Charles Atlas’ Bodybuilding Course Turned Weaklings Into Musclemen

In 1948, I was weak and frail after recovering from rheumatic fever that had confined me to bed or a chair for almost a year. Now I was finally permitted to engage in limited outside activities. I soon had a chance encounter behind our apartment with the neighborhood bully whom I will call Billy. This little obnoxious terror quickly branded me as easy prey for his shoving and tough talk. 

I quickly found myself turning into a “Walter Mitty,” the main character of James Thurber’s short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” This timid individual spent much time daydreaming about what he could never carry out in real life. In his fantasy world, the protagonist was a daring fighter pilot one moment and a football star the next. I soon began seeing appealing advertisements in comic books and magazines promoting the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. Atlas was billed as “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man.”

Two separate ads from that era stick in my mind. Perhaps the most memorable one was titled “The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac,” consisting of seven comic strip frames. Atlas is shown along the right side of the ad flexing his bulging muscles, while wearing a pair of short leopard skin briefs.

The first frame depicts Mack, a skinny young man, and his pretty girlfriend sitting at the beach on a blanket under an umbrella. A bully muscleman runs past them and slings sand into their faces. Mac tells the intruder to stop kicking sand on them. The brawny intruder informs Mac that he would smash his face were it not for the fact that he was so skinny that he would dry up and blow away.

To add insult to injury, the girlfriend says to him in frame 3, “Oh, don’t let it bother you, little boy.” Frame 4 displays an angry Mac who is sick and tired of looking like a scarecrow. He abruptly sends off for the Charles Atlas bodybuilding course. In frame 5, a muscular Mac stands in front of a mirror admiring his newly acquired physique. This means another trip to the beach and another encounter with the bully. The outcome is quite predictable. The final frame shows the now well-built Mac walking along the beach with his girlfriend and being admired by beachgoers. He has become an instant hero.

Another advertisement is a five-frame version of the first, but with identical results. Joe overpowers the bully and receives praise from his girl: “Oh Joe, you are a real he-man, after all.”   

Charles Atlas, whose real name was Angelo Siciliano, was born in Italy in 1892 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1903. Supposedly, Angelo experienced a “sand in the face” experience while he and a lady friend were at Coney Island. The embarrassed 97-pound weakling vowed to become a muscle man. Thus began a lucrative career for him and another entrepreneur by selling their Dynamic Tension bodybuilding course to millions. The business continues to this day.

In my Mittyesque fantasy world of 1948, I pictured myself as a very young fully developed Charles Atlas, wearing leopard skin briefs and unmercifully beating the stuffing out of Billy, all the while receiving a thunderous appreciative ovation from my neighborhood buddies.

In reality, my Bully Billy problem was corrected over time without throwing a punch. The two of us got older, eventually rendering us friends. My once pressing need for Walter Mitty or Charles Atlas became passé.