Born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, Calabria, Italy, on October 30, 1892, Charles Atlas turned to bodybuilding after moving to the United States. He partnered with pitchman Charles Roman to market his weight-free "Dynamic-Tension" program in the 1920s, creating a lucrative mail-order business that made Atlas a household name. The strongman died on December 24, 1972, in Long Beach, New York, though his business remains active.
Charles Atlas was born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, Calabria, Italy, on October 30, 1892 (some sources say 1893). His family arrived at Ellis Island in 1903 and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where neighborhood bullies often harassed the shy, scrawny boy.
Two events changed Siciliano's life: one was a trip to the Brooklyn Museum, where he was awed by the physiques depicted in statues of Hercules, Apollo and Zeus, and was inspired to begin bodybuilding. The second was a visit to the Bronx Zoo. Watching a lion stretch, he realized that the enormous animal was undergoing a natural workout by "pitting one muscle against another." He abandoned weight training to focus on isometric and isotonic exercises, which helped him quickly build an impressive physique.
Building of an Empire
Deciding to forge a career out of bodybuilding, Siciliano became a model for sculptors and legally changed his name to "Charles Atlas." He submitted a photo to a "World's Most Beautiful Man" contest in 1921 and was named the winner. The following year, the contest was renamed "The World's Most Perfectly Developed Man" and was held at New York City's Madison Square Garden. After Atlas again claimed first prize out of 775 contestants, a promoter announced that there would be no more contests, as Atlas was likely to win every year.
Atlas attempted to build on that success by forming a mail-order business for his exercise program with fellow fitness expert Frederick Tilney, but their partnership ended after a few years. His business floudering, Atlas struck gold when he hired young pitchman Charles Roman in 1928. A marketing savant, Roman coined the term "Dyamic-Tension" for Atlas's weight-free exercise technique, and created the popular "Hey Skinny!" and "97-Pound Weakling" advertisements designed to appeal to adolescent boys in comic books. Beginning in 1929, the two ran Charles Atlas Ltd. together.
The combination of Atlas's charisma and Roman's marketing genius proved a perfect fit for the economic and cultural climate. With the country reeling from the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression, the handsome, sculpted Atlas served as an inspiration for Americans to improve their well-being through physical fitness. He regularly demonstrated his strength in photo shoots by towing a train or bending metal bars, and hobnobbed with such celebrities as Bob Hope and Joe Louis. His physical measurements were reportedly recorded and sealed with the contents of the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, preserved for posterity as the ideal proportions of the 20th century man.
By the 1950s, the Dynamic-Tension regimen had been translated into seven languages and sold to nearly 1 million customers worldwide. Atlas remained a popular brand well into the next decade, but was shaken when his wife, Margaret, died of cancer in 1965. He sold his half of the company to Roman in 1969, though he remained involved as a consultant.
Death and Legacy
Atlas died of a heart attack on December 24 (some sources say December 23), 1972, in Long Beach, New York. The passing of the legendary strongman marked the dawn of a new era of physical fitness, as the creation of Nautilus machines and aerobic exercise bikes paved the way for the fitness boom of the 1970s.
Charles Atlas Ltd. remained in the hands of Roman until he sold it to Arkansas lawyer Jeffrey C. Hogue in 1997. The company continues to market the original Dynamic-Tension exercise regimen, earning most of its business via the internet while still receiving a share of old-fashioned order slips through the mail.
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