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1965—Journey into the Past
Bill Pearl’s Sandow Display

Excerpted from West Coast Bodybuilding Scene
by Dick Tyler

The lamplighter has just placed his lighter into the ornate globe of the street lamp outside our window. You can hear the horses’ hoofs and the clatter of the carriage over the wet cobblestones as they make their way to the theatres and cabarets of the city. I’ll be ready as soon as I fasten this last button on my shoe.

There’s a light rain outside so we’d better wear our overcoats. The timepiece over the mantel checks with my pocket watch, telling us we had better hurry if we want to make it to the Music Hall on time.

Ever since we read the notice in the evening paper a few weeks ago of the impending visit of the magnificent Sandow, we’ve been anxiously awaiting the event. At last the day has come and, of course, we are going to the very first night of his appearance. I can hardly wait. The excitement of seeing one of the greatest strongmen in the world has had the whole city buzzing and here we are with front row seats. If we don’t find a carriage soon, we’ll be late and it’s cold standing out here. Everyone who passes looks like they’re puffing steam with the light from the street lamp illuminating their condensed breath.

“Hey, cabbie!” Ah, at last we’ve got one. “To the Palace Music Hall, and in a hurry, please!”

As our carriage draws up to the Music Hall, there are still a few people entering; we still have time. What a mixture of people—there are those in furs and jewels with their escorts, while just entering the theatre are what looks like a family in somewhat threadbare clothing. Almost all are here out of either admiration or curiosity. All are here, however, to see the featured attraction of the evening, Sandow.

I can hear the orchestra playing as I hand our tickets to the attendant. Except for the light from the orchestra pit in front of the stage, the hall is dark. There are our seats, the third and fourth from the aisle in the front row. Looks like a packed house; people were standing in the back as we entered. Shhhh, the curtain’s going up.

It starts off with a dog act—it’s amazing what those little animals can do. Next is a song and dance man, followed by a troupe of acrobats. A comedy team is next and they leave everybody laughing. They’re followed by a sensational juggling act.

Now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The curtain is down as the orchestra starts to play the stirring strains from the Grand March of Aida. The curtain rises. The footlights are dim, revealing a stage littered with chromed and shiny weights placed in dramatic array. In the center of the stage is a large pedestal. On the back and to the rear of the pedestal is a gleaming white Roman column.

As the music rises, Sandow himself comes from a side of the stage. Slowly, he mounts the posing pedestal and begins a phenomenal display of artistic poses and muscle control. The audience is cheering. They have never seen anything like this before.

All the noise makes me blink and shake my head. I close my eyes hard.

As I open them, I look around and see the people around me dressed in the modern clothing of suits and sports clothes. The cheering is the same, only the man on the stage is not Sandow but another immortal—one of the present day: Bill Pearl. My imagination let me wander into the realm of the past. Now, I was seeing things as they were actually happening. Pearl is going through his posing routine to the thunderous applause of a delighted audience.

After the posing, which is bathed in a flickering light to give the feeling of antiquity, Bill leaps from the pedestal and walks to an imposing globe barbell in the center of the stage. Placing his hands carefully on the bar, he cleans the weight to his shoulders. This is no ordinary clean, for the bar seemed to almost bend in half with the force of the initial pull. Now it’s at the shoulders. After a moment’s pause, Pearl rams the weight overhead, then lets it come crashing to the floor. It sounded like a ton had been lifted. Pearl steps to the footlights and tries to quiet the applause with his outstretched hand. Finally, it subsides.

“Anyone who feels he is able to duplicate the feat I have just performed is free to try.”

A startled murmur goes through the audience. The auditorium is filled with big, strong men. Many, for fear they may fail, refuse to even try.

Then, from the rear of the hall can be heard, “Go on, go on, you can do it.”

“Go ahead, try.”

“Go ahead and do it.”

In response to the urging, a monstrous man finally stands and hesitatingly makes his way down the aisle. As the audience becomes aware the challenge is being accepted, they start to applaud their encouragement.

A lot taller and heavier than Bill, he looks like an easy mark to win the defy Pearl has issued.

Time after time, the giant tries to lift the weight, but can get it no further than his midsection, sort of a high deadlift. More perplexed than disgusted, he gives up and goes back to his seat to the applause of everyone for his effort.

After the audience is settled again, the mighty Pearl picks up a pair of seventy-penny spikes, the biggest made. He clangs them together and hits them on the floor so the sound will attest to their content of metal. Placing his hands on either end of one of the spikes, he hunches forward. His mighty deltoids and arms bulge in the anticipation of what will be required of them.

Suddenly, there is an explosion of power and the spike submits to the force that was supplied. The spike, which is now bent into a “U” shape, is handed to the audience for their observation, with the challenge of anyone to unbend it. Bill then does this with several more spikes. No one, as yet, has been able to straighten the spikes or lift the barbell.

Pearl goes over to a standard car license plate. Placing it carefully in his hands, he braces it against his body. With a dramatic display of muscle and power, he tears the plate in half. The audience cheers this splendid display of strength. Without a pause, he picks up two more plates and places them together. With another mighty effort, the pair of plates are torn apart simultaneously. Now, we’re really cheering.

Still displaying the strength of his hands, he tears a deck of cards in half almost with contempt for the ease it takes. It seems he has inexhaustible power. On he goes to a barbell brought to centerstage. This is no ordinary barbell, for in place of globes or plates there are chair-like seats on either end. Two lovelies are selected from the audience and placed in each of the seats. (The girls don’t have to be lovely, it just makes work more enjoyable that way.) The girls, or should I say the bar, is then cleaned and jerked overhead.

Next, Bill places a chain around his chest. He pulls the heavy links tightly around his ribcage. For a moment he stands, concentrating. A hush falls over all. With a deep breath he lifts his shoulders. Suddenly, he flexes his lats and throws out his chest with a rush of power. A loud snap is heard and the chain falls to the floor, broken.

The cheering has hardly died down when we see this great strength athlete has a hot water bottle in his hands. Putting it against his mouth, he begins to blow into it as easily as most would blow into a balloon. The hot water bag begins to grow with each mighty puff from the Pearl lungs. With his massive chest heaving like a bellows, he forces more and more air into the bag until it is unable to resist the pressure from within. Wham! The bag explodes in testimony to Bill Pearl’s powerful lungs.

With that explosion the act comes to an end.

This unusual presentation came as no accident. It has been carefully developed over the years by both Pearl and his good friend and manager, Leo Stern. Leo is a fine athlete in his own right and owns one of the best gyms in the Southland.

It was back in 1957 the idea came into being. By then, Bill Pearl had already become justly famous for his physique. As a result of his renown, he was being constantly asked to give posing exhibitions. Bill and Leo decided that all Bill was doing was posing like any of the contestants in the actual contest. They wanted to do something different, something special. It was then they hit upon the idea of doing an oldtime strongman act.

They decided the act to copy was the most classic of them all, that of Eugen Sandow. With painstaking precision, they gathered photos of Sandow and tried to put into reasonable sequence the most artistic of the poses. After a great deal of study and work, the unique routine Pearl now uses was perfected.

But, was this enough? Not by a long shot. This proved to be only the beginning. To make the act as authentic as possible, they felt he should be surrounded by only those things that would complement the period of the turn of the century. Special Roman sandals like those worn by Sandow were commissioned and made in New York. During his act, Pearl wears a hairpiece, a posing outfit made out of animal skin and a mustache and the sandals. It creates quite a romantic picture of that era long ago. As time went by, the feats of strength were added until he now has the act as it stands today.

Since its inception in 1957, Bill’s act has grown in popularity. Unfortunately, business commitments keep him from filling all but two or three engagements per year. Ah, but the places he goes when he can. Aside from having appeared around the United States, Bill has performed in Europe, Africa and India to thousands of enthralled fans.

If you are ever lucky enough to see Bill Pearl’s strongman act, relax and let yourself be transported back to those glorious days of the past. You’ll find it’s an exciting journey.

Excerpted from West Coast Bodybuilding Scene
by Dick Tyler

 

Another tale of the Bill Pearl biography, here's an excerpt from Bill's autobiography, in his own words, Beyond the Universe.

You'll find a 20-week physique makeover routine waiting for you on Bill's website, right here.