The Mr. America Contest: A Brief Background

A Short History of the Oldest,
Continuous Bodybuilding Contest in the Country

by David Chapman

For bodybuilders, the Mr. America contest was once the Triple Crown, the Indy 500, the Oscars, and the Olympics all rolled into one. Before Mr. Olympia, before Mr. Universe, before Mr. Anything, there was the Mr. America, and young men vied for the glory and honor of winning it with the same single-minded obsession that today's musclemen go after other titles. Sadly, the contest fell on bad days, and it became almost forgotten in the pursuit of other honors in the bodybuilding world. But the venerable competition has managed to survive somehow, and now at long last, new life is being pumped into the contest. Finally, the Mr. A shows every sign of coming back to life bigger and better than ever.

Those athletically talented young men who choose to participate in this year's Mr. America need to know something about how it began and who won it in years gone by. The lucky victor of today's Mr. A should be aware of this competition's lengthy pedigree and its noble list of contestants. The current participants are part of a long line of musclemen that stretches back more than half a century.

Although the Mr. America contest quickly became one of the premier bodybuilding events in the world, it certainly did not start that way. Lots of people had thought up the idea of pitting man against man in a contest of muscles. As far back as 1901, bodybuilding pioneer Eugen Sandow organized the first nationwide competition in Britain, but this was a one-shot deal not an ongoing pursuit of the country's most muscular body. In the U.S., Bernarr Macfadden held a few contests in the early twentieth century to determine "The World's Most Beautiful Man," but his interest in male beauty apparently waned, for he only held a few before they too were discontinued. By the late 1930's many U.S. physique athletes were beginning to call for a competition that would pit the best bodies in the country against one another.

There were a few models for the early organizers to compare themselves to. First, there was the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City. This was a beauty and charm contest, but people got to thinking that if the girls could have their competition then why couldn't the guys. Then there was the Europeans; they had been having their own versions of contests for years. The French held annual matches to determine "The Handsomest Athlete in France," and in this competition muscularity was only one aspect of judging. The contestant's hair, eyes, teeth, even the shape of the fingers and toes had a bearing on who won the competition. The Germans, on the other hand, held a contest to determine strength pure and simple. The winner of their competition could have a face like a train wreck and no one would care as long as he could lift something. American organizers decided to take the best from both these precursors, and develop a contest that would be uniquely ours.

The first attempt to gather strong, muscular men from around the country came in December of 1938 when gym manager and promoter, Johnny Hordines, put together a contest to determine "America's Finest Physique." This was held in Gardner's Reducing Salon and Gymnasium in Schenectady, New York. The men were divided into three classes based on height rather than weight, and there were thirty-nine entrants. There was no overall winner, just one victor in each of the height classes, and the physiques were not particularly impressive. It was a pretty amateurish production, but it paved the way for the contests that came afterward.

The next attempt at a national competition was much more polished and successful. It was held in June of 1939 in Amsterdam, New York. Hordines again staged an event that many have called a "Mr. America" contest, although its official title was once more "America's Finest Physique." For the first time there was an overall winner, and since there was no distinction between pro and amateur at this meet, the big victor was professional musclemen, Bert Goodrich.

To make things a little more confusing, about a month later on July 4, 1939 there was another attempt at putting on a national competition. This time it was held after the 1939 Senior National Weightlifting Championships. The entrants had to be amateurs, and they had to participate in the weightlifting contest earlier that day. The victor of this meet was Roland Essmaker. The only reason anyone remembers this minor competition is because it was the first time the Amateur Athletic Union became involved, since all winners had to be members of that organization. No professionals need apply.

So despite many conflicting titles and several simultaneous contests all claiming to have found "America's perfect physique," it wasn't until 1940 that the pieces finally fell into place, and a new competition was born. Since the great New York World's Fair was in full swing, it was considered a good time to hold a bodybuilding competition in the Big Apple. Once again, there was a weightlifting competition and then afterwards, the physique contest. But this time the participation of the AAU was unquestioned, and the name of the affair had been changed to "Mr. America." It was a glittering evening of competition the likes of which no one had ever experienced before.

In addition to the main winner, there were also competitions for best body parts: arms, legs, abdominals, and so on. But at that first Mr. America contest, one man dominated the competition so conclusively that there was virtually no competition. He was John C. Grimek, and his well-deserved victory put the contest on a straight and true trajectory to success. It was said that the only reason anyone else won any of the sub-categories was because Grimek had chosen not to enter them, otherwise he would have swept them as well. That Mr. America victory signalled two things: that bodybuilding was assured a bright future and that Grimek was destined to dominate the sport for many decades to come.

This first Mr. America helped to define certain aspects that were later taken for granted in bodybuilding competitions. In addition to the bodypart awards, there was also a "Most Muscular" category that was used to honor those men whose bulk was considered outrageous or unsymmetrical. One of the drawbacks to the competition was that there were apparently no compulsory rounds of posing, so this often caused some problems. But there were other troubles as well.

In general, the posing at the 1940 Mr. America represented a dilemma for the men because most of them were simply not used to showing off their bodies in front of other people. As one witness described it, a majority of the men "got up on the platform and stood there 'thinking up' a pose, when all of this should have been done weeks ago . . . Many of them would get up there and start a pose and, like a flash, would change it, not knowing just what they were doing." Perhaps part of the reason for the men's reluctance was that there was no music to accompany their routines. A few of the athletes shone brilliantly despite the problems. The most notable exception to this dearth of posing ability, arrived in the person of John Grimek. There seemed to be no end to his talents since he was not only superbly muscular but a graceful poser as well.

By the time the next year's contest had rolled around, there had been more regional championships, and so the 1941 Mr. America was more representative of the country as a whole. The nation's muscle men assembled in Philadelphia for America's most prestigious contest. There was a judging system that was supposed to take most of the subjectivity out of the competition. The judges could award a maximum of five points for muscular development, five for muscular proportions, three for posing, and two for general appearance; this meant that a perfect score would be 15 or a total of 150 from all ten judges. The man who won the overall title picked up a total of 146 points. That man was once again John Grimek. His next closest competitor, Jules Bacon, earned 125. It was, as one astonished witness claimed, "Hardly possible that a man could score so high, that any human could be considered to be so nearly perfect." It looked like no one could ever touch the mighty Grimek.

The problem of Grimek's invincibility was solved by the time the 1942 Mr. A contest took place. Organizers decided to change the rules so that a competitor could only win the contest once, otherwise, they figured Grimek would go on winning the thing indefinitely. Because of this rule, a new name leapt onto the record books: Frank Leight, a former New York policeman, who had built a finely muscled body.

When the 1943 competition arrived, the U.S. was deeply embroiled in World War II. Many of the Mr. America contestants as well as the judges were now in the service, but this did nothing to dampen the men's enthusiasm. The contest was held in Los Angeles this time, and the competition boiled down to a duel between two men: Jules Bacon and Dan Lurie. Both athletes were running neck and neck, but Bacon eventually grabbed top honors. It was reported in the magazines that this was because he was handsomer than Lurie, not necessarily because he was more muscular.

Sheer bulk and muscularity were the most important factors when it came to choosing the 1944 Mr. America. This was fortunate for the winner, Steve Stanko, since he was never good at muscle display. As Bob Hoffman revealed in Strength & Health, "Steve never practices in front of the mirror and only gave a halfhearted display when he was on the platform, but he dwarfed all other men on the platform with his amazing development."

The men were getting bigger and bulkier, and by the time 1945's contest rolled around, muscularity played an important role. This was apparent when Private First Class Clancy Ross bolted out of the Nevada desert and onto the posing dais at the Los Angeles site of the Mr. America competion. Thanks to Ross, the headlines could have read "Unknown Makes Good," reported one magazine. He had been stationed at an Army base near Las Vegas and had trained in virtual secrecy until showing up on the night of the contest much to the consternation of the other participants. Ross succeeded in sweeping aside all his competition and was named Mr. America.

Another virtual unknown nabbed the title in 1946. This time it was a good looking, blond muscleman from the Midwest named Alan Stephan. According to publisher Bob Hoffman, Stephan "makes an ideal Mr. America for he is tall, well proportioned, broad shouldered, deep chested, has a pleasing and impressive muscular contour, and is extremely handsome." He was a perfect proponent of bodybuilding for a postwar population that was destined to take up fitness in ever increasing numbers.

The Mr. America for 1947 was destined to eclipse all the others in fame and fortune. Steve Reeves used his victory in America's most renowned physique contest as a catapult to stardom. Reeves was a California bodybuilder with the face of a matine' idol and the body of Hercules. It was his resemblance to the Greek hero that allowed the young man to branch out into the movies. Thanks to his contest win, he was soon whisked off to Italy where he appeared in a series of Italian gladiator movies. By the end of his cinematic career, Reeves had become the most famous star to come out of the physique world until Schwarzenegger overtook him.

The Mr. America contest of 1948 marked a watershed in its history, and it reflected the transformations that were overtaking the sport. Increasing opportunities for competition began to appear in the bodybuilding world; this simple fact changed everything. One of the reasons the Mr. America contest had attracted so much attention early in his history is that there just wasn't much else out there. Now, starting in 1948, other opportunities for competition were beginning to open up. There were increasing numbers of regional contests as well as international trials such as the Mr. Universe competition where bodybuilders from all over the world could strut their stuff.

An even more important development was the formation of the IFBB as a rival institution to the AAU. Starting in 1946, Joe and Ben Weider had begun to lure serious bodybuilders away from Bob Hoffman and the AAU. The Weiders did not feel that physique athletes were being treated fairly by the other side; Hoffman and his AAU associates were more interested in Olympic lifting, and they tended to push bodybuilding to the background. The Weiders, on the other hand, wanted to run shows where bodybuilding would bask in center stage, no longer playing second fiddle to a weightlifting competition. The tension between the two opposing sides built rapidly, and it would soon break into all-out war.

Fortunately, this situation did not detract from George Eiferman's victory in 1948. Eiferman had come to Southern California from Philadelphia, and when he won the Mr. America, it signaled the start of the shift from East to West. The sport of bodybuilding would gradually move from its center in New York or York, Pennsylvania to sunny L.A.

All through the 1950's, 60's, and 70's, the Mr. America contest continued to attract many of the top names. The winners were primarily young athletes on the way up the bodybuilding ladder, and the Mr. A proved to be an important and welcome rung. Jack Delinger, Roy Hilligenn, Bill Pearl, Dennis Tinerino, Chris Dickerson, and others are only a few of the major physique stars who earned their first major title with the AAU sponsored Mr. A.

Although it was still an important contest, the Mr. America was no longer the only game in town. It continued to attract enough major bodybuilders to remain a coveted prize, however. The IFBB began their own version of the contest called the Professional Mr. America in 1949, but Bob Hoffman made sure that anyone who competed in the rival contest would be unceremoniously drummed out of the AAU forever.

With the advent of modern bodybuilding, however, the line between an amateur and professional athlete became increasingly blurred. So with the money and the prestige gradually accruing to the other side, it was only a matter of time before the Mr. America contest stopped featuring the top athletes in the field.

Even so, the old Mr. A still conjures up powerful emotions and vivid images. Many bodybuilding buffs can rattle off the names and years of their favorite Mr. Americas as if they were World Series or Superbowl victories. So despite the passage of time, there continues to be a magic ring to the name Mr. America, and today it's time to reinstate the glory that once radiated from the title. Even though other contests have supplanted it in size and magnificence, none can surpass the Mr. A when it comes to its long and glorious past. Let's make it shine like new once more!

David Chapman is a bodybuilding historian whose articles have appeared in Ironman, Muscle and Fitness, Flex, and other magazines. His biography of pioneer muscleman, Eugen Sandow, appeared in 1994.

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