Ex-’Mr. America’ Jimmie Payne dies at 85
By CHRIS SMITH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Long-ago “Mr. America” and repeat World Wristwrestling champion Jimmie Payne, a pioneer bodybuilder of short stature
and Herculean personality, died Friday at age 85.
Payne, a Healdsburg resident since 1962, was a skinny kid in Alameda when he met fitness icon Jack LaLanne and was inspired to begin lifting weights and practicing feats of strength.
He and LaLanne, 12 years his senior, became friends for life. Together they operated gyms, designed muscle-building equipment and, mostly through the 1950s and ‘60s, performed stunts that made the TV and endeared them to millions.
LaLanne would swim from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf — while handcuffed, and Payne would perform dip after dip while hand-standing on a bar suspended from a helicopter.
“The stuff we did in those days, nobody did,” Payne said in a interview last year with The Press Democrat.
One of his proudest achievements was his TV show, “Junior Mr. & Miss America Club,” that was broadcast on the Bay Area’s Channel 2 every Saturday in the late 1950s. His two older children, Jim Jr., who lives now in Texas, and Cathy, who died in 2010, demonstrated exercises for the kids at home.
“For him, that stood out more than anything else that he did,” Jim Payne said.
Fitness training and a healthy lifestyle were like religion to Jimmie Payne. He packaged his extraordinary strength and agility with his love of performing and for years made extra money at Bay Area nightclubs. He emceed, told corny jokes and showed off the tricks a man of steel is capable of.
“When you’re in show business, you’ve got to do everything,” he said. “So I did everything — but sing!”
Well into his 70s, Payne could take hold of the grips on two floor stands and raise himself into a rod-straight handstand.
Until an infection hospitalized him for several days three weeks ago, he was still taking in light workouts two or three times a week at the large gym and racquetball facility he once owned, Healdsburg Community Health and Fitness.
Payne suffered renal failure about five years ago and since then underwent regular dialysis. He survived the recent infection and was in the midst of a dialysis treatment when his heart failed and he died Friday morning.
He was born in 1926 in Oakland. As a child, his family lived in Alameda near Neptune Beach.
“It was kind of the Muscle Beach of Northern California,” said his son Jim. “That’s where he met Jack LaLanne.”
Payne was in his teens when he started pumping weights and practicing hand-stands. World War II was on when he joined the Navy at age 17 in 1943.
He returned to Alameda after the war and, following friend and mentor LaLanne’s example, opened his first gym in Oakland.
He stood about 5-foot-6 and weighed about 150 pounds when International Federation of Body Builders declared him “Mr. America” in 1950.
Over the course of nearly five decades, he ran his own gyms and worked for other gym owners as a trainer and a charmed, beloved presence on the workout floor.
He was a major figure at Petaluma’s former, nationally televised World Wristwrestling Champions. He called the action and four times — in 1964, ‘66, ‘74 and ‘75 — beat all comers to win the title of World Champion.
His wife of 59 years, Jane, died in 2003.
In addition to his son Jim, Payne is survived by son Mark Payne of Healdsburg, daughter Penny Murray of Alexander Valley, adopted son Kevin O’Connell of Duncans Mills, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at 1 p.m. March 11 at the Friedman Center in Santa Rosa.
His family suggested that in lieu of flowers or donations, mourners buy a gym membership and use it.