The Formal Opening of the Joe and Betty Weider Museum of Physical Culture
Although the formal opening of the Weider Museum was held on the 21st of July, Joe and Betty flew to Austin with members of their staff on the 18th to have a private look around a facility they had never seen. By Tuesday a few invited guests also began to arrive to get an early peek themselves, and by Wednesday evening at least half of the out-of-town guests were in Austin sharing stories, making new friends, and catching up with old ones.
The rest of the guests arrived on Thursday in plenty of time for the cocktail party, dinner, and presentation, which began at 6:00 P.M. at the H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, of which the Weider Museum is a large part. All of the guests from out of town stayed at the university’s new AT&T Hotel and Conference Center, which is close to the Stark Center, and at 5:50 a small bus began to pick people up at the hotel, drive them to the Center, and then continued the process until everyone staying at the hotel was at the party.
All in all—not counting the staff and caterers—we had approximately 150 guests, and most came from the U.S. although some travelled from Scotland, Canada, Bermuda—and even India. The guests also included university officials such as Cathy Henderson of the Harry Ransom Center; Annette Carlozzi; David Onion, UT’s Vice-President for Development; and even UT President Bill Powers, who had gone with us in 2008 to visit the Weiders in Southern California. Also on hand were Walter Riedel and Tad McKee, the CEO and CFO, respectively, of the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation, which has contributed the $5.5 million we needed to build out our 27,500 square foot facility.
The main part of the guest list, however, was made up of people from one area of the iron game or another. For example, six former winners of the Mr. Olympia contest were here–Larry Scott, Chris Dickerson, Frank Zane, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, and Ronnie Coleman, who together accounted for 29 of the 45 titles won since the contest was dominated by Larry Scott in 1965. Mr. Universe winners Bill Pearl and Boyer Coe were also here as was 1960 AAU Mr. America Red Lerille, another Louisianan and the owner of the largest health and racquet club in the country. Clarence Bass of Ripped fame came down from his mountain in Albuquerque with his wife Carol, and was especially interested in seeing the part of the Weider Museum entitled “Transformation,” in which we used more than 15 photographs of him, taken over his fifty years in the Iron Game, to demonstrate how aging can be offset with exercise.
Other notable attendees included weightliter, powerlifter, strongman/pro wrestler Mark Henry; three-time world’s strongest man winner Bill Kazmaier; ageless strongman competitor Odd Haugen; two-time world’s strongest woman winner Jill Mills; national powerlifting champions Ronnie Ray and Joe Hood, and veteran bodybuilder and Ironman magazine columnist Dave Goodin.
Professional strongman Dennis Rogers was also there along with gripmeister Richard Sorin; the founder of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Boyd Epley; and the past president of the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, Jeff “Mad Dog” Madden, who serves as the assistant athletic director for strength and conditioning here at the University of Texas. Other significant players in attendance included writer and actress Thresa Katz, the niece of Joe and Betty Weider; John Balik, publisher of Ironman magazine; Jacob Arback, Robb Weller, and Bruce Luizzi of the new cable channel MUSL TV; Doris Barrilleaux, one of the founders of modern women’s bodybuilding; Jim Lorimer and his son Bob, who produce the Arnold Sports Festival each year; Robin Chang, bodybuilding promoter for American Media; twelve-time World Masters Track and Feld champion Carol Finsrud; long-time bodybuilding official and gym owner Mike Graham; Parker Communications founders Charlotte and Joel Parker of Los Angeles, Bob Gardener, photographer extraordinaire, Allan Donnelly of Flex magazine; and David Webster, O.B.E., of Scotland, author of 40 books who helps administer and officiate at Strongman, Highland Games and Weightlifting events throughout the world.
The party started with an unexpected—but wonderful—surprise, courtesy of Bill Kazmaier, who arrived with his son Eric bearing gifts for the Weider Museum, including his first World’s Strongest Man trophy and an antique 56-pound Scottish throwing weight given to him by David Webster. It was an unanticipated and generous gift from the big man, and we’re honored to now house these important historic artifacts. Kaz made the presentation of his gift in front of the 10’ tall “supergraphic” photo of himself in the strongman gallery. The famous photo shows Kaz at the Braemar Highland Games in Scotland in 1980 just after he set a world record in the Weight Throw for Height of 16’3” (The event consists of throwing a 56-pound ring-weight over a pole vault standard.) even though he had never seen the event before.
After the Kazmaier announcement, the cocktail party continued until approximately 7:30, during which time people toured the Art Gallery, visited the Reading Room with its many copies of classic statuary, and were guided through the non-public areas of the facility where our workrooms are located and where our 30,000+ books, tens of thousands of magazines, and photography collections are housed. In the main lobby flashbulbs were going off everywhere as people circulated, hunted for photos of themselves, reminisced with each other, and stood again and again to take shots of, and with, some of the many celebrities in attendance. One of the most popular displays in the main lobby featured just over 20 photographs chosen from the thousand images Bill Pearl assembled as illustrations for his amazing trilogy—Legends of the Iron Game—copies of which were available on a counter beneath those remarkable photos. As proof of how grateful the guests were to the Weiders, a line of people formed in front of Joe and Betty. Clearly the stars of the evening, they were photographed with many dozens of different individuals as well as with groups of smiling guests.
In addition to seeing the facility itself, the real highlight for the guests was that they were the first group to walk through the newly-outfitted Joe and Betty Weider Museum. The museum’s first official exhibition featured almost 700 photographs, all with captions, representing many aspects of the iron game as well as several rooms which focused on golf and other sports. This particular photography exhibition, which was specifically chosen to “open” the museum, is called “Muscle & Grace: Images from Physical Culture and Sports.”
The visitors also saw, in two different locations within our large lobby, over a hundred of Jan Todd’s collection of antique, exercise-related beer steins. They also saw in various places in the facility several unique stage-weights, circus bells, and a variety of other artifacts previously owned by such figures as Professor Attila, Sig Klein, Ottley Coulter, Rolandow, Stan “Stanless Steel” Pleskun, Warren Lincoln Travis, Mac Bachelor, Stout Jackson, Bill Kazmaier, Steve “Stones” Slater, Richard Sorin, Dennis Rogers, Slim “the Hammerman” Farman, George F. Jowett, Bill Pearl, Jim Witt, Bob Peoples, Harry Shafran, Louis Cyr, Elmer Bitgood, and Ben Weider. Of special interest to many guests was the “Wall of Icons” featuring people who have made significant contributions to physical culture. Four of the thirteen “Icons,” whose larger-than-life images hang at the back of the largest room in the Stark Center, were present at the opening of the Joe and Betty Weider Museum—Joe Weider, Boyd Epley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Scotland’s David P. Webster, O.B.E. Eight of the thirteen have passed away—Pudgy Stockton, Steve Reeves, Eugen Sandow, Bob Hoffman, Katie Sandwina, Jack Lalanne, John Davis, and John Grimek. The remaining icon, Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the Father of Aerobics, was honored during an earlier event at the Stark Center.
The dinner was held three floors above the Stark Center, in a room built to be used during UT football games by donors to the Department of Athletics. It’s a very long room–perhaps 200 feet–and it overlooks the entire football field and the massive UT Jumbotron, which measures 55 feet high and 134 feet long. During the planning stage of this event we learned that on special occasions arrangements could be made to project onto the screen of the Jumbotron a photographic image with attached text and the opening of the Weider Museum was certainly a special occasion. Thus it was that when Joe and Betty—who, along with all our other guests, knew nothing at all about the surprise image awaiting on the Jumbotron –entered the room followed by all our other guests they were treated to a titanic photo of themselves along with the words, “Thank You, Joe and Betty.” Seeing this image people simply stopped and stared, and even applauded. Joe kept shaking his head and saying, “I can’t believe it.” Guests flocked to the windows and were invited to step outside into the bleachers, and many hundreds of photos were taken of the colossal image, which remained in view throughout the dinner.
As for the meal itself, it featured foods favored by iron gamers and lots of it—including special chocolate bodybuilders for dessert. However, the main function of the dinner was not to eat but to listen to comments about what the Weiders have done to help the field of physical culture in general and the Stark Center’s Weider Museum in particular. To that end, once we were seated Jan served as the Master of Ceremonies and made some opening remarks about how the Weiders had supported us through the years. She then explained that as we were eating our desserts a 12-minute documentary about Joe’s life would be shown to allow us all to have a better understanding of how he began his career as a weightlifter and built his empire.
The meal itself seemed to go quickly, the desserts were served, the lights were lowered, and the documentary began. It was a compilation of several other films about Joe and about Betty, and from what people reported later many of them hadn’t realized how far Joe had come and just how much he and Betty have done thus far during their full, active lives. After the applause died away Jan invited us to lift our glasses of champagne and join her in a toast to the Weiders.
Following the toast Jan called me to the podium, but because we were running late I discarded a fistful of prepared remarks (to the apparent relief of many in the room). Instead, I did my best to speak directly and from the heart. I explained that Joe had been a philosophical supporter of ours for over two decades and that he had often told me he intended to provide us with significant financial help somewhere down the line. I also explained that when I would mention this promise to any of my iron game pals some of them were skeptical and told me not to hold my breath. I always responded by saying that I chose to believe Joe would come through one day. And sure enough, that day finally came in 2004 when Joe Weider directed his Foundation to begin fulfilling a multi-year pledge of $1 million in support of the Todd-McLean Collection, since the Stark Center did not exist at that time. (In the interest of full disclosure I should add that the day the first installment of that pledge arrived in Austin I made a few phone calls to those pals of mine who were originally skeptical of Joe’s promise. To their credit, every man I called was pleased to get the news and grateful to Joe for his generous gift.) One final thing—in 2008 the Weider Foundation pledged a second million dollars to help with operating expenses, and in July of 2010 the final payment on that pledge was received.
I went on to explain to the guests the significance of the original million dollar pledge, and why it was perhaps the most critical gift we’ve ever received. The significance of the gift, I argued, was that it caught the attention of the university’s top administrators, particularly that of our president, Bill Powers. Both the size and the source of the gift helped the administration realize that–if popular culture figures like the Weiders thought enough of our collecting efforts in physical culture to provide such a substantial gift–the collection might deserve institutional support. Had we not gotten that first million, I said and believe, we would never have been offered the opportunity to raise the money needed to build-out the spacious shell in the stadium which itself cost $4.5 million to construct.
Receiving such a gift from the Weiders–followed the next year by a promise from UT to provide us with $4.5 million worth of prime real estate–gave us the confidence to approach the Stark Foundation for the additional money we needed to secure the shell and begin the build-out. When I explained to the Board of Directors of the Stark Foundation that I knew their founder, Lutcher Stark, had been a lifelong supporter of weight training, sports, and a healthy lifestyle—and that I also knew there was nothing on our campus which bore Lutcher’s name even though he’d probably done more than any one man ever did for the school—they decided to give us the $3.5 million we needed to go forward, plus another $2 million when construction delays and escalating costs threatened to derail the project. So, in a nutshell, without that original Weider Foundation gift there would almost certainly never have been the much larger gift from the Stark Foundation.
Jan then introduced UT President Bill Powers, who expressed his gratitude for the backing the Weiders have provided as well as his pride in having the Weider Museum located on this campus. He spoke about the financial difficulties the University of Texas and other major colleges were having these days because of our sour economy, and explained that gifts such as the Weider’s were necessary if important programs were to continue to flourish. He also shared the story of how impressed he had been during his trip to the Weider Building by all of the beautiful paintings and sculptures there, and how wonderful it was now to see many of those same paintings and sculptures located throughout the Weider Museum and the rest of the Stark Center. And the President was very straightforward in saying that Joe and Betty had led the long fight which changed the world so that now weight training is one of the foundations of fitness and sports performance.
President Powers also confirmed my story that the original one million dollar pledge from the Weider Foundation made him realize the importance of the physical culture collection in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. He explained that although he’d been aware of our efforts for over 20 years, Joe’s first gift was the key to what followed. The President also pointed out that a great many of the guests at the opening of the Weider Museum symbolized in their own lives one of the central concepts of any university of the first class—the concept of arête, a Greek word which relates to the striving for true excellence and the fulfillment of potential. President Powers referred to the dozens of guests who had been the very best in the world in their particular area of physical culture. He also made it clear that they had not only achieved true excellence but that they had implicitly acknowledged their debt to Joe Weider by their presence at the opening of the museum which bears his name.
The president concluded his remarks by saying he understood that our final speaker was one of the few people known all over the world just by his first name, but that he nonetheless chose to introduce him as “Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.” I need to say at this point that although Arnold had planned for the past several weeks to attend the event, his youngest son, Christopher, suffered a serious injury just two days before the museum opening. Arnold loves his son, of course, and everyone would have understood had he stayed in California. But Arnold also loves Joe and Betty, and although Christopher was still in intensive care the attending physicians said he was out of danger and would make a full recovery. With this assurance, Arnold chartered a flight, got to the cocktail party about 30 minutes before dinner, followed Jan on a brief tour of the Center and the Museum, and delivered a speech no one who heard it will forget. I was sitting right next to Joe Weider during Arnold’s remarks and many times—as Arnold gave example after example of what Joe had meant to him and to the whole world of fitness—I’d get a nudge in the ribs and Joe would glance over at me and smile.
Sitting as close to Betty and Joe as I was I received the full force of Arnold’s feelings for the Weiders. They have been behind him ever since Joe brought him to America over 40 years ago and they have been behind him in good times as well as in difficult times. People in the room that evening had great respect for the ways in which Arnold has used his celebrity through the years to help lift resistance exercise from the dingy gyms of his early days to the shining workout facilities seen today, facilities which—as he pointed out—exist in every hospital, every high school, every college campus, every YMCA, every police station, every fire department, and every military base.
I believe it’s worth noting that when Arnold arrived and joined us to help celebrate Joe and Betty, he was surrounded by 150 of his people—people who wanted the best for him, who wanted him to continue to champion the cause which was the foundation of his fame, who wanted him to demonstrate through his words and especially his deeds that he deserves their continued respect—even their love. It was clear than Arnold could feel that respect as he spoke to Joe and Betty, and to us. I believe he felt at home. I believe he knew—on that particular night—that he was with people who wished him well and were pulling for him as he begins a new phase of his remarkable career.
We expected that Arnold would be the ideal person to make the final remarks, so he was our closer, and the sustained standing ovation he received confirmed our expectations. When the ovation finally died down our guests either walked to the windows for a last look at the Jumbotron or went back downstairs for more fellowship and a closer look at Muscle & Grace, the photography exhibition. Muscle & Grace. Very appropriate. Muscle appeared…Grace descended.
The bar stayed open until well past 11:00 and there were perhaps 20 hard core ironmongers sitting and sipping and sharing stories until well after midnight. We finally left because we all realized that we’d all meet again the next morning at the hotel, where the Weiders were graciously hosting a buffet breakfast for all of the guests who stayed at the AT&T. At least 50 celebrants took advantage of that wonderful buffet, and during the taking of photos and exchanging of addresses Dennis Rogers served dessert by treating everyone there to several of his always-amazing feats of hand and wrist strength—including the bending of a heavy-duty horseshoe, which he immediately presented to Bill Pearl who had, himself, given us the last big spike he ever bent—now and forevermore on display at the Stark Center.
After breakfast perhaps 40 people came over to the center to take a closer look at its various components, especially the Weider Museum. It made for a wonderful, relaxed day and a truly fine way to decompress from the high-octane pressure and emotion of the event itself, which we wanted so much to go well for the sake of Joe, Betty, and all of our iron game friends who spent their time and treasure to be with us on a very important day in the facility’s history. I wish everyone who has ever heard of the Stark Center and the Weider Museum could have been with us, and that unrealizable wish is one of the reasons we’ve put together this website about the opening of the Museum. Perhaps those of you who weren’t with us can take from the website at least some of what those of us took away who were there.
Full photo album links
Photos by John Bailik
Photos by Brian Birzer