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Charles Atlas

the 98-pound weakling who became a bodybuilding superstar

Charles Atlas

Angelo Sciliano was born in Acri, Calabria, Italy, on October 30, 1893. His family emigrated to the United States and settled in Brooklyn, New York, when he was 11, but his father returned to Italy not long after, leaving Angelo and his mother to fend for themselves.

A frail and sickly child, Angelo was constantly picked on by neighborhood bullies. One day he saw a statue of the Greek hero Hercules, and the then 15-year-old became determined to make his body stronger. He began by lifting weights and exercising at a local YMCA, but discovered that the more weights he lifted the more his muscles and body hurt. According to his biography, Angelo got the inspiration that led to his physique while watching a lion at the local zoo. He wondered how the animal maintained such a powerful, muscular physique while cooped up with virtually no exercise. Then he saw the animal get up and stretch its body, and that became his "Eureka! moment." The secret, he reasoned, was that the lion's stretching pitted one muscle against another, and he soon began developing an exercise regimen based on that theory. The regimen worked, and within a few months Angelo was able to fend off bullies simply by his muscular physique.

Having made his body fit for work, Angelo became a leatherworker in order to help his mother pay the rent. That work failed to satisfy him, however, so he went to work at Coney Island instead, as a janitor and sideshow strongman. In 1916 an artist spotted Angelo on a beach, and soon he was earning up to $100 a week posing for sculptures.

In 1921 Angelo answered an ad for a "World's Most Beautiful Man" photo contest. When contest sponsor Bernarr Macfadden saw Angelo's photo he almost immediately awarded him the $1,000 prize. Macfadden followed this contest with an extravaganza called "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" at Madison Square Garden the following year, where a panel of doctors and artists judged Angelo ahead of 754 other men. Macfadden then publicly announced that he would not host any more competitions, since Angelo would probably win every one of them. It was at this time that Angelo legally changed his name to Charles Atlas, because someone once told him that he looked like the statue of Atlas outside a local bank (he had been called Charlie since his childhood).

Having made good money showing off his body, Atlas thought he might make even more money by showing people how he achieved that body. In 1924, he and Frederick Tilney, a fitness expert he met through Macfadden, began a mail-order business centered on Atlas' exercise routine, which they called a "Total Fitness and Health Course." The business was only mildly successful, however, and the partnership ended after a few years. Atlas tried to run the company alone, but he proved to be a poor businessman and the company was soon on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1928, Atlas' advertising agency turned the account over to Charles Roman, who's first act was to rename Atlas' exercise program "Dynamic Tension." The name change, along with Roman's knack for writig ad copy, had such an immediate impact that within four months Atlas offered him half the company, on condition that Roman run it. Roman accepted, and a bodybuilding icon was born.

It was Roman who came up with the ads that ran in comic books (whose readership was almost exclusively young teenage males, a prime market for the course) showing a puny man at a beach having his girlfriend taken away by a stronger bully who proceeds to kick sand in his face. Angered and humiliated, the young man sends away for the Charles Atlas course, and in the next panel he's musclebound, buff and goes back to the bully, kicks sand in HIS face and gets his girl back. The ad worked beyond the men's wildest dreams, and brought in millions of customers from all over the world. While Roman took care of the advertising campaigns, Atlas took care of the publicity, performing such stunts as pulling six cars chained together for a half-mile, towing a 72-ton railroad engine more than 100 feet along the tracks with a rope, and more.

The Atlas-Roman partnership made both men multi-millionaires. Atlas sold his half of the company to Roman in 1970, and died in Long Beach, California, on December 24, 1972. The company he and Roman founded is still in business, and continues to promote Dynamic Tension to this day.

Smithsonian Magazine

Bernarr Macfadden
Madison Square Garden

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This page was last updated on October 29, 2017.