A few weeks ago I started a little segment on this site I'm calling Dad Talks, wherein I share interesting, or unique stories and theories, courtesy of the dads in the world.
Last time, I shared my own father's thoughts on elephants vs. dogs vs. horses.
This time I'm chatting with my friend Liz's dad, Jack McArdle.
Liz used to tell me the legend of her father's lifetime membership to Bally's gym, which, according to her (roughly), he purchased one hundred years ago. Owning it meant he was part of a quickly-diminishing group and was forced to drive way out of his way in order to use this coveted lifetime pass.
Surely some of this is the stuff of legend, so I chatted with the man himself to get the facts on how long exactly a Bally's lifetime membership lasts, and what that gets you.
Claire Zulkey: How long did the lifetime membership last you?
Jack McArdle: 37 years and 2 days.
CZ: What’s the story of how you got it?
JM: Let me go back to the days of yesterday. The original exercise guru was Jack Lalanne, and his motto was: “Dying’s not good for my image.” When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by Lalanne because he had his own TV show. You look at a gym now and see the sophistication of it, but his workout was with a chair. I don’t know if you ever saw any of the old film clips but for a half hour he did pushups, he did situps, he did deep knee bends--he worked out with a chair. It was like Fred Astaire with a broom. It was like the first workout video.
It was 1972 and exercising in a gym was gaining some popularity. A company called Vic Tanny’s was probably the first chain, but for whatever reason, they went bankrupt. The European Health Spa was in the metropolitan area in New York, but the big one was in Scarsdale. What made it European was the Scandinavian ice plunge--so if you had a hangover, you could work out, build up a sweat and jump in and out. If you survive, you don’t have a hangover anymore.
It was July 1972. The hit song was Bobby Darin’s “Mac the Knife.” The atmosphere was right. The European Health Spa was making a splash in a high-price town and they wanted to diversify it with up and coming college students.
To make it attractive, the European Health Spa offered a lifetime membership. It was about a thousand dollars to join but it was guaranteed a lifetime membership with a contract. They financed this thing: you’d pay off $44 a month, which was a good chunk of money at 22 years old. Being in insurance, I held onto all my contracts. What happened is that the European Health Spa eventually got sold to Holiday Inn, then Jack Lalanne, then Bally’s.
As it progressively got sold over the years, eventually it was just myself and one other person who had this membership card. The people at the front desk would say “I never saw a membership card like this before.” I eventually got limited to just one location.
CZ: How long did the membership last?
JM: I joined the gym on July 15 1972. It closed June 30 of this year. It was really sad. It was like when the Dodgers moved out of Brooklyn: everyone scattered to different places. It was good while it lasted. For the amount of times I went there I ended up paying six cents per visit or something like that. Sometimes I went four times a week. There was one guy there older than me who had the same membership. Every so often I’d run into him and we’d joke about how we got the best deal in town.
CZ: So what’s the lesson here?
JM: The moral here is to a.) hold onto your records and b.) make minor programs. I probably contributed to the gym’s demise. It was the best bang for my buck I ever got in my life: the greater the risk, the greater the rewards. I’ve still got the card. I’m putting it in my momentous file.
CZ: Did you expect to get as much use out of that membership as you did?
JM: I didn't think it would last as long as it did. It was actually foolhardy on my part. I was fortunate that in my first job I worked my own hours, I worked field positions, and I had the flexibility to go during the day. The only odd part was that some of the clubs in the city had a certain gay crowd who were very nice. When it started getting dark earlier, I got ready in the dark. All of a sudden I’m in this gym in Manhattan and I pull my clothes and underwear out of my bag and they’re my wife’s. I’m trying to figure out how many people saw.
I tried to get my brother in law, who is really frugal, to join the gym too. We were going to a funeral once, and a few blocks away, I could see the sweat coming down his bald head, but he didn’t want to turn the air conditioning on in the car! He’s that parsimonious. I always tried to get him to join and of course it was the best deal of the century. His thing was--he took his thousand bucks and put it in Microsoft stock but I don’t really think that’s as cool.
Anyway, I hope didn’t cause them to go under, but had they invested their money more wisely they could have stayed afloat.