Jack LaLanne Was My Beloved, Kooky Neighbor

Jack LaLanne was the first celebrity I ever met, though we mostly considered him kooky in my Alameda, California, neighborhood growing up. He used to walk on his hands up and down the sidewalk. He had a tacky strongman gym in downtown Oakland, across the estuary from Alameda, where those Mr. Atlas body-builder types hung out. His daughter Yvonne and I went to school together—she was very cute, with dimples and long pigtails. I remember one parents’ night at school, he and my dad reminisced about playing high-school football against each other in Berkeley. My Dad was a 6’4″ tackle and Jack was 5’6″. Dad told me that even in high school, Jack was known as “The Raisin Kid,” because he would tell all the boys they should eat raisins and nuts. I always thought he looked very yellow—he had a sallow skin coloring in those days, which did not look particularly healthy despite all the muscles. But his enthusiasm and derring-do were infectious.

There used to be this show on TV where people wrote in and asked for impossible feats of all kinds to be performed—You Asked For It, hosted by a white-haired emcee named Art Baker. One night, Jack LaLanne came on You Asked For It and swam handcuffed from Alcatraz to the edge of San Francisco Bay—it was hyped that he was swimming through shark-infested waters. Variations of that swim became his signature feat—swimming from Alcatraz Island manacled, handcuffed, towing thousand-pound boats, etc. It even made Life magazine! We kids thought his TV show, which began on local TV, was impossibly corny, but in the end Jack LaLanne was right about fitness and food. He was a quintessential California character—his days were filled with sunshine, even when they weren’t. He exuded optimism and joy. I was so happy to run into him years later in New York, and tickled to hear him giving everyone the very same pitch he had been giving since I was a little girl: We should all get up out of that chair and eat our nuts. I think I speak for the old neighborhood when I say Jack LaLanne earned respect from all of us.

Original Publication: January, 2011.