Mike Teisan

On the Beach, a Subculture of Lords of the Rings

September 9, 2002


Copyright (c) 2002 by The New York Times


SANTA MONICA, Calif., Sept. 7 - "Look at this," Lawrence Kolb, known by the nickname Indian, said, slipping a finger into the loose waistband of his jeans. "My waist size has gone down from 32 to 28 inches in six months."


"And look," he said, fanning the lateral muscles of his bare back like wings. "I never even worked out my upper body before this."


Mr. Kolb was not talking about a miracle diet or celebrity trainer. He was discussing a row of metal rings that was built two years ago on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier as part of a public fitness and recreation area. The rings are 10 dangling hoops, about seven feet off the ground, and the idea is for people to swing Tarzan-style from the first ring to the last and back, a feat harder than it sounds. This is not normal playground equipment: it was built for the beach to the specifications of a similar set that used to be on the old Muscle Beach here. The rings were erected after great debate with the city's risk-management team, which feared the city would be liable for injuries.


In a clear demonstration of the maxim "If you build it they will come," the traveling rings have attracted their own subculture. "We are our own society," said Mr. Kolb, a freelance director of photography for television.


"We are the Lords of the Rings. We kick it here until the sun goes down, and sometimes we come back at 3:30 in the morning because no one is here." It is a scene that Brett Horner, a senior analyst for the Community and Cultural Services Department of the City of Santa Monica, said was completely unanticipated.


Every day, a mix of latchkey teenagers, struggling actors, foreign exchange students and others can be found there. Most of these ring people previously had little athletic prowess, but after swinging from four to seven days a week, they look like professional gymnasts. "We recognize each other by shaking hands," said Jessica Cail, a local graduate student, "because you can feel the calluses from gripping the rings."


Michael Teisan, 17, a high school senior, often shows his hands to tourists, revealing calluses the size of quail eggs. He is at the rings seven days a week, sometimes talking on his cellphone as he twirls and flips among them.


"I guess it's the rush of flying," Mr. Teisan said. "And when you come down here, all your worries go away. You don't think about anything else but the rings."


"My parents are glad I'm here instead of in the street," he added.


In fact, the rings are responsible for his first attempt at philanthropy.


One day, Mr. Teisan, Indian, and a Frenchman named Bruno Angelico were hanging out at the rings, talking about 9/11, when they decided to organize a benefit. They brought down performers from the Cirque de Soleil and movie stuntmen, and organized a ring demonstration day, raising $500 for the Red Cross.


The original rings were built in the 1930's at Santa Monica beach in an area that became known as Muscle Beach, says Judith Meister, a retired Santa Monica beach manager who was responsible for building the recreation area several years ago. "It was really the beginning of the whole physical fitness movement," Ms. Meister said, "and a lot of people who worked in Hollywood and did stunts came to Muscle Beach."


In the 1950's, she said, the city tore down much of the equipment. The traveling rings remained, but were often neglected and missing parts. In 1995, a group of Muscle Beach alumni in their 70's and 80's began working with the city to restore the area; the project was finally completed in October 2000. A miniature set of traveling rings was even erected for children.


Instead of creating a scene like that of the old Muscle Beach, the rings became the centerpiece for a very different beach civilization. At sunrise, several of the homeless people who wash themselves in the bathroom facilities nearby make their way to the rings, which they use to play on and exercise. In the afternoon, the ring people can be found flying through the air and teaching their moves to tourists. In the evening, opportunists with metal detectors patrol the sand under the rings, looking for change and jewelry dropped from the pockets of the airborne.


The bike and in-line skate rental stand on the boardwalk nearby has even started selling blocks of chalk for ring-swingers to rub on their hands. Sometimes, said Edwin Garcia, who manages the stand, he sells 16 blocks of chalk a day. Some of the more serious ring-swingers have bought gymnast handgrips and wrist support bands - and Mr. Angelico even has hooks for his feet, so he can swing upside down.


"I came up with a move called the Flying Bob," said Robert Chapin, who performs stunts and swordplay in movies, including "Hook" and "Army of Darkness." He demonstrated, inverting himself on one of the rings and wrapping his legs around the chain supporting it as he swung. He then demonstrated another acrobatic invention - tandem swinging - by grabbing Ms. Cail and traversing the rings with her.


Every day, hundreds of local residents and tourists stop to watch such stunts and often find themselves succumbing to the lure of the rings. "It's become a serious addiction for me," said Ryan Ashford, 20, a philosophy major at the University of Southern California. "I'd never even seen them before until three months ago, and now I'm down here four times a week. I even have dreams about them - and nightmares."


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