Written by Ron Harris
16 March 2017


A Star Profile: Dave Draper - The Blonde Bomber Part 1



There are only a handful of true living legends in the sport of bodybuilding. It doesn’t take long to rattle off the short list: Arnold, Lou, Sergio, and Larry Scott would certainly be on it. Another is Dave Draper, “The Blonde Bomber.” No man was a more ideal embodiment of the Southern California bodybuilder in the 1960’s and into the early 70’s, as his image graced the covers of over thirty magazines in that span of time. Draper also inspired through his acting career, appearing on TV shows like The Monkees and The Beverly Hillbillies as well as in the film Don’t Make Waves with Tony Curtis and the late Sharon Tate. In his relatively brief competitive career, Dave nabbed the prestigious titles of Mr. America, Mr. Universe, and Mr. World. Standing six foot and 220 pounds, Dave’s was a physique many aspired to then and still do today. At 66 years old, Dave is still involved in the industry, contributing regularly to several magazines, operating a popular web site, and the author of three best-selling books. It is my honor to bring to you the following interview with the one and only Blonde Bomber, Dave Draper.

Interview conducted in 2008.


I read in a previous interview of yours that you weren’t exposed to muscle magazines as a kid. What was it that inspired you to take up weight training, and was building a great physique a goal of yours in the beginning?

DD: Who remembers? Doesn’t every kid want muscles? Although today, most will settle for an iPhone and a Big Gulp. I was barely 10 when muscles and strength caught my eye – the qualities were visible in men on the street in those days – and I thought they looked neat. That’s all it took. I had no desire to be a champion; I just wanted tough shoulders and arms.



What was it like being married and having a daughter at just nineteen years old? Did it force you to grow up and mature faster than other guys your age?

DD: I don’t think there was anybody dopier or dumber than me at 19. I grew up slow in the 50’s in the little pig-farming town of Secaucus under the long shadow of the Empire State Building. A family before I was 20 and not yet weaned from my Harley Chopper was a sudden and befuddled acceleration of growing up. The three of us received a lot of support. The Harley ran out of gas. I got a second job.


I find it fascinating that even though you and your first wife were just 19 and 15 years old when you married, your marriage lasted twenty years. How did you two make it work?

DD: I’ll take no credit for developing a strong marriage. Penny, my first wife, our daughter, Jamie, and I moved from Jersey to California when Jamie was not yet one year old. Hello Santa Monica. The year was 1963. We fought like three bears to survive. There was enough good in Penny and Jamie to exceed the bad in me, a selfish musclehead, and we made it to the safety of 20, 35 and 40 years, respectively. Wins, losses, crowns, bruises. We still love each other.


Did you find it ironic that the man who represented the ideal California bodybuilder was born and raised in New Jersey?

DD: Who, me? I mentioned I was dumb and slow to grow. Well, not exactly. Unaware, or “duh,” more accurately defines the first half of my life’s state of mind. I just didn’t get it. I was too busy running, chasing, dodging, scrapping and scraping. I was both “here and now” and under a rock and a hard place. Dave Draper was always the guy training at 6 AM and watching his diet and trying to make a buck without working for The Man. I would work like an animal, but not for The Man. That I was a West Coast beach boy to a world of bodybuilding fans eluded me. 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. From those beautifully aged beams I built powerful furniture for the marketplace. Surf’s up, hang ten, surfin’ safari... What’s that stuff? And, Dave who?


Once you moved out west, did you ever consider living on the East coast again?

DD: George Eifferman picked me up at LAX in his ’55 Buick Special. They – George and the muscle car - looked like they came off the same Detroit assembly line. It was the spring of ’63. He dropped me off at Zucky’s Deli on the corner of 5th and Wilshire in Santa Monica where we shared Kosher dill pickles and hot pastrami sandwiches. 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. Momma bear and baby bear followed me west a month later.


Your competitive career was relatively brief, lasting just seven years. Why did you stop competing, and do you ever wish you had continued for a few more years?

DD: Did I mention scrapping and scraping and dodging? Training for competition in those days was transitioning from a whim and fancy to a dedicated pursuit. You could participate for fun on lower levels, but it took means and resources when the prize was big and bigger. I endured the first years – Mr. America and Mr. Universe – because I was encouraged by my newly acquired musclehead peers, and it seemed like the thing to do. I was this side of 25 and the surf was up, as they say down on the pipeline, and “Why not?” had not entered my mind. Then the scene changed “like over night, man,” and blue sky turned grey and lost its silver lining. I learned not all that is promised is real and not all that is pursued is worthy. Give me muscles and a heart of gold, not lumps for sale and Man Tan and choreography and glaring and the theme of 2001. Give me muscle, real muscle, and give me a gym at six AM. A good fit in a tank top and jeans while sitting on a park bench contemplating the sunset beats a Mister Olympia crown amid oily bodies on stage in Brooklyn or Ohio anytime, I thought. Maybe I’m lazy or a coward or unaware or negative or a realist or a poor loser or just fund-less and poor. I wonder sometimes what I could have done had I not tripped over my two left feet: changed the world, become president, built a sky rise out of pier wood, celebrated my 45th wedding anniversary. Fact is, everything is exactly as it should be, as it is meant to be, thank God.


If there had been more money in the sport then, with six-figure endorsement contracts for supplements and magazines as well as cash prizes for the big shows, would you have kept competing?

DD: Who knows? Money has a way of screaming in one’s ear. There were allurements and promises dangled before my nose once, but they were extracted quickly when I extended my outstretched hand. I like the solidness of the iron in the hand, not the flimsy promises of rascals promoting it. Reminds me of politics, power and greed, and nothing of broad shoulders, strong backs and well-executed workouts.


The original Gold’s Gym has taken on a mythical status to those of us that weren’t fortunate enough to be there in the early to mid 1970s. Having been an integral part of that atmosphere, do you ever feel sorry for the rest of us who can only dream of having been there with you?

DD: Forewarning: Draper’s a prejudiced musclehead. Not really. You care enough to imagine and wonder. You’re tough, you’ll make it. Imagination often can be better than the real thing, though you would not have been disappointed by the atmosphere and the qualities and the learning shared by the bodies in Joe Gold’s Gym, and the Muscle Beach Dungeon, its predecessor. Collectively, the experiences were priceless, real, awesome, inspiring and emotional: the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, the Holy Writ, the Kilimanjaro. They were the truth. To those who don’t know the history of the iron, from where and whence muscle was first forged, or who don’t care, I say, it is too bad. It’s like baseball without knowing something about Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays. They’ll live, but the spirit is missing. You’ll find shadows and whispers of the old days in the fading light of old neighborhood gyms.


Do you have any funny stories from training at Gold’s, or from a competition around that time?

DD: Not as many in the gym as there were on the streets. My favorite was walking from a pro competition in Manhattan late at night with Boyer Coe, Ralph Kroger and a NYC cop and gym owner, Tony Schettino. We were comfortably wired on the evening events, amiable and hungry and en route to a favorite restaurant. A man stood with his date, both fashionably dressed, and stared at a small Honda pressed bumper to bumper between parked cars. No small catastrophe at midnight in the city. We checked out the scene, nodded knowingly and maneuvered about the captured vehicle, each finding purchase at the appropriate fender. In what was akin to three precisely-timed deadlifts, we hoisted and shifted the car to the middle of the street. It all took place in less than a minute. Hi, goodbye. Like steam rising from subway vents, we were gone.


That’s pretty cool. You got to meet the King, Elvis Presley. How did that come about, and what were your impressions of him?

DD: I was part of the six-man documentary film crew who toured with Elvis in ’72 – 20 cities, 20 concerts in 21 days, from Albuquerque to Boston. What a rigorous treat. It happens fast, you’re staggeringly busy and you don’t sit around and chat. Elvis and his entourage and band were absolutely great. I saw him arrive in his limo before the evening concert, burst on stage, perform madly and disappear into the night. “Elvis has left the building.” I was everywhere he was to be and everywhere he had just been. When we met a few times – on his jet, at a small gospel rally - he was there, but he wasn’t. I guess you could say the same for me. I think we would have hit it off if we had another 30 seconds.


Did you enjoy acting? Why didn’t you pursue it more than you did?

DD: I enjoyed it, but again, funding a career in acting while building horseshoe triceps and supporting a family was beyond reach. I fell into a few fun, dramatically powerful (I’m joking) and educating roles, but muscles were not yet broadly appealing. Lose weight, they said, and I said no.


Did you ever socialize with the Hollywood set? Were they very different from the bodybuilders you trained alongside?

DD: Everyone was different from the bodybuilders I trained alongside. Zabo, Zane, Arnold, Katz, Franco, Eiferman, Steve Merjanian, Artie Zeller. This was a zoo. I did take acting classes in Hollywood for a year and the folks, my age, were quite sane. It was valuable instruction and an enjoyable experience. Larry Scott was a member of the small class. Good stuff.


Today’s bodybuilders, at least a lot of them, smugly think back on the guys from your era and think they are so much more advanced. But in truth, do you think that the industry has tried to make training and nutrition a lot more complicated than it really is?

DD: Train hard, eat right, be consistent, be positive and grow. You, by your own experience and attention and perseverance, become your own teacher, coach and cheerleader. You and the weights, man. Push that iron. That was yesterday or, perhaps, the day before. Today everything muscle has been amplified. There are more – a lot more participants and spectators, more – a lot more - drugs, more hype, more self-proclaimed experts with scientific knowledge, more novel training philosophies and methodologies to fill the pages of magazines and books, more career niches created to exploit the lifters and more exaggerated equipment and bizarre nutritional products to “build big muscles fast.” Some people actually believe all this stuff, depend on it. Stand back, we’re going to burst. A lot of people are confused. Oops! I sound cynical.


Do you follow the sport today? Are there any physiques that you feel still represent the classical ideals and proportions?

DD: Excuse me. I train as hard as I can and I love it, and I’m not being smug, nor am I apologizing, but I just don’t know who is who from where or when. I knew what was going on when there was a handful of bodybuilders in the ‘60s and two hands full in the ‘70s, but lost my way when they started piling up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I owned a pair of gyms in central California through the ‘90s to 2005 and knew Lee and heard of Ronnie and Jay, but the rest, though magnificent and admirable, are nameless mounds of flesh and oil to me. I’m busy with my own little biceps and a torn rotator cuff. Now I sound jealous.







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