Bobby Pandour: The Mysterious Muscle Man

Wladyslaw Kurcharczyk, or ‘Bobby Pandour’ is one of the most fascinating physical culturists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A gymnast by trade who published little in the way of training material, Pandour is widely regarded as having possessed one of the finest physiques of his time. That he claimed to have built it without the use of heavy weights adds to Pandour’s mystique. So who was this Polish gymnast so shrouded in mystery and how did he come to fame?

Early Life & Career

Like other strongmen and women from his era, Pandour’s early life is something of an enigma so most of what I’m about to tell you needs to be read with a pinch of salt. We know that Pandour was born Wladyslaw Kurcharczyk in Poland. What we don’t know is when. From searching online I’ve seen dates given ranging anywhere from 1876 to 1882.

From the now defunct website Sandowplus.co.uk we know that

He and his brother, Ludwig, were champion gymnasts and went to England in the early 1900s with a sensational horizontal bar, posing, muscle control and hand balancing act.

Unfortunately for Kurcharczyk interest in gymnastics and hand balancing feats was waning thanks to the emergence of strongmen and women shows. Demonstrating just how fickle the theater and entertainment industry was during this period, Kurcharczyk’s shows were ill attended as people preferred strongman acts.

Somewhat frustratingly it is next to impossible to learn more about  Kurcharczyk’s shows in England as they attracted little attention from the British press. This does not mean, however, that the Kurcharczyk brothers were completely ignored.

Returning to Sandowplus, the authors claimed that

Professor Attila is credited with the change of name to ‘Bobby Pandour’ and he was also instrumental in getting the brothers some publicity

Additionally Pandour’s images were found in the 1904 Health & Strength Annual. As we’ve previously discussed, Health & Strength was one of the premier magazines of the time in Great Britain. That Pandour appeared in it was no small achievement.

His esteem continued to build. Bill Pearl‘s wonderful physical culture biography made clear the alternative avenues Pandour used to build his income. This included swimming in Eugen Sandow‘s wake. When artists could not afford Sandow’s fees for posing, or simply couldn’t wait for him to clear his schedule, they would hire Pandour instead!

This did not stop him earning money, however, and his very muscular appearance made him extremely popular with artists who were unable to afford Sandow’s high fees.

In terms of publicity, it certainly helped. Such was his reputation that in 1905 the French physical culture magazine La Cultur Physique featured a small piece on Pandour, albeit with the wrong spelling (‘Pendour’).

Heyday in America

From 1907 to 1915 Bobby Pandour toured American Vaudeville with his brother and it was in the United States that Pandour appears to have made far more money than his time in Great Britain. Although he rarely, if ever, was the headline act he nevertheless was held in far more esteem by American journalists.

Although Pandour’s early acts in the United States still centered on gymnastics, there is evidence that in time his performances evolved to include posing. In this regard, Pandour mirrored Sandow, whose own time in the United States saw him switch his act from feats of strength to strength acts and posing.

Reporting on Pandour’s shows in October 1911, The Topeka Daily Capital reported that

Bobby pandour and brother, the headlines, carry a setting that is effective, and their acrobatic work compares well with the best that has been here this season. Pandour closes with a posing exhibition, showing his muscles, of which he has a plenty. The strength acts includes hand walking and strength acts…

Pandour continued to tour the US for the next several years until disaster struck. During a performance in 1915 Pandour suffered an accident on stage  which largely curtailed his lifting career. This was not, unfortunately, an uncommon experience. The great Arthur Saxon once suffered a leg break on stage during a feat which involved propping up a makeshift stage with a car on it.

For Pandour, I’ve been unable to discover the extent of the injury. The best I could find has come from secondly sources

In 1915 he suffered a bad accident whilst on stage in Cincinnatti and never recovered fully.

After that he retired from the stage and lived in New York. He had by that time married and was said to be living a prosaic existence. Ludwig went to live in Brooklyn

Accordingly, it is reported that Pandour passed away either in his late 30s or early 40s. Even at the end, his life was a mystery.

Training and Performing

One of the reasons why Pandour remains such a figure of fascination is the fact that he supposedly refused to use heavy weights in his training. He did use dumbbells – but only those weighing 10 lbs. each at their heaviest. It appears that Pandour’s training came primarily from his gymnastic work alongside a system of concentric tensing similar, perhaps, to Charles Atlas‘s later system.

One exception to his training was his leg work. Recognizing the need to train at least somewhat heavily, Pandour supposedly built his legs by carrying his brother up flights of stairs as fast as possible. At his peak Pandour was said to have weighed 160lb at 5’6″ tall. He is reported to have had a 42″ chest, 23″ thighs and 16-17″ arms.

Unfortunately for us, Pandour did not write down his programs or attempt to sell any system of exercise. Given that he was often used as a Sandow stand in it is likely that with the right marketing, he too could have been a star. Alas Pandour experienced no such luck.

His shows, incidentally were not too dissimilar from Sandow’s in that they combined muscle posing with feats of strength and athleticism. Earle Liederman, one of the most significant muscle entrepreneurs of the 1920s, described Pandour’s shows thusly

According to an article written by Earle Liederman:

Pandour’s posing act consisted of standing on a white, Roman style column. He seemed to be about 10 feet in the air. A bright spot light streamed down before him from overhead, yet hidden from view. All around the back stage there was a black cyclorama curtain.

Pandour was very thickly muscled. His arms looked short because of this muscle-density. He had sensational abdominals and great deltoids, while his legs were in similar proportions.

His posing was done with simple ease and grace, yet every motion brought out the muscle or muscle groups exactly as he wished them shown.”

For contemporaries, there was no doubts about Pandour’s physique nor his athleticism. He remains, for many of us, the sport’s great enigma.