Charles Atlas, born Angelo Siciliano (October 30, 1893 – December 23, 1972), was the developer of a bodybuilding method and its associated exercise program that was best known for a landmark advertising campaign featuring Atlas's name and likeness; it has been described as one of the longest-lasting and most 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 2010, continues to market a fitness program for the "97-pound weakling" (44 kg). The company is now owned by Jeffrey C. Hogue.
Born Angelo Siciliano in Acri, Calabria, Italy, in 1893, Angelino, as he was also called, moved to Brooklyn, New York at the age of 10 and eventually became a leather worker. He tried many forms of exercise initially, using weights, pulley-style resistance, and gymnastic-style calisthenics. Atlas claimed they did not build his body. Atlas was inspired by other fitness and health advocates who preceded him; world-renowned strongman Eugen Sandow and Bernarr MacFadden (a major proponent of "Physical Culture").
As a youth, according to the story he always told, a bully kicked sand into Siciliano's face at a beach; at this time in his life, also according to the story, he weighed only 97 pounds (44 kg). Humiliated, the young Siciliano joined the YMCA and began to do numerous exercise routines, becoming obsessed with strength. According to several stories/claims, while at the zoo, watching a lion stretch, he thought to himself "Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?...And it came over me....He's been pitting one muscle against another!" He concluded that lions and tigers became strong by pitting muscle against muscle.
In 1922, the now-30-year-old Siciliano officially changed his name to 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 as a model for a short movie entitled "The Road to Health." Atlas wrote a fitness course and then asked Tilney to edit the course. Tilney agreed and Atlas went into business in 1922. Tilney himself had an extensive background in weight training.
Atlas' "Dynamic Tension" program consists of twelve lessons and one final perpetual lesson. Each lesson is supplemented with photos of Atlas demonstrating the exercises. Atlas' 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. Among the people who took Atlas' course were Max Baer, heavyweight boxing champion from 1934 to 1935,Rocky Marciano, heavyweight boxing champion from 1952 to 1956 and Joe Louis, heavyweight boxing champion from 1937 to 1949.
Atlas was described as a student of Earle E. Liederman in several editions of a Liederman booklet, until shortly before the Dynamic Tension course was published. The 1918 edition of the booklet states that Atlas had performed a one-arm overhead press with 236 lb. The 1920 edition states a 266 lbs one-arm overhead press.
The American Continental Weight Lifting Association (ACWLA)
"In April of 1924, (David P.) Willoughby staged a "National" weightlifting championship, which was also supposed to serve as a basis for selecting an Olympic Team to represent the United States at the upcoming Paris Olympic Games (no team was ever sent to Paris). In the meantime, Jowett joined the staff of Calvert's Strength magazine and began, with Calvert, to push the ACWLA. The ACWLA was also reorganized, with Jowett as president, Coulter and Willoughby as vice presidents, and an advisory board that included Charles Atlas, Bernard, Calvert, Earle Leiderman, Charles MacMahon, Bernarr Macfadden and Henry Titus (many of the major players in the Iron Game at that time). Jowett was to be the editor of Strength magazine from 1924 to 1927 and that position, along with his energy in it, made him the most powerful voice for the organization of weightlifting in the United States at that time. He staged a number of competitions and the first ACWLA governance meeting (in late 1924). At that meeting, issues such as the lifts to be contested were agreed to."
In 1972, Atlas died of heart failure at age 79 after his daily jog on the beach (his family had a history of heart attacks). At the time, people were still writing to him. He left behind a son, Charles Jr., and a daughter, Diana.
The print advertisements
The famous Charles Atlas print advertisements became iconic mostly because they were printed in so many comic books from the 1940s. 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 his kicking a chair), and sends away for the free Atlas 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 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 three-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 women 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, 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.
In popular culture
In the 1966 postmodern novel Beautiful Losers, written by Leonard Cohen, Charles Atlas is parodied as "Charles Axis."
The short story "Charles Atlas Also Dies" by Sergio Ramirez centers on the main character, a follower of Atlas's exercise program, and his trip to the United States to meet Charles Atlas himself; written from an ironic and dark-humored perspective. Among the numerous references to Atlas's program/story/advertisements, the main character describes having sand kicked in his face by "two big hefty guys" in front of his girlfriend and later being compared to the mythological god Atlas after undergoing the program. The story juxtaposes the superhuman strength and notoriety of Charles Atlas—the symbol, with the fragile and mortal aspects of Charles Atlas—the man. The story begins with the quote: "Charles Atlas swears that sand story is true. – Edwin Pope, The Miami Herald".
In Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle, Charles Atlas is mentioned. 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."
Film and TV
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 the bully claims to be gay.
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"
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.
In the Seinfeld episode "The English Patient", the character of Izzy Mandelbaum is said to have worked out with Charles Atlas in the '50s to which Jerry wryly replies, "1850s?", poking fun at Izzy's age.
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."
Both Charles Atlas and "Dynamic-Tension" are mentioned by name.
It refers to a 98-pound weakling, a reference to Atlas' "97-pound weakling."
The second line refers to the Charles Atlas advertising campaign with "Will get sand in his face when kicked to the ground."
In an episode of Punky Brewster, Punky asks Henry if he still has his Charles Atlas books after being bullied at school.
In "Mild Mannered", an episode of Warehouse 13, a pair of Charles Atlas's trunks imbue a character with superhuman powers, including superstrength and the ability to alter his own density.
In "The Missing Page", an episode of Hancock's Half Hour, Hancock reads the fictional detective novel 'Lady, Don't Fall Backwards'. The final page has been removed, and Hancock reads the lines 'Men! Are you skinny?! Do bullies kick sand in your face?!', a parody of Atlas' advertising in pulp novels.
In an episode of the television show, What's My Line?, in 1956. Charles Atlas was the mystery guest, calling himself Mr. X.
The song "Sand in My Face" by 10cc, on their debut album, is a detailed description of Atlas's legendary ads.
The band A.F.I. have a song called "Charles Atlas" on their album Very Proud of Ya.
The The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song "Mr Apollo" is a parody that includes the lines "Five years ago I was a four-stone apology ... Today I am two separate gorillas!"
The Darling Pet Munkee song "Charles Atlas (Hey Skinny...Yer Ribs Are Showing!)" is specifically about the Atlas ads.
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 Faces song "On the Beach" contains the line "though I may not be no Charlie Atlas, / Gonna take my shirt off anyway."
The Australian band The Fauves had a minor local hit with their song "The Charles Atlas Way."
The Josef K song "Sorry For Laughing" (made popular in the U.S. by Propaganda) contains the line "when we grooved on into town / Charles Atlas stopped to frown / cause he's not made like me and you"
"We Are The Champions" by Queen includes the line, "I've had my share of sand kicked in my face..."
The Who song "I Can't Reach You", on the album The Who Sell Out, is preceded 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. (After this photo session Daltrey caught pneumonia through the beans being ice cold at the end of the shoot.)
Roger Waters' song "Sunset Strip," from his album Radio K.A.O.S., 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."
In the song "I Will Not Fall" By Wiretrain/Wire, these lyrics appear: "And Charles Atlas Stands, upon the beach, upon his head and says ... I will not fall."
The Statler Brothers song "Do You Remember These" contains the line "Charles Atlas course, Roy Rogers' horse, and 'only the Shadow knows'..."
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,[volume & issue needed] 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."
The January, 1974 issue of the satiric magazine National Lampoon was dedicated to animals: Pets, circus, wild beasts, evolution, law, etc. A fake advertisement in the article ‘’Popular Evolution’’, a parody of the magazine Popular Mechanics, presents in the three-stage comic strip manner a Charles Atlas-style commercial. A little skinny mouse suffers the humiliation of being kicked at the beach by a bully, some sort or medium-size carnivore. Little mouse, goes home, kicks a chair, fills the form and sends it to Mr. Charles Darwin, Galapagos Islands. “After a few millions years of evolutionary exercise” little mouse has developed fangs, and ugly scary face, wings, amongst other attributes; goes back to the beach, bites the bully predator in the neck, Count Dracula style and is declared the “heroe of the habitat” by the admiring females. Leider the issue is out of print and cannot be seen online anywhere.
The "kicking sand in the face" image has been used many times in Archie comics.
Flex Mentallo in Doom Patrol was supposed to be the character in the Charles Atlas ad. Several years later, Jeffrey C. Hogue, president of Charles Atlas, Ltd. sued DC Comics, particularly over issue #42, in which Mentallo's origin is told, in which the character literally arises straight from the ad. The court found that the statute of limitations had run out between the publication of the comic and the lawsuit, and that, because the comic book could not be considered an advertisement for something else, it was legally-protected parody.
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.
New Orleans cartoonist Caesar Meadows spoofed the ad—substituting zine-making for bodybuilding—while advertising the 2008 Alternative Media Expo.
The Strange Talent of Luther Strode is a comic is all about a parody of the Charles Atlas's Dynamic Tension regimen, known as the Hercules Method; it bestows superhuman strength, durability and reflexes, but at the cost of gaining an aggressive nature and seeing people as their musculature. In the universe of the story, it's revealed that the book is originally written by the biblical Cain, and has been passed down since, namely to people with a special set of "talents". The exercises shown rely on meditation and as well as dynamic tension.
In early versions of the game, The Secret of Monkey Island, there was a statue in a voodoo shop that when inspected would make the character say "Looks like an emaciated Charles Atlas." The reference has since been removed due to Lucasfilm Games receiving a cease and desist letter.
Video game developer Valve released an update to their popular game, Team Fortress 2 that gave the sniper class a jar of urine called "Jarate". The comic strip that Valve used to advertise the update is a parody of the strip "The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac". A later update that introduced the ability for players to give and receive high fives was promoted with similar comic strip, this time spoofing the strip "Hey, Skinny! Yer Ribs Are Showing!"