Richard Sorin: Reflections of Zuver
By: Richard Sorin, Sorinex, DaveDraper.com
I was amazed to see a set of rare 2.5, 5, 10, and 50-pound Olympic barbell plates for sale on eBay with the name Zuver Hall of Fame on them. Being an avid follower of the Iron Game for over 50 years, and now making a living producing strength equipment for the past three decades, I was electrified at hearing this good news. My interest was piqued years ago when I, an inventor in the realm of exercise equipment, saw the work of a man who was an instant inspiration to me. Bob Zuver’s attitude, reverence, work ethic and vision clearly saw into this pureness of what strength is all about in the form taken by his mighty works. If ever I wished to meet a man and his creation, it was Bob Zuver and his Hall of Fame Gym.
Most of the Kings of Strength visited Zuvers at one time or another at the Hamilton Street Gym and it was touted by many as the most hardcore and coolest gym ever! That is a lot to say for a 40′ x 120’gym, hand-built in good ol’ California. By his effort and unending support of his family, particularly his oldest son Robert, this palace of real strength was built stone by stone. I have seen the few photos posted of this incredible gym on Dave Draper’s site—and oddly enough, I worked out in the same gym as Dave in his pre-star status days. Every piece was pure strength art to me and I “got it” on where his mind was heading on each piece of pure muscle-making magic. I was saddened to read in an article from the ’80s by another friend, Dr. Ken Leistner, that the man and the gym were no more. In my early teen years no matter the cost or effort, nothing stopped me from being a regular visitor at York Barbell Gym, Bur Barbell Co, Andy Jackson’s Barbell Co, Elizabeth YMCA and the Yearly York Picnic. Hitchhiking, trains and cars burning gallons of oil… was the price paid.
Time beat me to Zuvers. It is gone now.
Getting back to the barbell plates for sale, I wondered for years if I would ever see or perhaps even touch a piece of metal from Bob’s Gym. The entire gym was hand-crafted and finished down to the ultra distinctive barbell plates. The plates feature a hugely muscled hunk of a man forming the thick reinforced hubs of the deep dish design on the 50LB and heavier plates. Yes, heavier! The famous Zuver Man plates are seen in a few rare photos and were used at the pivotal 1977 World’s Strongest Man Contest. They were made in 50 up to an astronomical 200LBS each! After a long search I finally found my Holy Grail a few years ago—I purchased a pair of the 50 LB Zuver plates, along with an added donation to an ailing friend in strength.
Our facility, Sorinex, is used as a showroom and active display, which features pieces of memorabilia and barbells from every phase in my personal strength career, as well from the history of the iron game in general. The first 50LB pair began my association with the Zuver Legacy. When the latest pair was listed on eBay, it stated a direct link from the Zuver Family. I did not hesitate to get one step closer to the pure product of Zuver’s Dream. Only after purchasing them did I get the first part of “the rest of the story.”
Out of respect I sent a message to Robert, the son of Mr. Zuver, telling him of my delight and intentions to display, use and honor his father’s creation. A few days later I received an email, followed up by a personal call from Robert Zuver. I was more than surprised, but in a calm way, I was very comfortable and pleased speaking with him. I could tell from the moment we conversed that he and I had walked similar paths that never met. First and foremost he expressed his respect for his father and wanted to set all his stories straight. He wished to remain a very private person, and said he considered carefully and felt comfortable entrusting me with his story. He made it crystal clear he would only tell me what he felt comfortable to repeat. We could converse further and personally meet, but he refused to be contacted or hounded in any way by others. I gave this man my word on this matter and plan to preserve his and his family’s wishes fully.
Robert said he never stopped working from the age of 5 until very recently, 43 years later, and is now retired and living a peaceful life. After direct involvement in building Zuver’s Hall of Fame with his dad, his years were spent building Circle Gym gym equipment. After the economic tightening in 2001, he finished out his career in iron with a metal fabrication business. Robert stated that he was the helping hands in all of the projects, but in a very humble way said his dad was the head. They gathered all the building materials for the gym from junkyards and the desert, looking at what each piece could be, not for what it was at the moment.
Material gathering led to desert trips to hand-load and bring single 1000LB stones to the building site. The actual building was done at the rear of the site foundation, and stone by stone the 30-foot high main wall steadily rose. Bob, aided by his expertise in painting, masonry, machinery and being a steeplejack by trade, did the impossible with relentless energy and ease. He went project to project with a non-stop pace. When labor was needed, friends of the gym were the first to pitch in. The majestic foot-and-a-half-thick cast stone door sported a 300LB dumbbell handle. It was cast in a frame in an area directly in front of the purposely massive door frame. The frame and hinges were hand cut and carefully ground out of heavy 2″ thick steel. When finished, every man available hoisted this door up and into its final pivoting position. Magically, it fit like a door in a bank vault, requiring only a light hand’s pressure to push or pull it open. Built by aliens? No, by Bob Zuver and his loyal family and following!
Everything reflected in his love for Disneyland. He often took trips there for regeneration of the creative spirit. Everything built was preceded by the title “The Big” and was on a giant scale, yet everything was artfully arranged and built in perfect balance and harmony. I asked Robert three direct questions. First, how famous visitors were treated, because I heard the greats all passed through his door. His response was quick and to the point. All were welcome on an equal basis with no special treatment, and all knew the rules from the first minute.
Secondly, I asked how the unique barbell plates were made. The plates ranging from 2.5LBs through 200LBs were custom designed by an artist, Eric Askue, who did the first molds in clay. The small denomination plates were made in a moderate volume with the 10LB being particularly rare according to Robert. The plates of 50, 100, 150, and 200LBS were made, as I had suspected, from the same master mold with additional metal added and a dropped-in number plate to denote the correct poundage.
A big shock to me was the fact that Robert himself was the one who painted the plates that were custom cast at the Bell Company Foundry. Robert decided the plate set he offered for sale would be painted by him in his exact manner as done in the past with his father! I was overjoyed in knowing the plates were not simply repainted, but restored by the original hand exactly as they were like IN the gym. He was adamant only one set was ever to be done by him this way.
Third question was if the large “Big” plates were ever used. He said “all the plates were used” and “very few of the larger size plates were made or needed.” There were two instances where the 200LB plates were actively used that he recalled. The first time was during the many visits by Paul Anderson in his prodigious squatting workouts. The other instance was by an unnamed football player, who actually used the 200s to do dips on the Big Dip Bars. Robert added that the bars were actually bent under the load exuded by this man. He said “the lighter 100LB and 50LB plates were the most commonly used.” Since there was an in-house powerlifting team, they received plenty of air time.
Later in the conversation it was mentioned that the brilliance of Bob and family was exhibited by custom equipment designed for the early World’s Strongest Man TV Shows. Youtube video clips exist showing the equipment and plates being used throughout these competitions. The untimely injury of competing strongman Franco Columbo during one competition was instantly attended to by Robert. In the final decision, the responsibility was assumed by the producers and network of the show. Bad luck, not bad equipment, was the final perceived word on the incident.
I plan to gather further information from Robert to tell more of the wonderful place called Zuver’s Hall of Fame, as it is in his timely plan to tell me “straight from the horse’s mouth.” We mutually have decided to meet and fulfill our circle of destiny and hopefully forge a friendship. Valuable shared information between us will be given to the world of Iron History. My statements are my own as best interpreted by my conversation with Robert Zuver. All items bought will be held in a personal trust between us to be secure in continuing the legacy of Bob Zuver and his Hall of Fame. Any corrections will be duly noted and added to the best of my ability.
I had the thrill of another conversation with Robert Zuver upon returning from our participation in the National Strength and Conditioning Association Summer Convention. We find great satisfaction in sharing the newest possibilities in training with the coaches and trainers of the NSCA, which has a strong membership of 30,000. As I marched down the long hall to the exhibit area each morning, I took a bit of time to observe the display of “short list” of lifetime and yearly awards bestowed for excellence in the field of strength science. I saw one award reflecting the Best in Coaching of Strength Practitioning and Lifetime Award to what an individual has given to the world of strength. Immediately the name Zuver would creep into my mind, wondering how many of the greats in the hall were inspired by this man.
When we talked that day, I tried to jog Robert’s mind about recollections of his direct involvement with his father, his dreams, and how now, some 40 years later, he reflects back on his everyday young life.
One step leading to another, Bob Zuver started in the Navy stationed in Norfolk Navy Station as a UDT, a Underwater Demolition Team Member. As the never-ending desire to create and be active, Bob Zuver moved his family to California. The trips to Disneyland and the closeness of Muscle Beach, Westside Barbell, and the rough version of Zuvers Hall of Fame brought forth the Monsters, as Robert referred to them. The additions to the gym were daily, and in the early times, ultra-heavy black iron, hard usage barbell plates gave rise to wider and stronger weight racks and benches to support them. Robert was designated to do the welding on jobs like the 1,000-pound Blob and welding fabrication of items rescued from junk and ship yards that provided the start of many a grand project.
The distinctive barbell plates of the gym were first simply cast by the Bell Foundry in sizes 2.5 LBS through 45 LBS and resembled any barbell plate of the day. However, Robert told me the “meatheads” didn’t like adding 45s and they hated 35s on a 45 LB bar. The early non-distinctive plates were like those found at any gym, but the Zuver guys wanted things big and simple, so the second phase was started when an artist friend designed the Zuver Giant for all plates 50lbs and above, from a clay rendering into an aluminum master mold.
The weight amount, which was never really checked, was an approximate amount since the plates were never machine finished. The barbell plates ranged from 2.5, 5, 10, 25, 35, 45, 50, 100, 150, and 200 LBS, with the 35 LB and 45 LB being initially used and later dropped from the Zuver scene. In a few photos, the 35s and 45s are present, but as Robert said, Dad “hated” the 35 LB plates and mostly used them for decoration. Robert recalled drilling and screwing a number of them of the 35 LB plates to the walls as pure display.
The plates lower than 45 LBS were of a flat design much like a giant modern style 5 LB plate, and the 45s were culled out or borrowed by area gyms. Only one set of 45s were retained by Bob Zuver as shown in several pictures of the gym. Plates in smaller sizes were cast in two lots, the first lot being in un-numbered sizes 2.5, 5 and 10 LBS. Then, the numbered plates were made in larger amounts. Dumbbells up to 300 LBS were loaded and welded up. Cold rolled steel bars then peened over at the washer ends to tighten them up. The first barbell plates in 45 LBS were of a common deep dish design of the era and soon changed out to the Zuver Strongman Design. Less than 100 were made of the 50 LB size and two score of each of the “big boys” 100, 150, and 200 LBS were done.
I asked, “Who loaded a set of 200 LB plates on a bar?” Robert replied, “Well, not me.”
In most circumstances, big bar loads were done using four men, two men grasping each plate. The 200 LB plates were the largest, and by Robert’s recollection measured over four inches in thickness and of a deep dish design. The plates were never checked for accuracy. “If you were strong enough to lift them, you wouldn’t care,” quipped Robert.
Other items in the gym had a special flair and were chrome plated. Paramount Co Bars were replaced by Zuver Bars machined on large lathes and made of tough, bend-resistant chrome vanadium steel. Epochal equipment was built, like a train track power rack drilled on two-inch centers for its entire length. The racks were hand-drilled by Robert, Bob and the denizens of the gym pressed into work by The Boss. A half-inch drill was used to make each hole, taking hours to drill, and in days — perhaps weeks — formed each piece of equipment.
Pop, as Robert always called Bob, had ideas galore, and never rested until passing at a ripe old age of 80. It was mentioned that the excessive work, while heroic, just wore his beloved dad down over the years. Robert said the heydays of the Hall of Fame were during his mid-teen years, the mid-1960s. Lifting was hard but fun, and the camaraderie was high. Big Paul Anderson, Chuck Ahrens, Steve Marjanian, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbo, Billy “Superstar” Graham, Peanuts West, Bill Thurber and others all rallied their strength and troops through the place.
Many times Robert felt like a tour guide instead of being able to work or work out on his and his dad’s creations. When Pop finished his 500 LB blob, which looked like a half of a wrecking ball, it was joined quickly by half of a metal harbor buoy modified to weigh a neat half ton. No one lifted it, but it WAS there! There were endless tests of grip strength, where Bob had a real affinity by one-hand hauling the 500 LB blob up at will and conquering the visiting giants with an odd one finger ring lift. The steel ring was only large enough to allow one finger access and according to Robert, “hurt beyond belief” each time he tried it. Many a friendly bet was settled on this devilish device.
Frequent visits by Dr. Ken Leistner and Art Zeller continued through the final days of The Gym to record its history. The hard-earned skills of Robert served him well during his efforts at The Circle Gym Equipment Company, so named for the bending used in the framework, which was initially located on Superior Street in Costa Mesa, California. In the early part of 2000, the gym equipment market settled down and Robert, now steeped in the ways of steel, continued a successful fabrication business. Now at 60, he looks back, as I did on my early years, as being unwittingly immersed in the pure history of the iron game and never really knowing it. “It was just what we did every day,” said Robert.
I sometimes daydream and wonder, “If I was a young teen again and wandered into Bob’s gym, would I have ever left?”
To end this segment in a fitting manner, Mr. Robert Zuver has provided from his private collection the first photos of his unique aluminum master mold for the large Zuver Man Olympic Barbell Plates that have become the signature hallmark of the Zuver Hall of Fame. Also included are exclusive close-up pictures of the rare 150 LB and the one of a kind chromed early vintage generic Zuver Olympic 45 LB Plate as seen in photos above.