by: Paul Leonard
I would assume that anyone who reads this site has seen the documentary Pumping Iron, which details that training of top bodybuilders at Golds Gym in Venice Beach in the mid 1970s, which today is referred to nostalgically as the Golden Age. This documentary was mandatory viewing for those of us who started lifting in the 80s, because frankly there was not much else other than muscle magazines- which were also gold in the seventies through the eighties. Everyone had a copy of this movie on VHS and it was must see viewing before heading to the Y or whatever real gym you trained at. After watching the training scenes a few hundred times and seeing Arnold living in So California like a fucking boss, this Bostonian’s mind was made up-I would live in California one day. During house parties in high school, MTV would be on and whenever the Gap Band’s Party Train played, I would watch the Venice Beach themed video and say-I will be there some day. After all, in the 80s, Hulk Hogan claimed he was from Venice Beach upon his entrance to the squared circle.
In 1991, I moved to Los Angeles two weeks after I graduated college to begin my professional life. Soon after arriving, I made my first trip to Venice a Beach one day. I was disappointed to see that the weight pen area was closed and boarded up for renovations. I went over to check out Golds Gym and before getting in the door, I was met by bodybuilder Paul Dillet-whom I recognized from the muscle mags of the day. Paul acted as if he recognized me and then told me he could not find his car. I offered to help him and I was shocked that he was paranoid, confused, and incoherent at times- mumbling and not making any sense. I have no idea what was running through his system, but I wanted none of it and a few years later when he was close to one of the best bodybuilders on earth I shook my head. Maybe everything written in those magazines was not exactly the truth about healthy living and dedication to training.
I returned to Venice a few more times that summer as it was cool to people watch. I was down to my last bit of saved money prior to getting a real job, but I do fondly recall spending my last 100 dollar bill in the Ironman Magazine Store buying the old Peary Rader edition of the magazine with black and white print and great information from Anthony Ditillo and the strength stars of the time. These magazines were in mint condition and the clueless clerk sold them for $ 1 dollar an issue because “ no one wants any magazine without chicks in it or not in color.” I still have these issues today. For that price I was able to buy a decade and a half of value as the original Ironman came out with only 6 issues per year.
I got my career started and did not visit Venice again for two years until I was ready to compete there. I am writing this piece on one of my favorite days of the year, the first day of summer, or the solstice. Today is the longest day of the year, so an Irish/German mutt such as myself can appreciate a day when you can get the most work in due to it’s length. As a strength athlete living in Southern California during the 90s through the mid 2000s, the beginning of summer meant one great thing-frequent lifting meets at the Venice Beach Weight pen. Powerlifting USA would publish a list of upcoming contests and the USPF Powerlifting meet schedule would include bench press, deadlift, and push pull meets at the famed Venice Beach. State Powerlifting chair, promoter extraordinaire, and helluva of powerlifter himself Steve Dennison would always schedule meets in Venice. I recall that there was a woman named Darlene Galindo, Joe Wheatley, and Kevin Meskew were responsible for organizing and then running these Powerlifting and odd lift meets such as the Iron Warrior Strongman Challenge as well as frequent curl meets. Every strength related contest was MC’d by the incredibly talented Chuck Lamantia.
In June of 1993 I competed in the Venice Beach Deadlift Open and won the 275lb class with a pull of 660lbs. At the time, I had been training at American Eagle Gym in Norwalk California with powerlifters named CT Fletcher, Richard Schoenberger, and Steve Winslow. The American Eagle was a cool little gym, I believe still open, and run by the nice Sherry Houston. The best thing about the Venice meet was that I met up with Gary Hogan and he invited me to train with he and his crew- which I soon did beginning in 1995. During 1994, I trained solo and began implementing the Westside Barbell System. As Louie Simmons has said, at times my only training partners were a power rack, a radio, and the info from the muscle magazines of the day. Louie had Muscle Builder Power with the Original Culver City Westside material, I had Milo, PLUSA, and the bodybuilding based magazines of the day.
Although I had won at Venice in 1993, I kept reading about these alleged powerlifters at Golds Gym in Venice that we’re getting lots of publicity in Musclemag International and Muscular Development who were so much stronger than what myself or anyone from Gary’s crew was. The names O’hearn, Elder, and Fedkiw kept being repeated as forces to be dealt with on the platform. At about the same time, PLUSA began publishing a column by Ned Low called PowerScene that extolled the performances of the Golds based powermen. Ned, who became my friend, also created and distributed the Powerlifter Video Magazine VHS tapes during that time frame which initially promoted any lifter from Golds Venice. This fueled my fire and I would later see, it fueled Art Labare and Gary Hogan’s as well.
The 1995 USPF California State meet was a turning point in my Powerlifting career. I lost to Steve Dennison but I out totaled Mike O’hearn and no one from Gold’s Venice impressed at the biggest State meet California had for years before or for the following ten years. I will do a separate entire article on the 95 State meet, with the meet’s video footage included, at a later date. But following this meet, the aura of any Powerlifter, other than the amazing Ron Fedkiw, was off any of the Venice guys.
By 1996, Art, Ric Purchase, Brian Meek, and myself would circle National and World level meets on the Calendar as our targets for the coming year. Other affiliated Yorba members such as Ron Perkins, Mike Morgan, Ray Cosio, Al Morentin, George Pessel, and Gary Garcia would compete at local meets- to include Venice. Venice always had a special place in our hearts and chip on our collective shoulder as we went there to kick in opposing lifters teeth on the platform. Professional wrestling television ratings wars at the time had the NWO Wolfpack pitted against Degeneration X. Yorba acted and performed like we were Big Poppa Pump and Kevin Big Sexy Nash as opposed to the Golds crew who were the crotch grabbing, 16” armed Shawn, got my ass kicked by construction workers in real life, Michaels. Venice became our playground and we were certain to go compete there regularly. Like Louie Simmons says, always compete locally, even if you are a national caliber athlete, in order to grow the sport.
Competing in Venice was different because the warm up area left a lot to,be desired and being in the sun all day ended up being a bit more draining. No wonder Arnold napped in it. In addition to my buddies, there were so many great lifters who competed or were present at Venice in those times. CT Fletcher and Rich Schoenberger benched huge, Larry Horton pulled huge weights, and the final meet I attended at Venice saw Scott Mendelson bench 876 lbs in the summer of 2003. I was there with my oldest son Lou on my shoulders. He clung on real tight when I stopped to bullshit with Andrew Brynarski- who was as huge as ever and must have looked frightening when he was in his Leatherface costume. That was the year they remade Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Andy at times I think liked that character a bit much. Andy was not the biggest human I ever saw in person at Venice, that would be then professional bodybuilder Chris Duffy-who was hanging out with then Ironman writer Lonnie Tepper. Except for Rory Leidelmeyer, I have only seen one other bodybuilder who was bigger in person-Greg Kovacs. I have no comment on Chris Duffy’s other identity or his life choices-I can just tell you when I met him he was enormous, as in small planets should be circling him.
During that same time period, I would travel to Venice to visit often. In the late 90s within a few miles radius of Gold’s Gym there was World Gym (RIP-now it is a residence! Arnold should own it), Powerhouse Gym, and the Marina Athletic Club-where famous pictures of Dorian being trained by Mike Metzner were shot. Only Gold’s survives today. To eat in the area, the Firehouse was great with many bodybuilders present, but we also used to eat at Schatzi’s on main. This place was Arnold’s restaurant and it was great food and had lots of pretty people to see. Picture a nice place to eat brunch, open, airy, with a huge dude every 20 feet wearing a red Hawaiian shirt- but serving as a host? Say what you will but Arnold always gave jobs to bodybuilders and wannabes. One of these host was a Vietnamese guy named Bingo Binh who was about 5’8” 300lbs with 20 plus inch calves. The other was Michael Clark Duncan (RIP) from the Green Mile.
What about training in Venice? I could have cared less after beating Mike O’hearn in 95. The mystique was gone. My garage was full of the best powerlifters in Southern California. Ned Low drove out to my garage to film an episode of Powerlifter Video Magazine and to write up my gym in PLUSA.
I did train at Golds one more time. It was a Saturday evening in 95 and with my girl out of town, I thought let me see what this Gold’s has. First off, of the 3 rooms it was then- no 100lb plates. None. Well in any commercial gym my default workout is always upper back- how can you screw that up. I was training at about 6 pm and the gym was mostly deserted except for a very well built lady who was repping 185 on the bench for sets of 10. She came over to me at one point and asked me if I would spot her. I said sure thing. She had 135 on the bar at this point. I handed off and she took it down and the bar did not leave her chest. She asked for a spot so I upright the bar and replaced it. She then told me I spotted her wrong, she needed forced reps. I tried to do a traditional forced rep for her but she exclaimed no! She then proceeded to flip my hands around so my palms were facing down and then said like this. She unracked the bar and took it down easily under control with my hands between the bar and her chest. Once my hands were on her implants she tried to move enticingly or sexy in her mind and she moaned and said yes. Too weird for me so I re-racked the bar and said no way. I figured out then that is why the Gold’s guys weren’t beating us- too many distractions.
I loved competing at Venice as well as supporting my friends there when they layed it on the line. I would look forward to lining up weigh ins to see who I would be up against that day- but the greatest challengers were always from my garage. It was just much funner for us to do it “where the sun meets the sand, where Arnold and Franco got a tan.”
I never lifted in a meet against Mike O’hearn again. Trust me I tried and entered them. In California, in Venice, as well as National ones in Chicago and Pennsylvania. As I understand it, I heard he was busying modeling. Well two can play at that game. If you look at the 2002 Muscle Beach brochure- there I am in between attempts, supporting my man Art as we kicked some more Venice Beach teeth in…..guess Mike was booked that day….