By Mario Strong

For years, I trained consistently and with great ferocity to develop a muscular body that was as strong as it looked. During my intense transformation, I also acquired a mountain of knowledge on the sport of bodybuilding. I had read every physique publication available and began training muscle builders at my garage gym using the knowledge and experience I had gained. I had become a living chemistry set, fine-tuning my physique through proper nutrition, resistance training, and positive thinking. I lived a clean life. I never drank alcohol and never smoked or took drugs to get high. I had no vices! Since an early age, I always walked a straight line when it came to my health, thanks to the path I followed in bodybuilding. It was a way of life I believed in and I wanted to share it with everyone else. I was ready to take on the challenge and make the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club a reality.

On September 7, 1976, after several months of searching for a location to build a gym, and after acquiring exercise equipment from various sources, I opened Staten Island’s first bodybuilding club in the heart of the Island on New Dorp Lane. The gym was appropriately named the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club, and was equipped with Weider, Lurie, and York Barbell free-weights, benches, and machines. It also featured a complete set of solid Jackson dumbbells that dated back a couple of decades. The Staten Island Bodybuilding Club had two brightly lit floors to workout on and was designed for maximum results. Its high mirrored-walls were encased with dozens of bodybuilding posters that helped to create a unique atmosphere and welcomed everyone who came there. This motivating atmosphere would inspire thousands of bodybuilders to excel and achieve their goals in the decade to come.

My members were naturally hard-core. Not only did they train hard and heavy, they were consistent. The world could end and they would still find a way to get to the gym. On several occasions, they proved their worthiness as they overcame Mother Nature and man’s failures as they fought the odds to accomplish their workouts. In the winter of 1978, Staten Island experienced back-to-back blizzards within a few days of each other that left mountains of snow everywhere and brought commercial transportation to a standstill. Walking through the snow it would take me two hours to reach my gym, which was only three miles from my home. Unbelievably, when I arrived at the club after each blizzard, I would find some of my members standing and shivering outside its door, waiting patiently to get their muscles pumping. To make matters even more difficult, the gym’s heating system was always shutoff at night, so that left them with ice cold steel to lift for the first hour or so. However, that did not matter. They were driven by purpose and wouldn’t let little things like record blizzards and subfreezing temperatures get in their way.

In the summer of the same year, the city experienced a record heat wave. My gym was packed with members and it seemed like business as usual. Unexpectedly, the lights went out. There was no power, no air-conditioning, no fans, nothing. The lower level of the gym was in complete darkness. Several times, I called for my members to come up and out of the pitch-blackness for their own safety but they refused. When I went down the stairs, I couldn’t see anyone. It was black as midnight, and the only way you could tell anyone was down there was by the heavy breathing and moans of pain as the members continued to workout in complete darkness. They were determined to get their workouts in and trained on as the night crawled by. There are many stories of obstacles that were overcome at my gym but all had similar endings. It never mattered if Mother Nature brought blackouts, blizzards, hurricanes, floods: my members remained dedicated to their cause of muscle and strength and I was always there at the gym to make sure they did their best.

The training floor of the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club was just over 2,100 square feet and contained a variety of benches, machines, and steel. There was a motivating atmosphere within its walls that came from the members who were there to succeed. Throughout the course of any given day, loud groans, thuds, and clanging of weight-plates could be heard in tune with every set and rep that was performed by the Island’s elite muscle builders. There was little conversing and no idle chatter among these men of iron. They gathered at my gym for a reason and inspired each other beyond mortal limits. To them, training was serious business as they were focused on their goals and trained with every once of might they had strained to acquire. When the Staten Island bodybuilders trained, they moved heavy poundage in every direction possible with the purposes of enlarging their physiques, increasing their strength, and building their confidence to gargantuan proportions. They all had strengths and weaknesses to overcome, aches and pains to endure, and hopes and dreams to be reached. The camaraderie of the club always seemed to simmer just below a boil, as the body-men were hungry for steel and got their fill each and every day by lifting tons of raw iron, side-by-side, while on their quest to Muscledom. Nevertheless, as hungry as they all were, they never viewed each other as competitors, challengers, or rivals. They were allies united by a bond. That bond was the passion they shared for the sport of bodybuilding. To them it was no special thing, but to the average folk they were a rare breed yet to be discovered, yet to be archived, and yet to be imitated.

Like many other gyms throughout America, the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club had its share of personalities. There were those who would try to lift the impossible and others who would do a couple of light sets and then pose in front of a mirror for an hour or so. We also had plenty of the standard gym-rats. You know the kind, those muscle-heads that are always at the gym no matter what time of the day it is. There were also the standard heavy bench press addicts and big arm curlers who could not recognize a squat rack if their lives depended on it. We had the supplement poppers who swore by the latest fad and those who timed their rest periods between every set to the second. There were those who wore their tank tops two sizes to small and those who hid their muscles under triple-X sweatshirts. You name it and my gym had it, which helped to create an interesting mix within the club.

As many members as my gym had over the years that’s how many different personalities there were with unique stories to match. Being a gym owner, manager, and trainer requires a certain level of finesse and psychology to keep things running smoothly. For the most part, the members were a great group of guys and gals. Occasionally, a fellow would join and become a nuisance to the more serious-minded members. Because of this he would eventually find himself on the receiving end of a kick in the butt. There were plenty of times when some of my members would get on my nerves and push me to the limit. You have to remember, back in the 1970s hard-core gyms primarily consisted of guys in their twenties who were self-consumed egomaniacs. On more than one occasion, I had to get physical with some of them to make sure they did not forget whose gym it was. Rarely, I had little choice but to disallow a member from returning to my gym. This served as a reminder to the rest of the group and kept things running smoothly. There were also those that would stupidly stand in front of some guy doing heavy laterals or whatever and find themselves with a sore foot after one of the dumbbells hit its desired target. To most of my members, the gym was a place of serious business. They came to my club to get the most out of the time they invested there and it was my job to see that their gains were realized.

Being a managing gym owner also meant being a psychologist to some degree. Remember, you have hundreds of members entering your establishment throughout the course of any given day. Each member is unique with his or her wants and desires. Some come to the gym with problems on their minds. Others just come to hang out and pass the time. Always being present at the gym put me in the center of each individual’s needs. Besides helping my members with their training and diets, I found myself quite often giving advice to help them with their personal problems. When they saw me, they saw someone they could open up and vent to, someone who would listen, and perhaps someone who would have a solution. At times, I felt like a priest during confession. You would not believe some of the stuff that was confessed to me. Stories involving adultery and even criminal activity were revealed to me. Sometimes as a joke, I would tell the member giving their confession to kneel at the squat rack and sing Gonna Fly Now as penance for their sins. After many years in the business, I became quite good at giving sensible advice and probably helped save a few lives along the way. I guess it was just part of the job. When you joined my club you not only got a first rate gym to train at, you also got some sound advice on how to handle your personal life as well as build your body.

It was always a pleasure to be a part of my Staten Island Bodybuilding Club. Every morning, I would find several members eagerly waiting my arrival to open its door for the day ahead. When it came to muscle building the gym had trainees from many walks of life. At anytime of the day you could find police officers, doctors, lawyers, students, firefighters, etc. All were welcome. We even had some local Tony Soprano-types that were dedicated to their training and would “make you an offer you couldn’t refuse” if you were in their way. For the most part, I got along well with the members and did my best to help them achieve their desired goals.

One day, a well-known Soprano-type of fellow, who was a member at my gym, was nice enough to make me an offer I could not refuse. Although I cannot recall any names, times, or places, this man had a Nautilus Bi/Tri machine at his home and asked me if I would like to have it for the gym. I accepted his offer, and that night went to his residence, disassembled the machine, transported it to my gym, and reassembled it on the gym floor for the members to enjoy. That is the type of camaraderie that existed at my club. Everyone was part of something larger and did his or her share to make it a great experience for all.

One of my gym’s hard-core members was a guy named Russell Cunningham. Russell was a no-nonsense type, who openly displayed a bullet lodged in his muscular abdomen. In May of 1976, I witnessed him easily win the WBBG Mr. Staten Island competition among a large field of competitors. I remember how awesome he looked standing there onstage with his heavily muscled physique and ripped abs. He looked unbeatable that night and inspired me to train harder and heavier, so I too, one day might win the coveted Staten Island title. Later that year, Russell walked into my gym wearing a short sleeve flannel shirt that exposed his thick forearms and neck. As overpowering as he looked, he was equally nice once you got to know him. Russell was a bodybuilder who trained for the love of it and gave advice willingly to all the up-and-coming muscle builders. One day, while on the way to the gym, he saw a building on fire. Without hesitance for his own safety, he ran into it and saved the lives of those who were trapped inside. The incident made the pages of the New York Daily News and brought Russell some much-deserved praise. But to him it was just another day of training.

Another one of my members who was destined to succeed was Dennis McKnight. Although he was not a bodybuilder in the pure sense of the word, Dennis took his training quite seriously and gave it 110% effort. He joined my gym in 1977 while a member of a local high school varsity football team. Dennis pushed and pulled his way in the gym and on the field to earn himself a scholarship to Drake University. He then went on to play eleven successful seasons as an NFL offensive lineman, most of which was for the San Diego Chargers. Dennis was always psyched and flexing in a similar manner as Hulk Hogan. Therefore, it seemed only natural, when after finishing another workout one day, he decided to walk outside of the club and jump on top of someone’s parked car while doing his impersonation of the Hulkster. It was funny to watch as onlookers, who were walking and driving by, stare in bewilderment and horror as they tried to understand this massive fellow’s odd behavior. To us, it was just Dennis’s way of letting the world know he was psyched and ready to meet any challenge that came his way. After his NFL career, Dennis became a football coach for the University of Hawaii’s Warriors and for a time, tried his hand as a radio broadcaster in California.

One member in particular, whose physical presence demanded your attention, was the big burly Raymond Irving. Ray was also an avid football player that liked to hit hard and made sure you felt it. In the gym, he was not satisfied unless he racked the entire stack of weights on any exercise he performed. Sometimes it seemed he wanted to lift the machines as well. When Ray trained, the other members kept their distance. He had a deep dark stare that made you wonder what he was thinking. However, once you got to know him you realized that he was a nice guy who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.

There was also Rocco Votinelli. Rocco’s membership number was 38, the same number as his age when he joined my club during its first month of existence. Rocco was the senior member of the gym and always had some words of wisdom to give the members. He trained consistently hard and turned his frail body into a muscular work of art that matched the colorful battleship tattooed across his entire chest. Whenever there was any gym equipment broken, Rocco would take it to a friend of his to be repaired and never asked for anything in return. For him, the gym was like a happy home he cared about; you could see Rocco’s inner joy as he toiled away at the cold steel. After several years of intense training, Rocco brought his son, Al, to the gym and being the good father that he was, helped Al build a massive physique in much the same manner that he had. Like father, like son.

Tom Kirdahy (see photo) is a gym member that I have personally known for over three decades. Tom joined my gym in the late 70s. Although his goal during the Iron Age was to compete on the physique stage, he also liked to lift heavy and trained like a seasoned powerlifter that had twenty years under his lifting belt. Tom was a teenager during the years he trained at my gym. What he lacked in experience he made up with heart, as he would constantly challenge himself to lift heavier steel with every workout he executed. If a barbell was not bolted down to the floor Tom would lift it with every once of strength he could muster. There wasn’t any amount of heavy steel that intimidated him. Because of his heavy training practices, he eventually built a Herculean physique rarely seen on a teenager. Toms mass monster mentality would bring him a string of physique awards as he became one of the main faces in the close-knit Staten Island bodybuilding community. Fast forward into the 21st century, Tom is still lifting poundage that astonishes onlookers. Occasionally, I train with him for periods of time and always enjoy the gains made in size and strength from our high intensity, heavy-duty workouts. He is one of the few original Island muscle builders that has lasted through the test of time and knowing Tom the way I do, I am sure he will still be pushing and pulling the heavy steel when he is ninety-nine.

One of the most dynamic figures to ever train at the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club was Tony Bartollotta. Tony was one of my gym’s original members. From the onset, he demonstrated a great ability to focus intensely on his training and desired goals. When he trained at the gym, it was an all out war as he pushed and pulled the steel with every ounce of strength he had. Tony was and still is a tri-athlete who possesses tremendous stamina and has competed successfully in many endurance competitions. One day in 1976, before his workout, Tony put on a pair of boxing gloves and challenged me to some friendly sparring. Reluctantly, I agreed and we stepped outside my gym’s door and into the view of the public at large, we both started to swing away. As the gym’s members exited its door to watch the battle take place between the two egomaniacs, both Tony and I continued to swing away as we hit harder with every punch. As the spectacle raged on, it became apparent to the members that they were watching two individuals that did not know the meaning of the word quit. However, before things got ugly they jumped in and ended the heated battle. That’s the way Tony was and remains. He is not a quitter, but someone that challenges himself each and every day to go a little further on his quest for physical excellence. Today, Tony still trains hard and continues to focus on future endurance competitions. I am sure that twenty years from now, Tony Bartollotta will still be breaking athletic barriers in much the same way he did in the past.

Another member, who also happens to be a long time friend of my family, is John Foti. I have known John since we were kids in high school and remember when he would come to my home to pump iron with my brothers and me. John continued his dedication to lifting heavy steel and occasionally would help me in the gym. One Sunday morning in 1978, after an intense arm workout with John, I got the bright idea to build a small office near my gym’s main entrance. Since it was a Sunday, every lumberyard on the Island was closed. After several phones calls, we managed to find one in Brooklyn that was open and sped over the Verrazano Bridge to arrive at the lumberyard as it was closing. Hastily, we ran in, purchased about two dozen boards of sheetrock and paneling, and placed them on the top of John’s 1968 Ford International Scout for the ride back to the gym. When I requested some rope to tie the boards down, the lumberyard manager told me he was out of rope and locked the loading area gate behind us as he walked away. John and I looked at each other and said, “What the heck?” As John drove his vehicle with his right arm, he had his left hand on the roof, holding the boards down. I was in the front passenger side of the vehicle and practically hanging out the window as I held the boards down with both hands and fought the winds while traveling over the Verrazano Bridge. Along the way, we had to make several stops to reset the boards, but eventually did make it back to the gym. After that ordeal came the creation of an office that lasted well into the twilight. For hours, we both sawed and hammered our knuckles away to build a wood-paneled office with functional windows and a door. By the time the early morning arrived, the office was complete. This long time friend would later marry my first cousin, Donna. Today, as we reminisce about that day and the many other challenges we overcame because of bodybuilding, we smile and laugh, knowing that we would not have done it any other way.

A bodybuilder by the name of Carl Stair, who came from a family of champion arm wrestlers, was also a member of my gym. Carl’s father and grandfather had genetically-gifted forearms that gave them bone-crushing strength and quick speed to takedown any opponent in an arm wrestling match. Carl had the same fire in his genes and was determined to be one of the best in this intense sport. In the gym, Carl regularly performed heavy Barbell Wrist Curls (see page 47) and various other exercises with the goal of creating great forearm strength and speed. Eventually, he succeeded in his quest and became one of the best in his chosen sport.

There were many such members as Russell, Dennis, Ray, Rocco, Tom, Tony, John, and Carl that stand out in my mind. In fact, there were over ten thousand members during my club’s history with which I shared some great times and some not so great times. The members of my gym were the furnace that heated up and energized the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club. We all shared one common bond and passion that drove us to excel in our quest for excellence. We were a group of bodybuilders that truly loved the sport of muscle building and we lived our lives for that purpose. It was a unique time for bodybuilding on Staten Island that can never be duplicated. The main faces in the Island’s muscle scene gathered at my gym on a daily basis and together they united to create a magical atmosphere that brought them many years of hard-earned achievement. Each of them was dedicated to the core and together we all pained through endless workouts of Guts and Glory. Life seemed to be ours for the taking as we were youthful and had little sense of fear or doubt. The only question was, How long before we gained another pound of pure, rock hard muscle? To us, that was all that mattered.

If there ever was a hell on earth for mortal man, then it was my gym’s Animal Room. Located in the dungeon of the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club, the Animal Room was a training section of my gym. This is where my members went to lift enormous amounts of steel while bellowing horrifying screams that could be heard on street level. While my gym’s upper level featured wall-to-wall carpeting, wood paneled walls, and bright lighting; the Animal Room in contrast was dimly lit, had sweat soaked mirrors, and drawings of Herculean figures painted on its red, white, and blue concrete walls. Only those brave enough dared venture into its cavernous chambers, where the air remained stagnant and the training equipment barbaric in nature. When you entered the Animal Room, it was as if time stood still. There was only one purpose for being there and that was to put your life on the line while lifting as much steel as super-humanly possible. Today, in the many multi-purpose fitness centers, such a training environment would never be tolerated. However, back in the days of Guts and Glory, it was welcomed by the few that understood what it took to create giant muscle and raw power.

As the theme from Rocky constantly blared off the Animal Room’s walls, the echoes of clanging and crashing from the iron being lifted and dropped, fell in tune with the trumpets of Gonna Fly Now and the drumming beat of Eye of the Tiger. The Animal Room had a vibe that exuded results. Its very environment created a magical atmosphere by those that poured their blood onto the rusty barbells. It was a no-holds-bar, winner takes all mentality, which saw some of the greatest workouts in the most primitive conditions ever to take place on the Island. As you walked down my gym’s staircase, the words ANIMAL ROOM boldly greeted you. Looking across the training area you saw the words TRAIN WITH THE INSANE painted across one of its long walls. That pretty much summed up the attitude that was needed to survive in such a hellish environment.

It was a remarkable sight! The Animal room was filled with huge 100 pound and 75 pound weight-plates on its machines and racks. The dumbbells, large round balls of black steel, had thick handles. They endured endless gripping by those strong enough to lift them. Its angle iron benches were held together by welds that strained under the force put upon them while their vinyl coverings stretched and shredded from the muscles that dug deep into the fabric. What was hell for others was heaven on earth for the hard-core muscle maniacs of the Staten Island Bodybuilding Club. They lived and dreamed for such torturous days of iron pumping madness and big gains. Training in the Animal Room was an experience that relatively few ever had the pleasure to enjoy. To this day, I can still feel the enthusiasm and taste the pain I shared with the members of my gym as we met and conquered the many challenges that dared come our way. It is the fond memory and the strength that stays with me as I continue to push forward with this thing called bodybuilding.