Harry H. Blondell, the self-pro-claimed "Strongest American Living," poses uneasily among the heavy weights that are his stock-in-trade, trying to scrape up as much nobility as he can.
He isn't helped by the silly boots, the tights, the spangly drawers or the incongruous wristbands that he wears. A smudgy muslin sheet hangs behind him in a vain attempt to block out
the buckets and brooms of his makeshift stage.
The chances of finding Harry's name on the honor roll of famous strongmen are not very great. He was one of the many unknowns who made a living from whatever muscular prowess he could muster. We wouldn't even know his name if he hadn't signed the back of his picture. Poor Harry toiled in obscurity, trying desperately to make people think that he actually was "The Strongest American Living" despite all the evidence to the contrary.
It is appropriate that we begin this series with an anonymous participant in the iron game. Bodybuilding is a sport that is notoriously ill-documented, and contemporary musclemen seem to have turned their collective latissimi on the origins of physical culture. But the fact remains that something as big as bodybuilding did not arise out of thin air. It has a long and fascinating history just like any other major sport. A quick glance to the past, therefore, can help us see where we came from and perhaps give us a clue about where we are going. That is the purpose of this series: just a brief glimpse at a few of the men who helped build strength training.
Back in the days when Harry Blondell posed for the picture accompanying this piece, a muscleman really had only two career possibilities before him: He could be an instructor or a performer. If he chose the first alternative, the burgeoning young muscleman might teach at the local YMCA; if he were very lucky, he might end up owning his own gymnasium. By far, however, the most glamorous career opportunity for well-built young fellows was to go on the stage.
Before television, before radio, even before movies, the single most popular form of entertainment was vaudeville. This was a variety theater-a marvelous hodgepodge of acts that might feature a comic after an acrobat or a strongman sandwiched between a singer and a trained dog act. In order to compete in this world of flash and sizzle, musclemen had to come up with daring feats of strength that would wow an audience grown blase from watching the acts that came before and after them.
Elephant lifting, chain snapping, poker bending and stone breaking were only a few of the myriad ways strength and power were demonstrated on the variety stage.
Understandably, some athletes were better at being spectacular than others. A headliner could pull in thousands of dollars a week, while other, less competent men made correspondingly smaller salaries. Lower down on the rung of strength performers were those men who displayed their prowess in circuses.
Lowest of all were those who performed wherever they could. Unfortunately, Harry Blondell was one of these. Perhaps he got an occasional booking at a local theater. Every now and then he might have played a county fair. But from time to time he might even have been reduced to performing on street corners for change. Despite his fate, Harry doesn't look too miserable. He is probably just waiting for his one chance to break into the big time.
So here's to all the Harry Blondells throughout the history of bodybuilding. It's not always an easy life-it never has been. But the desire for strength and at least a few shreds of glory keeps the parade of musclemen marching on. It's time a few of them were celebrated.