“It was men like Armand Tanny who put the muscle in Muscle Beach.”
The simple quote from Randy Roach in “Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors” sums it up best. Tanny passed away on April 4 of natural causes at a nursing facility in Westlake Village, California at the age of 90. Coupled with the recent death of Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski, the bodybuilding world has mourned two of its early pioneers in one week.
More than a half a century ago, Tanny and his older brother Vic – who started a chain of health clubs that began with the famous “Dungeon” – put their stamp on a market in Santa Monica. But the story begins even earlier than that.
The Rochester, New York native (who was born as Armondo Tannidinardo) was first recognized at 14 as a weightlifter in Bob Hoffman’s “Strength and Health” magazine, the main publication in the industry at the time. Not long before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Tanny entered the Junior Nationals in Ohio and walked away with a second place trophy. In the three Olympic lifts, the teenager did 230 pounds in a press, 250 in a snatch and 330 in the clean and jerk for a total of 810 pounds. Tanny was also able to perform a one-handed 300-pound barbell clean.
Once the United States entered World War II, Tanny joined the Coast Guard and received an honorable discharge after injuring his knee. This may have been a blessing in disguise as it affected his ability to continue as a competitive weightlifter. Tanny tried his hand at professional wrestling, acting and writing but had his eyes on something else. Bodybuilding was starting to take off, so it was a natural for him to make a lateral move.
Taking the advice of the great John Grimek, who told him that he had the potential to do well as a bodybuilder, Tanny adjusted his diet and training to prepare for competition. On March 26, 1949, the Pro Mr. USA contest was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. Tanny finished fifth in an all-star line-up that included winner Grimek, Clancy Ross, Steve Reeves and George Eiferman.
Reporting on the contest was Peary Rader, founder of “Iron Man” magazine, who said of Tanny’s, “Muscles stand out all over this boy. He is good everywhere and had the finest tan of the group, a fact that gave him an advantage.”
Tanny’s first win came in the Mr. 1949 contest, which was decided by an applause meter dubbed the General Radio Applause Machine. It was also held in Los Angeles, but this time the Embassy Auditorium had the honors. Tanny did a one-arm 256-pound clean and took home a trophy and a check for $350 -- not a bad purse in the late 1940s.
Up next was the Pro Mr. America show, which took place later that same year at the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco. The 5’9” Tanny once again stood in the winner’s circle at a lean 200 pounds and edged out Bob McClure and Jimmy Payne in a small line-up. Also in 1949 Tanny married Shirley Luvin, who he met at Muscle Beach a year earlier.
A daughter, Mandy, was barely one month old when Tanny entered his next show. At the 1950 Pro Mr. USA in Los Angeles, he beat out Eiferman and Floyd Page and won $1,000 in a three-day event that also included the Miss USA and Mr. Western America contests.
Tanny was a big proponent of raw foods after he was first introduced to them when he visited the Hawaiian Islands after the war. He noticed how strong and healthy the natives were following a diet like this. By 1948, he ate everything raw, including tuna, beef, liver, lobster, oysters and clams. Tanny even drank his milk raw. He credited his victories to his diet.
According to Roach’s book, Tanny felt that the raw meat supplied creatine in a very pure state. He related an amusing story about trying to grab a quiet bite one afternoon on a park bench.
“I sat there sneaking little bites (of a raw steak wrapped in newspaper) when I was joined by a woman who sat down beside me,” said Tanny. “On one of my bites, the steak pulled out of the wrapper and I was sitting there with a big hunk of raw meat hanging out of my mouth. It wasn’t long before I was sitting alone again.”
To most bodybuilders (and everyone), eating raw foods was an unusual practice. Tanny’s habits may have been unorthodox, but they apparently worked for him.
As far as his training methods went, Tanny’s weightlifting background influenced him as a bodybuilder in many ways. He had developed fullness from doing the basic movements and favored using heavy weights for low repetitions in his bodybuilding
The 1950 Mr. USA contest was Tanny’s final win. Although he was victorious in three of the five shows he entered and was profiled on magazine covers, Tanny retired from competing for a number of reasons.
At that time, winning the Mr. USA was one of the highest honors that a bodybuilder could attain and the Mr. Universe contest had not reached the level that it would in the coming years. More importantly, being a bodybuilder in the late 1940s and early 1950s was not an area of work that would become profitable.
Tanny was spending a lot of time managing his brother’s gyms in California at the time the chain began to take off. “The Dungeon” was Vic Tanny’s first gym and was as much of a ‘guy’s gym’ you can get. Sweaty, dirty and grimy. But when multiple locations began springing up, the birth of the modern day health club began to take shape. At the time, the competition specialized in a particular sport and the brothers Tanny had a vision to incorporate all of that into one multi-purpose location – weightlifting, swimming and even the more obscure such as ice skating and bowling.
In 1954, Armand Tanny
stepped away from managing the gyms to join eight other bodybuilders as part of Mae West’s traveling nightclub act, which started at the Sahara Club in Las Vegas. In addition to Tanny, some of the other members of this “beefcake brigade” included the aforementioned Zabo and Eiferman, as well as Joe Gold, Richard DuBois and Mickey Hargitay.
The tour lasted three years and West, who was considered a bombshell actress up until she filmed her last movie 11 years earlier, still attracted an adult crowd wherever she went.
Years later, Tanny recalled, “Mae had her traditional settee there,” he said in “Muscle Beach” by Marla Matzer Rose (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001). She would be laying there with her big boobs hanging out, watching us as we came out one by one in our robes. … We’d come out there with our backs to the audience then open our robes. And she would open her mouth and act ecstatic. Nobody knew whether we had anything on underneath.”
The show was a major success and sold out wherever it went, breaking records in box office receipts. It also gave the bodybuilders extra exposure for a sport that would expand greatly in the 1960s.
Tanny began writing for Weider Publications in the May 1949 issue of “Muscle Power” (the magazine that would eventually become “Muscle & Fitness”) with an article entitled “The Psychology Behind Weightlifting.”
For the next 50 years, Tanny would contribute articles to Joe Weider’s stable of magazines, He passed on that talent to his offspring. Mandy Tanny, herself a bodybuilder, regularly wrote articles for both “Muscle & Fitness” and “Flex” on training and nutrition.
In 2005, Tanny was inducted into the IFBB Hall of Fame.
Although his actual competitive days were small in comparison to his entire career, Tanny was a major contributor and without him the sport of bodybuilding would look very different today.
The original Muscle Beach crowd may have decreased by one, but the memory of Armand Tanny can never leave.