The early to mid-’60s was truly a golden time for bodybuilding. It gave birth to great stars like Larry Scott, Frank Zane, Chris Dickerson, Boyer Coe, Freddie Ortiz, Rick Wayne, Sergio Oliva, Harold Poole and Chuck Sipes, among so many others. The sport enjoyed an innocence back then, a wide-eyed wonderment that revealed itself on the pages of almost every bodybuilding magazine. Those men were living healthy lives. They smiled and had fun. Their stories inspired, elevated, nurtured.
No one epitomized ’60s bodybuilding more than Dave Draper, he of the blindingly blond hair and incredibly put-together physique. Dave was different from guys like Scott or Zane’a young cat who really looked at home romping through the waves in Malibu. Whether he was wearing his baggies and hanging 10 or hitting a classic side-chest shot, Dave made us buy into the wild dream. He was originally from New Jersey, but after Dave migrated to Southern California, he came to represent an ideal, something that’s sorely lacking in bodybuilding today.
Joe Weider nicknamed him the ‘Blond Bomber,’ and the moniker stuck. Standing on the beach, babes in tow, Dave flexed a huge arm and hooked a generation. That was what it meant to be an all-American boy. Clean living. Exercise. An unwavering faith in God. Throw in Mom and apple pie, too. Dave Draper fit the mold as if it had been formed around him.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he also happened to be Mr. America, Mr. Universe and Mr. World. His story inspired.
Let’s start from the top.
IM: How does it feel to be a legend?
DD: I must confess, I have a problem with the legend concept. This morning I was housecleaning and accidentally whacked myself on the head with the broom. I’ve got a monstrous black eye and no legendary story to support it.
IM: Hey, a black eye can’t hurt a legend. It only adds to his mystique.
DD: Most appreciated. Fire away with the questions. Just don’t nod off while I’m talking.
IM: Give us some background on your life.
DD: I was born in Secaucus, New Jersey, spring 1942, the youngest of three brothers. I weighed 12 pounds at birth’a decent start. We were the sons of a good ex-merchant marine father and a bright, loving mother. My fondest memories are of running and climbing trees along the Hackensack River outside New York City or swimming, fishing and rowing on Lake Gerard in northern Jersey. I was a happy little boy, with the usual hang-ups that haunt kids then and now. My share of insecurity and need for significance kept me hard at work. I never felt poor, but I always felt broke. Must’ve been the hand-me-downs.
IM: Were you a good student?
DD: The last place I ever wanted to be was in school. I played basketball and football in the neighborhood but had a tough time up at bat. Eventually, I swapped my mitt for a used 110-pound barbell-and-dumbbell set.
Weights fascinated me’the gravity, the immovableness, the pushing and pulling, the clang. Those became my game and contest. I thought it was very cool’private, solitary, almost secret. The hidden activity at once cast a subtle spotlight on me. No one else was lifting weights. No one told me what to do, or when or how. Very cool. I lifted over the years, right through high school.
IM: Did you know what you were doing’the technique and dedication?
DD: Heck, no. I didn’t even read a bodybuilding magazine till I was 20. In my early years two guys stood out as inspiration for me: Anthony Napierski and Tony Petrowski, local kids who were three years my senior. They had gnarly arms and demanded lots of respect.
IM: How’d you and Joe Weider first connect?
DD: I used to visit Weider Barbell Company in Union City, New Jersey, where Joe had his early offices and a warehouse. Leroy Colbert would come into the reception area and assist me with my retail purchase’a bar, a plate, whatever. Well, I never saw anything or anyone like Leroy. Arms, chest, back and shoulders all over the place, carried with Leroy’s grace, electric grin and charm. He and I became friends and had some good workouts. I’d volunteer on weekends for warehouse toil. Joe would observe our activities, throw in a set and talk of his plans to open an outlet in California. Shortly after winning my first contest’Mr. New Jersey’it was decided that I would move to Santa Monica. That was in the summer of ’63, and compared to Jersey, Santa Monica seemed like a paradise.
IM: That was before you’d made much of a splash in the mags.
DD: Right. I may have been only 21, but I appreciated the value of working and training hard. It won me Mr. America in 1965 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. What prepared me for such a leap was the saturation of training in the Dungeon, the reorganized Muscle Beach Gym. Menu, diet, exercises, reps, sets, improvising, combinations, techniques, alterations, angles, grips, handles, injury repair, remedies’I learned everything there. The knowledge and understanding, the simmering atmosphere, the honesty were penetrating.
IM: From obscurity to almost instantaneous fame. Seeing your face and form in print for the first time has gotta be an indescribable rush.
DD: I was beside myself. A minor paragraph in the middle of an article by Jon Twitchell mentioned an up-and-coming guy from New Jersey. I set that date [in ’63] as my start in professional bodybuilding. The first cover and story on me appeared after my California migration and new perceptions. They didn’t make a big impact. Among the pages in my Web site [www.davedraper.com] there’s a magazine-cover-archive link. Laree, my wife and Webmaster, says of the covers that ‘some are less embarrasing than others.’ Cute. My first cover is on a ’63 Muscle Builder, and I look like Mr. Dough Boy.
IM: Any anecdotes from the Jersey contest?
DD: The Mr. New Jersey was scary and fun and a great lesson for everyone concerned. There were 35 guys competing, all around 18 to 22. We were half-shaved, and oil was spilled and smeared over our white and black bodies. Bizarre. It was an early IFBB attempt. Confusion reigned, but eventually giant trophies were given out to the right guys. The transfixed audience applauded dutifully. Onstage and backstage the excitement was genuine and overflowing. Freddie Ortiz carried the show with his amazing cartoon body and cartoon personality. We all felt like heroes for going through with it.
IM: Was that around the time you began being known as the Blond Bomber?
DD: Right before. Joe Weider gave me that nickname. We were still in New Jersey, and I can remember him coming in the back room where Lee [Colbert] and I were training. He said, ‘You guys are always bombing it. When do you ever work? Leroy, I’m going to call Draper the Blond Bomber. What do you think, eh?’ A month later it was on the cover.
IM: Who were your heroes in the sport’the men who inspired you to go for it?
DD: I see a picture of Steve Reeves and still get a chill’no one has a more beautifully rugged physique. No one fills the role of bodybuilder more completely and has more to say than Mr. Bill Pearl. No one has taken bodybuilding to the dizzying heights of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Among the champs today, the high-tech bodybuilders, I find little distinction. There are so many greats with so much greatness, who can separate them? Champions rise from every era and for different reasons: size, charisma, symmetry, power, definition. Simply put, however, no other muscleman stirs my spirit like Steve Reeves. The pure, effortless beauty, the mass and absolute symmetry of the man was matchless.
IM: You know Dave Draper better than most. Describe him for us.
DD: I’m one of those absolute, born-again Christians who seeks righteousness and Jesus Christ. My stern and loving dad brought this to my attention 50 years ago. Works for me. Of course, I’m as selfish, proud and guilty as anyone else. I have high hopes and strongly encourage respect and responsibility and order. I’m blessed, rich and thankful, but don’t look to my bank account or my toy collection for evidence.
IM: You’re a survivor of the ’60s’do you look back on that time with fondness?
DD: The experience of the ’60s was matchless and is palpable today. Sunshine, blue sky, ocean air, Muscle Beach simplicity, Mr. America innocence. Hollywood and Hollyweird. Zabo, Joe Gold, Gironda, Scott and Howorth, the originals and their prot’g’s. There was no line in the sand. Bodybuilding was like a child sitting at the water’s edge, delighted and splashing. No one took it seriously. It’ll just go away, they said. The ’60s rolled on.
Vietnam, dope, politics, journalism, drugs, greed, power and evil emerged. The world got smaller. Then, as the decade faded to gray, the child got up and walked away.ALL IM: What one moment epitomized the bodybuilding experience for you?
DD: The occasion that stands out’the moment in time that connected and cannot be reproduced’was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, a Saturday night in mid-September, 1965. I stood backstage among a cluster of tanned contenders, peering at a wild audience of East Coast bodybuilding fans. As the show neared its completion, excitement built. Larry Scott was about to go under the lights midstage to give his posing routine. It was very dark. Larry approached his mark, hesitating, and the crowd grew silent. Everyone, charged with uncontrollable enthusiasm only moments before, seemingly held their collective breath. Larry, a silhouette barely visible, began to flex his mighty arms and move to the dramatic overhead light, center stage. The response of the fans began’a rumble with the substance of stampeding buffalo, growing to an almost frightening roar. The power, the energy and volume shook the building. Emotions multiplied with Larry’s exhibition, and the crescendoes became a seductive chanting. They were tearing the house down. I was the next to pose. Larry won the Mr. Universe. I won Mr. America. Life’s never been the same.
IM: How do you see bodybuilding today’is it a positive or negative endeavor?
DD: There are tens of thousands of bodybuilders today hidden in garages and neighborhood gyms who are amazing and may never be appreciated by the rest of the world. It’s grown exponentially. In the ’60s there was a space for mutual interest and support. Muscle building was original, young. You lift weights? No kidding? Me, too. You got biceps? Wow. Me, too. The guys and girls traveled the dusty back roads. Today it’s the highway, and traffic is heavy. Unless we’re talking about high-tech chemistry for advanced monster bodybuilding, it hasn’t changed. There’s more opinion, theory and a few extravagant training principles being lauded, a catalogue of fancy new secret’and probably worthless’ingredients for muscle growth and fat loss. You can run on a $10,000 treadmill, but nothing earthshaking. It’s the basics, always will be. Frank, Arnold and I had it down, as did [John] Grimek and Pearl before us’improvised equipment and invention often worked better than today’s $5,000 rigs.
IM: I’ve interviewed many legendary bodybuilders, and their opinions vary when it comes to today’s crop of muscleheads. Let’s hear yours.
DD: The current champions I’ve met are’with few exceptions’first-class people working extremely hard, dedicated and devoted. They respect one another. True rapport exists. The wired pace and crowded world, media glory, commerce and the resonance of fans and spectactors tend to distill the world of champs today. It all gives the stars an appearance of being isolated. They’re warriors fighting for peace, only their battle’s gotten bigger. The lineup of the most recent Olympia competitors is colossal’beyond the sketch of my pen. Who can separate them? If I knew each man individually, it would no doubt affect how I’d judge them. As it is, I’m thankful I don’t have that mind-boggling task. I can just admire them all, close the magazine pages and go about my own reality. Phew.
IM: You’ve experienced so much in your relatively short time on this planet. Pretend you’re sitting down with a group of bodybuilders and they’re looking to you for advice. What would you say?
DD: Young bodybuilders, new and returning muscle builders, your attention, please. Stick to it. Never quit. Make training your lifestyle. You’ll grow every day in ways and dimensions you never considered. It’s not the stairway to heaven; it’s the rugged switchback away from hell. When you stumble and fall, pick your humble self up and move on. Keep your eyes on the path, not on yourself. Don’t look back and don’t be mesmerized or transfixed by the hype that says you can do it quickly. Lies, all lies. Don’t take stuff, Bucko’you’ll be sorry. Think for yourself. And don’t forget your protein and volume training. It simply takes guts and heart.
IM: There was a unique camaraderie when you started out’dare I call it legendary? Whatever the case, I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of it again.
DD: There’s synergy between bodybuilders, an understanding only they share that unconsciously unites you. It’s like when hydrogen and oxygen become water. If your pride fights the union, its love is lost to envy and conceit. I have friends in the bodybuilding world on whom I can count, though we’ve never met. Presumption has gotten me in trouble before, but I don’t mind issuing that statement.
IM: In the development of David Draper, individual and human being, have you forged a philosophy?
DD: I’m one of those Christians, apparently hypocritical, who love the Lord and try to be good. I bob and weave regularly, being fair, giving, encouraging, respecting. At the same time I stumble badly over every commandment of the good book. Money doesn’t rule my life’no way’but I lose my sense of humor when someone takes advantage of me. Respect and responsibility, love and affection are the treasures of life I seek. Whatever, I thank God for it all. That’s my personal philosophy.
IM: Your career veered off in an interesting direction with the film ‘Don’t Make Waves.’
DD: ‘Don’t Make Waves’ was cast in early 1966. Word that they were looking for bodybuilders traveled fast. Members of Vince’s Gym, Gironda’s North Hollywood mecca, and the Muscle Beach Gym, my alma mater, all haphazardly converged at the MGM studios in Culver City. The studio people sorted through the 75 disheveled, unemployed men, separating the possible from the impossible. Six of us were given outdoor screen tests. I was chosen. Two years earlier I’d been a welder in Secaucus, New Jersey. And there I was, Mr. America and featured in a film starring Tony [Curtis], Sharon [Tate] and Claudia [Cardinale]. Go figure.
An enormous experience unfolded day after day during the weeks and months of shooting the film’on cool locations and the grand old MGM lot. My senses were heightened by curiosity and spontaneity’lights, camera, action. What privilege. What honor. Filming went on throughout the glorious sunny Southern California summer. At the same time I was training intensely for the 1966 Mr. Universe in September. I won. MGM awarded me a 20-by-30-inch gilded-frame painting of a golden muscular Oscar. The inscription read, ‘Super Oscar for Mr. Universe Dave Draper. We’re proud of you.’ It was signed by the entire cast and crew.
IM: Didn’t FilmWays offer you a contract?
DD: Yes. FilmWays was a subsidiary of MGM. While there I appeared on ‘The Monkees’ and called Davey Jones a twerp. Big mistake! I did ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’ ‘Merv Griffin’ a couple of times, was interviewed by Dom DeLuise and spent 20 minutes with Johnny Carson, talking about muscles and Hollywood and doing pushups while he sat on my back wearing a silly grin.
IM: I just caught your ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ episode. What a hoot! You had the barbell bloat!
DD: Shooting the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ took five days at Paramount studios. Working with the family of actors’Buddy [Ebsen], Max [Baer], Donna [Douglas] and Irene [Ryan] was like hanging with family. I felt like kin visiting from Tennessee. We sat huddled amiably between takes, rehearsing, reading scripts, drinking coffee and telling stories. The theme of the show had permeated their lives, and by the week’s end, I had a drawl and aw-shucks mannerisms. More privilege to carefully store.
IM: Am I imagining things, or didn’t you also host some kind of movie show dressed like a gladiator?
DD: Oh, man, you remember that? I didn’t think anyone remembered ‘David the Gladiator.’ For a year in ’64, I stood before all of L.A. every Saturday night, clad in Roman gladiator gear and comically introduced he-man B-films. Very popular. Everything I did in Hollywood was a marvelous experience, though often frightening. It was exciting, hard work’sometimes boring, sometimes cold, always very cool.
IM: You worked with some of the greatest physique photographers. Your reflections?
DD: Artie Zeller and Russ Warner were the originals. Those two men did more to document bodybuilding from its days of sunshine at Muscle Beach through its sensational stages of growth until today. They were both bodybuilders who absolutely loved the stuff of bodybuilding. Great guys. Fun and easy to work with’knew their camera, outdoor lighting, composition and how to pose their subject to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Artie’s candid photography brought you into the frame so you could participate in the action. Russ built statues and gods with his camera. Jimmy Caruso and Mike Neveux, though I’ve spent less time with them, are artists extraordinaire and major contributors’to be photographed by them is a privilege.
IM: You seem very content, Dave. Almost mellow. How is it you’ve attained such peace?
DD: I’m happy. I love my wife, my job, my God. I’m immensely grateful for my home, trees and truck. Unless you count the gyms, I don’t have or need any toys. For that, too, I’m grateful.
IM: And you create gorgeous furniture! I’ve seen some of your stuff.
DD: What was once a means of support’before constructing my two World Gyms 10 years ago’is now my diversion: working with wood for purposes of making furniture, from rugged feasting tables to oversize beds and hutches. The appeal is more artistic than fine, detailed woodworking. I love hand tools and power tools and the solitary process of building a piece each month.
IM: I like your optimism. It’s contagious.
DD: Every day’s an adventure. As I wake up each morning, I wonder what God has in store for me, my companion and the rest of the world. We’re flying, and who can keep up? Where we’re goin’, nobody knows. Life today is increasingly less predictable than yesterday. Another good reason to plug into the iron, the gym, the fitness and health thing. Prepare, be prepared to endure it all as you tenderly, joyfully, wisely care for your last refuge; the body, mind and soul.
IM: Here’s a philosophical question’no, make that theological. Is there such a thing as essential evil?
DD: I’m no expert, but I’ll give it a toss. Any evil that exists in the world today is essential. Right or wrong, good or bad, yin and yang, cause, effect, polarity: people of different religions and sciences and cultures strain in any agreement of the universal evil. The Bible tells us there exists fallen angels, Satan and his powers of darkness that tempt mankind in an effort to destroy him. Evil is evident in our selfish pride, our unhealthy worship of self. The love of money and power, envy and covetousness corrupt us. Nasty stuff. Only in God is there hope. One day evil will no longer exist. Keeps us hanging in there.
Looking back at the 1900s, I conclude we’ve become an entirely distracted mankind poised for destruction while desperately seeking life extension, expanded population and a more select progeny through, ah, science. The same science that produces bombs, I might add. At the cost of losing some relatives, friends and fans, let me say that without faith’hope’trust in God, our creator, it’s all meaningless. Ecclesiastes.
IM: Aside from your muscle-building exploits, you’ve also established an impressive career as a businessman. You mentioned the gyms.
DD: I own and maintain two gyms. I must confess, they are, to me, like a Harley-Davidson or restored muscle car. I put big miles on them yet keep each one polished and purring. I love to work out hard and share the purpose and experience with the curious mixture of people who care. You might say my hopes and dreams are fulfilled. But, then again, you might not. If only I could figure out a way to pay off my mortgage and the loan sharks.
IM: And you’ve stepped into cyperspace with davedraper.com.
DD: My recent engagement in the Web site with davedraper.com has kept Laree and me busy, entertained and fulfilled. We have an eager and growing audience with whom we communicate regularly’to encourage and be encouraged by, to teach and be taught by. Since it was not built with business in mind, the Web site is, I hope, a wholesome expression instead of the hawkings of a self-serving salesman.
IM: The site is way cool, like a trip down memory lane, but with a nice contemporary feel’a lot like this interview.
DD: And look at that, you’re still awake!
Editor’s note: Dave Draper’s new book Brother Iron, Sister Steel is available from Home Gym Warehouse, 1-800-447-0008, or visit www.home-gym.com. IM