A Look Back at Irvin Johnson AKA Rheo Blair in the 1950's

by Jim Shiblom


I corresponded with a man who lives in Overland Park, Kansas. This man was sixteen when he use to hop the bus to downtown Chicago to train at Rheo's gym. This man explained to me that back in those days, Rheo was experimenting with foods and supplements. Rheo's Protein Sixty was later called Johnson's Protein and finally Blair's Protein when Irvin changed his name. This man recalled how Rheo use to talk about growth hormones and many people did not know what Rheo was talking about. Soybro which was sold by Rheo was developed in the 1950's and the lab in Iowa use to produce it. Soybro was a combination of germ oils like wheat germ, rice germ and crude germs. Rheo would tell every trainer to use about 30 per day. Shortly after using this product, members would report increase in endurance and strength. Rheo was producing great champions back in those days. Rheo's protein was sold through mail order and drugstores. Health food stores were non existent back then. Let's not forget the great Bob Delmontique who is in his early 80's. Back then Bob trained at Rheo's gym and use to pose for some shots in Rheo's magazine called "Tomorrow's Man." The protein and cream theory first came to prominence in the 1950's, which very few people realize. Most only know his applications from the 1960's. It was in his gym that Rheo would test his theories and became known. The other day I looked at the Irvin Johnson Bodybuilding and Nutrition Course first developed in 1951. Among the foods Rheo recommended was eggs and meat. It was not uncommon for members to eat steak, hamburger, whole eggs, bacon and different kinds of meat supplemented with four ounces of milk and egg protein mixed with cream and milk. Results followed quickly and his methods worked.

Physique magazines are big today, but the biggest-selling PM in the 1950s were in Chicago in 1947 when Irvin Johnson aka Rheo Blair opened Johnson's Health Club at 22 Van Buren. Irvin Johnson, a self made nutritionist began publishing Tomorrow's Man . The man in Overland Park, Kansas stated I first went to Irvin Johnson's Health Club in early 1951. I was small but wanted to be a mesomorph, so I thought I should gain some weight. I was kind of scrawny. I was 5' 8" and weighed 148 lbs, so I thought if I join the gym I could gain some weight. The main reason I joined Irvin Johnson's Health Studio was that it was the only one around at that time." In 1947 Chicago had around 22 YMCA's scattered all around town but his health club had the best equipment because it was all chrome. The Nationals Weightlifting Championships would come to town and some trained at Johnson's Club". I saw John Grimek and Peary Rader former owner of IronMan Magazine

Irvin Johnson who later changed his name to Rheo Blair was very weird, arrogant, but a nice guy." Irvin's Health studio was approx 50' X 60', and had three showers. When Irvin Johnson first came to Chicago he lived at the YMCA Hotel on Wabash. The first issue of Tomorrow's Man was published in 1952. "It was mainly sold to promote Johnson's line of supplements. He would take these really skinny people and put them on his diet of protein and cream and the results were incredible. Johnson would use them in his before and after pictures in his Tomorrow Man's Magazine. Johnson's sold his supplements to both women and men. In his pictures with students, he would take blood tests and put them on a prescribed diet along with supplements. No two people were on the same program. He had his students consume Johnson's Protein 60. He used exactly four ounces of the protein mixed with cream and milk. Irvin Johnson used gimmicks and ads to sell his products but his supplements worked.

Irvin Johnson took the photographs for Tomorrow's Man. "In the July 1955 issue of Tomorrow's Man, there was an announcement the magazine was moving to New York. The next issue was published in New York. Johnson had sold the magazine. Irvin Johnson still ran his health clubs but was losing interest. What Irvin Johnson aka Rheo Blair was really interested in was selling his supplements. There was a hotel Irvin was living in and Irvin used the rooms for a studio. People would visit him and he would sell them Protein Sixty Ice Cream. Irvin Johnson aka Rheo Blair sold his gym to a businessman named Chuck Renslow in 1958.The Johnson's Health Club became Perry's Gym and several months later was renamed Triumph gym. Irvin Johnson believed the future of bodybuilding and nutrition was in Los Angeles. He had worked with many celebrities in Chicago, so he wanted to expand into the Hollywood scene. In California, Irvin Johnson changed his name to Rheo H. Blair and became the personal trainer and dietitian for movies star, entertainers and television.

Note: This originally appeared as the January 2004 editorial. After a year and half we received letters from people who apparently did not read it on the website and have asked questions about Rheo Blair in the 1950s. So in the June 2005 editorial it has been reprinted.