Jack LaLanne began his show seen in dramatic silhouette, a peppy, powerful figure doing jumping jacks while an electric organ pumped out "Camptown Races," his bouncy theme.
He was introduced as a "world-famous nutritionist, author, lecturer and physical-culture expert on your figure and beauty," and he was there to give housewives a break from their cooking and cleaning chores.
"I like to consider myself as your personal physical instructor and your health consultant coming into your home every day," LaLanne told the women who made up most of his weekday TV audience.
He was a coach for those women, and more. In the 1950s, when he began his lengthy television run, he gave them a half-hour workout, and a respite: Here was a confidant, virile but safe, who may have understood their wants and hopes better than even their husbands.
While their husbands were away every day making a living, LaLanne was looking out for these women in a way no one else did.
"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."
In those days, a daily exercise show was more than pioneering.
Exercise for anyone was seen as an exotic pursuit, largely limited to disgruntled kids in phys-ed classes, members of athletic teams training for team victory and random "exercise nuts." And few of those categories included women.
LaLanne's notion of fitness certainly wasn't the macho proposition from those ads in comic books: a mail-order course from bodybuilder Charles Atlas that would transform the "97-pound weakling" into a ripped Adonis who could teach the world's bullies not to kick sand in his face.
LaLanne, who died Sunday at age 96, found a successful formula for happiness and long life decades before the onset of health spas and healthy lifestyles — a cultural shift for which he paved the way.
Anyone who was watching his TV show a half-century ago heard his mission: to help people feel better, look better and live longer.
Clad in a form-fitting jumpsuit with "Jack" stitched on the left breast, his bulging biceps straining its short sleeves, he coached his in-home flock through a series of what he called "trimnastics," none of them requiring apparatus beyond a chair or a towel. He was always warm, encouraging and — in the best tradition of a broadcaster — engaging.
He never forgot the kids who might have been parked in front of the TV when his show came on. He greeted them heartily and directed them to go run and grab Mom. Sometimes, before dispatching the kids with "running music" from the off-screen organ, he treated them to a trick by his big white dog, Happy.
On other occasions, LaLanne did a trick himself, not to grandstand, of course, but to reassure his audience that he was no mere TV personality.
Once, he demonstrated a technique he called the American flag: With both hands gripping a vertical pole a few inches apart, he extended his body horizontally, his arms ramrod-straight. He said no one else could do it. Whether that was true or not, few if any of his dazzled viewers would have argued the point.
LaLanne was a TV trailblazer, arriving in an era before videocassettes (an innovation that put Jane Fonda's aerobics everywhere a quarter-century later), and decades before multiplying cable networks opened a maw that needed programming of all kinds, including fitness shows and uncountable fitness gurus, to fill it.
Among the cartoons, game shows and soap operas of his early day, LaLanne found a pent-up demand for a TV show that promoted health and demanded that the viewer get physical. It was a special kind of appointment viewing.
Did housewives tell their husbands about Jack LaLanne? Or was his show their little secret?
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.
- Jack LaLanne
- bodybuilder Charles Atlas