Slide the words “fitness centres Sudbury Ontario” into the Google search bar and up pop twenty or so resulting websites. Internet or no internet, that wasn’t happening in 1959. Health and wellness facilities, or anything even close, would only just burgeoning on the scene.
A senior at Sheridan Tech at the time and sidelined from hockey after breaking his ankle, Lou Bukatowicz would venture down to the school weight room to work out – at least until he came across a better option in the downtown core, courtesy of Leo Dupuis.
“He started Leo’s Health Studio in 1959, right across from the Empire Theatre, but moved later to the Mine Mill Hall, cleaned it all up, got a shower in there,” recalled Bukatowicz, the long-time owner of LB Paper Products on Kelly Lake Road and a still fit gent preparing to celebrate his 79th birthday next month.
“Around 5:00 p.m., it would start getting busy because that’s when the kids out of high school would come around.”
At about the same time that brothers Ralph and Aldo Roy and their group were venturing into the realm of Olympic weightlifting, Bukatowicz and the likes of Connie Laframboise, Roger Gladu, Lucien Chevrier, Leonard Scott and others were pursuing a similar but different route, the early local aficionados of a passion for bodybuilding.
In those days, the concepts of bodybuilding and general physical fitness were closely intertwined. Consider, for a moment, that Laframboise and Bukatowicz, awarded the title of Mr Sudbury in 1960 and 1961 respectively, would become business partners less than a decade later with the opening of Connie Lou’s Gym.
By the time that venture was undertaken, Laframboise had already established himself on a global scale: Mr Canada in 1965, Mr World in 1967 and 1968, and second at the 1969 Mr Universe competition to some relative unknown by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Connie came in from Espanola and lived at a boarding house on Beech Street,” recalled Bukatowicz. “He would stay there, worked at Inco and would go training at Leo’s – and then went off to Montreal to compete.”
Such was the notoriety of Laframboise that it was easy for his close friend to fly under the radar.
“As time went by, people thought that Connie Lou was his name,” laughed Bukatowicz. “I had to tell people that I was the Lou in Connie Lou’s.”
Yet another grey area, one that had surfaced at the very first Mr Sudbury contest in 1960, was distinguishing between the pure bodybuilders and the Olympic weightlifters, who also boasted several impressive physical specimens, given such a huge overlap in the training that was undertaken by both groups.
In fact, the 11 participants in that ground-breaking competition in 1960 offered an interesting array of Sudbury athletic talent, with the afore-mentioned bodybuilders sharing the stage with Aldo Roy and Murray Veno from the Minnow Lake Weightlifting Club, as well as with Steve Smith, the well-known softball (Pepsi’s) and baseball (Frood Tigers) player, anxious to demonstrate the source of his home run slugging power.
By 1961, the field was expanding, as both Connie and Lou shared the limelight when Sudbury played host to the inaugural Mr Northern Ontario contest. The event would draw from right across the province, with Kevin Crouse from Kitchener (Mr Ontario - 1960) and John Hazel from Toronto (Mr Eastern Canada - 1960) making the trip north.
Sault Ste Marie sent a trio of hopefuls that included Joe Dioditti, Erik Laursen and Bruno DeLuca, with Toronto gym owner and three time pro bench press champion Mac Miya on hand for a demonstration of his specialty. Even the ladies were in on the action, with Claire Harrison and Pat McNemerny of Wawa on hand to display the women’s touch in the sport.
At 17 years old, Bukatowicz was the youngest competitor on hand. And to this day, he can still recall those special evenings when bodybuilders from near and far graced the stage. “The Mr Sudbury competition would be one evening and the Mine Mill Hall would be packed with about 450 people or so – and then they had a dance after that,” he said.
As interest in bodybuilding grew in Sudbury, so too did his involvement. When Dupuis left for Toronto in 1962, Leo’s Health Studio morphed into Lou’s Gym, moved into the old Inco Hall on Frood Road and advertised services ranging from health conditioning and weight gaining to body building itself.
Truthfully, Bukatowicz was training folks with a simple regimen that had worked for him. “It was just the overall physique,” he explained. “The bench press – I would do that. The bent arm pullover – I would always do that. I just got them to do the same things I was doing. We went through that routine, basically.”
It was a busy time for the man who never reached the same competitive level as his partner, Connie Laframboise, now nearing his 80th birthday and still enjoying the good life out on Lake Penage. “I was working full-time for Victoria Paper Company from 1961 to 1968,” said Bukatowicz.
“And when I worked for those guys, I also had the gym. The Paper Company had a warehouse just off the tracks on Elm Street and the trains would come in and dump off all of the paper supplies. I would work there until 5:00 p.m., and at five o’clock, I would go to the Inco Club (Lou’s Gym) and stay there until 10:30 or so.”
Though the actual partnership between Bukatowicz and Laframboise only lasted about six months or so – the former simply became too busy once he launched LB Paper Products in 1967, retiring in 1998 – the Connie Lou’s name lived on.
Laframboise initially moved from the Inco Hall over to the upper floor of Sudbury Steam Laundry on Lorne, before building the brand spanking new facility further down the roadway, just past Ceccutti’s Bakery, in the mid-1970’s. Eventually sold to Cambrian College as a fitness centre for their students, the building is now the home of Cooper Equipment Rental.
Long gone are the indoor pool, the running track, the rooms of weights that later added far more cardio equipment to the mix – yet the memories of Connie Lou’s still remain.