by Christian Duque
I used to live with “Brother Iron, Sister Steel,” by Dave Draper; in fact, I probably had it with me for about two months in high school. At the time, I was trying to put on size for football and having a hard time gaining lean muscle tissue while also playing basketball. This book taught me so much, long before I had any idea what bodybuilding was all about. I had watched Pumping Iron and I had this book.
In addition to learning more about how training worked, it looked cool. It was more than the mere function of moving iron, it was a science. How much you lifted wasn’t the point. Bodybuilders weren’t supposed to win strongman contests. They were supposed to look strong, healthy, and vibrant, but looking strong and being strong aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive – and that’s ok! There’s guys who have tremendous amounts of muscle density, but who don’t necessarily have superhuman strength.
That being said, when Dave Draper walked down Muscle Beach, the amount of muscle he had was just right. I still remember some of the b&w photos from the book. There was one, in particular, that really moved me. He was doing squats, ass to the grass, barefoot and the bar was bending over his back. This was the kind of strict form that you just don’t see today. And you just knew that he’d train like this, whether it was for his book, a photoshoot, or just a random morning at 5AM.
Guys like the late Ric Drasin of IronMag TV shed a lot of light on this very important era of bodybuilding. If the 70’s were the Golden Era and the 80’s were iconic, then the 60’s would definitely have been the foundation that set it all in place. Arnold looked up to Dave Draper, as did Frank Zane, Franco, Mentzer and the rest. Dave Draper was a living legend.
What’s that mean, to be a living legend? Well, take a look at Frank Zane. In many real ways, The Blonde Bomber, like the Chemist and The Black Prince, may have stopped competing, but they never quit the lifestyle. Even well into their 70’s, these guys keep their diets clean, they train regularly at the gym, and whenever they took their shirts off, they looked like champion bodybuilders. Both Zane and Robinson, today, look like they could do a photoshoot at any time during the year. Dave Draper was very much the same way. When he spoke about diet and training, he had remarkable credibility, not only for what he achieved in half a century ago, but because he was the face of longevity. When you have a guy who’s in tip top shape into his twilight years, the you know he knows what he’s doing. This is, especially, true in a sport that’s been cursed by a number of deaths of athletes in their 40’s, 30’s, and even 20’s. To live into your 70’s looking the way Draper did, says a great deal about his entire approach.
For me, Dave Draper wasn’t just a legend from the 60’s; when I tell you that I lived with Brother Iron, Sister Steel, it was with me 24/7. If I was eating lunch, having my post-workout meal, or even dropping a deuce, chances are, the book was with me. Granted, that probably doesn’t sound so hygienic, especially with a pandemic ravaging the world, but I’m going to keep it real.
Dave had an opinion on everything. That book was like my bodybuilding bible. He had zero tolerance for “junk,” bad food, and ambition was key. It wasn’t just ambition for ambition’s sake, though. Dave’s journey required a great deal of vision. He mapped out what he wanted to achieve, from working in show business, to winning key titles in the sport, to building a physique and a persona that made him marketable to many different cross-sections of the population. If he’d been a lunkhead who only knew one thing, say muscle building, he never would have landed major acting roles like his most famous film, “Don’t Make Waves” with Tony Curtis.
Not only that, but Draper hosted a 2hr Saturday night program on mainstream television, out of Los Angeles, CA. This program was all the rage and it wasn’t about poking fun at muscle; rather, it was about showcasing great physiques while also being highly entertaining. The fact is, a kid from New Jersey with a super muscular physique, broke big into Hollywood and was used for far more than a stunt double. He got great parts in major movies, had his own tv show, and cemented himself as a world reknown celebrity. Who today could do something like that?
I’m not one of these nostalgia people who glorifies the past and craps on the present, but let’s be honest, who in the sport, today, would get approached by an NBC, CBS, Fox or ABC local affiliate, to have a 2hr Saturday night program? And when I say local affiliate, we’re not talking Peoria, IL or Gary, IN, we’re talking Los Angeles, CA. L.A. and NYC are the two biggest cities in the United States – then and now. That’s by no means anything to sneeze at, folks.
Also, just one look Dave’s contest record and you get an idea what his career was like. He wasn’t just ultra competitive; a strong case could be made for the fact that Draper dominated the 1960’s bodybuilding landscape. In 1965, he won the Mr. America. In 1966, he won the Mr. World. In 1970, he won the prestigious Mr. World title. Those three titles set him apart from the vast majoirty of competitors at the time. And while he didn’t win an Olympia, historians of the sport could argue that the three aforementioned titles – at the time – may have been more marketable than the Olympia.
I’m not saying Dave wouldn’t have eventually beat Sergio or Arnold, but it’s possibly that by ’69, ’70, he was already more interested with the next stages of his journey. While some guys compete into their 40’s and 50’s, the vast majority of physique-based athletes start looking for Plan B’s once they hit their late 20’s and early-to-mid 30’s. Furthermore, once you’ve won the America, the Universe, and the World’s, your legacy starts to become very important and pushing your luck at 30, when you’ve already won everything, might seem dicey. It probably made more sense to Dave to push harder into his acting and writing.
Speaking of writing, had it not been for Dave’s book, I may never have fell in love with bodybuilding. Although I saw Pumping Iron and read Brother Iron, Sister Steel at around the same time (junior year of high school), I can’t say the film made me race over to Bally’s in the Waterways to sign up for a gym membership. The book, at least, got me into the high school gym with far more intensity, and that intensity created a hunger in me that wanted more. The school gym had bad hours, there was never enough equipment, and I hated losing my pump because other lifters were too busy talking or speculating on who was going to be first string, special teams, and/or who hit harder, lifted more, and deserved team honors. Dave’s book got me to the point I wanted to join a gym. From there, I was hooked. Next, I bought magazines, VHS tapes, and the rest is history.
In addition to being an elite level competitive physique-based athlete, a movie star, tv show host and accomplished author of countless books and articles, Dave is also said to have managed World Gym in Santa Cruz, CA, according IMDB.com.
You couldn’t possibly ask for a harder workers, across the boards, than The Blonde Bomber. Anyone’s whoever worked in gyms, knows, that being an operations manager could easily be a never ending nightmare for those who lack the wherewithal to be able to keep staffs happy, a gym functioning, and customers up to date on their dues, happy with their training experience, and sign-ups coming in. You can’t manage a gym, let alone a World Gym in California, unless you’re a hardass worker!! And that’s exactly what Dave Draper was.
I know that Dave’s memory will live on. He was a role model for us all.
Thankfully, we have social media and YouTube, so I’m confident the younger generations will get to learn about The Blonde Bomber and his many contributions to bodybuilding and fitness. Although Dave lived a great life and while we don’t know the cause of death, the news of his passing is a major blow. I’d like to take this opportunity, from all of us at Iron Magazine, to send our deepest and sincerest condolences to Dave’s family, friends, and fans.