The life of strongman Arthur Blackmer, aka Arthur Santell (1910-1998), is interesting — if a little sketchy. He was born Ezra Arthur Blackmer Jr. in Orange County on February 2, 1910. He came from a large family, and had three siblings. His father was a ranch hand, who moved around a lot. His mother died when he was three.
Blackmer Jr. claimed that he saw his first strongman show when he was 12 years-old. He then decided to become one by studying fitness, nutrition, and science.
Even though the 1920 and 1930 census records show that the Blackmers lived in Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Times reported that Blackmer, Jr. attended Nordhoff High School in Ojai, California. After Blackmer Jr. left school, he moved back to Los Angeles, rented an apartment at the Y.M.C.A., and changed his name to Arthur Santell.
Santell was 19-years-old when he started his career as “America’s strongest boy.” His early tricks involved bending iron bars and breaking spikes with his teeth. It was all done in the name of good dentistry… and finding a wealthy sponsor for his next stunt.
In August of 1929, Santell received national attention when he pulled three automobiles with his teeth in Los Angeles. Newspapers were intrigued by Santell’s showmanship. After all, he wasn’t muscular like a traditional strongman. He had an average build, standing 5’9″ and weighing 162 pounds. He also performed his routines wearing everyday business attire.
By the end of 1930, Santell performed with the Radio-Keith-Orpheum (R-K-O) Vaudeville Circuit. By this time, he could bend steel bars around his arm and drive a spike through a 2″ plank with his bare hand.
Then in May of 1930, Santell made national news again by pulling four cars with his teeth after discovering that Viking cars were easy to roll in neutral gear.
In 1931, newspapers reported that Santell occasionally worked as a Hollywood stunt man, and appeared in film shorts. Newspapers also reported that he enrolled at a junior college and lived in Pasadena. That same year, Santell toured with R-K-O on a 78-week tour across the country. By this time, his cache of theatrical tricks included “pulling a five-ton truck around the block with the middle finger of his right hand” and “hanging by his knees from a bar while holding a miniature merry-go-round in his teeth while three girls ride on it and play saxophones.”
While it seems unlikely that Santell actually went to college, newspapers reported in 1934 that he was a pre-med student at UCLA, while earning $1000 a week for his stage shows.
After his vaudeville career sputtered out, Santell repackaged his routines and went on the lecture circuit in 1936. This time, he promoted himself as a fitness and nutrition expert who graduated with honors from USC in 1935. He also advocated his “10 Commandments of Fitness.” His commandments, however, were nothing out of the ordinary. He advocated a diet of vegetables, fruits, and meats. He also recommended daily exercise, plenty of sleep, and clean living.
When public schools hired him, he thrilled kids with an interactive stage show. He then promoted himself as a “physical director and heath educator in California public schools.”
As Santell grew older, he rebranded himself in different ways. For a short while, he was the “World’s Youngest Strong Man” before becoming “America’s Strongest Athlete.” In the 1940s, he dropped his vaudeville name and came up with a new title: Dr. Arthur Blackmer, a professor of fitness and nutrition.
In the 1950s, Blackmer sold health foods and peddled his own book Keeping Physically Fit is Fun. He also married a woman named Betty Philips in 1956. The following year, two Chino social clubs accused Blackmer of fraudulently taking money at his lectures for selling books and food samples that were never delivered as promised.
Although Arthur Blackmer rated poorly with the Better Business Bureau, he entertained Rotary Clubs and other similar organizations for two more decades. At one point, he wrote a second book, You Can Be Physically Fit.
Blackmer’s name eventually faded from the newspapers in the late 1970s. He then retired to Pasadena, lived at the Castle Green, and died at the age of 88.