Bob Bonham Interview!
Bob has been in this industry since day one. He has run the gambit from gym owner; show promoter, and top man for the NPC and IFBB. Those of you who are familiar with the bodybuilding realm then you are quite familiar with the Mecca of the East...
Bodybuilding.com: How does it feel being called the Mecca of the East?
BB: It's an awesome complement coming from all those pros at Gold's Gym, Venice, California. They migrate there, but the one area of the country that has produced more Champion's than anyone is the east coast. John Kemper and Steve Weineberger, 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.
Bodybuilding.com: You have such a 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 1 or 2 girl's - tops. We needed a name that would invite both sexes. Not, Bob's gym. Debby, my ex-wife, should take the credit for this one. People at the time made allot of fun of it, as the gym names around were like Iron Den, Sigelano's, Fitness World, etc...A different attitude then.
Bodybuilding.com: I remember you telling me about how you started up. Could you please tell our readers how you got started?
BB: I started with only $6,000 and 2500sq. ft. Everything we made went right back into the business. The gym was built piece by piece. Right now, we are 25,000 sq. ft. Most of the space is filled with equipment. Over 40 back and 40 leg pieces alone. No aerobics, no childcare, no racquetball. It's a real gym, and we try to keep it that way to keep the atmosphere conductive to progress.
Bodybuilding.com: How old were you when you got started in lifting?
BB: I did start early. I was 14 years old dreaming of a health farm to make people healthy. I knew of only 2 gyms in the NY & NJ area. I lived for bodybuilding magazines that would be delivered at the corner store. I read them, cover to cover, 3-4 times. I knew every author and photographer names. Union City, home base for Weider, was not too far away. But, I was intimidated, and went on thinking the town was filled with muscular monsters.
Bodybuilding.com: Did that young muscle head always live in New Jersey? Were you always on the small side as a kid?
BB: I was born here in NJ.. but have lived in Fla. & Cal. too. I did a lot of traveling hitch hiking around the country in the 70's. 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 80lbs. 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 weight. The record among us was 55lbs in the clean and jerk. I went to break the record with my body weight (65lbs) slipped on the wet grass and broke my wrist. God was my overprotective mom screaming then.
Bodybuilding.com: 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.
Bodybuilding.com: 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.
Bodybuilding.com: Bob, how did you get involved with the NPC? What was your first show 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 80's and 90's.
Bodybuilding.com: How many shows have you done since then?
BB: Teen Master & Collegiate Nationals, 15 years of the Women's Extravaganza, The Rich Gaspari Classic, Jr. USA, and many, many Champion's Day parties.
Bodybuilding.com: 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?
BB: I don't think many can do this event. You have to be involved deeply in the politics and the 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.
Bodybuilding.com: That's a shame. I really enjoyed Champions Day. You mention lower numbers at your Natural Eastern Classic, why do you think your numbers have dropped? Do you think magazines such as 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 back yard and the real good guys we use to get for our show now compete in that. Well, regarding magazines. Muscle Media is for the average person who wants to get in shape. MuscleMag and Flex are the real bodybuilding mags. Let's not forget the best online magazine for bodybuilding, Bodybuilding.com!
Bodybuilding.com: 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.
Bodybuilding.com: Understandably correct, they need to promote their own sport more. 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 Demilla, 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, now they are running it with the other Olympia's in Vegas where it should be.
Bodybuilding.com: How did the "new" weight classes' idea for Women's pro bodybuilding work at this years 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.
Bodybuilding.com: What is your evaluation on the sport of bodybuilding? Some people feel it's getting boring and way to out of hand with the drug use.
BB: The drugs were there from the 50's. Apparently people like it as 7,000 seats were sold out for the Olympia last year. Do you think a drug tested show would draw that many people? We do, however, have many natural organizations and they flourish in the amateur contestants. The major magazines can't sell with the drug-tested athletics as editorial, so they can't put the support behind them. There isn't that much evaluation in sport. But go to the gyms and you will see more and more recreational bodybuilders than ever.
Bodybuilding.com: What do you see in the future for bodybuilding?
BB: With more recreational bodybuilders around than ever, one can only hope some of these potential stars would compete. That would feed us more competitors. I don't see a big growth in this industry. There are, what seems to be, a hundred fitness magazines on the news stands now. Not bodybuilding ones. That seems to be where it is.
Bodybuilding.com: Yeah, even our "True" bodybuilding magazines are doing more and more T&A instead of "muscle."
Bodybuilding.com: Bob, you don't have to answer this question if you don't want to. But, I heard you had a bout with cancer. Is that true? Are you OK?
BB: Yes. It was prostate cancer. And this thing has brought more changes to my life than I imagined. The cancer is under control now. I did radiation and seed implants. However the treatments created their own set of problems. Also, we keep the testosterone low to keep the psa levels down. Not good for trying to build muscle.
Bodybuilding.com: I am glad you are doing better and out of harms way. Things wouldn't be the same without the man from the East Mecca.
Bodybuilding.com: So, do you plan on moving Strong & Shapely, in the future, to a bigger spot to make room for more equipment?
BB: No plan to do so at this moment. I haven't perfected this one yet.
Bodybuilding.com: Thanks for sharing with me your past, your insights to the future of bodybuilding, and what's next for Strong & Shapely Gym.
BB: It was my pleasure!
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