Bodybuilder Bert Goodrich - The First Mr. America

Bert Goodrich

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Nothing can beat the feeling you get when you enter a contest and win. The thrill of victory fills your entire body, the cameras flash, the crowd roars. So imagine the feeling you would get from winning the first national bodybuilding contest ever! This is the one-of-a-kind sensation that Bert Goodrich experienced when he won the first Mr. America competition in 1939. Today, at 83, he still remembers that day as if it were yesterday.

"Winning the Mr. America was one of the greatest moments of my life," he noted. "I was totally elated. The trophy was small, but it didn't matter. Fifty years later I'm still getting recognition from that title. Achievement is its own reward!"

Achievement seems to come naturally for Bert Goodrich. Born in Tempe, Arizona, he started life with a competitive spirit that remains with him today. At the age of 12 he was already doing acrobatics and outrunning everyone. At 14 he won the Arizona state titles in Flyweight boxing and diving. That same year he took a step that would change the direction of his life.

Tired of being the typical "95-pound weakling," he sent away for a Charles Atlas course. Four years later he weighed 185 pounds of solid muscle. At this point in his life bodybuilding was a means to an end. Bert wanted strength to improve his other sports, which included gymnastics, tumbling and football.

He also continued to box, now as a Heavyweight, and fought matches at Madison Square Garden. He even worked as a trapeze artist one summer, performing feats 100 feet in the air-without a net! Soon, however, he heard the voice of Hollywood calling, and in 1930 he headed off to the glamour capital to become one of the top stuntmen in the business.

Bert worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including John Wayne in "Hurricane Express." He also flew through the air for Buster Crabbe in the Saturday matinee serial "Tarzan the Fearless" and jumped from cars and motorcycles for R=;d Grange in "Galloping Ghosts." In between film shoots he performed on the local vaudeville circuit and headed for Crystal Pier in Santa Monica (the original Muscle Beach) to perform acrobatics for the crowds. There he met fellow vaude-villian Charlie Schaeffer and formed an act that would take them across the country to New York, where bodybuilding destiny awaited.

Bert played at the top music halls in New York, first with Charlie and later with Jack Nelson, a champion ice skater and balancer. During that period Bert attended the first Mr. New York contest in February 1939, and just as the show was beginning, a photographer noticed him in the audience and convinced him to enter. The contest promoter, strongman Sig Klein, lent Bert some trunks and got him onstage just as the Tall class competition was getting under way. Bert's genetically gifted physique and stage presence were such that he won the class and the Overall, weighing in at 195 pounds on his 5'11" frame (statistics he still has today).

This win at the Mr. New York competition qualified him for the Mr. America. Since 1939 was the first year for that show, rules were being written as the event took place. There were three height classes. Prejudging started with a comparison round and continued with the individual posing. Bert impressed the audience and judges with an innovative tumbling exhibition-the only one in the show. He was assisted in his routine by vaudeville partner Nelson, who wasn't even a contestant!

The judges looked for symmetrical proportions, posture, general appearance and stage presence. They were also more impressed with proportions than mass and awarded Bert first place due to his exceptional symmetry. Many of the bodybuilders, it seems, had great upper bodies but no calves. (Some things never change!) The Mr. America title brought a new phase to Bert's life. He appeared on the covers of Look and Pic magazines and later in Esquire with Charles Atlas and Johnny Weismuller (of "Tarzan" fame). The win really jump-started his career, helping him in show business and giving him celebrity status.

His newfound fame also helped when Bert and Vic Tanny set up the first Mr. and Miss USA contest in 1947. Held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the USA was the first professional bodybuilding show ever, with winners receiving $1,000 in prize money. The event was an instant hit-the athletes played to a packed house of 6,000.

The event was a real production, with music and a 21-piece orchestra, as were the USA contests that followed. In 1956 there was even an "Off to Muscle Beach" show complete with tumblers, hand-balancing stunts and an adagio routine. (After the skit Bill Pearl went on to win the contest as the runaway favorite.) Bert also organized the Mr. Hercules contests, at which the sole judge was the legendary Mae West. (Bodybuilders were truly her type of man!)

Bert also put his talents to work from 1946 to '56 setting up a "gym to the stars" on Hollywood Boulevard: the Goodrich Gym and Health Club. This was the first so-called glamour gym, with leatherette walls and chrome equipment. Most of the stars showed up to pump their bodies into shape, including Fess Parker ("Davy Crockett"), Steve Reeves, Bob Mathias and James Arness ("Gun-smoke"). Bert also took 20 pounds off Mario Lanza for his hit movie "The Student Prince."

Bert Goodrich is not the type of person to slow down, much less retire. After he sold his gym (which had grown into the first chain of fitness centers), he became involved in activities as diverse as public relations, stock brokerage and business development. He also toured the country doing television shows during the 1960s, including "To Tell the Truth." Bert still runs a business in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, and the secret to his perpetual youth is obvious: Keep busy.

"You're only as old as you think you are," Bert explained. "Happiness is possible your entire life, but the price you have to pay for it is lifelong exercise. When you win a bodybuilding contest, you take pride in yourself and you try to stay in shape. That pride should continue your entire life.

"The subconscious mind is very important. It works 24 hours a day, even when you're sleeping. If your subconscious thinks that you're going to grow old and decay, then that will happen. You have to take pride in yourself, stay active and exercise as long as you're alive. That will keep you young forever.

"It's so sad when people let themselves go. I know people who are 20 years younger than I am who have aged more than I have. Bodybuilding has helped me to stay healthy, and I recommend it to everyone. You can improve at any age. The only limitations are the ones you place on yourself. Don't coddle yourself!"

Bert is also outspoken on the subject of steroid use. "I would never have done steroids to win the America," he stated. "No contest is worth damaging your body." He also wonders if today's athletes on drugs will live as long as he has-or be in as good a condition.

"Bodybuilding is for your health and enjoyment," he declared. "Why ruin your health just to win a trophy?" Bert Goodrich is a man who speaks his word and lives by it. He is a lifelong bodybuilder and fitness enthusiast who seems to have found the secret of perpetual youth: exercise and a positive mental outlook. Still married to Norma, his sweetheart of 45 years, whom he met at a bodybuilding contest, he is living out his life according to the principles that have guided him for more than 80 years.

What, then, is the most important thing in life to Bert Goodrich? "Your friends. That's what really makes life worth living." Sound advice from the man who started it all more than 70 years ago.

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