Steve Klisanin – Mr. Universe of Wongo
Interview by Mike Barnum
One has to have a great deal of respect for the guys who, in a time before steroids and pharmaceutical enhancements; before comfortable, scrubbed, fully equipped gyms; and despite the general public’s disinterest in exercise and weight training, created and sculpted some of the finest physiques of all time! The 1940s and 1950s was certainly the golden period of bodybuilding, and the greats of that era are still looked upon today as examples of physical perfection….John Grimek, George Eiferman, Bill Pearl, Clarence Ross, Reg Lewis, Dick Dubois and others helped shape America’s perception of bodybuilding. And among those big names was Steve Klisanin, who went on to play not one, but two roles in The Wild Women of Wongo.
Klisanin (a Croatian-Bosnian name) had initially pursued weight lifting to help him better perform in the sports, particularly football and wrestling, which he indulged in as a teenager. By 1949 the then 19-year-old Klisanin had developed an impressive build and was convinced by schoolmates to compete in a local physique contest. He won first place. The following year, he tried for Mr. America and came in a strong 10th place. He went for the title again in 1953, this time coming in 4th behind Bill Pearl (1st), Dick DuBois (2nd), and Irvin “Zabo” Koszewski (3rd), all of them stiff competition. Finally, he took first place in the 1955 Mr. America, beating out greats like Ray Schaefer, Vic Seipke, and Harry Johnson. Quite a feather in his cap, that was!
Next up was the 1956 Mr. Universe. Steve was in top form and easily took 1st place in the contest, with Ray Schaefer coming in second and Gene Bohaty and Harry Johnson tying for third place. After having won both the Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, serving in the marines and then attending Duke University, Steve opened a gym in Florida which he ran for several years.
Many in the sport wondered what had become of Steve Klisanin, as he had completely disappeared from the fitness scene after selling his gym in the early 70s. Of his contemporaries that I contacted, none had any clue as to his whereabouts, some figuring he had passed away long ago. It took a bit of searching to finally locate him, and at the time of this interview in 2001 Steve Klisanin was retired and residing in Seal Beach, California. A missing personality from the golden days of bodybuilding, Mr. Klisanin graciously, if somewhat reluctantly, agree to talk about those days as well as his onetime shot at being an actor. “I didn’t know that there would be much interest in The Wild Women of Wongo. I don’t imagine it was anything more than a class B or a class C movie,” he told me, when I first contacted him.
Steve Klisnan on the set of WILD WOMEN OF WONGO
Mike Barnum: How did you get your start in bodybuilding?
Steve Klisanin: I was a student at the Kiski Prep School [in Loyalhanna Township, Pennsylvania]. Bob Mathias, the great Olympic athlete, was also a student there, and unbeknownst to me had entered me in the Mr. Pittsburgh contest. Being at a prep school, well, if I hadn’t gone through with it…you know, it was a matter of juvenile pride. So I was entered, and I won.
MB: That was in 1949. And by 1955 you were on your way to winning Mr. America.
SK: Yep, on my third try. I won Mr. America while I was in the Marines, stationed in Okinawa, and they flew me in to Cleveland for the contest. I won it and then I went back and finished my tour of duty.
MB: Then came your win as Mr. Universe in 1956.
SK: Yes. At that time, Mr. Universe had always been held over in London. They thought England was more centrally located for most of the countries in the world. In 1956 somebody decided they should start moving the contest around so that contestants from Japan and some other countries wouldn’t [always] have so far to travel, so that year they decided to hold it in Virginia Beach, Virginia. They had a week of festivities there including a parade, which some of the contestants rode in; but I didn’t get there until the day of the contest. I wound up winning over Ray Schaefer, who I had defeated the year before in Mr. America. Right after the contest, Johnny Terpack, who was associated with Bob Hoffman [publisher of Strength and Health magazine], started to make arrangements for Ray Schaefer to fly over to London because they were going to hold a Mr. Universe over there, regardless of the one that was held in the US. So, they flew Ray over and he won the 1956 Mr. Universe there.
MB: What was the general public’s opinion of bodybuilding and weight training at that time? Did it have the kind of support that it has now?
SK: There was no support, hardly any at all. It was something that was immaterial to most people. Really, nobody was much interested in weight training. I was always a competitive lifter. I was an athlete and played football, and I trained just to get big enough to be a better athlete. The [muscular] development came along with it and as far as bodybuilding goes, well, I probably did more lifting then I did bodybuilding.
MB: Were there any bodybuilders that you had admired.
SK: No. I read Strength and Health magazine, like most everybody else in the field, because Strength and Health generally gave the results of the weightlifting contests. I would look in there and see how much somebody totaled in my class and where they were and who won.
MB: Do you follow the sport now.
SK: Not at all. I haven’t kept up with it for maybe 30 years. I have been out of it for quite some time. Last time I had any affiliation with it, or the health club, or anything like that, would have been in the late 60s or early 70s. At the time that I opened my health club it was a challenge, because few people believed in weight training. I opened it just opposite Coral Gables High School and within a half mile of the University of Miami. Some students started to drift over and I trained them and they became better athletes, and eventually the school recognized that. Back in those days when you had a health club it was a one-man operation and you did training and everything else. It isn’t like it is today.
MB: I understand that you have stayed in touch with Mr. America 1960, Red Lerille.
SK: Yes, Red Lerille, he is a navy man like Bill Pearl, and he trained in San Diego with Leo Stern. Leo trained Pearl, and then later on he trained Red. Red came from New Orleans and he was one of the smaller Mr. America’s…I don’t think Red is any taller then maybe 5’7″ or 5’8″. He started out with a small gym in Lafayette, Louisiana and now he has one that, the last time I was there, had 18 acres total, and probably has 50,000 feet under the roof. He has the most extensive health club that I have ever come across in this county. He’s a nice, affable guy.
MB: You mentioned Bill Pearl, did you know him?
SK: Oh, yes. I competed with him several times. I think the last time I talked to Red he said that Bill was working with the people who took over Holiday Health, which I think is now Ballys.
MB: What about some of the other Mr. America’s and Mr. Universe’s. Did you ever meet the great John Grimek [Mr. America 1940/1941; Mr. Universe 1948] or Clarence Ross [Mr. America 1945]?
SK: I knew John Grimik very well, and I knew most of the Mr. America’s that came before me. I met Clarence Ross when I flew in from Okinawa. He had a gym up in Oakland and he was a bartender on the side. I went over to his gym once and did a little bit of training one night before I headed to Cleveland for the Mr. America contest. He was a nice gentleman. Most of those guys were. I didn’t really know any of the Mr. America’s that came after me; Red Lerille is about the only one.
MB: You made the cover of two of the top muscle magazines of the day: Strength and Health (September 1949), and Muscle Builder (October 1955).
Steve Klisanin poses atop a column at Coral Castle
SK: Muscle Builder was Joe Wieder’s magazine at that time. They airbrushed that picture and I didn’t think it was too flattering.
MB: After you closed your health club what line of work did you go into?
SK: I fell back on my education. I worked some in geology. I had my degree in geology and had a minor in engineering.
MB: I had read in an old issue of Strength and Health that you were an honor student in high school.
SK: No, (laughs) I don’t think I did very well in High School. When I went to high school everybody just wanted to get through so that they could join the service. The war was going on and as soon as I got out of school and graduated I went into the Marines.
MB: How did you become involved in the The Wild Women of Wongo?
SK: One day this woman came into the gym and said she needed nine “before” and nine “after” cases, and that she was the casting director for a movie that was going to be filmed on location in the area. I don’t remember her name.
Two vicious apemen (Steve Klisanin and Walter Knoch) battle the WILD WOMEN OF WONGO
MB: Had you had any previous experience as an actor?
SK: None at all. I did have an interview with Mae West once, when she was looking for a replacement for Mickey Hargitay for her nightclub show. She made an offer, which was more or less unacceptable to me because at that time I also had an offer to go over to Iran for the State Department. So, I went to Iran and coached their Olympic team for the 1956 Olympics.
MB: Several of the men who worked in Mae West’s show later went on to make sword and sandal films in Europe, such as Lou Degni (better known as Mark Forest), Chuck Pendleton (aka Gordon Mitchell), and Reg Lewis.
SK: I remember meeting Lou once or twice, but I don’t remember ever meeting Reg Lewis at all. And then there was Steve Reeves, he was Mr. America in 1947. I think it was the daughter of an Italian director who spotted him for his good looks and masculinity, and she told her dad that this is the man he needed for his film, Hercules (1958). Now, when we were filming The Wild Women of Wongo we were told that the star was going to be Johnny Sheffield, who had played Boy in the Tarzan pictures, but I found out later on it was Fury.
MB: Ed Fury?
SK: Yes, I believe that’s who played the part, I am not sure.
MB: Ed Fury was in the film, but the lead role actually went to an actor named Johnny Walsh, who does, in fact, resemble Johnny Sheffield a bit.
SK: Actually, I don’t even remember Ed Fury being in the movie. I believe I only saw the film once, and that was at a drive-in theater, and as I remember the biggest speaking part was given to a parrot!
MB: Yes, that parrot, unfortunately, does have a lot of lines!
Test shots of Klisanin in make-up as one of the Apemen
SK: As I said, there were three or four of my gym members that got into the movie, but other than Ron Mankowski, I don’t recall their names. I do remember that one of them was from West Palm Beach.
MB: One of those from your gym was Walter Knoch.
SK: Oh, ya, I did know Walter. He played one of the apemen. Craig Whitehead, who competed in several Mr. America’s, auditioned but he didn’t get selected for the movie. He had a short crew-cut at that time and they were looking more for guys with longer hair. The movie was supposed to be in prehistoric times and they didn’t want to have to do much in the way of make-up. Neither I nor any of the young men that got into the movie, at least those that were members of my health club, had speaking parts. Ron Mankowski was a student over at the University of Miami at the time, and was from New York. I hadn’t seen him for many years until he came through my area this past summer. He told me he had a copy of the movie, but I just really never had that much of an interest in it.
Ron Mankowski and Steve Klisanin in May 2000 (Photo courtesy of Steve Klisanin)
MB: Do you recall anything about the film’s director, James L. Wolcott?
SK: No. Basically I was just running my health club at that time, and when the [casting] lady came in and she said it would be $90.00 a day, or $300.00 a week, which was the pay scale at that time, although I doubt if it was union, because none of us were union members, I said ok. She told me she needed people for the film, both men and women. Of course in those days there were very few women training. I think I got about three or four members from my club into the movie, and I think I also got one or two women from my women’s class into the movie. Some of the other young men came from other clubs.
Goona man Steve Klisanin and his Wongo Woman mate
MB: Do you recall anything about the gals who played the Wongo women?
SK: No, I don’t remember much of anything about the film, actually. We were only on the set for a few days. We got paid for five days and basically worked for only 3 1/2 days. The last day, Friday, we were hanging around watching the filming. I believe it was filmed at the Fairchild Tropical Garden and another part of it was filmed down at the Coral Castle. I think that the Goddess of the Coral Castle, or whoever she was, was married to one of the University of Miami professors. She had hair all the way down to her feet.
MB: Were you at all interested in an acting career?
SK: I’ve never had any interest in movies or show business whatsoever, and to be honest with you, I can’t tell you the last time I went to see a movie or even watched one on TV.
Steve Klisanin as one of the handsome men of Goona
MB: What was your opinion of The Wild Women of Wongo, once you finally saw the finished product?
SK: Well, I saw the movie just once. It was at the drive-in and I was probably watching it with one eye while focusing most of my attention on the female friend who was with me. I can hardly remember any of it. Basically, if I remember correctly, it was about an island where good looking men lived with ugly women on one end, and on the other side it was just the opposite. And in between were the “wild men” (ape men as they are called in the script). I played a little part as one of the good looking men and then I also played one of the “wild men”.
MB: What keeps you busy now in 2001?
SK: I am retired. I am just enjoying life
Note: For the next few years after I interviewed him, Steve would occasionally drop me a note in the mail and he would always send a Christmas card. Steve Klisanin passed away on May 9, 2005 in Seal Beach, California.