Dave Draper, the blond icon of the ’60s bodybuilding lifestyle, died November 30 at 79. This is his story.
When he had saved up enough from delivering groceries, a teenager rode two buses and hiked six blocks from his Secaucus, New Jersey, home to the Weider headquarters in Union City to buy weight plates for the barbell he had previously purchased there, and then he hauled the weights back those same six blocks and two bus rides. Each time, he rang the buzzer inside the building’s small lobby and an opaque window slid open, revealing the smiling face and gargantuan arms of the loquacious Leroy Colbert. Eventually, in 1962, that local kid had grown enough to attract the attention of the boss. In Dave Draper’s recollection, they met on the loading dock where Draper was adding a pair of 35-pound plates to his collection, and Joe Weider, ever the bodybuilder, always fishing for a compliment, asked the kid how he (Joe) looked. The boss hired the 20-year-old as a part-time shipping clerk. Draper was mystified by what Weider saw in him because, “I was big and strong but covered in fat.” Weider said the blond, six-foot Dave Draper “looked like the kid next door and people could identify with him.” On their lunch hours, that kid trained with Colbert in the warehouse.
In 1963 Weider opened a West Coast product distributorship near Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California. Draper agreed to relocate, with his wife and young daughter, to work there with 1962 Mr. Universe George Eiferman. He recalled his first day when Eiferman drove him from the airport to Zucky’s Deli, a popular bodybuilders’ hangout in Santa Monica: “There were clean streets and palm trees, blue skies and warm breezes, the lush Pacific palisades and a sense of hope. George was an old friend before we finished our first cup of coffee, and I remembered New Jersey no more.”
The Beach Boys were serenading on transistor radios, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were shimmying in the sand on big screens, and Dave Draper was smiling and flexing on and in Weider’s magazines. “I made Dave Draper a big part of my push,” Joe Weider explained. “Big and blond and outdoorsy-looking, he was like the world’s best-built beach boy and the perfect California icon.” By the time Draper won the 1965 Mr. America and 1966 Mr. Universe, he was a staple on Weider magazine covers. He appeared on 25 between 1963 and 1971 and in countless ads (many in comic books) and upon countless products: vitamin bottles, candy food bars, weight sets, training courses, etc., all without being directly compensated. His very nickname, “The Blond Bomber,” was based on Weider hyperbole about “bombing” muscles with Weider workout techniques. (He hated it at first but later embraced it.)
As David the Gladiator, he hosted a sword-and-sandal movie show on a local Los Angeles station from 1964-65. He also acted in such popular TV shows as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Monkees and in such movies as Lord Love a Duck and, most memorably, Don’t Make Waves, as a Cali beach bodybuilder—the persona attached to him that came to define him. He sold the bodybuilding lifestyle (beach, bikini babes, muscles) and the endless summer of Southern California to a generation of young bodybuilders around the globe (including Arnold Schwarzenegger in Austria), growing so iconic that, decades later, GQ magazine published a feature article about him and the E! Network aired a one-hour documentary. “That I was a West Coast beach boy to a world of bodybuilding fans eluded me,” Draper wrote. “Jersey hung around my neck like a sweaty tank top, and I never mounted a California surfboard. Here’s some possible irony: The only time I went to the beach was in the twilight to remove timber with a saw from beneath an obsolete pier a stone’s throw from Muscle Beach.”
Dave Draper had fame but not fortune, and he was never comfortable with the fame. Bodybuilding titles didn’t motivate him much (he won his last, the Mr. World, in 1970), which frustrated Joe Weider. “Joe is a star builder,” Arnold Schwarzenegger said. “If you let him, he will create you and turn you into something special….But Dave wasn’t that interested in being in front of five thousand people and saying, ‘Look at my naked body. Isn’t that great?’ Why did he train in dark dungeons in the early morning with all those shirts on, never showing his body and not running around the beach like the photographs showed? That wasn’t Dave’s reality. That was Joe’s reality.” He appeared in fewer ads and on fewer covers as the ’60s morphed into the ’70s, and then none at all, supplanted by Arnold, the new Weider superstar. (He sued Weider in 1972, but settled for only enough to cover his attorney fees. What he gained was the rights to his own image.)
Away from stages, he built and sold his own furniture (that’s why he was removing timber from a pier). And, for the most of the ’70s, he frequently got lost in vodka and Angel dust. He gained sobriety in 1983. In the beach town of Santa Cruz, California, he owned and managed a World Gym for 15 years until 2004. He married his second wife, Laree. He never stopped training.
Dave Draper was always shy, but his personality shined in his excellent and prolific writing in magazine columns (he was the rare champ who wrote his own), on his website, in email newsletters, and in such books as Brother Iron, Sister Steel and Iron On My Mind. He was the reluctant icon, the inspiration to a generation, the Jersey boy in Cali who never stopped loving the individual challenge of a barbell and the next set. The Blond Bomber was a true original who did it his way. Our condolences to his family, friends, and many fans.