"I would like to be the first man in the gym business to throw out my scale. If you don't like what you see in the mirror, what difference does it make what the scale says?" - Vince Gironda
The History of Vince's Gym & The Stars He Trained
Steve Downs is a native of Southern California, having been born in Hollywood and raised in the San Fernando Valley. He completed his high school education at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks and his college studies at California State University, Northridge, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. He later pursued post graduate studies at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, in Strategic Market Planning.
Steve was introduced to weight training as a sophomore in high school by Muscle Beach bodybuilding and lifting legend, Bert Elliot, at a Sherman Oaks gym Bert was managing. "One of the most incredible feats of strength I ever saw," recalls Steve, "was Bert successfully completing a 290 lb. one arm bent press, and his weight, at the time, couldn’t have been more than 180 lbs.!"
When ownership of the gym decided to convert it to a women’s facility, Bert introduced Steve to his friend, Vince Gironda, encouraging him to train at Vince’s Gym.
"To say that my introduction to Vince was a life changing event would be an understatement," recalls Steve.
He trained at Vince’s Gym through the glory years of the 60s and early 70s, watching Vince prepare for the 1962 N.A.B.B.A. Professional Mr. Universe where he placed second, and seeing Larry Scott progress from Mr. California to become the first Mr. Olympia winner in 1965.
Inspired by probably the best bodybuilding photojournalist of our time, Gene Mozee, and legendary physique photographer and producer of the Jack LaLanne Show, Russ Warner, Steve picked up a camera and began to experiment in black & white, looking to show physiques under stark contrast lighting.
"As bodybuilding is in stark contrast to what the public considers normal, it was my intention," recalls Steve, " to, through dramatic lighting, magnify that contrast ten fold."
He found that the skylight at Vince’s produced this effect indoors while the pier in Santa Monica offered a somewhat comparable contrast outdoors, and was fortunate enough to capture moments with some of the greats of the time including the "Iron Guru" himself, Vince Gironda, a brash 21 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, 1967 IFBB Mr. America, Don Howorth, and 1967 AAU Junior Mr. California and Iron Man Magazine publisher, John Balik, among other standouts of the late 60s and early 70s.
While Steve began his career after college in the gym business managing Vince’s Gym and then opening franchises on the east coast for the fastest growing chain of women’s figure salons in the late 60s and early 70s, Elaine Powers Figure Salons, he transitioned in 1973 to vitamin and natural food sales and has been there ever since.
Steve Downs began managing Vince Gironda's gym in 1970, and then also took a job with SIGNET and moved to Minneapolis where he distributed products to the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa, North and South Dakota, and for a while, in the Chicago area.
Another trainer working for Vince, Ray Raridon, began distributing for SIGNET around the same time as John Balik in 1970. Raridon worked some of the more western states, and began labeling the SIGNET line with his new company name, Natural Source Products (NSP).
Most were not aware that Ray and Vince in the early stages of NSP had somewhat of a silent partnership. Acording to Ron Kosloff, Gironda's business track record wasn't the best, more so because Vince had no use for contracts, lawyers, and just about any other legality associated with running a business. Although Ron says there was nothing signed between the two, Vince was active to a certain degree in what Raridon was doing.
Gironda put about as much though into his marketing strategy as he did for the rest of his business affairs. The only reason Kosloff found out about NSP was when Ron phoned Vince from his home in Detroit around mid-1974 to ask Vince's advice as to what supplement line he recommended.
Ron was seriously considering getting into the distribution and retail of that aspect of the industry. He was totally suprised when Vince replied, "How about mine?"
Even though Ron had become friends with Gironda years earlier, he had no idea that NSP even existed, let alone Vince being involved in any way. Ron couldn't have asked for a better opportunity and by late 1974, he had received his first shipment of NSP products as an eastern distributor.
This was a significant move in terms of growth for the small company as Kosloff would pan out very well in that frontier.
In the summer of 1975, I was presented with an opportunity to train at Vince's Gym for a few months.
Gold's Gym had become a madhouse with the filming of "Pumping Iron". "We are making a documentary film about bodybuilding," photographer George Butler told me. "I don’t think so. Why don't you just call it 'Pumping Arnold'? It's obvious the film is all about him," I retorted to the biased shutterbug.
I wanted no part of it so I drove 20 miles each way, every day to Studio City to train at Vince's Gym.
Vince Gironda welcomed me. The gym had unique equipment, great equipment – the best dumbbells.
However, it lacked serious leg machines. "No wonder none of the guys who came out of here had no great leg development," I thought to myself.
Vince didn't believe in barbell squats – only hacks, leg extensions and leg curls (he would have loved the Leg Blaster).
I got along great with Vince because I agreed with him most of the time. One day I told him a parable that said in effect, "Only he who drinks tea truly knows its taste."
He really liked me after that. And I liked him.