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Appreciation: Jack LaLanne, 1914-2011

January 26, 2011 |  3:28 pm

It is hard to believe that anyone as fit as Jack LaLanne could ever die, but pneumonia caught up with the master exerciser on Jan. 23. He was only 96 years old.

LaLanne had already been in the "physical culture" business for some 15 years when he went on television in 1951 with "The Jack LaLanne Show," beginning at ABC's San Francisco affiliate and later jumping to the network itself. Five-foot-six with dark curly hair, dressed in a jumpsuit zipped open halfway down his chest, with "Jack" stitched over his heart and strappy slippers on his feet, he was well-built without being musclebound, and manly with a soft edge. As a star of weekday daytime television, his audience was primarily women. He called his fitness regimen "trimnastics," promising it would "firm up your bustline" and "trim down your waist." Overeating had not yet become the national pastime, but plenty of people wanted to look and feel better than they did; "slenderizing" was no less a concern then than it is now.

Television has hardly been silent on the subject of exercise since LaLanne's heyday; the morbidly obese compete to lose pounds, pitchmen hawk gadgets guaranteed to take off this and build up that, with operators standing by. LaLanne himself certainly has had things to sell  -- a Power Juicer is out there now somewhere, waiting for your call --  but he was temperamentally an evangelist, a man with a message, a mission. "You can actually be reborn again," he told his viewers, whom he addressed as "students," "because I was reborn again."

"You are a slave to your own body.... You want to do things, but your body won't let you because your body has you slaved -- you are in shackles and bondage."

He had been a troubled child, underweight and overaggressive, saved from a bad end, he believed, by healthful food and exercise. He wanted to pass that on, to change lives, to disabuse Americans of the notion that a body was built from "cigarettes and coffees and cakes and pies and donuts and French fries," to wean them from "foods that have been demineralized" and steer them toward the fresh fruits and vegetables that would restore "a youthful tonicity" to their prematurely dessicated flesh.

For the most part, his exercises required no equipment more complicated or costly than a chair. That was his main prop, and when not using it in some routine, he would straddle it backward and talk, as if off the top of his head -- he knew his subject well enough, after all -- with the directness of a "Romper Room" teacher calling out to Bobby and Suzy and Tommy and Jane. "We're going to work this thing out together," he would declare. "You're an intelligent person." This conversational intimacy -- he never hectored -- was a convention of early TV, when the idea that the box brought the far world into your living room was still felt as something more than a metaphor. You not only watched Jack LaLanne; he watched you. "See what you're doing wrong," he'd say, breaking off halfway through an arm exercise. He acted as if there were no screen between him and his audience: As if to blur the space between those realities, his set was a living room, too.

 

LaLanne's own website hosts some full episodes of his show; they are sweet and invigorating and seductive -- quite without realizing it, I found myself following along at home, as an organ burbled behind him. And the Archive of American Television has a long retrospective interview with LaLanne, taped in 2003, when he was nearly 90 and the living, glowing advertisement for his method.

-- Robert Lloyd

Related:

Jack LaLanne dies at 96; spiritual father of U.S. fitness movement

 

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