Back in 1977, Columbus Monthly hung out with a recently retired Austrian bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger who seemed to have the charisma, ambition and promotional skills to transcend his niche sport.
Editor’s note: Arnold Schwarzenegger will be in Columbus this week for the Arnold Sports Festival, the four-day athletic extravaganza that has become one of the city’s signature events and turned Schwarzenegger into an honorary Columbusite. In 1977, Columbus Monthly shadowed Schwarzenegger during the Columbus premiere of “Pumping Iron,” the bodybuilding documentary that first brought Schwarzenegger mainstream recognition. Our story captured the future California governor’s charisma, ambition and promotional skills, as well as his blossoming relationship with the city that would eventually become his Midwestern home away from home.
For those to whom bodybuilding has always seemed somewhat obsessive, and at worst vaguely disreputable its new status as a sport can be a real education. Bodybuilding is shedding the image it grew up with, of back page ads in questionable magazines and comic books, of lonely workouts in basements and attics by the legendary 97-pound weakling with sand in his eyes. There's a new legitimacy now, a sanctification born, as usual, of increasing profits.
The sport's main events, a myriad of Messrs. World, Universe and Olympia, are getting more publicity than they ever have. The Big Time really began when the 1970 World Weightlifting contest-held in Columbus was the first physique contest to gain network exposure. This October, ABC will telecast the Mr. Olympia contest being held for the second straight year in Columbus, at Vets Memorial.
The fact that Columbus has become the home of bodybuilding's top contest—and that the film Pumping Iron held its Ohio premiere at the Cinema North theater in June—are the result of efforts by two men: Nationwide attorney and Worthington Mayor James Lorimer, and bodybuilding's first major star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It was Lorimer to whom the Amateur Athletic Union turned in 1970 to promote the weightlifting contest. He had staged athletic events as a hobby for some time, and after he obtained Schwarzenegger for the event, the two became business partners. They have worked together on several Mr. Olympia contests and will promote it again this year for the International Federation of Bodybuilders. The 1977 event is expected to be the most successful yet in terms of size and money, and Schwarzenegger, a six-time Mr. Olympia, now retired, stands to gain a good deal of publicity from it. Coasting through a press luncheon for the Pumping Iron premiere, he made it clear that money and an acting career are high on his list of objectives.
He has taken a big step toward them with “Pumping Iron,” which is both very much his movie and very entertaining. His most salable cinematic assets are his looks, which are good, and his size, which is roughly that of an imported car. Presuming that Hollywood's highly-publicized return to escapist films is more than high publicity, Schwarzenegger would easily fit the sort of roles once played by Johnny Weissmuller and Steve Reeves.
If the loincloth of greatness passes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he will have earned it. He has promoted bodybuilding and “Pumping Iron” relentlessly, following the talk show circuit, attending premieres, and accompanying the film to the Cannes Film Festival. While in Columbus for the premiere and luncheon, he attended a meeting of the Mr. Olympia Committee, cut the ribbon at an opening of the Nationwide Plaza employee fitness facility, attended the Mr. OSU weight-lifting contest, went to the opening of “Pumping Iron” at a Grove City theater and gave three television interviews, including a 90-minute one with CBS personality Morley Safer, who was in Columbus to produce a segment of 60 Minutes to be shown sometime this fall.
The press luncheon was held at the Kahiki and organized by local promoter Gary Cheses. It wasn't difficult to pick Arnold out of the pack in the basement meeting room. He was, of course, not semi-nude and flexing muscles; he was dressed casually in a checked shirt and tight slacks, and he stood near the bar and quietly answered what must have been extremely familiar questions. Though he now lives in Los Angeles, Schwarzenegger is Austrian, and his accent is still heavy.
In addition to minicam crews, from both WBNS-TV and WCMH-TV, 60 Minutes was a1so filming, and the 20 or so people in attendance made their way across cables on the floor and past aggressive looking light reflectors with the apologetic mince one uses at public functions when he thinks he is blocking a camera shot.
Judging by the representatives sent by the local media, bodybuilding is suffering from a kind of identity crisis—is it sport or theater? Tom Keys, sports editor of the Citizen-Journal, was there; but the Dispatch sent radio and television writer Bud Wilkinson from the entertainment pages. Sports reporter Marty Reid and sports director Jimmy Crum were both there from Channel 4, sports director Bud Kaatz came from Channel 6, and news reporter Marci Goulder came from Channel 10.
It was a dichotomy that Lorimer pointed out after introducing the guests —including Columbus Mayor Tom Moody, Schwarzenegger and Charles Sugarman, owner of Cinema North, Lorimer's observation that bodybuilding is an art as well as a sport would also be made a number of times in the film itself that evening.
Moody, when he began his brief remarks, said, "As an inveterate pipe smoker, I hope you realize the sacrifice I'm making by not smoking around Arnold," whom he later described as "this superb athlete." Moody praised Schwarzenegger, and bodybuilders in general, as being morally admirable, or perhaps admirably moral, in that they were intent on improving their bodies when too many others abused theirs. He had never been bothered as mayor, he said, by bodybuilders causing trouble when the bars closed. After the lunch, perhaps to make up for Moody's not inconsiderable sacrifice on his behalf, Schwarzenegger—with some flourish—autographed one of his promo photos for the mayor, "Well, my goodness, Arnold, that's very thoughtful of you," said the mayor.
When Schwarzenegger addressed the gathering, it was apparent that he is as good a politician as the two he sat between, He praised Columbus as a great sports city, which has, of course, never been an unpopular opinion in this town, and insisted that bodybuilding had never found a better audience than it had here. And he made it all seem gracious and eminently reasonable.
Turning from sport to art, he mentioned the wide critical acceptance which “Pumping Iron” had received, and carefully put in a plug for his new movie, a Conan the Barbarian fantasy/adventure. Then he talked Tom Moody into having a glass of wine and waited patiently in a huge rattan chair while a WCMH cameraman tried repeatedly to get his $50,000 minicam to work. After enough time to embarrass Jimmy Crum, who had taken Lorimer's seat for the interview, the camera was fixed, the interview took place, and the luncheon wound to a close.
If any had come expecting a knot-brained animal, they were no doubt surprised. "There is a certain charismatic appeal to Arnold," says Lorimer, "a unique combination of personality, physical traits and mental traits." Schwarzenegger is in a sense the Bobby Fischer of his field, a man whose utter proficiency and promotional skills have allowed him to make a better living at what he does than anyone before him; and, moreover, to raise the professional income of everyone in the field. The prizes to be awarded at Vets this October amount to $13,000—little compared to the more established sports, but very few years ago the prizes were running about $3,000. The turning point was the television coverage, as Lorimer will tell you, but the phenomenon of Arnold Schwarzenegger is certainly more cause than effect.
The 60 Minutes people, headed by producer Suzanne St. Pierre, were concentrating their feature on the growth, promotion and marketing of bodybuilding and had thought Schwarzenegger important enough to follow him to Cannes, New Hampshire and Columbus. The Columbus trip was included, said St. Pierre, because it “seemed to be typical of what he was doing,” and it offered the opportunity to film him in a number of situations.”
They were there at the premiere, filming in the lobby as a tuxedoed Arnold signed his promotional glossies for fans. And fans. And yet more fans, most of whom had been invited as members of the OSU weightlifting club, and who were of a heft sufficient to inspire extreme politeness. With 100 bottles of champagne being emptied rapidly, and a large number of large people in a not so large place, and three CBS technicians wending their way through the crowd holding up lights and mikes like cross-bearers at some weird mass, accompanied all the while by the calm and much of the time mysteriously smiling Ms. St. Pierre, the premiere had a certain element of unreality.
But the two well-muscled young men standing near a wall were very real, and one had the PR photo of Arnold clutched tightly in his hand. "Are you gonna get him to sign it?” his friend asked. "I can't get to him," the other said. "Well, bust in there!" was the reply. Many in the crowd had cameras, and one of the fans, holding both Instamatic and plastic champagne glass, lifted the camera to shoot and poured the remains of the wine on his right shoulder.
In a short time, all 100 bottles were drained, and the crowd filed into the theater, stepping over the numerous little bases which had kept dropping off the bottoms of the glasses. Arnold, after a tumultuous reception, introduced the film, and the audience sat back, metabolically ready to enjoy just about anything.
“Pumping Iron” treats its subject with wit, but with the respect due to an enterprise which transmutes so much pain into so curious an excellence. The pain is certainly there in the grimaces and cries filling Gold's Gym in Venice, Calif., or the Brooklyn storefront gym in which young Lou Ferrigno trains to dethrone Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Olympia.
The question inherent in all of it is, obviously, "Why do they do it?” The theme song tells us that "everybody wants to live forever." Yes, but Lou Ferrigno also wants to please an overweening father. The poignantly sensitive Mike Katz is still fighting the school kids who called him a “Jewboy.” And Arnold, who had wanted to be the best in something since he was 10, finally arrived at bodybuilding, and he had found it.
A documentary can only approach art to the extent that it avoids pretensions toward it, and that is the real strength of “Pumping Iron.” It is a spare piece of work. The most striking parts of the film are the crucial points which pass in an offhanded fashion: the time when Arnold, for instance, talks about having to conduct himself correctly as a child in Austria because his father was the police chief, followed by the matter-of-fact admission that he did not return home for his father's funeral.
The film's ample amount of humor arises mainly from the psychological warfare between competitors, the talent for which Schwarzenegger has in reserve. Watching him manipulate Lou Ferrigno is a pleasure doubled by the fact that Lou's father thinks that he is the one psyching Arnold. In another case Schwarzenegger is happily describing his fatherly advice to a competitor who had asked for tips on developing a new posing routine. Arnold lets him in on the newest sensation sweeping the US: screaming. Just keep screaming while you pose is the advice, and at the first contest the advisee is taken physically from the stage.”
It occurs to one late in “Pumping Iron” that Arnold's extreme competitiveness and self-confidence are not offensive because he has built himself beyond comparison with audience members. As the movie makes clear, he is as much a work of art as he is an athlete. The duality of bodybuilding mentioned by Lorimer is genuine. A dancer, too, draws the artistic from the physical, but the bodybuilder has reduced the artistic to the point where performance is not involved, only his presence.
“Pumping Iron” takes a skillful look at an intriguing profession, one which has fittingly produced an intriguing figurehead.
Schwarzenegger will visit Columbus frequently until the Mr. Olympia contest this fall, so those who are interested in bodybuilding, Arnold or both will probably be the happy recipients of a heavy promotional bombardment in what Arnold has called "the most fantastic city for sports I have ever visited.”
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