athletes relocated to Venice Beach, two miles south.
Pudgy Stockton the “Queen of Muscle Beach”
Santa Monica Muscle Beach had many famous alumni, including Jack LaLane, Joe Gold and Vic Tanny. However, Pudgy Stockton transformed female fitness in the U.S.A.
Born in Santa Monica, Abbye Eville was nicknamed “Pudgy” by her father due to her stockiness. After high school graduation, her sedentary job caused her weight to shoot up. She was 5’2” and weighed 140 lbs. Pudgy was dating Les Stockton, a gymnast and student at U.C.L.A.
Les, her future husband, suggested she try weight training to lose weight. Lifting weights was unheard of for women at the time. Pudgy completed a York Barbell Course and transformed her figure. She weighed 115 pounds and was strong. Her personal record included 100 lb. press, 105 lb. snatch, and 135 lb. clean and jerk.
In the early 1940s, Les urged her to appear at Santa Monica Muscle Beach with him. Pudgy’s mother helped her make a two piece swimsuit by ripping apart an old brassiere. Pudgy performed with Les and was an instant sensation.
Pudgy could hold Les over her head as he did a handstand. He weighed 180 pounds. In another routine, Pudgy would lift a 100 pound barbell in the air as she balanced atop Les’ hands. (Vintage video) The photographers loved her gymnastic feats and how she flew through the air as she was tossed by the body builders.
“…petite Pudgy Stockton with her glowing skin, shining hair, miraculous curves and amazing strength appeared on the golden sands of Muscle Beach and became emblematic of the new type of woman America needed to win the War. Competent, feminine, strong, yet sexy, Pudgy made America’s young men pant with desire, and also pant in their gyms as they tried to prove themselves worthy of her.”Jan Todd, Making the American Body
Pudgy was the Original Female Fitness Influencer
Pudgy was featured in over 40 magazines, often on the covers. Popular magazines included Look, Pic and Physical Culture. Films of Pudgy appeared in Newsreels Whatta Build and Muscle Town USA.
Starting in 1944, for 10 years, Pudgy wrote a regular column for Strength and Health, the most popular fitness magazine of the era. Her column was called “Bar Belles.” The message of her articles was that weightlifting and exercise were healthy for women.
“People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.”Pudgy Stockton, interview in Sports Illustrated Women, 2002
Pudgy Created the First Gyms for Women
In the 1950s, gyms were typically in basements and filled with grunting, sweaty men. The one in Santa Monica was nicknamed “the dungeon.”
Pudgy opened the Salon of Figure Development: “specializing in bust development, figure contouring, reducing.” She said her gym attracted female bodybuilders, restless housewives, and a few movie stars.
Her first gym was on Sunset Blvd and then she opened two more, one in Beverly Hills and one in Pasadena. Her husband, Les Stockton, opened men’s gyms next door to all of hers.
In 1947, the Stockton’s hosted the first Amateur Athletic Union-sanctioned weightlifting competition for women. During the same time, Pudgy was awarded the Miss Physical Culture Venus award by Physical Culture Magazine.
In 1955, Pudgy decided to stay at home to raise her daughter. However, in the 1960s she returned to the gym and worked for twenty years at a women’s gym in Los Angeles.
The Legacy of Pudgy Stockton
“She was a very powerful role model for women because she’s the first woman figure to come along who was strong and displayed strength but also had a very shapely, unquestionably feminine physique.”Jan Todd, Los Angeles Times
Pudgy Stockton is credited as the female who inspired women to lift weights. She was dubbed “The First Lady of Iron.”