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Obituary: Jack LaLanne, fitness dynamo who helped launch era of health-consciousness

By Patricia Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 8:43 PM

Jack LaLanne, the jumpsuit-clad fitness dynamo who starred in one of the nation's first and most popular TV exercise shows -- a program that aired from 1951 to 1985 -- and touted healthful eating with such relentless earnestness that he helped usher in a modern era of health-consciousness, died Jan. 23 at his home in Morro Bay, Calif. He was 96.

The cause was respiratory failure due to pneumonia, Mr. LaLanne's agent told the Associated Press.

Mr. LaLanne showcased his legendary stamina in outrageous stunts well into his senior years. Such feats involved towing boatloads of people in frigid, choppy sea water, often while handcuffed and shackled. To Mr. LaLanne, his reputation for superhuman strength was everything.

"I can't die," he said. "It would ruin my image."

Decades before Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons and Jim Fixx exemplified the fitness craze, Mr. LaLanne was on television lecturing about the evils of sugar and the value of fruits, vegetables and exercise.

In the early years of his career, he said he often had to tell people he was "not a crackpot" and developed an early pitch, "You like your dog? Would you get your dog up in the morning and give him a cup of coffee, a cigarette and a doughnut?"

He created in the mid-1930s what is said to be one of the nation's first health clubs - it included a juice bar and health food store. He went on to expand a chain of clubs and endorse a line of health products such as a "power juicer."

"The Jack LaLanne Show," his longrunning TV program, featured no Spandex or pumped-up pop music. It took a minimalist approach, with the enthusiastic Mr. LaLanne, often accompanied by his white German shepherd, Happy, urging his viewers to exercise with him, using such equipment as a broomstick, a chair or a towel.

An organ like those heard at old-time baseball games served as background music and aural exclamation points for his enthusiastic pep talks.

"Come on, now, girls. We're going to work on" -- he'd pat his rear -- "reducing the old back porch."

Viewers could be forgiven for thinking Mr. LaLanne a large man, as his trademark jumpsuit showed off his broad shoulders and muscled arms, tapering to a trim waist and narrow hips. But his publicity handouts listed his height as 5 feet 7 inches, plus an all-important extra three-quarter inches.

From the start, he battled misconceptions about weightlifting, then thought to harm an athlete's speed and flexibility. Men feared getting hernias or hemorrhoids; women, if they thought of exercising at all, feared overdeveloping their muscles.

"What's really fascinating is how far ahead of his time he really was," John Eliot, an expert in the psychology of fitness and health, told USA Today in 2004. "At the time, coaches told [athletes] not to do weightlifting stuff because it was bad for them. It wasn't until the late '70s, when the Dallas Cowboys hired the first strength coach, that people paid real attention."

Far from being discouraged, Mr. LaLanne remained an indefatigable showman and pitchman.

When a New York Times reporter phoned him for an interview in 2004, Mr. LaLanne demanded, "How often do you work out?" Told "I don't," Mr. LaLanne responded: "Are you sitting down? Then stand up. Sit down. Stand up. Sit down. . . . "

Mr. LaLanne had a mischievous side. In 2007, when he was 92, Mr. LaLanne visited Washington to receive a lifetime achievement award from the President's Council for Physical Fitness and Sports.

Washington Post reporter Sally Squires, interviewing him and his wife, Elaine, in their hotel room, was shocked to find the hyper-energetic Mr. LaLanne sitting motionless, staring hollowly at a television.

He suddenly leaped up and threw himself at Squires.

"Fooled you, you sexy blond bombshell!" he chortled, hugging Squires. Nodding toward his wife, he playfully admonished Squires, "Leave a little air between us, so that she doesn't get jealous."

Francois Henri LaLanne was born Sept. 26, 1914, in San Francisco, the son of French immigrant parents. His father was a phone company employee and a dance instructor, and his mother was a maid.

Young "Jack" LaLanne, as he became known, grew up in Bakersfield, Calif., where his parents tried to make a living as sheep farmers but went bankrupt. They moved to Oakland, where his father died of a heart attack while Mr. LaLanne was still young.

Mr. LaLanne later said that in response to his father's death, his mother showered him with attention and rewarded him with sweets.

As a consequence, he said, he grew into a "sugarholic" with a flaring temper, debilitating headaches, acne and boils. "Listen, little girls used to seek me out just to beat up on me," Mr. LaLanne told Sports Illustrated.

His mother took the troubled teen to listen to a lecture by Paul C. Bragg, a nutritionist who was also ahead of his time in advocating practices such as deep breathing, drinking natural juices, exercising and eating organic foods. Mr. LaLanne spoke of the lecture as a turning point in his life.

Combining what he learned from chiropractic college and his own study of "Gray's Anatomy," at 21 he opened Jack LaLanne's Physical Culture Studio in 1936 in Oakland, Calif. It was not an instant success.

"There was strong resistance in those days," he told Sports Illustrated in 1981. "You can't appreciate it now, in this era of Arnold Schwarzenegger . . . [but] I would get a guy about half-recruited, and he would come back to me and say that his doctor wouldn't let him join. 'You'll get a hernia,' all the doctors said then, remember? Or, 'You'll get muscle-bound.' "

Beyond barbells, the clubs offered exercise equipment that was unique to the time. Mr. LaLanne enlisted a blacksmith to build machines that are now standard in today's gyms, such as leg-extension equipment and one of the first adjustable weight machines.

"Jack's designs are legendary," Harold Zinkin, creator of the Universal Gym, once told The Post. Mr. LaLanne did not patent the designs, however, and did not profit from them. In the 1980s, when his health clubs totaled more than 200, they were sold to the Bally Co., now known as Bally Total Fitness.

Mr. LaLanne's first marriage, to the former Irma Navarre, ended in divorce. In 1959, he married Elaine Doyle. She survives, along with a daughter from his first marriage; a son from his second marriage; and a stepson.

In 1954, when Mr. LaLanne was 40, he began the first of a series of feats of strength performed in public: He swam the length of the Golden Gate Bridge underwater, wearing 140 pounds of scuba gear, in 55-degree water, covering the two miles in 45 minutes.

In 1976, for the U.S. Bicentennial, he swam a mile in Long Beach harbor, again handcuffed and shackled, towing 76 people in 13 boats representing the 13 original colonies.

At 95, he came out with his 11th book, "Live Young Forever: 12 Steps to Health, Fitness and Longevity" and had his own Web site where he marketed his exercise DVDs, books and products.

Mr. LaLanne said exercise was not a favorite pastime, candidly calling it "a pain in the gluties. But you gotta do it. Dying is easy. living is tough. I hate working out. Hate it. But I like the results."

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