Charles Atlas Explained
Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano (October 30, 1894, Acri, Italy - December 23, 1972, Long Beach, New York ) was the developer of a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program, most well-known for a landmark advertising campaign featuring his name and likeness, which has been described as one of the most lasting and memorable ad campaigns of all time.
According to Atlas, he trained himself to develop his body from that of a "scrawny weakling", eventually becoming the most popular muscleman of his day. He took the name "Charles Atlas" after a friend told him he resembled the statue of Atlas on top of a hotel in Coney Island, and legally changed his name in 1922. His company, Charles Atlas Ltd., was founded in 1929 and, as of 2008, continues marketing a fitness program for the "97-pound weakling." The company is now owned by Jeffrey C. Hogue.
Born Angelo Siciliano (also called Angelino) in Acri, in Calabria, Italy in 1892, he moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1905, took the name Charles, and became a leather worker. Siciliano worked hard to develop his physique; he tried many forms of exercise initially, using weights, pulley-style resistance, and gymnastic style calisthenics. Atlas claimed they did not build his body but obviously it is unlikely that his body would not respond to external resistance. Atlas was inspired by other fitness and health advocates who preceded him. World-renowned strongman Eugene Sandow, and Bernarr MacFadden, creator of "Physical Culture," both set the stage for Atlas.
After being bullied, the young Siciliano joined the YMCA, and began to do numerous exercise routines. He became obsessed with strength. One day, he watched a tiger stretching in the zoo, and asked himself, "How does Mr. Tiger keep in physical condition? Did you ever see a tiger with a barbell?" He concluded that lions and tigers became strong by pitting muscle against muscle.
In 1921, Bernarr MacFadden, publisher of the magazine Physical Culture, dubbed Atlas "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" in a contest held in Madison Square Garden He soon took the role of strongman in the Coney Island Circus Side Show.
1922: Atlas officially changed his name to the now legendary Charles Atlas, as it sounded much more American. He met Dr. Frederick Tilney, a British homeopathic physician and course writer who was employed as publisher Bernarr MacFadden's "ideas man." Atlas and Tilney met through MacFadden, who was using Atlas a model for a short movie entitled, "The Road to Health." Atlas wrote a fitness course and then asked Tiley to edit the course. Tiley agreed and then Atlas went into business in 1922.
See main article: Dynamic-Tension. Atlas's "Dynamic-Tension" program consists of twelve lessons and one final perpetual lesson. Each lesson is supplemented with photos of Atlas demonstrating the exercises. Atlas's lesson booklets added commentary that referred to the readers as his friends and gave them an open invitation to write him letters to update him on their progress and stories. His products and lessons have sold millions, and Atlas became the face of fitness.
Alois P Swoboda's "Conscious Evolution" Course may have inspired Charles Atlas and introduced him to the self tensing exercises that he would later refer to as Dynamic Tension. Charles Atlas' later said, "Everything that I know I learned from A.P. Swoboda."
Besides photographs, Atlas posed for many statues throughout his life, including the statue of George Washington in New York's Washington Square Park, Dawn of Glory in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and Alexander Hamilton at the U.S. Treasury building in Washington, D.C. Atlas was also an inspiration and a model for later bodybuilders and fitness gurus, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Atlas died of heart failure at age 80 after his daily jog on the beach (it should be noted that his family had a history of heart attacks). At the time, people were still writing to him. He left behind a son, Herc, and a daughter, Diana.
The print advertisements
The famous Charles Atlas print advertisements became iconic mostly due to them being printed in so many comic books from the 40s up till today. The typical scenario presented a skinny young man (usually accompanied by a female companion) being threatened by a bully. The bully pushes down the "97-pound weakling" and the girlfriend joins in the derision. The young man goes home, gets angry (usually demonstrated by kicking a chair), and sends away for the Atlas free book. Shortly thereafter, the newly muscled hero returns to the place of his original victimization, seeks out the bully, and beats him up. He is rewarded by the swift return of his girlfriend and the admiration of onlookers.
The ad was said to be based on an experience the real Atlas had as a boy. With variations, it was a mainstay of comic books and boys magazines for decades.The ads usually conclude with the words, "As is true of all the exercises in Atlas's course, you can do these exercises almost anywhere." 
The comics have been found recently on the web on Marvel's website and DC's website and can be found on various places on the web today.
"The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac"
In this, the full-length version, the protagonist, "Mac," is accosted on the beach by a sand-kicking bully while his date watches. Humiliated, the young man goes home and, after kicking a chair and gambling a ten-cent stamp, subscribes to Atlas's "Dynamic-Tension" program. Later, the now muscular protagonist goes back to the beach and beats up the bully, becoming the "hero of the beach." His girl returns, while other females marvel at how big his muscles are. (An earlier but otherwise almost identical version, "How Joe's Body Brought Him Fame Instead of Shame," debuted in the 1940s. )
"The Insult That Turned a 'Chump' Into a Champ"
In this version, which debuted in 1941 , "Joe" is at a fair with his girl, when the bully (who has just shown his strength with the "Ring-the-bell" game) insults and pushes him. Joe goes home, slams his fist on the table, and orders the free Atlas book. Joe then returns to the fair, rings the bell and pushes down the bully, while his girlfriend reappears to compliment him on his new powerful physique.
"Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs are Showing!"
The condensed, four-panel version stars "Joe," though it is otherwise identical to Mac's story. Instead of "Hero of the beach," the words floating above Joe's head are "What a man".
"How Jack the Weakling Slaughtered the Dance-Floor Hog"
Another version of the ad presents a scenario in which "Jack" is dancing with his girl Helen. They are bumped into by a bully, who comments on how puny Jack is, not even worth beating up. Jack goes home, kicks a chair, and sends away for Atlas's "free book." Later, the muscular Jack finds the bully, punches him out, and wins back the admiration of Helen. This time, the words "Hit of the party" float over his head as he basks in the admiration of the other dancers.
The Atlas print advertisements, especially "The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac," have been referenced and parodied in dozens of other venues, including songs, comics, television shows, and movies.
- "Charles Atlas Song / I Can Make You a Man" from the rock and roll musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show includes multiple references:
- The title line exploits the grammatical ambiguity of Atlas's slogan "In just seven days, I can make you a man," between the meanings ". . . cause you to become a 'real' man" and ". . . create a man for you."
- It mentions both Charles Atlas and "Dynamic-Tension" by name.
- It refers to a 98-pound weakling, a device that did not infringe Atlas's trademark on the phrase "97-pound weakling."
- The second line references the Charles Atlas advertising campaign with "Will get sand in his face when kicked to the ground."
- The mad-scientist character (Dr. Frank N. Furter) furthermore claims that his Frankensteinian creation "carries the Charles Atlas Seal of Approval."
- The Who song "I Can See For Miles", featured on the album The Who Sell Out, is followed by a "commercial" for the Charles Atlas Course. ("The Charles Atlas course with "Dynamic Tension" can turn you into a beast of a man.") John Entwistle poses on the cover as a panther skin-clad Charles Atlas alumnus, as the more muscular Roger Daltrey was otherwise occupied in a bathtub filled with baked beans.
- The song "Mr. Apollo," recorded by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and released on the album Tadpoles, parodies Charles Atlas's advertising, with lead-singer/writer Vivian Stanshall affecting a gruff butch voice. The song involves members of the band singing the praises of fictional bodybuilder Mr Apollo, while Stanshall alternately sings and offers no-nonsense motivational advice, such as "no tiresome exercises / no tricks / no unpleasant bending / wrestle poodles and win!"
- The song "Sand In My Face" by 10cc, on their debut album, is a detailed description of Atlas's legendary ads.
- "We Are The Champions" by Queen includes the line, "I've had my share of sand kicked in my face..."
- The song "I Will Not Fall" By Wiretrain/Wire quote is; "And Charles Atlas Stands, upon the beach, upon his head and says . . . I will not fall."
- The band A.F.I. have a song called "Charles Atlas" on their album "Very Proud Of Ya."
- The Australian band The Fauves had a minor local hit with their song "The Charles Atlas Way."
- The Bob Dylan song "She's Your Lover Now" contains the lyric: "Why must I fall into this sadness? / Do I look like Charles Atlas? / Do you think I still got what you still got, baby?"
- The Josef K song "Sorry For Laughing" contains the lyric: "When we groove on into town / Charles Atlas, he stops to frown."
- Roger Waters' song "Sunset Strip," (from Radio KAOS) contains the line "I like riding in my Uncle's car / Down to the beach where the pretty girls all parade / And movie stars and paparazzi play the Charles Atlas kicking-sand-in-the-face game."
- The Faces song "On the Beach" contains the line "though I may not be no Charlie Atlas, / Gonna take my shirt off anyway."
- The title song of the 1964 film Muscle Beach Party features the lyric "Cherry little woodies are the center of attention / Til the muscle men start the dynamic tension"
Film and TV
- The 1990 film Book of Love has Tom Platz playing a Charles Atlas-like character.
- The British comedy troupe Monty Python created a cartoon spoof (animated by Terry Gilliam) of the famous beach advertisement.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uXhmgqaf1U
- A Spitting Image annual parodies the Charles Atlas advertisement, with the two protagonists competing not on muscular physique, but with their rhetorical skills and grasp of post-modernism.
- In the Futurama episode "When Aliens Attack," Fry gets sand kicked in his face by a "professional beach bully" who asks for payment for his services after Fry has won the girl, Leela. Leela hits on the bully, but he turns out to be gay.
- In the Ren and Stimpy episode "Ren's Pecs," Ren seeks counsel from the bodybuilder "Charles Globe," who inspires him to get plastic surgery. Charles Globe and the entire episode are obvious spoofs of the Charles Atlas story.
- The 1975 film "Rocky Horror Picture Show" makes references to Atlas.
- Mad magazine produced a cartoon parody (animated by Don Martin) of the
Books, magazines, and newspapers
- In the 1966 postmodern Canadian novel Beautiful Losers, written by Leonard Cohen, Charles Atlas is parodied as "Charles Axis."
- The novel Cat's Cradle, written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., mentions Charles Atlas. When the narrator comes across the term "Dynamic Tension" in a book about the mysterious cult leader Bokonon, he laughs because he imagines the author does not know "that the term was one vulgarised by Charles Atlas, a mail-order muscle-builder." However, as he reads on he finds that Bokonon is an alumnus of Atlas's training program, which has inspired his idea that "good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at all times."
- An article in The Onion newspaper's Our Dumb Century spinoff portrays a feud between Adlai Stevenson and General William Westmoreland being carried out in the same vein as illustrated in the Charles Atlas advertisement.
- An issue of Nickelodeon Magazine features a fake advertisement that parodies the Atlas body ads; the difference is that the product promises to make a person extremely smart. In this parody, a genius man picks on an incredibly strong yet slow-witted man for his lack of intelligence. The man gets his revenge by scientifically proving that the genius bully does not exist, making him disappear.
- In an issue of the DC Comics title Mystery in Space, the main character Comet, referring to an army of super-powered clones, says "Physically those clones may make me look like a 98-pound-weakling, but psychically I'm the Charles Atlas of this beach."
- Marvel Comics' humor series What The--?! used Atlas parodies regularly, as in "The Insult that Made Mac a Blood-Sucking Freak!" (What The--?! #23, November 1992).
- Minicomics pioneer Matt Feazell uses the sand-kicking bully to represent the Etruscan attack on Rome in Not Available Comics #25, 1993.
- "The Hold-Up that Made a Hero Out of Mac," from Radioactive Man #1 (Bongo Comics, 1993), blends Mac's story with Batman's origin.
- Cartoonist Chris Ware appropriated Mac's "chair-kicking resolve" in a Jimmy Corrigan story from Acme Novelty Library #1 (Fantagraphics, Winter 1993).
- Cartoonist Josh Neufeld used the ad to spoof business writer David A. Vise in a piece done for Fortune Small Business magazine in 2002.http://joshcomix.home.mindspring.com/images/fsb/david_vise.gif
- In the June 4, 2007, edition of "This Modern World," Tom Tomorrow uses the ad to make a point about how President George W. Bush pushes around Congressional Democrats.http://images.salon.com/comics/tomo/2007/06/04/tomo/story.jpg
- New Orleans cartoonist Caesar Meadows spoofed the ad — substituting zine-making for bodybuilding — while advertising the 2008 Alternative Media Expo.http://antigravitymagazine.com/cutenews/data/upimages/AME08_poster3.jpg
Notes and References
- New York Times obituary (Dec. 24, 1972).
- http://cagle.msnbc.com/hogan/features/atlas.asp Kannenburg, Gene. "The ad that made an icon out of Mac," Hogan's Alley.
- Wallechinsky, D. The 20th Century History With The Boring parts Left Out (Little Brown & Co., 1996).
- http://www.sandowmuseum.com/atlas.html Charles Atlas section of R. Christian Anderson's Sandow Museum website.
- Maeder, Jay, "Charles Atlas Body and Soul," New York Daily News (May 16, 1999). Accessed Sept. 30, 2008.
- " Federal judge: Parody of Atlas man protected by First Amendment," Associated Press (August 31, 2000).
- Gaines, Charles and Butler, George. Yours in Perfect Manhood, Charles Atlas: the Most Effective Fitness Program Ever Devised (Simon & Schuster, 1982).
- http://www.charlesatlas.com/classicads2.htm "Classic Ads," CharlesAtlas.com.
- James Woycke, Au Naturel: The History of Nudism in Canada, p. 3