I am almost finished with a new piece that I have started calling “Stretched,” created from the pages of a 1980s exercise manual – 192 pages of faceless human shapes in various poses demonstrating stretches for any number of athletic activities. Bowling? 15 exercises. Rugby? 17 exercises. Figure skating? Another 15 exercises. Even the popular sport of Watching TV—12 exercises.
Something about this manual reminds me of the “Godfather of Modern Fitness,” Jack LaLanne and while I have been working on the artwork I have had recurring thoughts of LaLanne and the brief role he played in my life. For those of you unfamiliar with LaLanne, you really owe it to yourself to peruse his website. LaLanne was the first person to promote the benefits of daily exercise to the average person. In the early 1950’s, through the new medium of television, LaLanne reached millions of viewers—primarily housewives— with his fitness show promoting the motto: “Get off your seat and on to your feet.” In his snappy little exercise unitard, he spoke directly to his audience, energetically demonstrated the exercises, and showered his followers with praise and encouragement.
"Make me a promise," he began one episode. "C'mon, raise your right hand. Say, 'I promise that I will be with you every day this week, Jack.' 'Cause I have so many fantastic things to show you and tell you, and they're all to you from me." To get a sense of LaLanne’s quirky humor and boundless energy, take a peak at this video for “Hangovers.” (Spoiler alert: this won’t cure your post-SXSW kind of hangover; it targets those body parts that “hangover” your pants!)
LaLanne understood his audience and had no qualms with using a few sneaky ploys to motivate them. Midcentury housewives were busy, but their kids had loads of free time, so LaLanne found ways to entice young viewers to watch and in return encouraged them to “go get your Mom…I’ll just wait here while you go get her.” How did he attract young viewers, you ask? With a dog, of course! LaLanne included his white shepherd Happy who was followed by Smiley and eventually Walter ("We All Love To Exercise Regularly.")
I knew Jack LaLanne through my Granny. Now Granny was a one-man kind of gal and I don’t believe for a minute that in her fifty years of marriage she ever harbored a romantic thought about any man other than my grandfather. But Granny had a thing for Jack LaLanne. Every mid-day, after the breakfast and lunch dishes had been washed by hand, the laundry set to dry, and the house tidied, before “As the World Turns” kicked in, she religiously turned on the television to see Jack. My Granny was 5’1” on her tippy-toes and had her hair “done” every two weeks. She was never what I would call “sporty” (although she was always a “good sport”), but Granny never missed an exercise date with Jack. She put on her “comfy pants” and a pullover (carefully stretching it to ensure her hair would not be compromised) and stood in her dollhouse-sized living room (small enough that you could reach the wall phone, the couch, the dining table and the kitchen sink with only a step or two), square in front of the television set, ready to receive whatever instructions Jack gave.
Jack was always so happy to see Granny and told her how proud he was of her hard work. Up and over, she stretched to reach her tiny, little feet (seriously, I don’t know how the woman could walk on such tiny feet), then back up to the sky, over to the left and now over to the right. Being five years old, I thought The Jack LaLanne Show was grand, almost as fun as Captain Kangaroo, so I eagerly joined Granny in front of the television, hopping around, doing jumping jacks with gusto and determination, more or less like what Jack was demonstrating. This wasn’t exercise; we were training! How marvelous! Plus, any show that included a dog was a winner in my book.
LaLanne lived to be 95, still working on new fitness products and in the gym the day before he passed away. I admire the way he made fitness so accessible for everyone. I wish either I or someone could do the same for creativity. Something that made everyone from stay-at-home dads to accountants think, I haven’t done anything creative today…guess I better hit the sketchbook for thirty minutes tonight before bed!
I can only hope that one day I will understand my audience as well as Jack did his. My dog is lobbying hard for more face time in the studio. Maybe I should listen to him.