Brains and Brawn… Bob Peoples and his night in Music City II

Published 4:06 pm Thursday, December 30, 2021

BY ALEX CAMPBELL
As Bob Peoples prepared for his final epic assault on the 700-pound deadlift, Pudgy Stockton was also making her way to Nashville.

Pudgy was born Abbye Eville in 1917. As a child, she held onto a little baby fat earning her the more famous moniker. She married her high school sweetheart, Les Stockton, in 1941 and although she was 5’2” and only 115 pounds, she would never escape her childhood nickname.

In 1937, the Works Progress Administration built an exercise facility on the beach in Pudgy’s hometown of Santa Monica, California. Soon, many people began to flock to the area just south of the pier which originally hosted only gymnastic equipment but later a weight training area was added.

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Soon Pudgy and husband, Les were training at Muscle Beach and doing gymnastic feats with one another. The duo soon became famous for their strength acrobatic feats like Pudgy routinely holding her 185-pound husband straight above her head in an adjoining handstand for long periods. The dynamite duo also performed a feat featuring Pudgy balancing off Les’s extended arms hoisting a 100 lbs. dumbbell overhead.

Like Peoples, Pudgy faced many critics. It is hard to imagine now, but many in the 1930’s and 40’s found weightlifting to be abnormal for men anywhere in America but especially in the hills of Appalachia.

They thought a man too vain if he wanted to improve his body and look at himself. People didn’t understand that for Peoples didn’t do it for the show, but it was about functional strength and seeing how far he could push his hardworking body.

There are several stories which have been related to me about the ribbing that Peoples took because of his hobby.

But whatever Peoples faced with hecklers, Pudgy dealt with in spades. So many people at the time, including so called experts, said that it was unfeminine for women to lift weights.

They said it would make them turn into men. However, the big difference between men and women is that women have negligible amounts of the dominant male hormone testosterone which is mainly responsible for men looking the way they do. No amount of lifting or exercising for women would change that.

When interviewed for Sports Illustrated, Pudgy noted, “People used to say that if women worked out, they would become masculine-looking or wouldn’t be able to get pregnant. We just laughed because we knew they were wrong.”

So Pudgy, Les, and countless others continued their training in public places like Muscle Beach as well as basement dungeons like Bob Peoples undeterred by the jeers and jabs of the naysayers.

Soon, the Stockton’s were earning a lot of fame for their strength and acrobatic feats. The city of Santa Monica began erecting various gymnastic tools (including rings, high bars, and platforms) which would be packed with thousands of spectators on weekends.

Pudgy was a media darling overnight where she was featured in a pictorial in Life Magazine and a newsreel titled Muscle Town USA. Soon she was featured in ads for companies like Ritamine Vitamin and Universal Camara.

She quickly made the cover of 42 magazines by the end of the 1940s. In 1944, Stockton began writing a regular column on women’s training, “Barbelles”, in Strength & Health magazine, which was at the time the most influential fitness magazine.

Legendary fitness icon Jack LaLanne told the New York Times, “Pudgy was one of the finest athletes I’ve known. She was a bodybuilder, a gymnast, and an acrobat. She did everything. Pudgy was an exceptional human being.”

The Stockton’s opened up their own health club for women only with their new business partner and friend John Farbotnik (a strength athlete in his own right who eventually won Mr. America and Mr. World-Universe bodybuilding titles).

The gym is often thought of as the first female-only gym in the world. Soon, two more gyms followed in surrounding southern California towns. In 1947, the Amateur Athletic Union wanted to host its first-ever all-female weightlifting event. Pudgy was a no-brainer to promote the event. But she not only organized it, but she also lifted in it setting all new personal records and winning first place.

It was after this unprecedented rise to fame for a female strength athlete, that the idea of a nationwide tour was born. The southern leg of the tour would lead her directly into the path of Bob Peoples.

Interested spectators from all over America were shelling out money to catch a glimpse of this physical phenom. So, on that chilly night in December when the YMCA Variety Show opened its doors, the crowd plunked down their hard-earned money to see Pudgy and her two fellow California popular culture icons perform feats of strength.

Unbeknownst to all those in attendance, they might have paid to see Pudgy and the tanned and shaved pretty boys from the beaches of southern California, but it was the quiet, lanky leather-skinned mountaineer strongman that was getting ready to steal the show.