|THE STRONGMAN WHO
QUOTED EMILY DICKINSON
This is as close as you'll get, probably, to ever knowing Terry Robinson. You are lucky to get this close. The problem with Terry is that there is not enough of him to go around. Every town, every school, every office -- every family -- should have a Terry Robinson. If they did, the world would be so peaceful, sane and healthy that you wouldn't know what to do with it.
Terry is the extraordinary man that every ordinary man should be. The resume would read: bodybuilder, fitness trainer, physical therapist, trainer of great stars of Hollywood, chiropractor. If he were feeling immodest, the strongman would also list the fact the he is a painter and sketch artist -- largely portraits -- of exceedingly delicate touch. But here's how I'd write the resume:
Spirit: For the Ages
Robinson is the most self-disciplined, gentlemanly, civilized, kind-spirited man I know. You talk to the guy for a few minutes, and you start to feel better about yourself. You start to realize that things are still possible, no matter the obstacles. Terry exudes inspiration, without trying. No, no, he's not a rah-rah type -- his heart rubs off on you like a song sticks in your head. He just seems to have it all figured out. . .
Consider the story of how he met his wife of 25 years, a lovely one-time dancer named Sylvia. Paralyzed from the waist down after being struck by a drunk driver, she was taken by her sister to a gym for rehabilitation. Sylvia wasn't sure how she could live as a crippled person, until she met the gym manager and rehab therapist -- Robinson. "You're not crippled -- you're just sitting down," Terry told her. He carried her to exercise equipment, and, as Sylvia puts it, "I tinkled all over him, because I hadn't yet learned control. Well, Terry just laughed and said, 'that's OK -- I'm a Pisces!'"
Robinson's self-effacing, low profile -- the media has really missed the boat on this guy's story -- was blown a couple weeks ago. Over 400 people jammed into a Chinese restaurant in L.A. to wish him a happy 85th birthday -- with friends flying in from Japan and New York. City and state proclamations were presented by politicos, but it wasn't the usual stuffed-shirt fest. There was a sense of mild frustration in all the speeches, from actor Lou Ferrigno to the head of Warner Brothers -- and more than once someone dusted off the old cliché, "words are not enough. ..." Of course, they never are.
"This was supposed to be a roast," said Robinson's stepson, Guy Richard, "but there's too much love here for that."
"Thank God, Terry, you're not in the field for mayor (of L.A.)" said candidate Steve Soboroff, "because you're in better shape than I am."
"The great thing about Terry is the way gets you to believe that you can reach your potential," said a one-time Robinson pupil, L.A. county supervisor Zev Yaraslovsky.
"He's like a second father," said trainer John Corvello. "He always has the time to ask about your personal problems and family -- I mean, at 5 a.m., he had the time and interest to ask about it."
Terry Robinson weighed 126 pounds, and was five-feet, six-and-a-half-inches tall, when he attended Textile High School in Manhattan, N.Y. He desperately wanted to play football.
"I saw a magazine -- 'Strength and Health' -- which sold for 15 cents," he remembered. "And in that magazine, they talked about lifting weights to gain muscle. I showed it to the coach, and he said, 'Why don't you try it?' I picked up some barbells and dumbbells, and all of a sudden, I gained weight, and even ran faster. From that moment on, I never stopped."
The handsome guy with the Kirk Douglas chin and the clear gray-blue eyes went on to win the featherweight Gold Gloves boxing championship at the NYC Police Athletic League in 1934 (which he announces with pride that has not grown old) and held many body-building titles through the years, including fifth-place in the "Mr. America, 1940" contest, and "Mr. New York City" in 1948. That same year, he packed his bags for L.A. to become one of the town's first personal fitness trainers. Before long, Louis B. Mayer called on Robinson to keep his stars in shape at MGM -- in particular, a young Philadelphia singer by the name of Freddie Cocozza. Stage name: Mario Lanza.
In retrospect, it seems Lanza and Robinson were thrown together as inevitably as Mother Teresa and India, Schweitzer and Africa. Lanza called Terry his "brother," and Robinson took it to heart -- caring for the bedeviled matinee idol for the next 10 years, until Lanza's heart gave out at age 38 in 1959.
"Well, Mario Lanza carried a terrible burden in his life," Robinson remembered. "A young, handsome man with probably the most gifted voice ever given to one human being. He had that responsibility, and also had a major problem. He was allergic to alcohol; he was the type of person that couldn't drink. I was his crutch, his best friend. I knew of his condition, and stuck with him to try to help. The pressure of Hollywood, the pressure of always being in front of the public, of always trying to keep that voice going the way the public expected, being compared to Enrico Caruso (whom he played in "The Great Caruso") -- all that pressure made him drink more and more. And his life ended."
Without Robinson, it's fair to say that Lanza -- whose temperament fit the caprices of Hollywood about as well as rap music fits in a church -- might not have made it that far. Had Lanza not abandoned Robinson and the U.S. for Italy in 1958, he might yet have turned his health around. Terry didn't merely become an uncle-figure to Mario's four children, he became their father -- a legal co-guardian (Lanza's surviving daughter, Ellisa Bregman, attended the birthday fete.) He has, through the decades, devotedly championed the Lanza legacy -- with paintings, sketches, a book ("Lanza: His Tragic Life") and countless interviews. The voice still makes his hair stand on end.
"I was doing what I was probably meant to do -- the guy with the strong shoulders helping people. Probably that was my calling -- not only with Mario, but with my life."
It's true that Terry is well connected; it just worked out that way. He's trained everyone from Tyrone Power to Anthony Hopkins, chiefly due to ... proximity. He managed a gym in Beverly Hills-adjacent Century City during the '70s -- right next door to 20th Century Fox and ABC -- where he trained politicians, actors, and studio heads as if they were ordinary folk and ordinary folk as if they were stars. In other words, Robinson didn't care if you walked in or were chauffeured in a Rolls limo; all he wanted to know was how many reps you could do, how many laps you could swim, how healthy you were in mind and spirit.
Today, he is the owner of a clear mind and a muscular, V-shaped physique that looks a vigorous 50. How has he done it? Here's a peek into the Robinson routine:
"When I get up in the morning, which is 3 a.m. for me, well, my mother taught me a very short prayer as a boy. 'When I awake and see the light, I thank you God for day and night.' I say this prayer, then I sit and do a series of exercising in a chair, deep breathing posture exercises. Then I get ready for work. I go to my club by 4:30, and we open doors at 5 a.m. Monday to Friday."
The "club" is the glitziest workout facility in L.A. -- a villainously posh joint called "Sports Club L.A." You know, the kind of place where giant blondes get their Mercedes SUVs valet-parked, then sweat French perfume. It does seem ironic to find a man as unpretentious -- and modest of means -- as Robinson working in a palace fit for Louis XIV, but on the other hand, it's a nice way for the one-time skinny New York kid to wind up his career. He manages the joint, and there's not a trace of anti-snob snobbery about him. Every mogul, actor, and athlete in town seems to know Terry, and they're damned lucky for it.
But back to that routine: there's an hour of barbells and dumbbells -- no Thigh Masters or Ab Rollers for this guy -- followed by a half-hour swim (non-stop). Then comes the workout for the mind. After going home and taking care of Sylvia, Terry turns to incessant painting and sketching -- gorgeous flowers and powerful portraits -- and even more incessant reading.
"Let me give you a quotation," he said. "'What exercise does for the body, reading does for the mind.' That's from the Greek -- sound mind and a sound body, a quote by Cicero, a fifth century philosopher. I'm an incurable reader; I still read four books a month."
The great and heartbreaking days with Lanza are long gone. The days of pumping iron at Muscle Beach with Vic Tanny, Jack LaLanne, and Steve Reeves are long gone (but captured in a new book, "Remembering Muscle Beach." The days of helping handicapped -- or, as he terms it, handy capable -- kids to put on muscle and self-worth are also gone. But there are many days ahead for this strongman with the bright eyes and lively voice. His 90th birthday party is taking reservations.
"There is another part to my routine," said Terry Robinson. "I close my eyes and sit quietly and meditate, and I recite poetry to myself."
"Oh, certain Psalms from the Bible, and just poems that I love. Like this one by Emily Dickinson:
"'If I can help one breaking heart, I shall not live in vain/ If I can ease one aching heart, or ease one pain/ or help one fainting robin on to its nest again,/ I shall not live in vain.'"BACK TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.