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Ex-‘Mr. America’ Jimmie Payne dies at 85

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 | Posted by

By CHRIS SMITH

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Long-ago “Mr. America” and repeat World Wristwrestling champion Jimmie Payne, a pioneer bodybuilder of short stature

Jimmie Payne in 2011. (PD FILE, 2011)

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.

See photos of Jimmie Payne

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.

  • tab

    hi i a good friend of jimmy for 4 year i will miss him tell his family sorry for his loss i know mark he with his wife my good friend i love you my friend thank you

  • KEN LUSBY

    I MET JIMMY IN PETALUMA 1970 AT MY FIRST ARMWRESTLING TOURNAMENT. WE WERE FRIENDS THROUGH ARMWRESTLING. I LAST SAW JIMMY AGAIN IN PETALUMA 2000. JIMMY INTRODUCED ME AS I WAS INDUCTED INTO THE WRISTWRESTLING HALL OF FAME. I SURLEY WILL MISS HIM. HE WAS QUITE A ICON TO ME AND A GREAT M/C FOR MANY YEARS.

  • http://www.Armed4Battle.com Victor Torres

    I met Jimmy Payne in 1979 and he inspired me to pursue a career in arm wrestling and I went on to win 26 World Championships, 10 United States National titles, 27 California State titles and 127 career arm wrestling titles. I wrote a book called “Armed For Battle and Destined For Glory,” which was released in late December, 2011. It’s about my arm wrestling career and how I got involved in it because I was bullied as a kid throughout my entire childhood and got into working out and eventually arm wrestling through the inspiration of Jimmy Payne while seeing him compete on TV and in person until I finally met him. In 1980 I bought an arm wrestling table from him, worked out with him at his gym, and became a lifetime span. I tried to contact Jimmy Payne through the Press Democrat, but no one ever contacted me. My goal was to put my book in his hands. Unfortunately, I just fond out about his death 8 months later. I know Jimmy was a God-fearing man as he spoke about the Lord in his talks, including two that he did at the schools that I worked at as a school counselor. Jimmy Payne was a tremendous athlete, outstanding World Arm Wrestling Champion, a godly man, and an inspiration to everyone. He will be sorely missed. I have no doubt that he will challenge Samson in Heaven. Go get em, Jimmy!

    Sincerely and your friend, Victor Torres

  • Andrew James

    Jimmie was very good friends with my Auntie and was over her house most days when I flew out from the UK and visited her back in 2005, as a result I got to know him well and even enjoyed his peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches a couple of time!
    He was a great guy with a good sense of humour and im sure will be missed by many…

  • Mark

    Saw Mr. Payne’s earlier girlfriend on “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx, do not know if this is of interest.

  • http://pbase.com/coaster Dan

    I wrist-wrestled Jimmy in the second round of at tournament in Las Vegas in the 70’s. He won. I also saw him a number of times in Petaluma. He was a good man.

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