Laura Macfehin looks back on body builder Joe Bonomo- how the son of a Candyman almost became the most famous ‘swinger’ of all time!
The Sweet Life
On a mild summer morning towards the end of the 19th century, a ship was steaming into New York. It had come from Istanbul and the decks were crowded with people keen to get a look at their new home. The harbour was crowded with other ships of all sizes and the sunlight sparkled on the water. Al and Esther Bonomo stood together in the breeze and shaded their eyes against the glare – with the rest of the passengers they craned their necks and stared at the imposing statue that loomed up as they passed Bedloe’s Island. There were oohs and aahs and a couple of whoops as they steamed passed. A thrill of inspiration ran through Al as he gazed at the copper giantess, holding aloft what appeared to be a monumental ice-cream.
Although later disabused of the notion that Liberty was welcoming them to the New World with frozen confectionery the inspiration stuck, and within a year the Bonomos were established on the Coney Island boardwalk with a stall selling ice-creams and homemade candy. On Christmas day in 1901 little Joe was born, and quickly became a fixture along with his parents in the carnival world of Coney Island. Despite having unlimited access to ice-cream and sweets the Brooklyn boy was a scrawny lad— often at the butt end of others jokes and earning himself the nickname ‘Toothpicks’. He kept to himself—exploring the world of sideshows and thrill rides with just his dog Babe for company.
“What’s the matter, kid?”
It was on one of these explorations that little Joe meet Ladislaw—a hulking Polish man who was in Coney Island with his strong man act. Ladislaw found Joe skulking round the back of the tent and asked the boy why he looked so glum. Joe replied that he was sick of being teased, and he wished he’d been born strong like Ladislaw. Ladislaw chided him—“there’s nothing to it; being a big guy like me—anyone can do it. All it is eating the right foods and exercising your muscles”. Joe was fascinated—he got all the information he could from Ladislaw and from then on befriended every muscle man who came through Coney Island, even the world-famous Eugen Sandow.
By high school he was a footballer and wrestler, and he had also managed to teach himself fencing, horse riding and ballroom dancing. He loved the glamour of the ballroom, but above all he was in love with motion pictures.
New Jersey Babylon
At this time, New Jersey, not Hollywood was the centre of film production in America. Thomas Edison had set up his studio near his workshops in 1892 and from that time filmmakers had flocked to the area, setting up their own studios. As well as the proximity to technology New Jersey provided photogenic scenery and locales an a steady stream of talent just a ferry ride away from Broadway. The previously sedate semi-rural New Jersey was over taken by film folk who churned out thousands of pictures for the new Nickelodeons that were springing up all over the country.
In 1921 Joe Bonomo was encouraged by muscle man and founding father of the body-building universe Charles Atlas to enter a star search competition looking for the ‘Modern Apollo’. Maybe was there was magic in the leopard print loincloth Atlas lent him because Bonomo beat out thousands of other hopefuls. The prize was a role opposite film star Hope Hampton. Hampton, herself a competition winner was successful actress/producer who continued at the top her game until talkies came in. The role Bonomo won was in ‘The Light in the Dark‘ a seven-reel melodrama featuring Hampton, Lon Chaney as a crook with a heart of gold and a hokey plot centred around the holy grail.
Most films from this era were melted down after a week’s run and turned into new stock – The Light in the Dark has survived in a much abbreviated form as The Light of Faith because it was picked up for use in Religious Education classes –but it no longer has any trace of Bonomo in it. He must have done okay in it though because from that time on Bonomo was in work constantly in the pictures.
When the movie industry decamped to Hollywood seeking cheap land, sunshine and a continent-sized distance between them and the extremely litigious Edison, Bonomo went too. His impressive physique and animated features made him a perfect fit for silent movies, and he starred in features like Eagle’s Nest and The Great Circus Mystery, as well as serials like The Chinatown Mysteries, Perils of the Wild and The Fighting Marines. He also doubled for actors like Lon Chaney, performing stunts in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and other hugely successful films. Days were spent leaping from rooftops, from moving cars, throwing punches and falling from windows. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame he completed a rope stunt that had seen another stuntman badly burnt by lining his gloves and trousers with tinfoil. At the end of work he showered off the plaster dust and danced the sprains away with partner Ethel.
Tarzan that wasn’t
In the early 30s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer negotiated the rights to turn the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan of the Apes into a motion picture. Bonomo was considered a lock for the part– he had the athleticism, the good looks and he performed his own stunts. There was one stumbling block– pictures now had sound and this Coney Island baby had a broad Brooklyn accent. Like many actors of the era Bonomo scrambled to get voice lessons– trying get the necessary refinement for a leading man. Burroughs was not impressed– Tarzan is meant to be an English lord after all. In the end it didn’t matter. Two accidents took Bonomo out of the running for this or any other role.
In the first incident Bonomo had hit western star Buck Jones with a chair in a fight scene. The Jones mis-timed his response and ended up with three broken ribs and a fractured back. While not his fault the accident badly shook Bonomo’s confidence. Then, while performing a car crash scene Bonomo broke a hip. After being x-rayed it was found Bonomo had broken over 37 bones since arriving in Hollywood. He was now un-insurable and therefore unhireable. The role of Tarzan went to Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer, who went on to make a dozen films as the Lord of the Apes, perfecting the ‘yell’ that became synonymous with the character and then thirteen films as the Safari hero Jungle Jim.
Muscle by mail
Like many stars of the silent era, Joe Bonomo was out of work almost over night. With his movie career behind him he married his dance partner Ethel and together with their baby daughter Joan they moved back to Coney Island, where Al Bonomo’s health had taken a turn for the worse. Bonomo took over the family business, but his mind soon turned to a different area of revenue. After all his early years on the boardwalk had taught him that you could hawk pretty much anything if you put your mind to it and came up with a good enough spiel.
At the height of his fame Bonomo had employed people to answer his fan mail, and one of the things he had sent out was a form letter outlining the steps needed to get a ‘new Apollo’ physique like his. He now turned his mind to how he could market this plan, and in 1939 his first magazine Your Figure Beautiful was launched. This publication featured diet and exercise plans, as well as advertisements for his mail-order courses which promised everything from a more beautiful bust to a completely new muscle-man physique.
Then (as now) his combination of quick-fix aspirational lifestyle advice and pictures of scantily clad models made these magazines very popular. He also managed to include the importance of eating plenty of sweets for building muscle-tone– which tied in nicely with his family business selling the reasonably priced Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy!
From the 1940s on Bonomo also published ‘minis’– pocket-sized manuals on everything from being a good war-worker, to simplifying housework to looking taller. These had gaudy loud covers and were sold on shop counters throughout the country. In the sixties he included titles on the evils of drugs (Don’t Be A Dope!) and What I Know About Women-– which was 64 blank pages (har har).
When he died in 1978 he left behind a mixed legacy– on the one hand his publications have a pretty direct lineage to infomercials; possibly not the finest of human cultural excretions, and yet the publications themselves are beautifully composed odes to physical culture (and in particular the muscular male form) in full camp colour. Not only that, but his stunt-work from the Twenties is breathtaking. Who knows what could have been had his diction been more malleable (he was also a contender for the role of Anthony to Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra)– but for now let us pop some candy in our mouths and say bravo Bonomo- the Brooklyn boy with the biceps!
For more info on Joe Bonomo try
The Strongman – Pictorial Autobiography of Joe Bonomo – 1973