I Am a Spotter, June 10, 2017



Me, teaching high school in my own fashion

When I first arrived in California in 1977 I immersed myself in the community that was the Original Muscle Beach (OMB). I competed in Acrobatic Gymnastics (nationals in Mixed Pairs in 1978 and Men’s Pairs in 1984), spent evenings working out in the gym, and every weekend at the OMB. That association continued, albeit with monotonically decreasing intensity, as I took on new responsibilities (teaching high school, going back to school and earning a Ph.D UCLA., teaching at USC), up until 1997.


That was when I had my wake-up moment–“Oh no! I forgot all about retirement!” At that point in time I had no assets and about $25K in credit card debt, so from that point I immersed myself in making money and creating a nest egg. For five years I actually had two full-time jobs, and for four years a more-than-full-time girlfriend; time constraints kept me from getting to the beach and I lost contact with OMB.


OMB crew in the mid-80’s

When my ex-girlfriend finally bailed on me (to my great relief and great benefit to my health) in the fall of 2010, I suddenly had a lot more time. I reconnected with the beach community and started going regularly to OMB on Sundays and to JJ’s Gym on Tuesday nights. While the cast of characters had changed almost entirely, there were still a few notable links to the past who helped speed my re-integration into the Acro community. Luckily, Ernie Thrash (the King of Muscle Beach, IMHO) was still holding court, Cisco Pimentel (deep circus roots) and David Floyd (former international competitor in Acrobatic Gymnastics) were still regulars who could vouch for me. Occasional visitors like Karen Castle, Bob Yerkes, and Tricia Peters Moon provided more links to the past.


OMB “OG” crew…

Acrobatics, you see, is based on trust, and in order to play one needs to establish and earn that trust. There are two flavors of gymnastics. The one that you are probably most familiar with is the Olympic variety, Artistic Gymnastics, and that is the ultimate individual sport: it is the competitor vs. the apparatus, and you have no one to blame for failure but yourself. My favorite branch, Acrobatic Gymnastics, is the ultimate team sport: without seamless communication and extreme trust between you and your partner(s) you will go nowhere!

Coming back to the beach after at least a 15 year absence I was no longer physically the man I used to be, so I knew I needed to be cautious with respect to the kinds of things I did. At the same time, the Acro Green is now a very exciting and bustling place. In addition to the exponential expansion of Acro Yoga monkeys (that is a technical term for Acro Yoga practitioners) that threatens to monopolize the Green, the explosion of Cirque-style entertainment popularized by Cirque du Soleil has resulted in a concomitant explosion of talented acrobats on the green.


Look out below!


One of the challenges facing newcomers (and returning old-timers) joining a community like OMB is establishing trust, and my road towards establishing that trust was by offering my services as a spotter. It is an easy role for me. I think that because of my status as the oldest of nine siblings I have an over-developed sense of safety. I am constantly coming aware of threats to safety, and in the case of OMB I find myself compelled to move in the direction of precarious situations. If I see someone putting up a shaky hand-to-hand or pyramid I will be moving to a position where I can assist if necessary, while at the same time scanning the area for equipment that might be landed on, or small children that might wind up beneath a falling body. If you look at the Facebook pictures from that era that I am tagged in you will see that in most of them it looks like I am just standing around, but I am on duty and standing at the ready.


After a few months of participating in that way my efforts paid off. One of my proudest days at OMB was when circus artiste Reyie Nal took me aside and told me “People really like having you around here. They like that you are always looking out for them. If I ever have a circus, I would hire you as the safety man.” Reyie now has a circus (Cirque La Vie), and if it wasn’t based way out in Houston I might take him up on that offer!


It’s a long way down when your bases are both 6’4″ tall


Post-bicep surgery

Spotting, by the way, is hard and dangerous work, which is why I am currently making myself scarce at OMB. Back in the summer of 2012 I was just standing there watching a very tall man toss a rather small woman for a back somersault. She was supposed to open up so he could catch her under the arms, but something went wrong and she wound up rotating backwards with head traveling towards the ground. My instincts took over as I dove in and managed to catch the back of her head and arrest the rotation. There was a cost, however, as I ruptured my right biceps in the process, but it was a price that I was happy to pay!


Between the ruptured triceps that I am still healing and the rotator cuff injury that I am rehabbing I am in no shape to be catching falling bodies, or even being around a place where my instincts might kick in, but I hope to get myself healed up and get back in the mix and hanging with my tribe again!


Just another night at JJ Gym


3 thoughts on “I Am a Spotter, June 10, 2017

  1. Scott Brause says:

    Hey Johnny, it’s great that the Venice Beach scene lives on. Thanks for talking about it. Is there a day of the week when more people gather for this kind of fun? Just asking, but I would like to take my Japanese friends and business associates to there on a day when this tradition is going on…it’s a very cool thing!


    • captainunivac says:

      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the comment. The OMB scene is actually in Santa Monica, just a bit south of the pier. The “O” in OMB stands for “Original” to distinguish it from the Venice Muscle Beach scene. That didn’t start up until the city of Santa Monica turned against the local MB scene in the 50’s. OMB, however, had been a scene since the 30’s. As for best times, Sunday afternoons on nice sunny days can’t be beat. There is also a pretty good group on Saturday afternoons, but Sunday tends to be the best. If you ever do decide to take a group down, let me know. I would be happy to serve as your guide to OMB! That would be fun!



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