Don Howorth





BBG: Let’s get this out of the way first. Now one of the reasons we’re interviewing you, the way we met, is because you were the one who started introducing Big Back Grips around to some of the gyms in the Valley – before we even met you. How did that happen?

DON HOWORTH: Well, you know the knurling on the handles really rips up your hands. And I’d been dealing with that issue for over 40 years. Dave Draper and I used to cut up inner tubes from bike tires and we had a little secret cubby at Muscle Beach where we’d hide them. They protected our hands a little, but they were not great. Dave’s hands are so bad now he has to use thick sponges. Anyway, I saw your Big Back Grips at some supplement store I go to, picked up a few pair and brought them to Powerhouse Gym in Burbank where I work out. And damn, I’d been looking for something like that since the 60’s! Really simple, but no one’s done it before. Or not done it right.

BBG: Why don’t you use lifting gloves or straps?

Interview Questions

DON HOWORTH: Because they’re crap, that’s why.  Gloves don’t do anything for your workout. I tried them a few times and thought they were a waste of money. And lifting straps – straps f@@ck up your wrists without letting your forearms work. Dumbest idea in the world, straps. I like grips because you can really think about your pump. And that’s all you want to be thinking about.

Seriously, I wish I had these grips when I was 25 years old. With a lifetime of lifting beating up on my hands, with the knurling cutting my hands, I have a much better chance of holding onto my grip. When it’s just plain chrome, you could never keep your hands where you want to keep them. Or the smooth painted handles they use now. From the sweat and moisture, your hands slip if you don’t have a good grip. Bad for the workout. With you grips, I can do more reps, more weight. I can just hang on better without a “life or death” grip and really focus on my set and pump. Not my slippery palm.  The main thing is, I don’t have to keep re-adjusting my palm.

BBG: Cool. So, back to you.  Bodybuilding was not a well-known sport back in the 1950s. How did you get started?

DON HOWORTH: I started as a gymnast at Mark Keppel High School. I was working out with weights. I was an only child. I could really get into it. It was fun to be different as I got bigger.  I was working out at Vic Tanny’s about 1954 or so. He had a chain. There weren’t too many gyms back. I also worked out at the Pasadena Gym; it was a mix of powerlifting and bodybuilding. Pat Casey was there, he held the world bench press record.  That was about 1958. Bill Phillips, the Olympic lifter, worked out there. And most of the guys were very large, doing 450 inclines with no steroids.  All those big guys inspired me to keep getting bigger myself. I liked the way it looked and felt. Eventually I got the nickname The Duke of Delts.

Getting big was such a gradual thing; there was no thought about that. My dad used to say, you have to edit this part, my dad said, “Do you want to be a weightlifter all of your life?”  Well, I guess I did.

BBG: The Pasadena Gym was pretty well known in its time. What was it like?

DON HOWORTH: Whatever the top of the line equipment was back then, they had it. Lat pulleys, double pulleys, solid knurled (diamond cut) chinning bars you could clamp your hands on to. Standing inclines, seated inclines. There were no radios. No music playing. That’s not why we were there. No one wore headsets – they didn’t have them. But no one really talked to each other. It was bad form. We were there to lift weights and we lifted weights. A lot of great people worked out there.

BBG: Anyone you’d like to mention?

DON HOWORTH: I really admired Jimmy Poppa. He had that large shoulder tapered waist. I had a few great mentors, too. A Chinese fellow named Richard Kee was very helpful. He wrote routines for me and trained me for about 4 years. He friend of Gene Mozee (pronounced Mosay) who opened the Pasadena when he was 22 or something.  That’s where I basically learned everything. We didn’t know anything back then. Brad Park was there; he used to do 20 sets of bench presses. We would do one or two reps.  It was a mix up of bodybuilding and powerlifting . We did a lot of chins. For back work, they had incredible equipment for those days.

BBG: When did you start competing?

DON HOWORTH: My first big contest was the Mr. Fiesta in Chula Vista. My first contest. Overall and best arms, best chest. I found a best chest plaque I won in 1962 and wondered what the hell they were thinking. I guess the expansion of my ribcage. I went to the AAU Mr. America in Pennsylvania. John Grimek invited me and I placed like 17th. Vern Weaver won the Mr. America. Harold Poole was there. He looked like he stepped out of a spaceship. He was like 202, short and very hard.

BBG: What about supplements?

DON HOWORTH: In those days there were no supplements. Vic Tanny’s was over a pet shop in 1954 so we took, um, we got Rex’s Wheat Germ Oil for Dogs. We kept dropping weights, and knocked plaster off the ceiling. That knocked over a monkey cage and the monkey got out. Raised hell and Tanny’s did not renew their lease.

Anyway, we thought health food stores smelled funny. We used to drink powdered no- fat milk. Some vitamin C. Not much till I got to Vince’s Gym. We got into some desiccated liver. SoyPro, high doses of C, and proteins. Gains from there were totally different. Mr. Los Angeles, Mr. Western America. On and on without any supplements at all. My diet was meat and eggs and milk. Never thought about carbs. I went up to 228, 230 at Pasadena Gym.

BBG: You also belonged to Vince’s gym at some point, right?

DON HOWORTH: Yes, I moved to Vince’s Gym, owned by Vince Gironda. Vince was real sociable — and called me fat.  Right before the Mr. America I was living above Vince’s Gym, cooked everything on a hot plate, meat and eggs, one apple a day. I lived above and managed it for a while.  Vince had no radio either. Nowadays they got the radio on so damn loud. I mean, as I say, how can you serve two masters at once? Are you gonna workout or listen to music? You have to decide. If that’s the thing that’s taking you away pain, then what the hell are you doing it for in the first place?

BBG: What was Vince like?

DON HOWORTH: When I first met Vince Gironda he was kind of funny, but he got ornery as he went along. Vince didn’t teach me how to pose. He didn’t teach me how to work out. Every time people asked me how I got big I told them, “I did everything that Vince told me not to do.”

BBG: Did you have a workout partner?

DON HOWORTH: I always trained by myself, no partners. The only time I trained with a partner was before the America with Bob Tessier . He did some movies. He did “The Deep” and “Hard Times” with Charles Bronson. He’s one of the fellows in the picture out in front of Vince’s Gym with no hair. He worked out with me but about 2 months before the contest I started getting tired. I wanted to slow down, but he was really into it. So I cranked it up all the way. So then he slowed down so I backed off of it a little…and amazingly enough the more I backed off the larger I got and the better I felt. Anyway, Tessier helped get me ready for the Mr. America.

BBG: How did it feel to win the Mr. America?

DON HOWORTH: It was kind funny. In 1967, Frank Zane was the man to beat. I did not expect to win the Mr. America. It was one of the major titles at the time.  But as I was getting ready for it, even a few months before the contest, I knew it was over. I was going to leave competitive bodybuilding. It would be my last show.  I remember Frank Zane backstage saying “Oh, you’ll be back next year.”  No, this is it man. And it was.

After the Mr. America I went up to Portland Oregon for a posing exhibition and realized there just no money in it. Someone offered me a job in the studios as an assistant master for $65 a day. “$65 a day??” was like a goldmine for me.  I did not do any acting at all. Well, I did one thing with the Wild Wild West, The Night of the Amnesiac.  They put me in this pink West Hollywood-style tank top that I don’t think they wore in the Old West. But you wore what they told you to wear.