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  BEYOND THE UNIVERSE: The Bill Pearl Story

When Bill Pearl makes a commitment, you can take it to the bank. When he does something, he does it right. If you’re looking for free-weight exercises, you’ll find 1800 fully illustrated--95 pages for the triceps alone--in his encyclopedic 648-page Keys to the Inner Universe. And if you want the best autobiography ever written by a top bodybuilder or strongman, read Beyond The Universe: The Bill Pearl Story.

And what a story it is.

Born on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon on October 31, 1930, Bill started lifting weights at 10 to get strong enough to defend himself against his older brother, Harold--and became the top bodybuilder in the world for almost two decades. Eugen Sandow was the premier physique star in the world at the turn of the century.  John Grimek took over the top spot in the 1930s (see article 25) and passed the reins to Bill in the mid-50s.

With a memory like an elephant, Bill has stories, stories, and more stories, wonderful stories. And about 400 great photos.

To provide a sense of the broad scope of the book, here are thumbnail sketches of just a few of the many fascinating episodes covered in the 40 chapters.

Pearl’s Meteoric Rise

The 1953 Mr. America contest was the first of many that my dad and I attended. I distinctly remember how surprised we were to hear Bill Pearl announced the winner. Frankly, we didn’t noticed Pearl in the lineup. For us, his name was a bolt out of the blue. What we didn’t know was that it was a bombshell to Bill as well.

“Leo [Stern] and I thought there wasn’t a chance I’d win the contest, but there was a possibility to do well in the Best-Legs, Best-Arms or Most-Muscular subdivisions,” Bill writes. Six weeks before he had won the main title and those subdivisions at the Mr. California contest, and Bill signed up for the same subdivisions at the prejudging of the Mr. America.

“I not only didn’t win any of these subdivisions, I wasn’t called back for comparisons. It was like I hadn’t been there.” 

Bill says his coach and advisor, Leo Stern, consoled him before the evening show the next day: “You shouldn’t be discouraged. It worked out fine. You’re paying your dues. Next year you will do better, and the following year better yet.”

When Zabo Kozewski walked up as they were waiting in the wings for the decision and said, “Pearl, you won,” Bill didn’t believe him. “I don’t appreciate your humor, ” he replied. “There was no way that I was going to win this contest!” Pearl writes. “I had received the least amount of attention of any competitor.” 

As it turned out Bill not only won the Mr. America title in 1953, he went on to win the Mr. Universe in London the same year. In his first year of bodybuilding competition, Bill went from 3rd place in the Mr. San Diego, to winning the two most prestigious contests in bodybuilding.

“My world had changed overnight,” writes Bill.

My dad and I would never overlook Bill Pearl again. His story was just beginning.

  Divorced & Starting Over at 30

“I found myself at the age of thirty able to put everything I valued into a cigar box and close the lid,” Bill writes.

After finishing a four-year stint in the Navy at the age of 23, Bill married Sylvia Frazier and opened a gym in Sacramento with $2,800 in his checking account. It was the only gym in Sacramento and, after a few years of struggle—he camped out at the gym for the first few months while his new bride stayed with her parents in San Diego—he built up the gym and the health food store in the front sufficiently to buy the property he had initially leased on a hope and a promise.

But then he made one of the few wrong turns in his life.

Harold Zinkin—developer of the legendary Universal multi-station exercise machine and a successful bodybuilder and entrepreneur—approached Bill about opening American Health/Silhouette Health Studios in northern California.  “I would manage the facilities and pay him a percentage of the gross. It was an opportunity too good to overlook,” Bill writes. He converted the Sacramento gym to American Health/Silhouette and opened four more in California and one in Nevada.

Bill worked hard to make it work--too hard apparently. The big move was a financial success, but his home life suffered in the process. “There just weren’t enough hours in the day to remember my wife and children, let alone my employees,” Bill writes. He even neglected his workouts. “Something I never thought would happen did,” Bill reveals. “I quit training all together to strictly concentrate on business.”

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. “American Health/Silhouette’s main corporation declared bankruptcy,” Bill relates. He had to pick up his marbles (Bill was a hard-core marbles shooter as a schoolboy, but that’s another story) and start over again. He left Sacramento “with a stack of bills and some cash from a distress sale” of his gym property.

He used the money to buy George Redpath’s Gym on Manchester Boulevard in south central Los Angeles—and was back on the road to success in business and bodybuilding competition.

  Arthur Jones

It’s remarkable how many times Bill crossed paths—and swords—with Arthur Jones, the enigmatic and blunt speaking inventor of Nautilus machines.

I once overheard Bill say that Arthur can be dangerous. To put it mildly, his dealings with Jones support that assertion. Without spilling the beans on a riveting chapter—the longest in the book--a single example will suffice to make the point.

Their first meeting took place in 1958, a decade before the advent of Nautilus machines. Here’s Bill’s description of how the encounter began:

“Early one Monday morning, while I was opening the door to my Sacramento gym, Arthur appeared out of nowhere. He was wearing khaki pants, a khaki shirt and jacket that half-covered a .357 Magnum pistol strapped to his belt.

“In his heavily southern accent, no-nonsense baritone, he began the introduction, ‘You’re Bill Pearl. My name is Arthur Jones…I’ve come to see if you’re interested in participating in a ‘gawd’-damn movie I’m going to produce.’”

Gives you an idea why Bill calls Arthur “one of the most unique individuals” he ever met, doesn’t it?

Don’t misunderstand. Bill is justifiably wary of Arthur, but he clearly recognizes Jones’ piercing intellect. In spite of the fact that Arthur behaved badly toward Bill repeatedly, Bill remains respectful and gives Arthur his due.

  Lift Yourself

Bill writes that his father, Harold Frank Pearl, “was nervous and always expected the worst, which caused him to suffer from a lifelong negative attitude.” He was a success, nevertheless. “By the time I graduated from high school,’ writes Bill, “he owned several restaurants, taverns, pool rooms, card rooms, pinball/jukebox/slot machine routes, clothing stores, a lumber mill and a producing gold mine.”

Expecting the worst may be the reason why Bill’s father worked so hard. Perhaps, it accounts for his success in business.

Bill adopted his father’s work ethic, but not his gloomy attitude. “I’ve learned by trial and error,” Bill writes, “that you can better your chances of winning by being friendly and having a positive attitude.”

Bill’s positive mind-set is reflected throughout the book. Winning the Mr. America title set off a drastic change of attitude: “Now I’m really going to have to start training,” he told Leo Stern. A few weeks later, when he walked on stage in London at the NABBA Mr. Universe, he was a new man: “I wasn’t there for more exposure or experience, but to WIN!”

He’s never stopped winning--in bodybuilding and business. Except for Arnold, no one has made more out of a life in bodybuilding than Bill Pearl. Some years ago, when I visited Bill and Judy in Oregon, he told me, “Every nickel I’ve made has come from bodybuilding in one way or another.”

Yes, and no one has given more. Bill took it to heart when after his Mr. America win Leo Stern counseled him, “It wouldn’t hurt if you start paying back some of the positive things others have done for you.” He’s been paying his dues ever since, by inspiring and informing the lives of others.

“I want to be noted as a nice person who is self-reliant and doesn’t depend on anybody other than his immediate family,” Bill writes in the concluding chapter. He takes care of himself first, and then he helps others take care of themselves. 

To me, that’s the take home message of the book. Take care of yourself and treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Do that and you’ll be a winner--like Bill.

The Bill Pearl story is one bodybuilding enthusiasts, young and old, will love and learn from. It’s full of highs and a few lows. It’s an uplifting story of a man true to himself and his sport.

This Bill Pearl book went out of publication at the end of 2013, can now be obtained only in digital form from sources such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble Nook.

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