As the 1940's drew to a close I had become known in iron circles as one of bodybuilding's top competitors, a contest promoter of talent and vision and a successful businessman, the owner of a thriving barbell company and popular chain of gyms.
I felt satisfied with what I had accomplished but had a firm eye on furthering bodybuilding's popularity through continued contest promotion and my growing business practices. I did not know it at the time, but my life was to take a completely different turn, one that would put me in the public eye more so than anything I had done up until then.
The year was 1950 and a major opportunity, one that would change my life forever was to come my way. At age 27 I lived and breathed bodybuilding. Despite my hectic lifestyle I still found time to train, and my physique remained sharp. With additional muscle size I was now much larger at around 175 pounds, at a height of five foot six inches.
This presented a more powerful appearance and I remained as strong as ever. In fact, it was my size and strength, along with an untapped ability to sing and act that landed me the opportunity to become a household name across America. In early 1950 I was asked to play the role of a strongman on the nationally televised Sealtest Big Top Show, a production that would become the number one children's show of its time.
Airing on CBS from July 1, 1950 through to September of 1957, Sealtest Big Top brought together all the fun of the circus with a cast of actors chosen especially for their ability to depict various circus characters: Jack Sterling was the ringmaster; Bob Russell the barker; Ed McMahon and Chris Keegan were clowns; and Barbera Cubberly played Majorette.
Naturally I played the part of a strongman: "Sealtest Dan The Muscle Man". Before my role as Sealtest Dan, I was known nationally, but only within the bodybuilding community, which was rather small at the time. After appearing on Sealtest Big Top for several years I became known to a wider, more general audience.
Of over 2,100 acts performed throughout the show's duration I would do the strength feats in a role where I would become known as America's most popular muscle man of the 1950s and 1960s. Let me tell you how it all began.
The Sealtest Big Top Show
Upon spotting a story featuring myself in the Daily News, a producer for the Madison Avenue advertising agency of N.W. Ayer called me to arrange an interview. At the time, the agency was in talks with Sealtest Dairies, a company that produced milk, ice cream and other dairy products, who wanted to attract a younger market to broaden these products appeal.
They wanted to design a series of commercials that featured their products in ways that would appeal to children of all ages. I was of interest, as my physique was considered marketable. I went along with no big expectations, more out of curiosity than anything else.
The agency, though, had big plans for me. "Mr. Lurie," the producer began. "We are about to launch a very exciting television show to be called the 'Sealtest Big Top'. The central theme of the show will revolve around a circus. Everybody loves the circus," he said with an encouraging smile.
He told me that professionals would play all of the principal characters. "We want real clowns and a barker. We also want a real strongman, you!" I considered the promoters words before declining his offer.
"Wait a minute, Mr, Thompson, I'm not just a circus strongman currently out of work," I told him. "I have a business to run and really can't be taking days off to rehearse and be commuting to Philadelphia every week to do the show. Sorry, but I am just not interested."
"I'm sorry to hear that Mr. Lurie," said the producer, "because your reputation as man of strength and as America's Most Muscular Man would have been an asset to the show. Perhaps you could recommend someone for the part." I thought for a while and suggested they contact a member of my gym, Stanley Elkins: a young man who I considered to be a very strong and on this basis felt would fit the part well. With the opportunity of a lifetime having slipt through my fingers, I made my way back to my own office.
During my 20-minute discussion with the producer we discussed all manner of things concerning my role as Sealtest Dan. However, not once did Mr. Thompson mention salary. And I didn't ask. Meanwhile, Stanley Elkins auditioned for the job, and got it. His contract was for 13 weekly shows. But before the first show screened who should arrive at my office flustered but Stanley.
A Second Chance:
He looked concerned. I asked him what was wrong. It was disappointing for me to see him like this as I really liked him and had hoped the strongman role would work out for him. "Dan, I've been drafted," he managed to say between tears.
This was at a time when the Korean War was at its peak and young men were being called up and put into uniform. "I'm not afraid of going in the army Dan. The problem is, I have already begun some of the Big Top rehearsals and I won't be around to complete the 13 weeks," he said.
"I can't just keep going, then leave them. It wouldn't be fair." Accepting his predicament, I told him that his country had to come first and wished him well. As he was leaving I asked, "Just out of interest Stan, how much are they paying you to do the show?"
"$300 a week as well as my hotel expenses and train fare," he said.
Then it struck me. At the time of my refusal to do the show, I had not once considered the potential financial benefits. Now I figured if I played my cards right, I could make a good income from this role, which, combined with the profits from my existing businesses, would be enough to provide for my family the type of lifestyle I figured they deserved.
Two days later, producer Thompson called me. I was ready for him. With Stan gone, they desperately needed a strongman and I knew it. "I might be interested," I told him. "But not for $300 a week. I am an A.A.U. national titleholder and businessman. My time is valuable and I know what I am worth."
This bluff seemed to work because Mr. Thompson then asked me in a very polite tone how much I wanted. 'Twice what you are paying Elkins," I said without hesitation. Finally we settled on $500 a show. I also negotiated travel expenses as the show was filmed weekly in Philadelphia.
The rest is history, and the original 13 week contract stretched out for seven-years. The work was perfect for me as I enjoyed performing and displaying my physique and physical strength in front of an audience. It was like bodybuilding all over again, except this time I was paid handsomely for my efforts.
Feats Of Strength
My main role was to perform strength feats after consuming Sealtest products, which included milk and ice cream. These feats, made possible through the "miraculous intervention" of the strength-inducing Sealtest products, included one-arm dumbbell presses, an exercise I excelled in as a youth, various barbell presses, numerous bodyweight exercises such as press-ups and sit-ups and stunts where I would lift one or more people overhead.
On one occasion I lifted, from a lying position, a 100-pound dumbbell 10 times with each hand while the audience counted along. This was extremely hard as I had to balance one side of my body while the other side pumped the weight; passing it from left to right hand while remaining stable on the small bench was feat in itself.
After this display I was given some Sealtest, homogenised vitamin-D milk - "it's Dan's favorite drink," the announcer said. As I popped and strained, my muscles would pump up to a tremendous size, much to the delight of the live audience of over 1000. I would also make my back muscles do their own Mexican wave - they would contort and take on all manner of shapes as I flexed them in unusual ways.
I also had little faces painted on my chest and by moving my pectoral muscles up and down I could make the faces move, smile and frown. My muscles would also open and close the show as well. The Big Top's title and credits were drawn on my back and by flexing my muscles I could make them move.
I must have had the most televised back in the world. Using my muscles in various ways was just the type of novel approach to attracting viewers and potential customers the agency wanted. And the viewers tuned in to watch each Saturday at noon on WCAU Philadelphia, the CBS owned-and-operated television station that served the Philadelphia and Pennsylvania market.
We All Scream For Ice Cream!
As a fringe benefit, Sealtest gave me as much ice cream as I could carry home. It was not uncommon for me to take over 20 liters of ice cream home on weekends and my popularity as father and husband increased enormously on such occasions.
Imagine for a moment just how much ice cream 20 liters was - exactly 2000mls. Naturally my family and I could not eat this much in one-week. So I would give it away: friends, neighbours, even toll collectors on the New Jersey turnpike, would receive frequent gifts of ice cream.
I was happy with the ice cream arrangement and, more importantly, with my weekly wage. However, I noticed several others on the show would constantly approach the advertising agency for raises. They thought they were indispensable. Meanwhile I kept my mouth shut.
My reticence paid off as, although these staff usually got their raises, a few weeks into their new contract a sudden replacement would be found for them and they would be out of a job.
In fact, when asked if I wanted a raise I would always say, "I leave that entirely up to you. The money I make here is small compared to the profits I make from my own business. I do this because I like the people I work with and I do it mainly for fun." And this was the truth.
Balancing Business & The Big Top
I did love my job and considered it a fun experience. As Sealtest Dan I met and made friends with many talented people and learned a lot about business and life. For one thing I learned how far good organizational skills would take you.
Readying myself for my Sealtest Dan slot, which meant many hours preparing my physique and reading my lines, eventually became second nature, but there was no room for error and I had to be highly organized at all times. The money I made as Sealtest Dan did also mean a lot to me. Although I played it cool, the money I earned would allow me to buy for my family a very nice home. And, yes, I did receive a yearly raise.
For the seven years the Sealtest Big Top Show screened my routine more or less stayed the same. Every Thursday I would take the subway to the advertising agency, N.W. Ayer, situated in the Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. From there I would get my new scripts for the three commercials that were to be screened the coming Saturday.
I would spend two hours rehearsing in the studio room before returning to my other businesses. Every Friday at 9:00pm I would catch a train at Grand Central Station and arrive in Philadelphia around 11:00 that evening. Myself along with several Big Top actors would relax at the Comac baths - which offered steam baths, massage, food and accommodation - before retiring for the night.
We needed the rest on Fridays, as an arduous day of screening would begin the following morning. On Saturday we were up by 6:00am, ready for the 6:30 TV rehearsals, which lasted until 7:30am. After rehearsals we would have our script memorised and were free do whatever we wished.
While others went out for entertainment, my "free time" was spent reading and answering business orders and mail I took with me from Brooklyn. In fact, I turned my actors area into a makeshift office using a four-by-eight piece of plywood on top of some props for a desk. At 11:15am sharp, the letters and orders were put to one side and I had my make-up applied.
It is hard to imagine a circus strongman needing make-up but remember this was television and without cosmetics the bright lights would promote a sickly appearance - not the look a representative of the health-promoting Sealtest products should have.
After make-up was on I would pump-up my muscles by doing five sets of 50 push-ups. With a coat of oil on my body and muscles sufficiently pumped with blood, I was ready to make the first of my three, three-minute appearances at 12noon. Sealtest Dan would then perform whatever feats of strength were expected of him for that week.
In addition to the strength feats, I sang and spoke of the benefits Sealtest products provided, all in front on an audience of over 1000 boy and girl scouts. These scouts, replete in full uniform, and eager to watch the circus acts that were to follow, paraded at the opening of the show as six performances went on around them - a most impressive entrance for these lucky young boys and girls.
Performing in front of such an audience was rather nerve-wracking as children can be unforgiving critics. But I did learn the importance of timing, a lesson that would help me in later performing roles. Since I had only nine minutes in which to do three, three-minute commercials, in addition to approximately five minutes for the opening parade, I had to be perfectly on schedule or I would risk stalling the show.
Make-up, pumping, oiling and costuming had to be arranged to allow for the smooth running of the show every time. The show also had only 30-seconds to stretch and cut in order to be off the air by 1:00pm. The pressure was on! Fortunately everything went smoothly and the show ran on schedule every time.
On many occasions I drove to Philadelphia with fellow New York-based actors so after Saturday's show we were able to make a speedy return home, often arriving back at 3:30pm. Then it was back to business for me. Often I would spend a few hours at my gym on West 57 street and Eighth Avenue.
In a previous life this gym was an old YMCA basement that contained steam rooms and a large Olympic pool and these facilities were kept and made good use of by my customers. After spending the afternoon at my gym, I would be back home by 7:00pm to spend the evening with my wife Thelma and children. I never did business on Sundays, as these were family days.
What I enjoyed most about performing on the Big Top Show were the friends I made, many of which have had a lasting impact on my life.
One such man was Charlie Ryan, who was to be the original "Hymie" in my life. As producer of the commercial music used on the show, and once member of the Original Smoothies singing group of radio and nightclub fame - they were regulars on the Gracie and George Burns show- Charlie was a man of many theatrical talents.
He suggested I join him and a group of his friends at the Comac Baths every Friday night before we filmed the show. Before then, Sealtest had been spending $50 every Friday night on a hotel room for me, and since the Turkish baths cost only $5 per night I accepted his offer.
At that moment Charlie Ryan saved Sealtest more than $4,000 on hotel fees over the six-years we were on air - and this is not counting the towels we took from the baths! The baths provided a wonderful retreat from my hectic seven-year schedule as a Big Top Show performer.
In addition to the baths themselves, there was a TV lounge, massage service, plenty of food and a small swimming pool. Our sleeping rooms were eight-by-eight in size, more than enough room to relax before the following day's filming. Charlie Ryan was also a theatrical agent and was responsible for booking me on many of my earlier TV specialty shows.
I would humour him over the fact he was Irish and had to work with so many Jewish show business people. "You should get yourself a Jewish partner Charlie," I would say. "Ryan and Cohen would give you a better chance of booking more talent."
The Jewish name "Hymie", an affectionate term used for a friend, was the name I gave him. I suggested he use this name to win over his Jewish clients. He often did, and to this day, it is still my name for him.
Charlie is 94 years young and we have been close friends for over 57 years.
Another Charlie I worked with, but did not become as friendly with, was Charlie Vander, the shows producer. Mr. Vander was as serious as a heart attack and one hundred percent business all of the time. After the show he became more relaxed, but during the broadcast no one spoke to him.
During much of my seven years on the Big Top Show I would spend time on the road doing promotional work. The advertising agency had me appear at state fairs, on radio and television shows, and at everything from bridge openings to the arrival of a new elephant at the city zoo - it was not the first time I would be lifted skyward by one of these impressive specimens as this would happen quite frequently on the Big Top Show itself.
It was at the Michigan State Fair that I met Governor. G. Mennen (Soapy) Williams. I was to appear at the fair with the Governor, have some pictures taken, then we would have lunch together. As I stepped out of the elevator of the five-star Detroit hotel we were staying in dressed in a business suit and ready to impress with style and sophistication the agency people were already waiting for me in the lobby.
"No, no, Dan, you can't wear a business suit," a disappointed looking agency P.R. man said. "What do you expect me to wear in the company of the Governor," I asked, "a white sheet?"
"Dan, you have to look like Sealtest Dan when you meet Governor Williams." I argued that wearing my leotards and cape would not be the best of looks on such a formal occasion. I lost my argument and met the Governor wearing my Big Top Sealtest Dan outfit.
I felt like a freak, but had no choice - I was meeting with this esteemed man cape and all. This proved a good idea though as the Governor loved my look and really got into the spirit of the occasion. In keeping with my strongman persona, I lifted him overhead with one hand as part of the celebration. The crowd loved it.
The Big Top Show had as its master of ceremonies, Jack Sterling (real name, Jack Sexton), who also became a good friend. I looked upon him as an older brother as he had a few years on me. His kindness and advice was appreciated. Whenever Jack went on vacation an announcer named Tony Marvin - for those who can remember, he was the man with the very deep voice on the Arthur Godfrey show - would replace him.
During our years on the Big Top Show Tony lived on Long Island, not far from were I was in Brooklyn, and he and I became close friends. He had one of the classiest singing voices I had ever heard, an operatic style that really shook the rafters.
Sadly, few knew about his singing talents, but if they were widely known, he could have gone far in this industry. Tony also shared my passion of working out and keeping fit and trim and when we trained together he would inspire me with his tremendous work ethic. Tony retired in Boynton Beach, Florida, and died on October 10, 1998 at age of 86. He was buried in Pinelawn Jewish Cemetery in Long Island only a short distance from my Family Plot in Mt. Ararat.
A most unlikely candidate for the Big Top clown was Ed McMahon, who went on to achieve fame on Johnny Carson's, The Tonight Show. Ed, who lived in Philadelphia, graduated as an actor from the Drama Department of the Catholic University.
Sadly his talents as an actor did not translate to his personality and I personally found him standoffish. While the rest of the crew who were all from New York City would gather at the Turkish baths on the Friday evening before the show, Ed would only join us at the Armoury where the Big Top was televised the following Saturday morning.
25 years ago I arranged and picked up the tab for a reunion of all the Big Top gang at the Waldorf Astoria here in New York. Ed was the only one who never came. He sent his apologies from Hollywood and assured me he would call during the dinner. We hooked the phone up to a public address system so everyone could hear him speak. He never called.
The barker on the Big Top Show was Bob Russell. With a big background in show business, including a slot as master of ceremonies for the Miss America Pageant before Bert Parks got the job, Bob was a consummate actor and a very professional entertainer.
In fact, he wrote the Miss America theme song, "Here she is, Miss America". Like many show business people, Bob had a superstition: it involved the number two. It seemed two's were connected to him in almost every way - his phone number, hotel number, his address all included the number two.
For many years I called Bob and asked for extension "222". He knew instantly who was calling because not many people knew about his obsession with the number two. I kept in contact and maintained a strong friendship with Bob for 48 years until his death in 1998 - he lived his later years and died in Lido Beach in the Sarasota area of Florida.
Bob, who was 15-years older than me, was probably one of the smartest men I have ever known and had a great personality to match. He would have a good diplomat. In 1965 I had Bob MC at my Mr. New York State contest held at the World's Fair.
He was also Master of Ceremonies at most of the WBBG Hall of Fame dinners, beginning with the first one in 1965 where the great Sigmund Klein was inducted. In 1995 my wife Thelma and I drove to Sarasota, Florida, to visit with Bob. He was in fine spirits and looked great. He was a great guy. I learned a lot from him.
The Barbell Business
The 1950's were extremely busy and exhilarating for me. As well as working on the Big Top Show I managed my barbell and gym businesses. This took a lot of juggling as orders were coming in left and right and my gyms, one in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn, were taking in more cliental every day.
My New York gym on West 57 Street and Eighth Avenue was home to many famous businessmen and celebrities who particularly enjoyed getting massages. Among these men were Hollywood stuntman and bodybuilder, Joe Bonomo, actor of Rocky and Rambo fame, Sylvester Stallone, and his brother Frank, and radio and television announcer for the New York Yankees baseball team, Mel Allen. Judges, lawyer and celebrities comprised most of the cliental for this gym.
Although my gyms were proving popular, when the Big Top show ended in 1957 I put most of my energies into my barbell business, packing sets and selling them to top department, sporting goods and toy stores. This is when this business really took off for me. My Sealtest Dan career actually helped me to sell more barbells.
I would make many personal appearances as Sealtest Dan the Muscle Man and people would flock to see me perform. As a strategic business move I would hold these displays outside stores that sold my equipment and big crowds would fill the parking lots. It was good business practice for both the store and myself as they would attract more customers and I would sell more barbells.
The barbell business was, at the time, run centrally from my showroom and factory on 1661 Utica Avenue, Brooklyn. At this time I rented two buildings on the same site, both of which served as distribution depots where we packed the barbells. As the business grew I rented two large warehouses about a mile from the original site.
All aspects of manufacturing were handled from this warehouse base: including the cutting, welding, and painting of all exercise equipment. 20 men were employed full-time and my son Mark oversaw the whole operation.
The business even expanded into saunas, which came in all sizes: from three-by-four to 10-by-20. Most of these were sold privately, but a few were bought by department stores. Once again Mark was head of manufacturing and actually built the heating element units himself.
Further Television Work
As well as taking care of the barbell and gym businesses, I continued doing television work. In fact, my regular appearances on the Big Top Show led to many offers to appear on television.
The Steve Allen Show:
I made regular appearances on the Steve Allen Show in 1954 and 1955; my muscles would impress his viewers to where it was requested I return.
At this time Steve Lawrence who was originally from the Brownsville area of Brooklyn and lived right across the road Ferkie's Gym, where I used to train as a boxer from age 13 to 16, and his wife, Edie Gorme, regularly appeared on the show.
They would paint with their fingers on my back and chest little faces and shapes as was done on the Big Top Show and flexing my muscles to change these faces expressions would delight Steve Allen's crowd.
I hit it off well with Steve Allen, as he was the perfect gentleman and a clever entertainer. I love music and Allen was a great piano player. His shows were always full of the kind of quick-witted humor that keeps the audiences laughing - one of his approaches was to feature novel performers and, at the time, my strongman act was as offbeat as you could get.
On one occasion I performed on Allen, 190 pounds at the time, the same one-handed lift I did with Governor Williams at the Michigan State Fair a few years earlier. With Allen though I put a different twist on what had become a signature move for me: I turned my body as I lifted him so that his behind rather than his face was toward the camera at completion. The audience thought that was terrific.
I also appeared on other children's shows, both during and after my time on Sealtest. For several years in the early 1950's I did commercials on the Captain Video Show. The show, which was sponsored by Powerhouse candy, was based around the heroic exploits of great scientific genius, Captain Video, and his juvenile sidekick, The Video Ranger.
While they battled various menaces from outer space and faced strange situations on distant planets, I, upon eating the sponsor's product, became extraordinarily powerful and performed great strength feats. I was not Sealtest Dan this time, but the mighty Rewop ("power" spelled backwards).
The name "The Mighty Rewop" caused the sponsor to receive so many complaints from Italian-Americans that it was eventually pulled.
Meanwhile I continued to impress with my ability to do more than your average strongman. The Ayer agency executives - and particularly writer Maggie Kerns - were very surprised to discover that I was quite literate and able to do commercials with singing and speaking parts.
So I did commercials quite distinct from the strongman-type work they initially had me doing. There were also many occasions where I would dress up as an American Indian, cowboy, pirate, or even Santa Claus to entertain masses of children and their families at parades and openings around the country.
During these appearances I would act, sing and speak. The singing was well received at the many state fairs I attended where I would also perform feats of strength in "tent-shows" that would last for 30-minutes. And as the audiences had come to expect I would always end these shows by lifting a 200-pound-plus man overhead with one arm.
Performing in tent shows at state fairs, in parades and openings, and on televised commercials was something that came naturally to me. I had never done any formal training to become an actor; I simply had a passion and capacity for making people happy through muscle strength and engaging personality.
In addition to the further acting work it spawned, the Big Top Show provided me with much more besides. There were many life-long friends I made on the show and the organizational lessons learned. But the biggest thrill for me was getting paid for something I would have happily done for free.
I encountered very few problems during my time on the Big Top Show. On one occasion though I managed to get badly sunburned on my back. This would not concern your average performer, but I had to display the shows title and credits on my back. It was a valuable commodity - I should have had it insured.
People often ask me, "What opportunities might bodybuilding provide?" My reply? Bodybuilding will lead to a life of riches unimagined - health, vitality, strength of character, and a strong mind all result from the sustained efforts needed to build a great physique. But it can go even further than that.
My slot on the Big Top Show and numerous other television appearances were made possible through my physique and strength, both developed through bodybuilding. These days, a well-developed, strong body is a commodity strongly sought after by movie and television producers who want an actor with good marketability. Who knows where bodybuilding might lead you. It led me to the Big Top.