Brains and Brawn… Bob Peoples and His Night in Music City IV
Published 11:02 pm Friday, January 21, 2022
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BY ALEX CAMPBELL
It was December of 1947 in bustling “Music City”, Nashville, TN. The YMCA Variety Show was hosting one of the stops on Pudgy Stockton’s southern leg of her national tour.
This first female strength icon had come with her husband and friend to wow the crowds with their strength and athleticism through a variety of strength and acrobatic feats. But now, things had built up to the climax of the show and they were in real danger of being upstaged by the lanky deadlifter from Tennessee, Bob Peoples.
As wave after wave of applause crashed against the stage after Peoples had easily deadlifted 680 pounds at only 175 pounds of bodyweight, the Stockton’s knew they had to pull out all the stops on their final performance to not be upstaged.
There was only one stunt the Stockton’s could do that would blow the crowd away, but it was also very dangerous. Only one picture even survives of the pair completing the act. Neither had prepared to do this on every stop, because it was just so taxing on the body that to attempt it too many times was to risk death.
If one thing went wrong, a stumble, a slick platform, a drop of sweat rolling into an eye, a bright light obscuring their vision for even a split second, anything; then a tragedy was sure to take place.
The Stockton’s would attempt the feat that had husband, Les, on the bottom standing. His wife, Pudgy, would then lift a 100-pound barbell to her shoulders. That alone was something that no other woman in the world could do, but the Stockton’s did not come all the way from California on their national tour to be upstaged by an irreverent hillbilly.
So, pudgy would then step into the hands of her husband he would lift her to arm’s length over his head while she balanced above him would lift the 100-pound barbell over her own head to arm’s length.
This event was a showstopper that left crowds speechless the few times it was performed, but if anything went wrong, one or both of the Stockton’s would leave injured or even dead.
If Les did not balance properly, Pudgy and the bar (over 215 pounds of weight) would come crashing down on him and she would fall almost eight feet to the floor.
If Pudgy lost her balance, it would be even worse. The 100-pound weight would come crashing down on her first and she would then collapse onto her husband. They both knew the risk they were taking, but from the way the adoring crowd was heaping the applause on their home state hero, they had no other choice.
The Stockton’s took the stage prepared to risk their lives to preserve their reputations as the most amazing show in strength. The MC ensured that the crowd new the act they would perform as well as how rare it was for anyone to be able to see it. He also made very sure that the crowd knew the risks that were involved to the athletes.
The crowd looked uneasy. Afterall, they came for a show, not a funeral.
As Pudgy and Les took the stage, the crowd gave some nervous applause, but quickly settled into silence as they watched every painstaking movement of the dynamic duo.
Les prepared first. His fit body and rippling muscles on display as he wore only small shorts to stay out of the way and not obstruct any of his movements.
The lights glistened off the sheen of sweat that now covered his well-tanned beach body. As he braced his feet slightly wider than shoulder width and made sure his hands were dry, his wife, Pudgy, prepared for her part of the event.
Pudgy herself looked the part as much as her husband. Her hair and makeup always well done and the 2-piece leotard style suit she wore. In fact, she was one of the first American women to wear a 2-piece suit style outfit as they had just introduced the year before in 1946, by French designer Louis Réard.
Pudgy had taken to wearing this outfit, created and sewn by her own mother out of necessity to not have flowing material get in the way of the precise motions needed for these dangerous acrobatic feats while also not limiting her movement.
Pudgy, bathed in the spotlights of the stage, took the 100-pound bar, and raised it up to chest level then stepped face to face with her husband. He bent and allowed her to step, first one foot and then the other, into his hands.
Les kept his eyes locked on his darling wife the whole time to focus his attention and aid in the balance. With great effort, he was able to raise his hands, with Pudgy in them, up to his chest.
She wobbled as he steadied the over 200 pounds of combined weight. Once the movement stopped, he prepared himself to put her over his head by extending his arms.
The crowd watched in silence as Les finally gathered his strength, held his breath to brace his body, and then quickly pressed his arms upward. After a little wobbling, Les stabilized and Pudgy was now overhead.
The crowd allowed a few quick breaths to escape as a smattering of applause were given. But the crowd could not be truly relieved as they realized the most dangerous part of the lift was still to be made. Pudgy still had to lift the 100-pound barbell over her head to arm’s length while precariously balanced on the outstretched arms of her husband.
Anyone who understands physics knows that the higher up away from the base of a structure goes the more a tiny movement’s effects are amplified. A simple fraction of an inch drift of the bar at nearly 15 feet in the air would create disastrous consequences.
Pudgy would have to her earn her title as the strongest woman in the world to make sure she lifted the weight precisely. As she took in her last deep breath and held it to stabilize herself, the crowd took and held their breath with her.
And with that, Pudgy heaved and began the press of the bar overhead. With the weight being pushed overhead, the downforce on Les’s arms was tremendous. He elbows and shoulders were under tremendous strain as he focused his gaze upwards to watch for the slightest hint of disaster.
But, Pudgy was not one of the most famous strength athletes in the world and strongest woman by some act of hyperbole. She was really just as iconic as Jack LaLanne had told the New York Times, “Pudgy was one of the finest athletes I’ve known.”
She had the strength to lock that barbell at arm’s length while keeping her balance, all while husband, Les, maintained his stability as well. As the bar reached its final height, the crowd roared its approval as nothing like this had ever been seen by anyone off the beaches of Santa Monica, California much less in the backwater of Tennessee.
The applause were nearly deafening as the couple basked in the glory, all the time smiling and shimmering in the spotlight. After a few moments, Pudgy lowered the bar back to her chest and Les lowered her feet back down to the ground.
The death-defying stunt was now complete, and the couple held hands and took several long and deep bows before prancing off behind the curtain to be congratulated by their friend and fellow strength athlete and acrobat Farbotnik.
As they walked triumphantly backstage, they barely notice the lanky Tennessean quietly leaning against the wall, patiently awaiting his moment on the stage.
Peoples might not have been from California, have a golden tan, appear on magazine covers, or have news reels made about him, but he didn’t come to Nashville to play second fiddle to some west coast pretty body and his superstar wife.
To be continued…