In a world full of blowhards and phony baloneys, Joe Bonomo was an everyman evangelist of joy, power, truth and all things noisy and smelly and exciting.
He is single-handedly responsible for injecting superpositivity into the lives of millions, and although his name rests in relative obscurity today, his footnote is a lengthy one which sparkles with accomplishments and ideas that affect us every day, and his legacy is evident in every barbell wielding convolute, every bald spot infomercial, every new age soul-tapping ideology, every mouthful of peanut brittle, every blessed bargain bin record you scored right before you joined the Record Club of America, A checkered bragbook, you murmur. Mayhaps, say I, but the root stock whose eager stem has fallen victim to graft and false bonsaification remains burbling with elixirs ready for the quaff.
Joe Bonomo was born a Coney Island baby on Christmas day, 1901, to immigrants Al & Esther B. who ran a small ice cream and candy business on the boardwalk. According to Bonomo legend, Joe's dad mistook the torch on the Statue of Liberty for an ice cream cone when his ship was pulling in from Istanbul, causing him to produce and promote his Turkish interpretation of the cool & creamy.
Despite a childhood full of sweets, little Joe sprouted into a skinny little fellow, brunt of many jokes. The neighborhood nickname “Toothpicks” caused the shy lad much pain and steered him clear from local sandkickers. Joe opted for lone adventures above and below the boardwalks with only the company of his faithful pup, Babe. The grand Coney amusements of Luna Park and Dreamland were a grand source of inspiration for a small boy and little Joe became hypnotized by the money making schemes and various carnival enticements that surrounded him.
One day he met up with a Polish strongman named Ladislaw who chided Joe's negligible frame and told him that he too could be strong, popular and rich if he would start eating right and exercising. Joe took the advice to heart and never looked back. Through hard work, observation and a positive attitude (a.k.a blood, sweat & tears) Joe went from “Toothpicks” to a star football ramcharger to a gymnast to the ultimate Strongman in a few short years.
Along the way, he absorbed every carnival antic, every sideshow persuasion, and every magic trick that was offered up from the streets of Coney Island, USA. He befriended every wrestler and muscleman who came through Brooklyn, including the astonishing Sandow and the mighty, leopard-loined Charles Atlas, who became his pal and mentor. He learned, too, from the crowds at Coney, what was expected of a star attraction. He was star-struck by the stage and motion pictures and by the grandeur of the ballroom dance, by the glitz and spritz and glamour of all that was show business — and he gave everything a shot.
Joe somehow managed to also add fencing, hockey and wrestling to his sports persuasions, a motley variety to be sure, but having been hatched in the hub of happiness, Joe inherently knew that the key to success was a balanced combination of the mental, the physical, and the spiritual.
Fresh out of high school, Joe saw a talent search ad in the Daily News for “The Modern Apollo” and decided to try out with the help of Charles Atlas, who suggested he do some posing in his signature leopard skin loincloth. He won the contest (beating out over 5,000 other applicants!), which featured a grand prize role in a motion picture with silver screen goddess Hope Hampton. Of course, this was in the silent era, and Joe's animated physique and features made him a natural—his fearless nature also gave him the advantage of adding “stuntman” to his list of occupations.
Soon Joe was grappling lions and tigers, leaping off flaming rooftops and doing the impossible for Hollywood directors. His film and serial credits include acting and/or stunt doubling in Eagle's Talon , Beasts of Paradise, Leather Pushers, The Fighting Marine, The Chinatown Mysteries, The Circus Mystery, Wolves of the North, The College Cowboy, The Sea Tiger, The Vamping Venus, The Golden Stallion, Phantoms of the North, Skinner Steps Out, Noah's Ark, Battling With Buffalo Bill , Courtin' Wildcats , The Record Breakers , Big Time , The Lost Special , The Phantom Fortune, The Thrill Girl, The Black Cats, The Iron Man, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Perils of the Wild, Flaming Frontier, Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross, As You Desire Me with Greta Garbo, and Radio Detective, He was a natural for the lead in 1928's Tarzan The Mighty and as the gorilla in Murders In The Rue Morgue (with Bela Lugosi!), and we have all thrilled to Bonomo's many roles in the classic Island Of The Lost Souls, particularly that of the Tiger Man.
Joe was so popular in the days of these films and adventure serials that he had to hire people on to answer his fan mail. Folks would write in wanting to know how they could develop muscles and being the great guy that he truly was, Joe scripted a brief form letter describing the steps to attaining a healthy physique. This soon developed into a mail order sideline, with Joe hiring on an elderly Coney couple, family friends the Ludwigs, to handle the job. Joe felt particularly sympathetic toward youngsters who wrote in—he, after all, had been a “Toothpicks” himself—that he started a Bonomo Boys Club that functioned both as a mail order vehicle, and as an in-person celebrity do-good club.
With the dawn of the talkies, Bonomo was selected to play Anthony opposite Claudette Colbert in DeMille's Cleopatra, with the condition that he be able to master the vocal delivery in the screen test. Joe knew he was in trouble—his thick Brooklyn accent would never cut it on the big screen (somebody tell Tony Curtis!) and although he again gave it the old college try with voice lessons, he was unable to get the role. Joe was temporarily heartbroken. Although a career as a stuntman was still viable, that avenue was closed by Joe himself after the death of an old buddy, daredevil Al Wilson, whose face was blown off during an air raid scene. That same year, Joe also nearly killed western star Buck Jones when he threw a chair at him while filming a fight. Buck didn't duck in time and took the chair in the chest, resulting in broken ribs and a fractured back. A third incident proved the last chapter in Joe's stunt career. Joe broke his hip in a car crash scene and upon being x-rayed was informed that he had now broken thirty-seven bones in Hollywood and that his stunting days were over. Joe refused to believe the diagnosis and checked into the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion, but to no avail—the studios didn't want a dead Bonomo on the set.
Coming off the Hollywood merry-go-round was difficult, but at the same time, other events in Joe's life made new avenues open up. He married his dancing partner Ethel, baby Joan was born, and Joe's dad Al became seriously ill, calling Joe and his girls back to Brooklyn, where Joe began some deep thinking about his new family's future. Al Bonomo died soon after Charles Ludwig, the man who had been in charge of Joe's muscle mail order business, leaving both companies in need of leadership. Joe took them both on by combining them into a truly unique form. Around this same time, Joe rekindled a friendship with Tony Bruno, the photographer better known as Bruno of Hollywood. Tony had relocated to New York and was eager to get his studio off the ground, and suggested to Joe that they work together on a publishing venture, much like that of revered health czar Bernarr Macfadden.
Thus was born, in 1939, the landmark Beautify Your Figure (sporting then-unknown June Havoc on the cover, who came recommended by her sister Gypsy Rose Lee!), which sold out of the initial ten thousand copies instantly. Soon, Joe was king of the one-shots, keeping up with what he correctly considered public demand, producing manuals on muscle development, dancing, and social skills. His distributor, American News, urged him to start a monthly magazine, which he did, resulting in the excellent, but ill-fated Good Healthkeeping , of which he which never produced a second issue due to mismanagement.
Although he took a major loss with his association with American News, Joe scrambled to keep his publishing venture afloat. His Building Body Power manual of 1940 was the blueprint for all self help courses to come. In it, Joe encourages men from all walks of life to get with the program stating, “To many of us, at any time, may come demands that call for maximum physical preparedness, wherein not only our own future but the future of our country might be fatefully imperiled.” The book was met with the same enthusiasm and high sales as the ill-fated Beautify Your Figure, but this time, Joe kept distribution in-house. Meanwhile, the Bonomo publishing empire was exploding. The innovative Your Figure Beautiful was a refreshing women's health and fitness magazine that included fashions, exercise, diet, important information on “getting and holding a man”, skin care, bustline improvement tips, and very importantly, dance tips. Bonomo loved to dance. He himself was an award winning dancer, and believed that shaking a leg was the paramount culmination of the body, mind and soul in action, and the ultimate tool for attaining social success and improving the personality. The mystical Bonomo Ritual was a six week bust improvement course. The bosom was, after all, in Joe's eyes, ”...the thrilling symbol of Woman Eternal, the key to romance and feminine fulfillment! Nothing can equal the thrill of being wanted.. the poise and self-assurance that come from an alluring bust contour!”
Called upon to speak for the war effort, Bonomo Pub. Co. produced the prototype Bonomo mini in 1943 with his delightful Protect Yourself, a 1943 health manual for war workers that featured perky female nudie cartoon instructionals. Here Bonomo, unlike Atlas or contemporary body building gurus, urged the ladies to get with the program too, and in a most refreshing manner. Bonomo informed femmes that it was vital that dames retain their feminine appeal. At the end of your shift,” said he, “slip out of slacks and immediately into an evening gown and immediately resume your glamorous role.” No rest for the weary in Bonomo Land.
Besides reviving and expanding the publishing empire, Joe also decided to jump-start his inherited confections company by establishing a strong in-house distributorship for that business also. Calling on his Coney Island carnival spielsmanship, and observing the public's interest in the new and unusual, Joe began a most unusual approach to supply and demand. He had been fascinated from childhood days by the sales approaches of the various boardwalk hawkers, and indeed as a boy, he had managed to put some of these techniques to work. Now, having lived through the high life of Hollywood, and the war years and personal health and finance problems, Joe decided to tap a market of ordinary people. He had grown up a regular Joe, he had dreamed ordinary dreams, and knew that success and good things could be attainable by anyone. But he also wanted to educate his consumers—he wanted to give them all the nice things that were out of their price range, niceties that most folks thought they could never afford. An all out plan left little undone.
Joe's master plan included inexpensive how-to manuals on everything from improving your personality to building up your bustline, vitamin and diet plans and pills, gyms and health clubs nationwide (well, this never materialized, but the idea was well ahead of its time- in fact today's top bodybuilding honcho Joe Weider was struggling with a start when Bonomo was ruling the roost), plus now he was selling personal and home products in the form of remainder stock and knock-offs of gadgets and novelties, watches and jewelry, lamps and furniture items, paints and solvents, games, toys, books,by the bucket. He would buy odd-lots for next to nothing, or previously “unsellable” new merchandise, and with flashy ad campaigns, would sell, sell, sell at chain stores like Rexall and Woolworth and Walmart. Of merit to music lovers was Joe's brilliant single-handed invention of the “cut-out rack” for out of print and remainder stock LP's and 45 rpm records.
Being a man with a sweet tooth (bizarrely, he promoted the eating of candy in all his body building manuals, claiming that lots of candy was imperative for good muscle tone!), Joe felt obligated to make tasty nuts and confections accessible to those with limited means. Naturally, Bonomo Turkish Taffy was tops in sales at Joe's place- it sold in all shapes and sizes—the foot long slabs that mimicked the look of a rubber chest expander gave the impression of a lot of goody for a low-low price, when actually its avoirdupois was the same as a smaller, thicker, less ostentatious competitor's product. A delightful taffy sales booster for the chains was the rotating “dump display” which slowly revolved, displaying a veritable mountain of wax-wrapped taffies. An exhaust fan was set up to blow the scent of peppermint out into the street, thus pied-pipering snack happy mongrels into the stores. The same smell savvy technique was used in Joe's groundbreaking middle-classing of the then-exotic cashew nut, which was very popular but prohibitively expensive. Joe contacted nut importers and purchased broken cashews and butt ends at a fraction of the price of whole nuts. Salted and roasted hot in the stores in eye catching displays, and with the luscious odor pumped out into the streets, the sales of cashews sent nut sales into orbit. The chains loved this reel-'em-in technique, as once the consumers were in the store stocking up on nuts and candy, they could be further induced into purchasing other frivolities and possibly even a few necessities.
One publishing sideline which ended up being vastly profitable in chain stores was the Bonomo “mini”, which had started back in '43 with JB's war workers health manual. These tiny one shot mini-books were exactly pocket sized 64 page manuals with sturdy colorful covers, covering a vast array of problems—again, there were muscle and bustline and personality manuals, but now also booklets on how to make more money, how to look lovelier after 40, how to use makeup, look taller, dance better, be a better hostess, find the man of your dreams, and simplify housework. These were sold in displays that took up only one foot of counter space, and sold for a quarter, so the profit margins and easy marketability made them popular with the chains as well as will mom & pop establishments. In the sixties, Joe published minis on birth control, giving parties, being assertive, and, yes, an informative manual about pot, pills & heroin called Don't Be A Dope . Each of these little books starts off with a intro by the boss titled, “Pull Up A Chair. Let's Talk About...” where you'd be served a slab of wisdom and encouragement from JB. These minis were so popular that they stayed in print for thirty years with only slightly modified illustrations and graphics. One of the last of the minis was titled, What I Know About Women by Joe Bonomo. It was comprised of 64 blank pages!
Bonomo stayed active in dozens of different businesses through the sixties and seventies, but the king's strongman crown was whipped off his noggin when Joe Weider, despite his own wayfaring financials, muscled into the front of the fitness field by allying himself with the Mr. Universe contest. With a young Arnold Schwartzeneggar in one pocket and lovely lifetime partner Betty Brosmer in another, Weider, who never ventured far from bulging biceps, created the modern vision of lifeless brawn and pabulum healthfulness whose only true vigor was induced by steroids and mass building supplements—all admirable feats on a somewhat less divine level, but hardly the heady stuff that unseats mere mortals to the true Olympus.
Maybe he spread himself too thin, maybe not, but somewhere between the rise and fall of JB & his many enterprises—and most definitely upon Weider's obvious usurpment of the brawn belt—the noise and brawl and mayhem that colored Bonomo's personal improvement schemes was muted by pot smoking vagrant schemers who hatched a gazillion dollar self help industry built upon an ice nine hen house of beige quackery tuned into a numbing celestial hum of vibrasonic high colonics. Where once had ruled a happy Turk encouraging the lost, lonely and vicious to get up and swing from the chandeliers, is now a sinister mecca of pseudo-psycho-metaphysical harlots who create for hapless hoards a dim view, a slim chance, and a perpetuity of blissless calm. And thus has evolved a grievous situation whereby the “attuned” and the “healthy” block off the joys of the present with meditation and medication, who replace the natural naughty carnival melee of our fabulous modern world with moronic pre-recordings of fabricated sounds that only suggest the wind in bold trees and the surf on sunset beaches. Joe Bonomo considered artifice an abomination. In vitro, alias, virtual reality—all proxy to the man was a pox. Joe Bonomo would tell us to pull up a chair and talk about our short comings- our clumsiness on the dance floor, our lackluster bustlines, our lack of razzle at parties, our addiction to narcotics, our bad hair days. These brief chats never even suggested failure, never avoided action, never blamed a cold world or a bad childhood. In fact each directive clearly stated with parachute jump enthusiasm that life was a gift, that every breath could be a positively boner-inducing fantasia should we “wake up and live”.
Joe Bonomo, great fearless Brooklyn candyman, movie star, powerlifter, mighty author and publisher and entrepreneur and philosopher and motivator and tiger man, kind daring inspiration and provider of cheap records to cashless teenagers, we salute you.
Miriam Linna is co-founder of Norton Records and Kicks magazine.
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Joe Bonomo 1901 - 1978
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