Monday, April 10, 2017

Richard & Me

This may seem a little strange for me to be writing about this person but I've got a reason. He's been mentioned quite a bit both on social media and on television, lately. He's been around as part of pop culture for over 3 decades. He's been an actor, a entrepreneur, an author, a talk show host and lots more.  I'm talking about Richard Simmons. 

He's been talked about more during the last month than he had over the previous 36. The reason he's been in the public eye, recently, is because he's been out of sight for more than 3 years.

Now for someone as intense and devoted as Richard Simmons had been for more than 3 decades that kind of change, and the suddenness with which it happened, has been rather bewildering. 

Last month one of Richard Simmons friends and regular patron at his exercise studio from 2012 until its closing in 2014, Dan Taberski, started a podcast to try and discover what happened to the renowned exercise guru. He produced a 6 episode podcast entitled "Missing Richard Simmons". 

If you are a fan of Richard's or the least bit curious about his situation, I'd recommend this podcast for informational purposes. I must warn you though. Don't take everything you hear as "gospel." The middle episodes kind of go "off the rail" in regards to accusations by some of Richard's inner circle. Take a lot of what you hear with a grain of salt. You can find the podcasts on I-Tunes or at

The reason I am writing this post is not to give publicity to the podcast but to share with you the influence and effect Richard Simmons has had on me. It goes way back to the early 80s and potentially extends to today. 

Richard's over the top, flamboyant on-stage personality was sometimes too much for me. I disagreed with the way he allowed himself to be portrayed and treated by some media. His touchy feely way of getting his message across sometimes made me feel a bit uncomfortable. But getting me past all of that over more than 30 years has been Richard's passion. He is nothing if not sincere in his dedication to those who need his help. It was always evident in his actions (both public and private), his service, and his products. 

There has always been two sides to Richard Simmons. There was the public side that most people knew. He was the strange curly haired guy in a tank top and short shorts who seemed to always act like a clown. Then there was another  guy who followed his heart and allowed people to see his most vulnerable side in order to connect with them. This allowed him to help them with their struggle; the same struggle he went through. 

It's that 2nd guy that I have been drawn to over the course of my life. How he helped me is what I'd like to share with you now. 

I'm going to be covering about 30 years of history and events so please bear with me. This is going to be one of my longer posts. Here are the details, as best as I can remember them. 

The presence of Richard Simmons has been what I'd call "seasonal" in my life. There have been periods of time when his influence and inspiration was a daily presence. Then there were times when my attitude toward his programs and products took on a "been there, done that" disposition. 

I was in my 20s (early 80s) when I first heard the name Richard Simmons. My sisters talked about him all the time because they watched the ABC soap opera, General Hospital, during the time Richard was a semi-regular on the show.  

I saw him for the first time the way I would see him, for the most part, over the next couple of decades, on a talk show. I don't remember exactly when the first time was or which show he was on. But my best guess is that it was either on Regis & Kathy Lee in the morning or David Letterman at late at night. 

Very rarely did I see either of the Richard's own TV talk shows because they were on in the middle of the day. I was at work and there were no DVRs and video recorders hadn't yet become affordable for the average guy.  

But when I did see him on TV, I was impressed with his energy and enthusiasm. He addressed aspects of losing weight and staying healthy with an energy and positive attitude. 

I remember making my first serious post-high school weight loss effort by following the exercise and food plan Richard introduced in his book "Never Say Diet". 

The "Live-It" plan (opposite of "Die-it"), as Richard called it, worked pretty well for me. But I ran into the same problem that I have had with weight loss plans all my life. I didn't like a lot of the foods that are on the plan, so I ended up eating a very narrow regimen. It was hard eating a baked chicken leg every night when the rest of the family was eating Salisbury Steak with gravy; even if it was just the frozen bake & serve kind from Encore. 

Also learning exercises from still pictures in a book wasn't all that easy either. Repetitious floor exercises aren't my favorite anyway. So that didn't last too long either. 

In 1988, Richard started to appear on television a little more often and not just on talk or game shows. That's when he came up with a new way of presenting aerobic exercise. "Sweatin To The Oldies" took the video workout craze started by Jane Fonda in 82 and gave it a fun, party type atmosphere. His first "Sweating" video had a high school prom theme and used pop music favorites from the 50s and 60s. 

It came out during one of my "been there done that" phases I mentioned earlier plus at that time I considered workout videos something for women. 

Two years later, Richard was out with a new infomercial, a unique way to track what you eat, and a 2nd edition of "Sweatin To The Oldies." 

In the time between the videos, I had taken to working part-time on weekends as a DJ for weddings and parties. I used my own music collection, which was mostly songs from the 50s, 60s, & 70s. I soon associated that music, the same used on "Sweatin To The Oldies" with everyone having a good time. 

When I saw the clips of "Sweatin 2" on Richard's new infomercial some of the same songs I played at my parties were included. That got my attention. Also there were people of all shapes and sizes in the video. Some of them actually looked like they really needed to exercise. I don't mean that to be insulting. 

Up until Richard's, nearly all exercise videos had people whose skin tight leotards fit their perfectly fit bodies. Something that seemed rather irrational and intimating to me. To see real people who "looked like me" was a breath of fresh air in the stale "stepford wives" world of workout videos. 

But the thing that kicked off the next, and longest, phase of my Richard Simmons fandom was Deal-A-Meal.

This was a card system that helped you with limited calorie intake. Each card represented a specific type of food: meat, bread, vegetables, fruit, and fat. The card had a list of pre-measured portions of a variety of foods that fit into that category. 

According to your weight loss goal, you were allowed a certain number of each type of card per day. You'd start out each morning with all your cards on the left side of the wallet. As you ate your 3 meals and snacks you'd move the corresponding cards to one of the four slots on the right side of the wallet. When all your cards were "dealt" to you were finished eating for the day. 

Now this diet program may seem incredibly unsophisticated and simplistic compared to today's technology. Deal-A-Meal may seem like a papyrus scroll in a world that's filled with fitness trackers you wear on your wrist and nutrition tracker apps on your phone. Let me assure you at the time it was a innovative and unique tool. 

Early in 1993 I bought the Deal-A-Meal kit from Richard Simmons through his infomercial. The package included a lot of helpful things. In addition to the Deal-A-Meal cards & wallet, I found out the Sweatin 2 video and the "Let's Take A Walk" cassette (more about both in a bit). The package was well worth the price I paid. I believe it was about $80 in total. That was a substantial investment for me at that time.  

I had some success with Deal-A-Meal and I stuck with it for a long time. But eventually it went the way of the other diets I tried at that point in my life. But the Sweatin To The Oldies 2 video turned out to be something that I really latched on. It became an important factor in my battle of the bulge throughout the 90s. 

I tried the Sweatin to the Oldies 2 video a few times and I liked it. It became part of my exercise routine, when I chose to have one. 

In 1994, I read another Richard Simmons book: "Never Give Up". 
This book included a brief autobiography and a few other inspirational stories of people Richard had helped over the first 20 years. 

During that same year, I started exercising to the Sweatin To The Oldies 3, which came out in January. I liked it even more than Sweatin 2. 
Since my sisters and I were all trying to lose weight, we decided that we would get together and exercise to Richard's aerobics videos. 

We started getting together at my sister, Peggy's house on Thursday nights. We usually did the Sweatin 2 video. Sometimes I could get them to put in Sweatin 3. 

We tried to expand our group to others at our church by moving to the church building's fellowship hall a few times. But eventually we ended up back at Peg's house with just us, and a couple of friends. 

We formed our own little support group which I dubbed with the acronym, HELPS. It stood for Helping Everyone Lose Pounds Sensibly. 

I also had a TV and a VCR set up in the attic of my apartment where I would exercise in between our group get togethers. 

In 1995, Richard's 4th aerobic video came out. This one was called "Sweat N Shout". Of course, I just called it "Sweatin 4."

Also, at that time, I was producing my own music retrospective programs, called "Rewind" (I still record them today). That year I decided to write and record a program featuring the music from Richard's 4 videos. I also included an the audio of one of his many appearances on David Letterman's late night talk show. In that clip he sings a song about losing weight and Deal-A-Meal to the tune of "When The Saints Go Marchin In."

At the end of "Never Give Up, Richard gave his mailing address for people to write to him. I wrote him a letter telling him about our support group and included a dubbed cassette copy of my Rewind show featuring his music. 

He sent me back a very nice letter thanking me for the tape and included an autographed picture and a copy of Sweat N Shout. It was very encouraging and kept me motivated to keep trying to lose weight. 

As a means of trying to put a little more variety into the exercise sessions both at home and with my sisters I connected two VCRs and used my crude video editing skills to create a "Greatest Hits" version of a Sweatin To The Oldies. Essentially it was an aerobic workout mix tape. I made it a little shorter than the actual Sweatin videos. It soon became my sister's favorite.    

I copied that compilation workout on a video tape with a brand name that started with the letter v. The brand's logo was stamped all over the box and on the center of the video tape itself. So in addition to our acronym  that served as the name of our group we added to our jargon, "Let's do the 'V' tape tonight". 

I had a couple of other ways that I would exercise using Richard Simmons products. Using a stepper and a video called "Sweat N Step" was a different and fun way to get a workout. 
 Although it didn't feature the oldies music or the festive carnival atmosphere of the "Sweatin" videos; it was a fun workout. A relatively subdued Richard and the presence of some of his actual Slimmons instructors made it a enjoyable change of pace type workout.  

Included in the infomercial package for the Food Mover (more on that coming up) were two audio cassettes. Richard Simmons' "Take A Walk" and "Take A Hike". 

The 30 minute "Take A Hike" cassette was always in my Walkman on my countless walks along the paved path along the Lehigh canal on the south side of Easton, PA. I listened to that tape so much that I knew it by heart. I still have a digital copy of it in my I-Tunes collection. I will have to listen to it again on one of my walks soon. 

I wasn't so fond of the "Take A Hike" tape. It just didn't seem to motivate me like the "Walk" one did. 

Another one of Richard's walking tapes that I had was "Walk Across America." 

Again I didn't use this one very much but it is connected to a specific memory. 

I remember putting a duel plug adapter into my portable cassette player and plugging in two pair of headphones and walking to that tape along the Delaware Canal path with my sister, Shari.    

I only had the opportunity to meet Richard Simmons once in my life. That was during the early 90s. I think it 94 or 95. Through his monthly news letter (I got a subscription as part of my Deal-A-Meal package) found out that Richard was going to be holding a seminar at the Mountain Laurel Resort in Long Pond, PA on Mother's Day weekend. The resort was only an hour away from where I lived at the time. 

The seminar included a "healthy" brown bagged lunch, a chance to meet Richard, and a 20 minute workout with him. 

I was excited about the opportunity to meet Richard and get a picture. I also thought it would be fun to exercise in one of his "classes" as well. 

When the day came we were late getting there; I don't remember why. The event started at 10 and we didn't get there until 10:30. By the time I found a place to park, walked to the entrance and picked up my seminar package and name badge it was 11 o'clock.

When I got to the conference room where Richard was doing the meet and greet. The line of fans was a multi-row switch back that started about 6 feet from the door and snaked across the room to a small stage. Richard was standing in front of the stag greeting, hugging, and taking picture with his fans. Most of them were women. I remember thinking to myself, "having hundreds of women who are crazy about you come up and give you a hug is a great gig."

The person at the door told me that the line was closed. Richard was only greeting until 12. Only the people already in line would be able to meet him. 

To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. To say I was a bit angry would be a fact I didn't make a big deal out of it (but I would write a strongly worded letter to the event promoter a week or so later). I simply resolved to make of it what I could. The line was roped off and you could walk up the side of the room to the stage and get close to where Richard was. If I couldn't get a picture with him I was going to get a picture of him. 

Now this is in the days before smart phones with cameras and digital photography. These are scanned copies of the film prints from that day. 

As you can see someone did get a selfie with Richard but it wasn't me. 

At noon we went into the resort dining area and had our bagged lunch. I don't even remember what it was specifically but it was "healthy". 

The workout was a lot of fun. It was held in the same conference room as the meet & greet. The resort supplied small exercise mats and bottles of water.

Richard gave a 10 or 15 minute motivational talk before the exercise. The mats were laid out on the floor spread across the room in rows. I managed to get a mat in the third row just to the left of the stage where Richard was giving instructions. I enjoyed this part of the day the most. 

It wasn't the encounter I'd hoped it would be when I bought my ticket. However, I will always remember it as the day when I saw Richard Simmons in person.  

In the last half of the 90s the Deal-A-Meal wallet and cards evolved into the next generation, Richard's Food mover. The food mover works on the same principal as Deal-A-Meal but it's self contained. 
You placed a preprinted card that shows the portions you get for a specific amount of calories into the plastic device. It has windows that slide up and down; similar to the kid's game "Guess Who." As you eat your portions you close the windows. When all the windows are closed, you are finished eating for the day. I used the Foodmover and really liked it.

As the 90s went on Richard Simmons made even more workout videos. Disco Sweat, Groovin In The House, Dance Your Pants Off, Broadway Sweat and more. I got just about them all of them. 

At the start of each year he would release a new package. After the Foodmover first came out, I stopped buying the packages and waited until the video was available by itself. 

As things started to change in my life in the late 90s and I would soon be starting over, the longest season of Richard's influence in my life came to an end. 

I moved to Bowling Green, KY in March of 1999 to be near Paula until the circumstances were right for us to get married. 

Richard Simmons published his most detailed autobiography that year. I bought a copy and read it from cover to cover very quickly. 

At the end of the book there was a list of how to "stay in touch" with Richard. Among them was "Richard", his new website. The internet was still in it's infancy but had become a pretty good marketing tool already. Because I was living alone with a lot of free time on my hands, I decided that I might as well look toward getting myself healthy again. This meant losing some weight and getting some exercise.  

I only got online and became a member of Richard's Clubhouse on his website. This included something I liked the most about being on the internet: a chat room. 

In that chatroom, I became friends with a woman named, Mary. She lives in California just an hour west of Disneyland.
We spent many nights at our keyboards on opposite sides of the country talking about diet, exercise, our families, hobbies, and anything else we could think of. She really helped me stay focused during a transitional time in my life. 

Mary and Carollee have a direct connection to Richard Simmons. They used to attend classes at Slimmons, his workout studio. Carollee also appeared in Richard's "Groovin In the House" video. 

Mary is still my friend to day. She is a kind, generous, positive, and encouraging person. She always sends pictures to me and has even sent gifts to members of my family. 
She and her daughter, Carollee, are the best friends I've never met. I wouldn't even know them if it wasn't for the influence of Richard Simmons in our lives. 

Since Paula and I have been married, I have continued to be a Richard Simmons fan; if even if it's only from a distanced. I have always tried to watch his infomercials, talk show and guest star appearances. 

Up until his self imposed exile, the place I saw Richard the most was on QVC. He offered his products to the mass audience right in their living room. I always tried to catch his appearances on the shopping channel. It was the one place where I felt the "real Richard Simmons" still came through. The one who has had influence on me for a good portion of my adult life. 

As I write this post I am looking at the stack of more than a dozen Richard Simmons exercise DVDs that I have gotten off the shelf and brought them into my living room. I am looking to making a new effort toward getting healthy again. Those workouts along with walking, and riding my bike, are going to compile the exercise that's going to help me get to my goals. 

Ok, Richard hasn't been seen in public in over 3 years and a lot of people are wondering why he's gone. But if you own a Deal-A-Meal, Foodmover, a Sweatin video, a book, or any other kind of Richard Simmons merchandise that has or still does help you in any way; as far as I'm concerned he's still around.    

A few days ago there was a story on the internet reporting that Richard Simmons has just signed a new merchandising deal with a licensing company co-founded by his long time manager. In an interview that manager mentioned that there is a possibility that Richard would make promotional appearances for this new line. 

Should his fans get excited? Only time will tell. But even if he continues to remain out of the public spotlight I will always be grateful for the help and inspiration he's given me. Thanks Richard.   


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