Monte Saldo "The Greatest of Trainers" by Ron Tyrrell

Part I of II

Monte SaldoBack in March 1983, I was saddened to learn of the death of Court Saldo; I felt that not only had the world lost one of its most eminent physical culture teachers, but with his passing, there was now no "keeper of the flame" to carry on with the teaching of the most excellent physical culture system, known to the world as "Maxalding".

This system had been conceived in the fertile mind of Court's father, Monte Saldo, after his historic meeting with Maxick, and was used on their pupils at the experimental stage in 1909, before becoming one of the most result producing postal physical culture courses of all time.

I was very pleased when I received a letter from Gil Waldron informing me that he and Roger Fillary had set up a website devoted to perpetuating the memory of Monte and Court Saldo, Maxick and the Maxalding method of physical culture. After I had contributed an article on Maxick for this site, Gil suggested that I should write a companion article on Monte, and this I am delighted to do in the hope that in some small way I am helping to repay the kindness, generosity and knowledge that I received from Monte's son Court many years ago. Before I begin my highlights in the life of Monte Saldo however, I should like to pay tribute to Gil and Roger; they are in the best traditions of physical culture and are doing an excellent job as today's "keepers" of the Maxalding "flame".

Alfred Montague Woollaston, better known to the world by his stage name of Monte Saldo, was born in 1879 in Highgate, London, England, the son of Frederick Woollaston, a shoe manufacturer who was also a much respected Methodist preacher and faith healer. The Woollastons have always been known for their good works, which seems to be a way of life dating back to an ancestor Sir John Woollaston, a philanthropist who provided the finance to build the almshouses in Highgate's Southwood Lane. Young Monte developed a keen interest in strength athletics at an early age and was greatly encouraged, in this by his parents and his uncle, a police inspector. In his early teens he became a member of the London Weightlifting Club in Argyle Place, Regent Street, London, and with the four Spencer brothers and that great strongman Jim Pedley as fellow members, Monte had plenty of encouragement; indeed many of the founder members of British weightlifting often trained at this club, and he learned a great deal very quickly.

Monte's uncle, the police inspector, was well connected socially with many people in the theatrical profession and was able to arrange for Monte to become an apprentice to Eugen Sandow at Sandow's gym at 32 St James's Street. There, he learned and trained alongside other very capable strength athletes, and among these was Ronco, an Italian strongman with an outstanding physique. After gaining much stage experience assisting Sandow in his stage act, Monte and Ronco formed their own strongman stage act and "Ronco & Monte" opened in 1900 at the Cafe Chantant, Crystal Palace, where their act was very well received by audiences. A Continental tour followed, during which an English theatrical agent witnessed their act and was so impressed that he offered them a six months' contract to appear at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster, London. The last strongman act to appear the Royal Aquarium had been the great Eugen Sandow, who had been a great box office success, and to invite Ronco & Monte to be the next stage act to follow his acclaimed performance speaks volumes about the high standard, not only of their genuine strongman act, but also their outstanding stage presentation.

At right - Eugen Sandow to whom Monte Saldo was apprenticed in 1897.  

In the tradition of the times, Ronco & Monte offered large sums of money to any member of the public who could duplicate their feats of strength; they never had to pay out, but the challenge of their stage act did result in a match with Charles Russell who, although he had failed to duplicate the feats of strength in Monte's stage act, did have a weightlifting contest with Monte on the five amateur lifts. Russell, who was a specialist on these lifts and had been practising them for years, was in fact the 10 stone (140 lbs.) amateur champion of Britain at the time. Monte, who had not practised the lifts, sportingly accepted Russell's choice of lifts, and this lack of preparation gave Russell a victory in the contest, which was billed as 1901 Professional 10 stone Weightlifting Championship of England. Lack of preparation was an error, which Monte would never again repeat; preparation for all future contests and exhibitions featuring himself or any of his pupils would be meticulously planned. Ronco & Monte's run at the Royal Aquarium was so successful that their contract was extended well into the following year, but at the end of this engagement Ronco and Monte broke up their act and it is generally believed that Ronco went back to Italy and worked for various fairs and circuses.

Monte SaldoAt left - Ronco, Monte Saldo's Partner in their stage act, 'Ronco & Monte'.

Monte now teamed up with his brother Frank; they spent three months perfecting their new act and were a huge success when they opened at the London Hippodrome. A number of lucrative offers were made by theatrical agents, resulting in a European tour that began at the Rembrandt Theatre in Amsterdam, where Monte's outstanding physique caught the attention of the acclaimed Dutch artist Israels, who painted him in a classical pose. The brothers appeared in Dresden, Hamburg, Saxony, Prague, "The City of a Hundred Towers" at a time when it was still the capital of Bohemia, and also in Paris, where they worked out regularly in Professor Desbonnet's gym and the Gymnase Pascaud, all the time adding to their knowledge of weightlifting and physical culture. During their appearance in Hamburg, Mr. Frank Glennister, the long-time manager of the London Pavilion, was in the audience one night and went backstage to offer the brothers a season at his theatre; having assumed them to be a Continental act, he was most surprised to discover that they were English.

Monte now decided that something completely new was required to present to the British audiences. The repertoires of the best strongman acts of the day were based on things like the Bent Press with both barbell and live weights, back and harness lifting, chain breaking and playing card tearing. Monte was an outstanding performer in all these accepted ways of demonstrating strength, indeed at a bodyweight of 143 lbs., he could Bent Press 230 1bs and Clean Lift 212 lbs. with his right hand and 202 lbs. with his left hand from the floor to above his head. Even with his small hands (glove size 7 ins) he could put three packs of playing cards together and tear them in half. Nevertheless, Monte felt that he wanted to do something new, something that had never been seen on any stage in the world before. Pondering the problem, he eventually came up with the idea of supporting a motor car in the "Tomb of Hercules" position, reasoning that the motor car was the latest wonder invention that was beginning to replace the horse and cart on the British roads (remember this was 1903) and was still a source of wonder to the majority of the British public.

 Charles Russell

Monte Saldo

Charles Russell at the time he defeated Monte Saldo for the 10-stone Professional Weightlifting Champion of England.


Monte Saldo

Monte Saldo

Monte Saldo at the time of his match with Charles Russell.


Monte Saldo

At left - Monte Saldo's act supporting a Darracq at the London Pavilion in 1903.  (Monte later supported bigger cars).

Rehearsals took place in a large building in Store Street, London. The car was driven up a sloping ramp onto a bridge, the engine was then turned off, the ramp and supports removed, and Monte was left supporting the car (a Darracq) full of passengers and a section of the bridge. The engine was now switched on, and the vibration caused considerable numbness in the whole of Monte's body and placed an enormous strain on his wrists and ankles.

Monte now wanted to make the act more sensational and to keep one jump ahead of a bogus performer on the Continent, who was using trickery and not supporting the car in any way. He devised a way of demonstrating the total authenticity of his own act and at the same time made it more sensational, by performing it on a twelve feet high platform, and with the engine running, the platform revolved like a roundabout. Monte had to contend with dripping lubrication oil and exhaust fumes, resulting in his having to hold his breath for a long period of time, and on one occasion, over-revving of the engine caused the exhaust to blow directly into Monte's face, giving him eyesight problems for quite some time. It has to be remembered that all the time he was up on the platform, there was no way to save him if anything went wrong, until the support gear was replaced. The only safety aids Monte used were crescent-shaped clips behind his calves to stop his legs swaying, and straps passing over his hands to stop them from slipping. Monte was rewarded with the largest salary ever paid to a one-man strongman act up to that time. Frank Glennister persuaded Monte to adopt a new nom-de-theatre of "Monte Saldo" prior to commencing another overseas tour with this act.

Wherever Monte appeared, his car supporting act was well received, but as always he was already thinking of ways to stay ahead of the competition and soon felt that it was time for a new and original act that would have as great an impact on audiences. Monte was a very well educated man and a student of the arts, an accomplished musician, a linguist who spoke fluent German, French and Italian, and was well read in Latin and Greek. He had studied anatomy and physiology with Pascaud in Paris and physical economy under Ziessel in Dresden. During his Continental tour, Monte had been very impressed by the all the classical sculptures that had been carved through the ages, and by all the wonderful music being composed in Europe at this time, and he pondered how he could combine classical sculpture, music, strength and athleticism all into one act.

At left - Monte Saldo at the time of his car supporting act. 

As a result, a new act "The Sculptor's Dream" was born, with Monte and his brother Frank teaming up once again, and billing themselves as "The Montague Brothers". The editorial of a theatrical publication "The Entr'acte" dated 16 March 1906 stated - "An absolutely original athletic act is given by the Montague Brothers. Their performance is entitled 'The Sculptor's Dream' and provides the most original setting we have ever seen, being athletic and at the same time effective when it comes to feats of strength pure and simple. Their work is simply amazing."  Monte, already a respected strength performer throughout the world, had once again received the praise of the critics.

The act began with the curtain rising to reveal a sculptor's studio and a sculptor admiring his latest work, a large white marble statue of a muscular athlete mounted on a plinth in front of a large mirror, in such a way that the audience could see both front and back views of the statue. The sculptor, who had been drinking liberally of wine while admiring his work, began to feel sleepy and gradually "nodded off" on his studio couch.

Monte SaldoThe stage lights dimmed leaving just a spotlight on the marble statue and, to the strains of appropriately atmospheric music, a screen slowly closed around the statue and re-opened every few seconds to reveal it each time in a different pose that mimicked the great sculptures of the past. Suddenly, the statue sprang to life and, to the sound of breaking glass, grabbed his reflection in the mirror.

At right -  Theatrical poster advertising Monte and Frank Saldo's new act, 'The Sculptor's Dream'.

The statue was Monte and the reflection was his brother Frank; they engaged in a vigorous bout of wrestling, and after this surprise start to the act, held the interest of the audience by alternating fast acrobatics with slow hand-to-hand balancing, human lifting and Herculean balancing, all accompanied by synchronized appropriate music.

Frank, while holding a dumbbell in each hand, performed a series of standing jumps to reach the top of the column, and then jumped, landing feet-first on Monte's body, which was suspended between two pedestals and supported only by the neck and heels. Monte then performed a series of one arm lifts with Frank as a human weight, they then went into a high speed routine of gymnastics finishing with the statue and the reflection returning to their original poses, and the act ended with the sculptor stirring from his sleep.

The publishers of Health & Strength magazine were so impressed with the posing aspect of the act that this led to their commissioning Monte to write, in co-operation with the artist J.A. Austin, the book "How to Pose".  

Copyright © 2001,2002 Ron Tyrrell All Rights Reserved No reproduction without express permission of the Author


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