It was a very emotional weekend. On Saturday, Slimmons, the Beverly Hills fitness studio founded by Richard Simmons in 1974, held its last class, and then the doors closed forever. I knew it would be a tough morning, but nothing would have kept me from coming.
I’ve shared plenty about Slimmons on this blog over the years. It holds a very special place in my heart. I started taking classes here in 2010, and have been a regular every since, even after Richard suddenly disappeared from the public eye nearly three years ago, stopped teaching, and abruptly, without explanation, stopped communicating with tons of his students and friends (me included).
I kept coming because Richard’s important to me. He’s my friend, and the mentor that helped me lose 160 pounds – weight I’ve kept off for almost 6 years. Coming to Slimmons, even without him there, was a way that I could honor both my journey and the man who encouraged me to start it in the first place.
Attending the final class meant experiencing a wide array of emotions, while simultaneously embracing my past and bidding it farewell. Luckily for me, there was a big crowd of folks doing the exact same thing. People came from all over country, and Canada too, to say goodbye to Slimmons. I saw friends I haven’t seen in years, heard wonderful stories, and celebrated how Richard affected us, so deeply, continually nudging us to be better, work harder, and take care of ourselves.
It was wonderful to see that room brimming with people and energy. I stuck with Slimmons through the lean times, and after years of taking classes where I was one of eight, six or even three students, seeing that room full of 80 bodies again brought back fantastic memories.
It was said many times that day, by people who have decades of group fitness classes under their belt, that there’s never been anywhere like Slimmons, and I agree. That’s because, simply put, there’s absolutely no one like Richard Simmons. His classes at Slimmons shone bright, like a lighthouse, attracting folks of all kinds, especially folks who didn’t feel comfortable or welcome at other gyms, or felt stuck or helpless when it came to their health. (I’ve walked miles in those shoes, that’s for sure.)
When you walked into Richard’s classes, none of that mattered. You moved to the music, you laughed with Richard as he joked, screamed and flirted his way around the room, and, most importantly, you sweated until you were soaked through and through. It was a gathering of like-minded souls, all seeking self-improvement, and an affirmation of the greatness of life itself, all wrapped up in leg lifts, grapevines, cha-cha steps, and jumping jacks led by a bedazzled, fabulous, inimitable man that sparkled and radiated as much light as the disco ball he was standing under. It was part comedy show, part life lesson, and all workout.
When Richard taught, Slimmons would rock with electricity. Richard would find his groove, and we would all find ours, and it felt like the entire building was bouncing on its foundation. The vibes would build and multiply until the walls and everyone inside them were humming and pulsing with positivity, to the point where the roof could’ve popped off, like a champagne cork, to spread the elation and love all across the city.
Richard didn’t come to the last class on Saturday. Michele, Anne, and Sherry, the three other teachers, each led roughly a third of it. There were moments in the last class when I felt the same kind of energy that I felt when Richard taught, and it brought a big, wide grin to my face. It wasn’t quite the same as if Richard was there, but it was strong enough to bring back those memories, vividly and in surround sound – a jubilant confirmation of the uniqueness of Slimmons and the one-of-a-kind community it created.
The last class followed the same format that all the Slimmons classes used. Michele did a warm-up and some stretching, then got everyone in a big circle and invited a couple students to dance in the middle, like Richard used to do. Anne kicked the workout into high gear, to everyone’s satisfaction. Her portion ended in a thunderous, ebullient, well-deserved round of applause. Sherry’s portion included the cool-down, more stretching, and some toning and floor work.
Typically Richard ended his classes with a speech, where he shared stories, imparted wisdom, and sent us home feeling inspired to keep up our healthy habits. After this class, Sherry quieted us down, and read aloud a letter written by Richard for this occasion. It was touching, honest, and funny, but what I appreciated most was that it was Richard’s authentic voice. After years of silence, interrupted very rarely by statements to the press that reeked of careful PR construction and polishing, our Richard returned to Slimmons, one final time, in a letter. You could hear a pin drop as Sherry read it aloud.
As someone that, for years, has wondered, worried, and speculated about Richard’s well-being, the letter provided a sense of closure that had been conspicuously absent over the last couple years. Richard acknowledged that he was taking time to take care of him, doing things he always wanted to do, and starting his own new beginning, in his own special way. (The entire message was also posted on Richard’s Facebook page, so you can read it there.)
After that, Sherry opened the floor up to anyone that wanted to share something. Students and friends expressed their gratitude, shared stories and lessons, and tried to articulate the myriad of feelings all bubbling up at once. I stood up, shared a few words, and tried to fight back the tears. I was unsuccessful. I cried throughout my little speech, blubbering and stammering, and others did the same. After fifteen or twenty remembrances, there wasn’t a dry eye in sight.
And that was that. When the reflections were over, we returned our weights to the bins, and our mats to the back wall. We hung around for a while, taking pictures, reminiscing, catching up. I took pictures with many friends, and the one I’ll share here is the one with my dear friend Gerry.
My goodness, I love Gerry so much. She’s turning 95 in January. I met her at my very first class, when she was 88 (and I was 30). I didn’t know what to expect at one of Richard’s classes, but I clearly remember looking at her, as we waited to enter in the lobby, and thinking: if she can do this class, than I can too. We’ve become great friends since that day. Hanging out with her at Slimmons has been a highlight of this experience, and she continues to inspire me with her spirit and youthfulness.
I took a moment, as the Slimmons classroom emptied out for the last time, to pay my respects to the room that has been such a instrumental part of my life over the last seven years.
I realized, as I did this, that I was also saying goodbye to Richard as well. Even though I’ve thought it many times before, the closing of Slimmons has forced me to accept that I probably won’t see my friend Richard again.
My interactions with Richard at Slimmons have ended. The lobby, where I greeted Richard so many times, where he asked me about my family and my job and gave me healthy lunch suggestions, will get dismantled and probably be gutted by the next tenant.
What I’ll value most from the main room are the friendships that were born and blossomed there, including my friendship with Richard, all set to the soundtrack of great dance music from all eras, and punctuated by the echoes of Richard’s messages, promoting smart portion sizes, daily exercise, and, most of all, endless, unrestrained, unapologetic self-love. There isn’t any other fitness authority that has so thoroughly intertwined physical health with emotional health, and as someone who will struggle with both for the rest of my life, I value that connection immensely. Richard’s messages will forever bounce around in my memories, just like Richard used to bounce around that room. I will remember them. I will cling to them.
I look forward to seeing how Slimmons will continue to shape me. If I can continue to use what I learned there to improve my life, than I will be doing Richard proud as I continue on my healthy path. And if I can share those messages, and incorporate them into my blog posts, and continue to inspire all you out there to make changes to better yourselves… well… that’s keeping the spirit of Slimmons alive, and I can’t think of a greater gift to Richard that I could ever give.
Keep it up, David.
How’s this for a crummy cliffhanger? I started this post with this sentence: “It was a very emotional weekend.” And Slimmons’ closing wasn’t the only reason why. I also had to deal with an excruciatingly difficult situation the very same day, and I’ll share that story, and the tears that accompanied it, in my next post.
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