How Charles Atlas Held Up the World

If you’re my age or older you know this comic/advertisement well. It was published in comic books and similar publications for decades, as late as my childhood (the 1970s), advertising the exercise methods of one Charles Atlas (Angelo Siciliano, 1892–1972) “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”. This seems the perfect year in which to celebrate him: 130th anniversary of his birth, 50th anniversary of his death; 100th anniversary of his legal name change to that of a Greco-Roman demi-god. And given all the references to Atlas and his system of “Dynamic Tension” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, his Halloween eve birth date seems especially appropriate.

Born in Italy, he came to the U.S. at 16 and settled in Brooklyn. The story arc of his advertising comic was purported to be autobiographical. The beach is Coney Island, and Atlas, originally a 90 lb weakling, was a great admirer of the local Coney Island strongmen. He conversed with those performers, watched people work out at the Y, studied big cats at the zoo, and investigated fitness pioneers like Eugene Sandow and Bernarr McFadden (a fascinating figure who was also a major name in publishing, responsible for such pulpy rags as True Detective, Photoplay, and Physical Culture, which became instrumental in promoting Atlas). Atlas combined all of these influences into his own system, which was called Dynamic Tension. Similar to isometrics, it was based on the idea that the best way to build strength and muscle is to work the muscles of one’s own body in opposition to one another (as opposed to repetitively lifting weights).

Atlas soon became one of those Coney Island strongmen himself, and worked with health experts and p.r. people to create and promote his influential mail order course. People who are said to have taken it include Max Baer, Rocky Graziano, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Robert Ripley, and Dave Prowse. And since Atlas’s fame stretches (ha, I said “stretches”!) all the way back to the 1920s, one can’t help but wonder to what extent he was influential on the popularity of those sword and sandals movies of the 1950s and ’60s. I mean he wasn’t the first to associate his image with Greek and Roman Gods, but he was certainly a pivotal figure in that subculture. It is said he got the idea from a statue of Atlas atop a Coney Island hotel. [Thanks Lincoln Hallowell, for the intel that it was Curley’s Atlas Hotel at Beach 102nd St. (later at Beach 116th. St.) and the Boardwalk!] We’d also like to note that the strong man glommed on to the powerful image years for the Rockefeller Center statue, and decades before Ayn Rand’s famous shrugger.

It’s amazing to think that when I first saw one of his ads Charles Atlas was still alive. His legend, and apparently his company, live on to this day. Must be all that clean living!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous