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Sunday, 30 October 2016

Charles Atlas - bodybuilder

Poor immigrant from Calabria who transformed his body



Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano, pictured in around 1920
Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano,
pictured in around 1920
The bodybuilder Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano on this day in 1893 in the Calabrian town of Acri.

Acri, set 720m above sea level straddling two hills in the province of Cosenza, on the edge of what is now the mountainous Sila National Park, was a poor town and while Angelo was growing up his father, Santos, began thinking about joining the growing number of southern Italians who had gone to forge a new life in America.

They made the move when Angelo was 11.  The journey by sea from Naples took around two weeks. After registering their arrival at Ellis Island, the immigrant inspection station in New York Bay, the family settled in Brooklyn.  Most accounts of Angelo’s life suggest that his father, a farmer, returned to Italy within a short time but his mother remained, taking work as a seamstress and endeavouring to make a better life for her children.

Angelo’s path to becoming Charles Atlas and enjoying worldwide fame began with a classic story of bullying. Like many Italian children of his time, having been born in part of the country where living conditions were difficult and good food was in short supply, he was sickly and scrawny, an easy target to be picked on.

Humiliated at the beach by being knocked down by a physically stronger youth and having sand kicked in his face, Angelo was determined to build up his physique so that he might one day feel that no one could bully him.

He was inspired by the statues of Hercules, Apollo and Zeus at Brooklyn Museum and began to train with home-made weights at his local YMCA.  

The Dawn of Glory, a statue in Brooklyn for which Atlas was the model
The Dawn of Glory, a statue in Brooklyn
for which Atlas was the model
It was on a visit to the Prospect Park Zoo that he hit upon the idea that there might be another way to develop his body without using weights. It would become the foundation of his life and the business that would make him a wealthy man.

It came to him as he marvelled at the physical magnificence of lions. While watching a lion stretch, he realized that the enormous animal was undergoing a natural workout  by "pitting one muscle against another", harnessing his own strength to make himself stronger still.

Back at home, Angelo began to devise isometric and isotonic exercises that required no weights, which had the effect of honing and strengthening his body remarkably quickly.

Friends who noticed the change nicknamed him Atlas after the figure in Greek mythology who was required to carry the heavens on his shoulders.

By the age of 19, Angelo was able to make money by selling a device he had made as a chest developer in front of stores in Manhattan, and performing feats of strength in vaudeville shows.  Then he was introduced to New York’s community of sculptors who would pay him to be the model for numerous statues. The 97lb weakling he had dubbed himself when the bullies were doing their worst now weighed 180lb. He had a 47in chest, 17in biceps and 24in thighs - but a waist of just 32in.

He won bodybuilding competitions, changed his name to Charles Atlas and opened a mail order business, selling his equipment and accompanying lifestyle guidance.  It thrived for a while but his business sense was poor. He made poor decisions and spread himself too thin.

The famous ad for Atlas's method, designed by Charles Roman
The famous ad for Atlas's method,
designed by Charles Roman
It all changed, though, when he met Charles P Roman, a young advertising executive. They agreed that Angelo would concentrate on projecting his own body, making public appearances, demonstrating his equipment and performing stunts, while Charles diverted his focus to the business side of the partnership.

Charles Atlas Ltd was incorporated in 1929. Roman coined the name ‘Dynamic Tension’ to describe the Atlas method and a year later wrote the copy for the company’s most famous ad, depicting a young man who follows the Atlas method and is able to avenge his humiliation at the hands of a beach bully who kicks sand in his face.

The business grew and prospered Charles Atlas became recognized as one of the world’s foremost bodybuilding experts.  Baseball legend Joe di Maggio and boxer Rocky Marciano were among sportsmen who endorsed his products.

He retired in 1970, selling his share of the business to Roman and settling for a quiet life in Long Island, where he bought a house at Point Lookout, overlooking the ocean.  He ran along the beach each day and continued to exercise.  Married with two children, he died at the age of 80 after suffering a heart attack.

The single surviving tower of the town's castle sits
atop one of Acri's two hills
Travel tip:

Acri is a town of around 21,000 inhabitants situated close to the Sila National Park and the beautiful Lago Cicita in the province of Cosenza.  It has suffered a number of earthquakes over the centuries and a lot of its buildings are of relatively recent construction yet many historic buildings survive, including the medieval church of Santa Maria Maggiore, which was rebuilt in the 17th century.  On top of one of its two hills is the single remaining tower of a medieval castle.

Hotels in Cosenza from Hotels.com

Travel tip:

Cosenza, a city with an urban area in which more than 250,000 people live, combines a no-nonsense modern city with a small and atmospheric historic town built on a hill. The pedestrianized centre of the new city has sculptures by the likes of DalĂ­, De Chirico and Pietro Consagra. The old town boasts the 13th century Castello Svevo, built on the site of a Saracen fortification, which hosted the wedding of Louis III of Naples and Margaret of Savoy but which the Bourbons used as a prison. 

(Photo of Dawn and Glory statue by Eden, Janine and Jim - CC BY 2.0)
(Photo of Acri by Explorer at Italian Wikipedia - CC BY-SA 3.0)

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