I'm sure nobody is clamoring for a history of gym franchises, but what the heck… I needed an excuse to discuss Columbo.
I’m an extreme Columbo fan. If there were Columbo conventions, where fans turned up in weathered raincoats and chewed on unlit cigars, I'd be right there with them. I was too young to watch it in the 1970s and was then only barely aware of its existence. I remember in college hearing that the series had been resurrected with new TV movies, and I was curious about it, but other than watching maybe 10 minutes of an episode in my dorm room, it wasn’t a part of my life. But then somewhere in my 30s, I found it on a Hallmark Channel while I was doing some Sunday afternoon ironing, watched a bit of a Columbo movie and became mesmerized.
I was trying to think of any of the Columbo movies that might lend itself well to this blog, and while I think I could probably turn several of them into fodder for The TV Professor, for some reason, I settled on “An Exercise in Fatality,” a 1974 episode. And for some reason, I thought, "Sure, a lot of people are going to be interested in reading about the history of gym franchises."
OK, even I didn't think that. But I did, for whatever reason, think it might be interesting to read about nonetheless.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
Columbo's "An Exercise in Fatality": Setting the Scene
The killer is Milo Janus, the owner of an fitness center franchise and played by Robert Conrad. Gene Stafford is the victim, played by Philip Burns.
All murders are violent, but many of them in Columbo are pretty quick. A gunshot to the head or heart. An electrocution. But not Gene’s.
First, Gene makes the mistake of telling Milo that he has caught the man in some shady business practices – and vows to report him and promises to pretty much ruin Milo’s life. So many victims in Columbo and many TV shows do this. They warn the bad guy that they’re going to destroy the bad guy’s life, and, well, this is what happens when you do that.
Ethically, that is an honorable thing to give Milo a heads up that his world is going to soon come crashing down on him, but Gene is clearly relishing the fact of destroying Milo. There's no suggestion in Gene's voice or manner that he is hoping to give Milo an exit ramp to cleaning up his ways and doing better.
And given that Milo Janus is not an ethical guy, it's not too surprising that he takes the rest of the day to think about what Gene has told him – and during that time, plans a way to dispatch him.
Things get a little out of hand, though, and it turns out that Gene isn’t willing to stand around and be killed by Milo. When Gene realizes he is in serious danger, he tosses some hot coffee on Milo and runs for his life. Milo is close behind, however, and grabs him, and then they struggle and fight, and, well, Gene is strangled to death.
Milo then stages it so that it looks like the franchise owner was lifting weights, and that the barbell came crashing down on his windpipe.
I won’t say anything about how Columbo solves the case (the fun of this series is seeing how Columbus catches the killer; we usually know who the killer is or will be within the first few minutes of the show). But I’ve seen each Columbo a gazillion times, and so at some point when watching this episode, I found myself wondering – were gym franchises a big deal back in the 1970s, or was it something that was up and coming?
Columbo was often somewhat progressive with its plots, with murderers often using the latest technology to aid in their murderers. Maybe the gym franchise was an example of being just abreast with the times? Or, again, were gym franchises a pretty common occurrence by the 1970s?
It's the type of hard hitting question that few people today are asking, but thankfully (?), The TV Professor is.
The History of Gym Franchises and Where Columbo Fits In
In the episode, “An Exercise in Fatality,” the franchise model is a pretty prominent piece of this Columbo case. Milo Janus was requiring the franchise owners to buy their equipment from certain suppliers who, it turns out, were also owned by Milo Janus.
Janus was charging his franchisees extremely high prices for the equipment – making a fortune while robbing his franchise owners blind. Gene learns this and is none too happy. For good reason. Gene says that he paid $150,000 to buy the franchise. In today's dollars, that's over $830,000. So Gene already spent a pretty penny on the franchise, which is to be expected -- franchises aren't cheap -- and now Janus is leeching off his franchisees.
Milo Janus tried to argue that Gene was protesting too much. Deep into the episode, probably while Gene's body was laying on a cold slab in the morgue, Janus had an interesting conversation with the franchisee's ex-wife, Ruth Stafford.
Ruth Stafford: What do you do with all that money, Milo?
Milo Janus: Reinvest it. In the franchises. When I grow, you grow.
Ruth Stafford: I don't think so. And Gene didn't think so.
Milo Janus: What Gene thought… or what Gene could have proven… that's a different matter.
Janus goes onto explain that the world of gym franchises is a tough one, almost as if he's trying to justify his cold-blooded murder.
"You don't know anything about the business world," Milo says to Ruth. "The real business world. And for that matter, neither did your husband. He lived in that ivory tower of Pentagon bureaucrats, pushovers. It's a lot tougher selling apples on the street corner. That's what I do, and I do it successfully."
Whether Milo was right that selling these gym franchises was a rough business -- and it probably was -- it was a fairly new industry in the 1970s. Fitness centers had been around awhile, but this was definitely the days before Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness and Gold’s Gym. (Gold’s Gym started in 1965 but didn’t begin franchising until 1980.)
Meanwhile, the character of Milo Janus appears to have been inspired by Vic Tanny (1912-1985), an American bodybuilder and entrepreneur. A former employee once said of his ex-boss, "Tanny was to the gym business what Henry Ford was to the auto business."
Tanny got his start with a fitness club located in his parents’ Rochester, New York home – in their garage -- in the early 1930s. He and his brother Armand cobbled together the gym, using broom handles and sand bags and then charged their fellow students 5 cents admission to use the gym. By the mid-1930s, the family had moved to California. In 1936, Tanny visited Jack LaLanne's gym (he would later host the fitness TV show, The Jack LaLanne Show from 1951 to 1985). Inspired, three years later, Tanny would open his own gym in Santa Monica.
Soon, he had a thriving business, and instead of one gym, he owned a second, and then a third.
In 1958, The Cincinnati Enquirer referred to Tanny as "the West Coast's gym dandy" and mentioned that he was starting 34 branches in the Midwest, which would mean he would have 100 gyms.
At his peak, in the 1950s, at one point, his company was bringing in $34 million a year, according to The Los Angeles Times. In today's dollars, using an inflation calculator, and assuming his company was making that much in 1959, that would be a $312 million company.
In 1962, according to The New York Times, Tanny owned 92 health centers (so not quite 100 by then) and was planning to begin franchising. His goal was to issue franchises for at least half of his existing health centers and hoped to issue franchises for 300 additional new health clubs.
But Tanny was having trouble with back taxes that his company owed, and the following year, the headline in The New York Times, on December 11, 1963, said it all: "State is Studying Vic Tanny Losses: Collapse of Health Chain Is Said to Involve $15 Million."
The article went on to say that Attorney General Louis J. Lefkowitz said that "his intensive inquiry into the tangled financial affairs of the Tanny enterprises had been prompted by hundreds of letters of complaint to his office."
The problem, according to the NYT article, was "attributed to too rapid expansion, inadequate capital and management errors."
At the time, Tanny was 51. In the Columbo episode, Milo Janus was right around the same age.
Was it plausible that the episode's writer, Larry Cohen, who came up with the story idea for the episode and who passed away in 2019, would have been aware of Tanny and possibly inspired to make the killer a gym franchise owner? I'm speculating, but it seems more than plausible to me.
Another writer, Peter S. Fischer, took Cohen's concept and actually penned the "Exercise in Fatality" script, along with numerous other Columbo movies and other TV shows, such as Kojak and McMillan & Wife. Which means Fischer was responsible for some wonderful exchanges, such as this one at a beach:
Columbo (to Milo Janus): Your housekeeper told me you were down here swimming.
Milo Janus: Twenty minutes a day. You ought to try it, Columbo.
Columbo: Afraid not, sir. I can't swim. I don't even like a deep tub.
Or this exchange, when Columbo was on a treadmill.
Columbo (in a sweatshirt and sweaty): Hey, Mr. Janus, how you doing? Listen, I gotta tell you, this is terrific. I'm starting to feel like a new man already.
Milo Janus: Fine, fine, Columbo.
Columbo: Of course, you know, I've only been on it for about 20 minutes...
Of course, Vic Tanny was no Milo Janus. He was presumably a swell guy and certainly never accused of killing anyone. He was guilty of being a better fitness guru than a businessman, however. He spent the 1970s and early 1980s, no longer running his business but collecting royalties from some of the gyms that still bore his name. He passed away in 1985 at the age of 73.
Milo Janus's fate wasn't so serene. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that by the end of the episode, Janus was ultimately arrested by Lieutenant Columbo. From there, we can assume, Janus unsuccessfully fought charges of murder in court and spent the rest of his life doing pushups and jogging in place behind bars.
Where you can watch this show (at the time of this writing): You can find the entire series of Columbo on TubiTV.com and on Peacock TV. MeTV also airs Columbo Sunday evenings at 6 p.m., EST. Haven't seen it on Hallmark for awhile, but that doesn't mean it won't turn up.
Articles similar to this one: If you want an obscure topic, even more obscure than the how gym franchises got started, well, we've got 'em. What about this story about the history of water towers, using The Cimmaron Strip as a jumping off point?