Obituary: Fitness entrepreneur Joseph Baratta, 81, owned Jack LaLanne’s health clubs in Sacramento

10/23/2013 6:35 PM

10/28/2013 12:25 PM

Joseph Baratta, a fitness buff and businessman who opened one of the first health clubs in California and hosted Arnold Schwarzenegger and other big-name bodybuilders in Sacramento, died Oct. 12 of complications from Lewy body dementia, his family said. He was 81.

Mr. Baratta, who began lifting weights in high school in Ohio, moved to Southern California at 18 to pursue his sport in the golden days of bodybuilding. Pumping iron at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, he sensed an opportunity to introduce fitness to a wider market and opened Joseph’s Figure Studio in the Los Angeles area in 1951.

Stocked with exercise machines that the young entrepreneur built himself, the pioneering health club served women only.

“His market insight was, ‘Well, strength training doesn’t have to be for guys only,’” said his son Joe. “He saw that women were a market that wasn’t being served.”

Mr. Baratta settled in Sacramento in 1970 as a prominent figure in the health and fitness industry. He expanded to six gyms in California, including three Jack LaLanne’s European Health Spa franchises in Sacramento that served women and men on alternate days for many years before going co-ed.

Besides appearing on a local TV fitness show, he flew his own single-engine plane to check on his clubs in Bakersfield, Fresno and Thousand Oaks.

“He used to drive, but he got so many speeding tickets that they took away his driver’s license,” his son said. “He had to find a way to tend to his businesses, so he got his pilot’s license and a plane. He flew until he was in his 70s.”

For several years, Mr. Baratta sponsored a popular fitness and bodybuilding competition at the California State Fair. The annual Mr. California Gold Bear contest drew legends of the sport, including LaLanne, Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno of “The Incredible Hulk” TV show and Mr. Olympia champion Franco Columbu.

Mr. Baratta, who won or placed at many bodybuilding contests in the 1950s, also performed at the State Fair. He remained competitive into his 40s and won the Mr. California master’s title in 1972. He mentored many fitness enthusiasts at his Sacramento health clubs on Madison Avenue, Howe Avenue and Florin Road.

One of six children raised by Italian immigrants, Joseph Patrick Baratta was born Jan. 3, 1932, in Cleveland. A high school gymnast and wrestler, he began lifting weights at the YMCA and won his first bodybuilding trophy at 16, said his wife, Jill.

A sharp businessman, he added Nautilus machines, aerobics classes, hot tubs and other health club amenities as fitness trends changed over four decades. Rather than lease sites, he owned his properties and sold the clubs as the fitness industry matured in the 1990s, his family said.

He was married since 1970, had three children and lived in Rocklin. Although he was slowed in recent years by Lewy body dementia, he exercised regularly at California Family Fitness until a few months ago.

“Six days a week, rain or shine, holiday or not – he worked out,” his wife said. “Everybody admired him. He inspired a lot of people.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Baratta is survived by a daughter, Lyn Hatton; two sons, Jeffrey and Joe; a sister, Jenny; two brothers, Tony and Louis; and six grandchildren. A private service is planned.

Editor's note: This story was changed Oct. 28 to correct that Mr. Baratta pumped iron at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica

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