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AN INTERVIEW WITH BOB BONHAM, EAST COAST BODYBUILDING GURU
By Curtis Schultz

 

Bob Bonham has been in the bodybuilding industry since day one. He has run the gamut from gym owner and show promoter to top "inside man" for the NPC and IFBB. Those of you familiar with the bodybuilding realm are quite familiar with the Mecca of the East, Strong & Shapely Gym, and its proprietor. For those of you who are not, let me tell you about the best gym on the East Coast and its owner. Strong & Shapely Gym is the place of champions on the East Coast. This iron-pumping, 25,000 square foot muscle asylum is located in East Rutherford, NJ and is run by one of the top men in the bodybuilding and fitness industry, Bob Bonham. Bob has lived his dream, what most step into bodybuilding imagine for themselves but never achieve. >From humble beginnings pumping iron in a garage with friends, living blocks from Weider’s headquarters, and standing face to face with the stars of muscle, Bonham has made personal dreams come true. The following is an exclusive interview with the East Coast guru himself, Bob Bonham.
 
Bob is a regular contributor to many bodybuilding magazines.

 

CURTIS SCHULTZ: How does it feel being called "the Mecca of the East" ?

BOB BONHAM: It’s an awesome compliment coming from all those pros at Gold’s Gym, Venice, California. They migrate here, but the one area that has produced more champions than anyone is the East Coast. John Kemper and Steve Weinberger, along with myself, keep putting them out. It is nice to be considered in such company. It is especially nice as a close friend said I would never make it.

CS: You have such an easy-going name for such a hard-core place. How did you come up with Strong & Shapely?

BB: 17 years ago when we first opened, real gyms only had one or two girls tops. We needed a name that would invite both sexes. Not "Bob’s Gym." Debby, my ex-wife, should take credit for this one. People at the time made a lot of fun of it, as the gym names around were like Iron Den, Sigelano’s, Fitness World, etc. A different attitude then.

CS: I remember you telling me about how you started up. Could you please tell the readers how you got started?

BB: I started with only $6,000 and 2, 500 square feet. Everything we made went right back into the business. The gym was built piece by piece. Right now, we are 25,000 square feet. Most of the space is filled with equipment. Over 40 back and 40 leg pieces alone. No aerobics, no child care, no racket ball. It’s a real gym, and we try to keep it that way so to keep an atmosphere conducive to progress.

CS: How old were you when you got started in lifting?

BB: I did start early. I was 14 years old and dreaming of a health farm to make people healthy. I knew of only two gyms in the New York and New Jersey area. I lived for bodybuilding magazines that would be delivered at the corner store. I read them, cover to cover, three to four times. I knew every author and photographer’s name. Union City, home base for Weider, was not too far away. But I was intimidated, and went on thinking this town was filled with muscular monsters.

CS: Did that young musclehead always live in New Jersey? Were you always on the small side as a kid?

BB: I was born here in New Jersey, but have lived in Florida and California, too. I did a lot of traveling hitchhiking around the country in the 70s. I played a lot of basketball. My mother wouldn’t sign any papers allowing me to play football. In 5th grade I couldn’t make the minimum weight of 80 pounds. It was at the end of that year, I started mailing away for all the mail-order courses, Charles Atlas and George F. Jowette leverage bells. Pulling springs and doing free-hand exercises were all I knew until a couple of classmates bought a set of weights. The record among us was 55 pounds in the clean and jerk. I went to break the record with my body weight (65 pounds), slipped on the wet grass and broke my wrist. God, was my overprotective mom screaming then!

CS: So, you were into weight lifting at an early age? Did you ever want to become a bodybuilder?

BB: No. I was skinny and just wanted a good build. It drew respect from girls and guys. However, I was fascinated with the sport and watching muscles change when they posed. So I started going to the shows in 1969. My first show was the IFBB Mr. America and the Mr. Olympia. We snuck into the orchestra pit and back stage. What a thrill that was.

CS: You mentioned that a close friend said you would never make it. Was this person referring to you making it in the gym business or other?

BB: Yes, close personal friends said I, and the gym, would not make it. Just more motivation.

CS: Bob, how did you get involved with the NPC? What was your first show that you promoted?

BB: We wanted to get publicity for the gym as we were just beginning. But, it had to be a natural, drug-tested show. The NPC, at that time, would not sanction natural shows. So, for the first two years, it was run under AAU. When they did (the NPC), we jumped over. Next to Peter Potter’s natural show, our "The Natural Eastern Classic," is the oldest NPC drug-tested show around. Until the past few years, we always had over 100 competitors. One year we had 149. Now we have somewhere in the 80s or 90s.

CS: How many shows have you done since then?

BB: Teen Master and Collegiate Nationals. 15 years of the Women’s Extravaganza. The Rich Gaspari Classic, Jr. USA and many, many Champions’ Day parties.

CS: I remember my first Champions’ Day. What a great event! More gym owners and show promoters should do that. Is there anything special for this year’s Champions’ Day? Being it’s the 2000 mark!

BB: I don’t think many can do this event. You have to be involved deeply in the politics and sport of bodybuilding just to even get addresses. We stopped doing Champions’ Day a couple of years ago, due to declining interest. I got tired of putting out so much money for fewer attendees. It was strictly for them, and it cost me money, and a lot of time from my business.

CS: You mention lower numbers at your Natural Eastern Classic. Why do you think your numbers have dropped? Do you think magazines like Muscle Media have the right idea about bodybuilding or are MuscleMag and Flex the real bodybuilding mags?

BB: We’ve dropped off a little because there are more natural shows around and more organizations around. Also, the Team Universe is in our backyard and the real good guys we used to get for our show now compete in that. Well, regarding magazines…MuscleMedia is for the average person who wants to get in shape. MuscleMag and Flex are the real bodybuilding mags.

CS: You always do the Women’s Pro Extravaganza. When so many people in the industry are anti-women bodybuilders, you are out promoting the sport. Do you feel that, if others did the same, it would help women’s bodybuilding or do some changes need to be made for its survival?

BB: One of the problems is the women don’t support their own sport. They don’t come out to see the shows in volume, or even compete much. Finance wise, you find men behind the scenes; promoters, sponsors, fans, and shows. There is no attempt to take over what is theirs.

CS: I understand you saved the Ms. Olympia. Was the 1999 Ms. Olympia a success?

BB: Yes, because of men like Joe Weider, Peter McGough (editor of Flex), Wayne DeMilia, and Bill Dobbins coming to the rescue in a matter of DAYS after being canceled. I had 3 weeks to put it together. This year, no one, including myself, put up a bid for the Women’s Olympia. But they are running it with the other Olympias in Vegas in 2000. Where it should be.

CS: How did the "new" weight classes idea for women’s pro bodybuilding work at this year’s Arnold Classic? Do you think it will help women’s pro bodybuilding?

BB: They will work very well on one hand, but on the other, nothing will happen unless the magazines give them publicity.

 
 

 

 

 
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