A legacy of fitness: Kenosha bodybuilders look back

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The group that met at Ruffalo’s Special Pizza II, 3931 45th St., on a late October afternoon were inconspicuous, most over 60, seemingly just old friends enjoying food and drinks while chatting.

While that was certainly true, these were also all former members of the Kenosha Body Shop Fitness Center, which once sat at the intersection of 22nd Avenue and 56th Street.

In their prime, they were some of the fittest people in Kenosha and the torchbearers of the area’s bodybuilding and weightlifting culture.

Al Vittori, one of the original founders of the Body Shop, brought them back together to reminisce more than 40 years after the gym first opened around 1980.

“It was great, it wasn’t all the members but the strongest were there,” Vittori said.

The idea for the Kenosha Body Shop originally came about in the late 1970s, when Vittori and John Guelzow met in the construction industry and became friends over their shared interesting in bodybuilding and weightlifting. Around 1980, they decided to open a gym together.

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Guelzow, a skilled welder, built all the gym equipment with Al over a single week in his garage.

“A couple days of straight work,” Vittori recalled.

“My neighbors must have thought my house was on fire,” Guelzow said, laughing. “Smoke bellowed out of that garage. You couldn’t do that today.”

They made numerous friends in the bodybuilding scene during their tenure as the gym’s owners, and even today boast that many of the local gyms can trace their lineage to former Body Shop members.

“It has carried on the tradition,” Guelzow said, “If you go into Atlas gym today, you’ll still see some of the old members.”

They owned the Body Shop until 1985, when Guelzow suffered an injury that forced them to sell the business to Maynard McCumber, another local bodybuilder. Despite their brief ownership of the gym, the pair had plenty of memories.

“We had so much fun. Al was a great trainer, a great motivator for the members,” Guelzow said.

Vittori, who now uses a wheelchair due to Parkinson’s disease, will happily share stories from yesteryear. He keeps a purple folder of photos of his time as a bodybuilder, and can talk at length about many of his old friends and their numerous accomplishments.

One of those old friends was Noah Marcoe, a competitive powerlifter and body builder who joined the gym when it first opened. He said he “really enjoyed “the lunch meetup, and hoped a future event would draw even more former members.

‘Cross-section of people’

“It was a very close knit group of guys and gals,” Marcoe said, recalling his time at the Body Shop. “That gym brought in a cross-section of people.”

That included police, firefighters, Chrysler plant workers on their lunches and even, according to Marcoe, former Kenosha Mayor Pat Moran. Marcoe even got into his career in computers through someone he met at the Body Shop.

“These are the kind of relationships that never go away,” Marcoe said.

Those aren’t just words for Marcoe. Although he hasn’t competed since the 90’s, Marcoe has kept in touch with Vittori, driving him around from time to time in his wheelchair-accessible vehicle.

“Al’s got a heart of gold, he tries to help everybody with everything,” Marcoe said. “John too. They were always trying to help people out.”

Vittori’s interest in bodybuilding came from his father, who was a local pioneer in bodybuilding and weightlifting training. A boxing champion and state champion in Olympic-style weightlifting and powerlifting, Richard Vittori and his friends, many of them World War II veterans, were prolific competitors in the bodybuilding scene.

Guelzow recalled meeting Joe Gold, a famous bodybuilder and founder of Gold’s Gym and World Gym, whose ranks of devoted fans included Arnold Schwarzenegger. Guelzow said he asked Gold about the 1948 Mr. America competition, where Vittori’s father and his friends had competed against Gold.

“He goes, ‘Oh my god,’ and I ask if he remembers them,” Guelzow said. “He goes ‘Of course I remember them. When you go home, please tell them I said hello.’”

For Vittori and Guelzow, the initial idea for the gym was about building a community. As the pair look back, however, they also see it as the continuation of a legacy started more than 70 years ago, keeping the tradition going to the next generation.

Marcoe has seen the impact first-hand, as members that Vittori and Guelzow trained grew up and had their own families who went on to get into lifting and bodybuilding.

“The fathers start getting into it, then the sons and daughters start going to the gym,” Marcoe said. “There’s a lot of people that went through those doors.”