When an earthquake ripped through Santa Monica on March 10, 1933, the city was already in bad shape. The quiet community on the Pacific coast had prided itself in being socially elite and culturally refined, but that pride hadn’t stopped the Great Depression from sinking its dirty claws in and tearing the town a new one. The worst to be hit by the quake was the schools. Without the funds to rebuild, local kids were taught out of tents.
It was Kate Giroux’s idea for the city to build a park on the beach. She’d been a playground matron for an elementary school before it was reduced to rubble. Building one playground for everyone would be a faster and cheaper fix until all of the schools could be rebuilt.
City officials agreed. By 1934, work had started on the new playground. The project was paid for by President Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration (WPA), an organization set-up to employ local people to build public developments and stimulate the economy. The site chosen was a stretch of sand just South of the famous Santa Monica Pier, known by locals as Mussel Beach for all of the shellfish that clung onto the Pier there.
The park soon became a hit with local vaudeville performers and acrobats who appreciated the soft landing that the sand could give them. Finding work in their field wasn’t so easy in Great Depression-era America and the practice didn’t hurt to keep the rust away. At first the gymnasts brought their own mats down to the beach, but as the locals crowded around to watch these impromptu performances, the city doubled-down. A gymnastics platform was built and more bars and rings were added, as well as ping-pong tables and volleyball nets – all courtesy of some more Uncle Sam cash.
Word started to get around pretty quick about the great outdoor gym in Southern California. Santa Monica became the Capitale de la Culture Physique on the West Coast as well as a Must-Stop-Spot for traveling performers from across the country. If you were in the Golden State, you had to make your way over to Santa Monica to practice your stunts and learn from the best in front of the appreciative crowds.
Around this time, the spelling of Mussel Beach got changed to Muscle Beach as the number of meat-heads outnumbered the mollusks.
Play a word-association game today and Muscle Beach equals bodybuilding. That wasn’t the case in the ‘30’s. Physical Culture was the name of the game. Gymnastics, acrobatics, and weightlifting was the way to play it. The doctors of the day warned their patients against the strenuous movements the kids were performing on the Beach, saying it could lead to heart disease and an early death. When the spectators saw the rippling muscles and the strength that came from all that dangerous exercise… Well, we all know who had it right.
The early 1940’s saw things quiet down on the beach. Uncle Sam didn’t take the equipment in as scrap metal, but he almost might as well have. The people were too busy fighting the Japanese to be swinging from rings. Barbells were traded in for rifles and the only bicep that was flexed was in the middle of a military salute.
Postwar America saw a sizable migration from East to West, and the Easterners brought their barbells with them. Weightlifting for size and strength had been more of an East Coast scene in the 1940’s. Maps across the country started to print the words Muscle Beach in larger type than Santa Monica, much to the embarrassment of city officials. The emphasis was still on gymnastics and acrobatics, but weightlifting was definitely a contender for public attention, especially once the weight platform was built.
The devoted few had been towing their own barbells and dumbbells to the Beach since the 1930’s, but it was with the permanent weightlifting platform that things really started to get serious. Keep in mind, weightlifting was still seen as a risky thing to do in the 1940’s and ’50’s. If a school had a weight-room, the key to it was safely guarded by the football or wrestling coach, to keep the other athletes from becoming “musclebound.” To have a weight platform out in the open like it was at Muscle Beach was pretty remarkable.
There needs to be a clarification, Muscle Beach refers to the exclusive Santa Monica location of the birthplace of the physical fitness boom in the United States during the 20th century, started in 1934 with predominantly gymnastics activities on the south side of the Santa Monica Pier. Muscle Beach Venice is the contemporary title of the outdoor weightlifting platform constructed in Venice, California, a distinct neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles, 18 years after Muscle Beach was established.
Muscle Beach Venice was officially titled in 1987 by the City of Los Angeles with the distinguishing name “Venice” added to the location to honor the original Santa Monica site. The contemporary Muscle Beach Venice is located two blocks north of Venice Boulevard on Ocean Front Walk in Venice, California.
(Photo credit: Earl Leaf / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images / Text: Danny Iron).