In talking to several club operators lately for a story we're working on for our December issue on high-volume, low-price clubs, it's hard not to think about the one club operator I really would've enjoyed talking to: Rudy Smith.
Many veterans in the club industry knew Rudy, who died in July a few days shy of his 85th birthday. For those who didn't know him, Rudy Smith was as big a figure in the industry as anybody, and that includes his good friend for many years, Jack LaLanne.
After spending his early years as a bodybuilder and working at MGM Studios, Rudy broke into the industry working for Vic Tanny. He later ran Holiday Spa Health Clubs, which later became part of Health and Tennis Corp., which later became Bally Total Fitness. After a year out of the business, Rudy and partner Andy Palluck bought Las Vegas Athletic Clubs (LVAC) in 1991.
So like Joe Gold, who became known for two club brands—Gold's Gym and World Gym—Rudy made his mark on not one, not two but three club brands.
"There was no greater man that I've met, not only as a person but as an operator and a family man," said Mark Mastrov, who worked with Rudy's son, Todd, at 24 Hour Fitness for 15 years. "Rudy was a living legend. He really fostered the big-box, low-price concept. He did it in an honorable, professional and ethical way."
Rudy's son-in-law, Bret FitzGerald, is now the vice president of corporate communications for LVAC. Bret met his future bride, Ginny, while they both worked for her dad at Holiday Spa Health Club.
"The next thing you know, I show up to Rudy's house in Malibu, and he's the sweetest guy in the world, even though he was my boss," Bret said. "We had an instant connection."
Rudy may be best remembered for developing the Smith Machine. (Click on the photo above for a better view). The Smith Machine actually was a product that LaLanne invented, but, as usual, Jack didn't mind that his friend tweaked and modified the piece of weight-training equipment. Last year, for our Lifetime Achievement Award article on Jack, Rudy wrote some kind words in an e-mail sent to us through Bret.
"Jack was a master team builder," Rudy wrote. "He assembled a group of talented operators while he went out and marketed to the world the benefits of regular exercise."
Jack and Elaine LaLanne were longtime friends of Rudy and Virginia Smith, Rudy's bride of 50 years. Elaine and Virginia actually go back to their days with the Minneapolis Aqua Follies in the early 1940s. Virginia passed away in 2006, and Rudy's health had been failing in the past few years.
"I never saw them without a smile or a laugh. Ever," Elaine said recently. "If they had a problem, you would never know it. They lived life to the fullest."
Speaking of living life to the fullest, the above photo of Rudy and Virginia (and friend) was taken on vacation in Hawaii as they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
There's a website, www.rudyandvirginia.com, which celebrates the lives of Rudy and Virginia, who had four children and seven grandchildren. One of the best parts of the website is a video of Rudy that is just priceless. Even while writing this, I've got Louie Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" in my head.
The website also features more than 100 photos taken in California from this past summer's celebration of Rudy's life. Whether or not you attended the event, after flipping through the photos and watching the video, you'll feel as though you were there. I know I do.