Outside the auditorium, or Pavilion, as it’s called, it is a gorgeous Sunday afternoon at the Mountain Park amusement center in Holyoke, Mass. A roller coaster clatters up and down a wooden trestle. Children fly around in little whirly things that look like boats with wings. There are clam bars, pizza stands, dart throws, cotton-candy booths, a commando machine-gun stall. The sky is raucous blue, the sun is hot and a lot of people are laughing. Outside Mountain Park, on all sides, stretches Holyoke suburbia, big homes and fine lawns that make the place feel mischievous and isolated, an island of gaudery in the midst of all that yawning green. Especially today. Today in the Pavilion a body contest is going on, a “Festival of Flesh”—maybe the gaudiest of all sporting events and strange as a llama race to the average suburban fan. Leon Brown, who works in a laundry in New York, is in there posing for the 1972 Mr. East Coast title.
Following the din that greeted his high-chested glide onstage, there is a total hush over the 1,200 assembled. He stands in the center of the stage, illuminated by a single spot, alone atop the leopard-skin posing dais. He shifts. He fixes his eyes somewhere at the back of the huge auditorium and slides into his first pose to a pandemonium of shrieks and applause. Brown’s mouth stays a little ajar, his eyes are flat, concentrating; he looks like somebody might be teaching him canasta. He shows the judges his breathtakingly graceful legs (you could lose a dime in the separations between the almond-shaped muscles of each frontal thigh; the gastrocnemius muscles of the calves bulge like upside-down hearts). Then he pivots on one foot like a dancer, jiggles the muscles tense and finds a back pose. It’s dynamite: trapezius, deltoid, infraspinatus, the flaring latissimus dorsi—all the workhorse muscles of the back gleam like oiled chocolate in delineated, organized mounds above his glare-blue posing trunks. The response from the crowd is mighty near hysterical.
Brown holds the pose and holds it. It is one of his best and he holds it until the muscles begin to quiver from the strain; then he flows down the line of the pose into a “side shot,” left wrist clutched by the right hand behind his back, pectoral muscles of the chest round and dense as grapefruit at the top of the long concave curve of his rib cage. He turns his stiffened, flexed left arm in front of the judges, laying all three heads of his triceps brachii on them. It’s too much. The shouts thicken into moans. “Oh my God,” says a man near the front, “omigod, omigod.” Brown has them pinned and he knows it. Watching him finish his routine is akin to watching a hawk plunder a rabbit in an open field, a clean swooping. There’s no necessity for fancy moves.
Body building as a competitive sport never has had the national sanction or interest that its participants think it deserves. To most Americans, it just seems so weird, all those huge people, who seem to resemble ordinary men the way a tattoo does a birthmark, posing and flexing up there in those little skimpy shorts. Unflattering myths develop—that they are all muscle-bound, coordinative helpless lumps (body builders who are good at other sports are really the rule rather than the exception); that they will slide to fat the moment they stop all that unnatural exercise (only if they keep on eating as much); and that they are all homosexual anyway (you try telling them that one)—and our collective imagination pictures dark, fleshy exhibitions in seedy Y’s and high school gyms full of wine-drunk voyeurs.
It isn’t really like that, but body building itself hasn’t done much to clarify the image. For years the sport has been too vexed and mired by internecine skirmishes between its two competition-sponsoring organizations, the AAU and the International Federation of Body Builders, to worry about many of its larger problems.
Ed Jubinville is the promoter and emcee of the Mr. East Coast Contest, an IFBB event. He also has held the title of World’s Greatest Muscle Control Artist for 25 years. He can make his muscles dance like no other man in the sport. Jubinville has put on 43 contests at Mountain Park. The Mr. East Coast is not one of the most important annual events—not in the same league, say, with the Universe, or America, or World—but it always is a classy competition and some big dudes are on hand. Mike Katz (the 1970 IFBB Mr. America, Mr. Northeast, Mr. International, etc.), who ranks among the top four or five body builders in the country, world, universe right now, won it two years ago. He is a judge this time. Gordon Babb (best back, Mr. America) is in the audience, and so are Warren Fredericks, often called the Human Anatomy Chart, and 1969 Mr. World Tony Carroll, who is giving out catalogs for his Muscle Hugger Torso Shirts.
Before anything begins onstage at a body contest, the audience always knows who is there. You spot them as they walk in. Body builders are often individualistic to the point of kinkiness, and they have a way of standing out. As Mike Katz says, they are the only athletes whose sport you can tell by looking at them. It’s not just their size that accounts for this, or even their fabulous proportions (Katz’ chest is 58 inches and his waist is 31, a difference of 27 inches as compared to the average of seven or eight; his biceps is 21 inches around, about the size of a small woman’s waist). It has more to do with an odd variety of self-consciousness, a highly developed esthetic sense of self that comes from having more or less the same relationship to your own body that an artist does to his artwork. A body builder’s body is the product of what he does, and when he walks around he is not just getting from one place to another, he is exhibiting the results of his labor. (For Mike Katz to get those mind-boggling pectoral muscles that push his chest out so far he can balance a glass of water on it, he has pumped iron four hours a day for 10 years.) So generally he doesn’t walk at all, he struts, putting it all out front, chest high, arms bowed slightly away from the body to show the spread of his laterals. It is a wonderful movement. It makes you realize that, as Katz says, “Most people walk around looking like pieces of junk.”
The Mountain Park Pavilion is about 150 feet long and shaped like a barn. Beams studded with light bulbs traverse the domed ceiling. The audience sits shoulder to beefy shoulder in rows of connected wooden chairs. They are animated, noisy and big, these fans, maybe in the same vicarious way that a lot of hockey fans are mean. To the left of the stage is the warmup room or “pit,” where the builders prepare for competition, anointing their shaved bodies with baby oil to bring out highlights under the spot and “pumping-up,” blitzing the muscles with dumbbell and tension exercises that oxygenate and swell them and bring the veins closer to the skin. Veins are very important here. Behind the screen the 22 builders getting in last minute pull-ups, triceps presses, flyes and curls, mutter and shuffle like cattle in a boxcar. They have been divided into three height classes, those under 5’7″, those over 5’9″ and those in between. There will be five trophies for each class, plus overall awards for Best Poser, Most Muscular and, of course, Mr. East Coast.
Ed Jubinville announces the shorts. They file onstage from the pit and stand facing the audience, arms bowed, chests out, under the full glare of the house-lights. There are eight of them, ranging in size from Kennedy Gomez, a slender, wistfully smiling boy, to Buddy Lando, who is as heavily muscled as a water buffalo, but even the most untrained eye can pick out the class: it’s the sixth man in line, Leon Brown. The others might as well have stayed behind the screen.
From their table at the foot of the stage, Katz and the other judges gaze up at the shorts. Officially, they are looking for three things: general appearance, symmetry, and muscularity. But what they actually appraise is how big the muscles are, how well proportioned and how cleanly each muscle group is defined, or “cut,” from the ones around it. Jubinville has the shorts make four quarter turns to the right, pausing between each to give the judges a shot of both sides and the back. Then he sends them off and brings them back one at a time for two- to three-minute individual posing routines under the spot.
It is in these routines that body contests are won and lost, and where the peculiar essence of the sport best manifests itself. Good posing is partly a technical matter of knowing how to exhibit your strong points and obscure any weak ones, but beyond that it is an ability like diving or hitting a baseball that depends on intuitive resources of timing and coordination. If it is done as Leon Brown does it during the couple of minutes he occupies the dais, with perfect dignity and finish, there is nothing ridiculous or even remotely embarrassing about it. Suddenly it is no longer a greased, nearly naked man you are watching, but a clean, hard geometry of circles and curves. Even Brown seems detached from what he is: looking down at his flexed biceps, his face shows no recognition of the flesh. He seems to be looking at just an arrangement of stresses.
There is no competition for Brown in the mediums, a fact that disappoints the crowd. They cheer only perfunctorily. But three of the tails are huge, and as soon as the group comes out the crowd senses there may be a real contest for Mr. East Coast after all. Bob Klez, Errol Kattarow and Ray Delaney each sport a lot of bulk. Klez lingers on the dais, taking his time over mostly chest and stomach poses. He is bearded and has tattooed dragons on each calf that writhe whenever he flexes his legs. Kattarow, who probably has the best back in the contest, keeps it up in front of the judges. His positions are long-lined and dramatic, and whenever he does turn around he looks as if he is engaged in some kind of fierce prayer. It is Delaney who seems the greatest threat. He is massive. His skin is paler than anybody else’s, and he has not mixed iodine in his baby oil to darken it. His body looks like a gigantic piece of carved candle wax, and the classic, sculptural poses he puts it through are effective.
But sometime during his routine (or maybe later, in the pose-off he has with Klez for first in their class) it becomes clear that Delaney, even with his beer-keg chest and arms that look like they are slugged full of sausage, cannot do it. Nor Klez, nor Kattarow. That all the bulk on the East Coast is not going to do it today against Leon Brown’s fearful symmetry. For the two or three minutes while he was stretching out that back pose and turning that triceps in front of the judges, Brown had managed to do what body building is all about: to make a form of sport and a form of art merge momentarily in the sure exhibition of a body trained as far as the muscles will allow, pushed against the natural inertia of tissue into its final form. Before the first trophy is handed out the crowd is shouting, “Le-on, Le-on….”
He swept it. He won Mr. East Coast, his class, Most Muscular and Best Poser. With each new trophy Leon made a little bow, expressionless still, and threw the ravening crowd a new pose. They did not stop yelling for a long time, those 1,200 big people, and the carnival atmosphere that body contests always create took a long time to blow off.
A number of people even stayed in their chairs to wait for Brown, Klez, Delaney and the others to leave after they had showered. Eyes moving from left to right, they watched each of them strut out into the park in that odd, high-chested way. A lot of mouths were pursed, and it was easy to believe that some of those people might be wondering about the same urge that Karl Shapiro muses on in The Leg:
The body, what is it, Father, but a sign To love the force that grows us, to give back What in Thy palm is senselessness and mud?