Ben Weider, Harold Poole, Larry Scott, Joe Weider
September 18, 1965. The first Mr. Olympia was staged, after the Mr. America, Miss Americana, and Mr. Universe, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This is the story of what at the time seemed like just another overly-hyped contest and with a sparse lineup of only two and then three competitors, a uniquely-named new show with a dubious prize that was destined to grow and grow and grow in prestige to become the Super Bowl of bodybuilding.
BEFORE THE MR. OLYMPIA
The IFBB was on shaky ground. Launched in the 1940s by brothers Joe and Ben Weider, it vanished for most of the ’50s. After its premiere event—the combined Mr. America and Mr. Universe—wasn’t even staged in 1961, it roared back in 1962, not in Montreal (home of Ben Weider), as before, but in New York City (adopted home of Joe Weider) at the venerable Brooklyn Academy of Music, destined to become bodybuilding’s ultimate venue for more than a decade. Bud Parker, an editor/writer at Weider’s muscle magazines, had a theatrical background, and he promoted and produced the event as if it was a vaudeville show. In addition to bodybuilders, the extravaganza featured two singers, a gymnast duo, a seven-member karate group shattering cinder blocks with bare hands, a quartet of tumbling beauties called the Honey Girls, and two failed attempts at a bench press world record.[i]
It was a muscle extravaganza, and the 1962 IFBB Mr. America winner was already on his way to becoming Weider’s next superstar. In fact, Larry Scott (1928-2014), an Idaho Mormon transplanted to Los Angeles, appeared on his fifth Weider cover before the Mr. America results were published, celebrated as Mr. California, thus marrying the handsome 23-year-old with the sun-and-fun lifestyle Joe Weider was pushing ever harder.
The following year, in the 1963 Mr. IFBB Universe, Scott lost a close decision to Harold Poole (1943-2014), a 19-year-old phenom who jumped to the IFBB—promptly earning a job in Joe Weider’s warehouse—after twice finishing second in the AAU Mr. America while winning its most muscular award both times. Poole’s stammering was the stated reason of some judges for his failure to win the AAU’s ultimate title despite having the superior physique, but the perception of many, including Poole, was it came down to color; his father was white and his mother Black.[ii] In 1964 Poole returned to win the IFBB title the AAU had denied him: Mr. America. (He was the first non-white man to win any Mr. America or Mr. Universe.)
Also at the 1964 event, Weider’s favorite cover model, Larry Scott, returned to win the Mr. Universe. Scott was only 25 and Poole merely 20, but both had reached bodybuilding’s two summits: Mr. America and Mr. Universe. As IFBB “outlaws,” they weren’t allowed to compete for the AAU Mr. America or NABBA Mr. Universe, still considered the most prestigious titles. Only the weaker IFBB freely let in converts from rival organizations then. With no more contests to conquer, the duo would have to hang up their posing trunks, far from their physical peaks.
GENESIS OF MR. OLYMPIA
In the spring of 1965, Larry Scott was lamenting his premature retirement from competitive bodybuilding to Joe Weider and Joe’s wife Betty as they dined in El Matador, a Spanish restaurant in Los Angeles. Joe drank a beer—a rare occurrence for him—because it paired well with his favorite dish, paella.[iv]
“There’s nothing left to win? What am I going to do now?” Scott asked.
Betty had previously suggested to Joe an ultimate contest where Mr. Universes competed for a world title. She brought it up again. “Why can’t we have a contest like in boxing where they have to knock one another off and then they become the world champion?” One man would be considered world’s best until someone else won the annual contest.
Larry Scott loved the idea, and Joe Weider knew it was time to make it a reality. They began discussing what to call it. Titles like “World Champion Bodybuilder” came up.
“Nah, those are corny names. And they’ve been used before,” Joe Weider squawked. Eventually, his eyes settled on the beer bottle. Olympia beer. That’s it! Like Mt. Olympus. Mythical. Celestial. Powerful. “I’ve got it. Mr. Olympia.” He gestured to the bottle.
“What?” Larry Scott protested. “I’m a Mormon. And you’re going to name this contest after a beer?”
“Aw, Larry,” Joe Weider countered. “Mr. Olympia…mountains…Olympia.”[v]
Larry later said Joe won every argument. It was settled. Mr. Olympia. “SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT The Biggest IFBB Physique Contest Ever: Coming Soon” declared the cover of the Weider’s July 1965 Muscle Builder. Weider invited every notable champ of the time to compete, including Steve Reeves, Bill Pearl, and Reg Park. (Park entered and won the then-more-prestigious NABBA Pro Mr. Universe instead. Held in London just one week after the first Mr. Olympia, the Pro Universe had 11 competitors.)
THE FIRST MR. OLYMPIA
“Finally, the big day came. September 18th, 1965. I arrived in New York early to unwind and relax in my hotel room getting ready for the ‘show of shows’ as Joe Weider always called it. And this year, in 1965, it was especially ‘the show of shows,'” Larry Scott remembered. Scott arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music early to watch the prejudging (held then without an audience) for the Mr. America and Mr. Universe. With only two scheduled competitors—Larry Scott and Harold Poole—there was no prejudging for the new Mr. Olympia. It appeared the climax to the show of shows would only be a duel.
At 8:00 PM on September 18, 1965, the contests—Mr. America, Miss Americana, Mr. Universe, and the new Mr. Olympia—kicked off at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. A sold-out crowd of 2100 attended with several hundred more turned away at the door. Among those in the audience was future bodybuilding great Mike Mentzer, then 13, who recalled: “I stood outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music amid the bustling throng, and when Larry Scott arrived, the people literally went crazy. The 1965 Mr. Olympia contest was almost a religious experience for me.” Joe Weider was said to be the most enthusiastic spectator as he sat, as always at his own shows, front row and center.[vi] Bud Parker was emcee in addition to promoter/producer. Two rock-and-roll bands, Chips & Co. and The Malibus, performed. Dave Draper won the Mr. America. Barbados-born, 29-year-old Earl Maynard, defeated Frank Zane for the Mr. Universe title and promptly leapt into the Mr. Olympia, becoming, with Scott and Poole, one of its three contestants.
Larry Scott recalled being backstage:
Harold Poole was pumping up. He had a tank top on with a pair of sweat pants. His delts, traps, and pecs looked bigger than ever. He came over to me trying to psyche me out and flexed his arms. He looked at least 20 pounds heavier than when he competed against and beat me two years earlier for the IFBB Mr. Universe in 1963. He looked incredible. I was undaunted. I was ready.
Earl Maynard, fresh from winning the IFBB Mr. Universe and smiling from ear to ear, put his seven-foot trophy down, picked up a barbell and started barbell curls with a 225-pound Olympic barbell. This guy was powerful. The psyching out continued.
The promoter came out and flipped a coin to see who would be the first to pose. As it turned out, Maynard would go first. He wasn’t happy with this. He had just competed for Mr. Universe and was tired. Nonetheless, he went out first and as before was sensational. He looked incredible as he flowed from pose to pose. Maynard hit a most muscular shot and looked even more muscular than Poole! Incredible muscularity. The crowd went crazy! Maynard walked off to thunderous applause. The audience had to wonder who would be next, Poole or me. Emcee Bud Parker settles that by announcing, “Next contestant…HAROLD POOLE!”
Some in the audience shouted for the absent Bill Pearl, thought by many to be the world’s best bodybuilder then.[vii] (Asked in 1967 why he didn’t compete in the Mr. Olympia, Pearl, who never entered an IFBB contest, answered: “I wouldn’t get a fair shake from Weider’s judges.”)
The audience goes wild as Poole hits an abdominal shot, then his own patented version of the most muscular, and then pose after pose after pose. The audience is calling for it. Poole knows it. “C’mon, Harold. Most muscular pose.” Poole slowly bulls his neck, bends forward sweeps his arms around and then hits it—the most muscular pose! Audience screams bloody murder. Incredible. It now appeared as though the contest had turned to Poole. He had the audience eating out of his hand, and he looked out of this world. As I watched from the wings, I felt butterflies in my stomach. This was it. I would be next. Could I beat Poole this time? It would be a tough act to follow, and Poole looked just so darn incredible.
I heard someone yell. “Don’t come out Scott. It’s over. Poole won.” Then I heard a familiar chant: “WE WANT SCOTT! WE WANT SCOTT! WE WANT SCOTT!” I thought to myself, I didn’t train this hard all year not to come out. And with that audience calling my name, now it was my turn. Emcee Bud Parker started to introduce me: “Ladies and gentleman. There is only one contestant left. From California, L-A-A-R-Y, and that was as much as he got out when the audience stepped it up, screaming my name, stomping their feet and cheering madly.
I have to admit that I was uncomfortable with this. I am a mere man, not a superhero. So I walked slowly out to the stage, circled around. Then walked out to the stage itself and stood on top of the posing dais. And just stood there looking over the crowd. I heard people gasp. Then they started to cheer madly. Then I swung my arms up in my version of the double biceps, knuckles forward. Flashbulbs popped all over. I was on fire! So excited and thrilled. I went through pose after pose. And with each one, the audience got crazier and crazier. I waved and attempted to walk off stage, but the audience would have nothing of it.
“More! More! More!” they cheered. So I came back for an encore. Hit three or four more poses and tried to walk off again, and once again the audience cheered. “More! More! More!” So I came back one more time, hit four or five poses, this time figuring that would satisfy them, started to walk off, and then once again: “More! More! More!” I stood on stage and heard one guy scream, “Larry, you are a god!” I pointed at him and said, “No, I am not.” The audience continued with “More! More! More!” I reach for my waist and said, “What do you want from me?” I already posed and gave four encores. Fans don’t realize how grueling competing in bodybuilding really is.
I went backstage and waited for the decision. Much to our surprise, the expediter came back right away and told us the judges had made their decision and wanted all three of us onstage. I walked out with Harold and thought Maynard was right behind us. Turns out it was just Harold and me. Emcee Bud Parker announces: “The judges decision is unanimous. All judges have decided. Mr. Olympia…LARRY SCOTT!”
The writer in Joe Weider’s Muscle Builder magazine enthused:
This year men like Harold Poole, Earl Maynard and Larry Scott competed. As each man stepped into the light he received a tremendous ovation. But even before Larry Scott came out, the fans chimed, “We want Scott! We want Scott!” As soon as he stepped out of the wings, the auditorium exploded with thunderous applause. It was deafening, a roar, and flashbulbs flooded the stage with so much light that it seemed as if the sun had rose. The roar became a deafening hum and the floor actually trembled from the pounding of feet. The crowd went wild—mad with excitement and enthusiasm, and it was clear that Scott was the winner—that he had been unanimously declared the world’s greatest bodybuilder, the first of the great bodybuilders—the first MR. OLYMPIA.”
The decision was announced to the vociferous crowd sometime around midnight: Larry Scott was bodybuilding’s first Mr. Olympia. Harold Poole was assumed to be second, though no other placings were made official. The event, considered the genesis of pro bodybuilding, had no cash prize. Instead, Joe Weider awarded Larry Scott an ostentatious crown. (It was reportedly “entirely hand made—crystal and ruby on gold, lined with red velvet and trimmed with leopard.”) Scott didn’t want to plant the royal headpiece on his perfectly quaffed hair, but, at Joe Weider’s insistence, he did, momentarily and sheepishly. The crown was a metaphor for both the grandeur and the gaudiness of bodybuilding. (There was no crown in future years.)
Larry Scott remembered:
I felt 10 feet tall and bulletproof. It was the happiest day of my life up to that point in my life. I was especially pleased to see what a good sport Harold Poole was. He had been known to have a bad temper and carry on when he lost a contest. Not this night. Harold told me that he was disappointed that he did not win and at the same time felt that I had deserved to win the Olympia. So now we had each beaten each other one time. Harold was a tough competitor and also a great sport.
I have to admit, I didn’t like the idea of the crown for being Mr. Olympia. First the fans were treating me like a rock star. Then another guy was calling me a “God,” and now I was being crowned and treated like a king. While I love my fans and appreciate their support and respect Joe and Ben Weider, I really resented the crown. Was going to toss it until Joe told me it was worth $1,000. That plus the recognition of being Mr. Olympia, precious memories made it worthwhile; and at least I didn’t have to haul another seven-foot trophy back to California. Was so glad when the Weiders decided to offer the $1,000 cash prize in 1966.
Afterwards, in the first hours of September 19, 1965, fans milled about outside the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As contestants left the theater, they were greeted with applause and cheers. Weider’s writer observed: “Several contestants were tossed onto the shoulders of enthusiastic well-wishers—as they triumphantly marched them through the streets. And until 2 A.M. and later, hundreds were still outside—waiting for the great Scott.” They didn’t know it then, having just witnessed three young bodybuilders vie for a ridiculous prize and a new title, its name inspired by a beer, but that night in that place was where it all began. Larry Scott would be immortalized as the first Mr. Olympia, and the Mr. Olympia would be immortalized as the world’s ultimate bodybuilding contest.
1965 MR. OLYMPIA RESULTS
September 18, 1965 / New York City
1. Larry Scott
2. Harold Poole
3. Earl Maynard
[i] Venables, Gord, “Backstage at the 1962 Mr. Universe-Mr. America Muscle Battle,” Mr. America, Feb. 1963, 46.
[ii] Fair, John, Mr. America, 161.
[iii] Parker, Bud, “The 1964 IFBB Mr. Universe-Mr. America-Miss Americana Show,” Muscle Builder, Feb. 1965, 40.
[iv] Weider, Joe and Ben Weider with Mike Steere, Brothers of Iron, 158.
[v] “Joe Weider’s 90th Birthday with Champions and Friends,” YouTube video, posted Aug. 4, 2012.
[vi] Ibid, 50.
[vii] Weider, Joseph, “Editorial: Plans for the 1966 IFBB Mr. Olympia Contest,” Muscle Builder, Dec. 1965, 7.