Charles Atlas Born, 1892

by on January 31st, 2011
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“In just 15 minutes a day,” claimed Charles Atlas, “I can make you a man.”

The ads were everywhere — in comic books, in magazines, in practically every publication a young man might pick up. There was always a picture of Charles Atlas, and a little of his story. There was often a comic strip style illustration, detailing the adventures of a young man who was shamed by his poor physique and lack of body strength — until he sent away for Charles Atlas’s Dynamic Tension Body Building Course, naturally.

The stories about the 97-pound weakling seem to be true. Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano, and he started out as a sickly, humiliated twerp. Seeking refuge at the Coney Island beach, he really did get sand kicked in his face. He joined the YMCA and started working consistently at strength training routines, but to no avail. Then one day he went to the zoo.

While watching a lion stretch, he got a flash of inspiration. How does the lion train, he wondered? He has no barbells or exercise equipment. The answer came to him: “He’s been pitting one muscle against another!”

He began working out a system of isometric exercise, which he would later dub “Dynamic Tension.” It achieved results. Pretty soon his friends were stunned when he revealed his physique at the beach. “You look like that statue of Atlas on top of the Atlas Hotel!” one told him.

Eventually Angelo Siciliano would change his name and start a body-building empire, but for the present, he was too busy trying to earn a living. His parents had immigrated from Italy before he was born, but when things hadn’t worked out as his father wished, he had sailed back to Italy. Angelo was the sole support of his mother. He learned leatherworking, and worked at that for awhile, but then gave it up to take a job as a strongman and janitor at the sideshow on Coney Island. He earned $5 a week.

In 1916, an artist spotted him on the beach and asked him to pose. Pretty soon, he was in high demand as a model. Before he was 25, he had posed as George Washington (for the statue in Washington Square Park), Alexander Hamilton, and for the statues placed as Dawn of Glory in the Brooklyn Prospect Park and Patriotism at the Chicago Elks Club. He was making $100 a week by then.

In 1921, he entered and won a contest sponsored by Physical Culture magazine, and the title “World’s Most Beautiful Man.” The following year, he won the title “World’s Best Developed Man” (sponsored by the same publisher) in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. The publisher, Bernarr Macfadden, put an end to any further contests. There really wasn’t any point.

Macfadden did, however, cast Atlas in a silent film, The Road to Health. It was an important event for Atlas, because the director for the film was Frederick Tilney, and Tilney and Atlas hatched an idea. The two men decided to set up a mail-order company that would sell a fitness program. It didn’t do very well, and after a few years Tilney left the operation.

Still, Atlas stuck it out, and in 1928 his advertising agency put their newest man on the job, a 21 year old novice named Charles Roman. Roman hit the ground running and Atlas was so impressed with him that he offered him 50% of his company if he would run it for him. Roman took him up on his offer.

It was Roman who came up with the term “Dynamic Tension” and it was Roman who wrote the extremely effective “Hey Skinny!” and “97 Pound Weakling” ads. The course sold for $29.95 and could be performed in the privacy of one’s own home. There were a lot of takers.

Atlas may have promoted an isometric-only regime, but in his private life, he also worked out with weights. He admitted to doing so. The problem with weights, however, is that you couldn’t really make a profit selling them through mail order. Years later, when he met that other mail order maven, Joe Weider, he told him, “Joe, I just send a course and some pictures, and I make so much more money than you. You should do that, too.”

But, in the meantime, Charles Atlas was working hard for his profits. He took every opportunity available to him to promote his business, appearing at public events to rip phone books in half and pose for the cameras. He appeared on radio and television programs. He invited his customers to write to him, and tell them of their success. And, he answered their letters — or signed the answering letters, anyway.

During the height of its success, the Charles Atlas Company received enough mail to keep more than twenty women working full time to answer it. Grateful customers sent pictures. Celebrities took the course, too. King George VI is known to have taken it. Mahatma Gandhi wrote to ask about the course — we don’t know if he ever signed up.

After the death of his wife, Margaret, in 1965, Atlas lost some of his impetus, but he never let himself go. He moved to Florida, and worked out — hard — every day.

In 1970, two years before his death at 79, Charles Atlas sold his half of the company to his partner, Charles Roman, and left the business. It was a different era, and it seemed that mail-order fitness had run its course. The first Nautilus machine was sold in 1970, and before long other fitness crazes would follow. When Roman learned that attorney and movie producer Jeffrey C. Hogue was interested in purchasing the firm, he was willing to listen.

Roman named a price and Hogue jumped at it without attempting to negotiate a better offer. Profits were modest for the first years. But then came the Internet.

You can still buy the Charles Atlas program today. It sells for $49.95 — only $20 more than its price in the 1930’s. The website maintains the slightly-hokey cartoon appearance of the original ads, but they appear to do the trick. The dream is alive.

Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks, and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events;;;;

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