When It Comes to Aerobic Exercise, Gilda's Bodies Get High Marx

updated 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Stretch out those love handles! Watch those thighs disappear before your eyes! Squeeze, squeeze, tighten, tighten, FIRMIT-FEELIT-WORKIT! This is for the cookies and the cheesecake and the fettuccine Alfredo and the Haägen-Dazs!

Picture it: millions of women grunting and groaning to up-tempo rock music and the barked commands of aerobic instructors. Everybody's looking for thinner waists, flatter tummies and firmer thighs. Where it will all end is a good question. Where it all began is another. According to Gilda Marx, a trim blonde in her 40s, it all began with—Gilda Marx. She says that she's been toning torsos for a good 20 years and so deserves credit for having invented the fad that won't die. In the beginning, she explains, "There was no such program anywhere available. Today I see my identical program all over the world."

Marx runs the Body Design By Gilda exercise salon (about $8 per person per hour in a group class) in Beverly Hills' Century City. She has franchised 11 other salons across the U.S. and in Canada and is sifting through applications for still more franchises. (In addition, she and her husband own Flexatard dancewear and swimwear, which has annual sales of $25 million.) Some of the bodies that she says she has helped create belong to Britt Ekland, Mario Thomas, Susan Anton and Priscilla Presley. Even Barbra Streisand walked into the studio one day (unannounced) and, Gilda claims, left impressed. "Although I very seldom get butterflies, I was so nervous I just couldn't stand it," says Marx. "I asked her if I could sing during the class, and when I did, I relaxed and so did she."

Despite these successes, Gilda has yet to achieve the celebrity status of video exercise guru Richard Simmons, who, she says, was kicked out after his first class at a Gilda salon for clowning around. Nonetheless, the most famous body by Gilda belongs to Jane Fonda, who spent seven months working out at the studio in preparation for her role in 1978's California Suite. According to a bitter Marx, Jane went on to establish her own empire with the help of one of Gilda's former staffers.

A traveling salesman's daughter, Gilda has enjoyed performing since she started dance lessons in Pittsburgh at age 5. Exercise as an occupation began in the 1960s. By that time she was a young wife living in the San Fernando Valley. There she helped train a group of women for a benefit dance performance. When the curtain rang down, her students begged her for more instruction. For 15 years Marx taught classes, renting space sometimes in karate studios in the L.A. suburbs. She also created her aerobics program "the way you create a score of music," which meant formulating movements to exploit the body's full range of motion and setting them to music. Aerobics was not the trendy item it has since become, but Marx still managed to raise and support two children.

Two divorces left her "turned off to believing there was a Mr. Wonderful out there." Until 1971, that is, when she met Robert Marx, now 52. The son of the fifth and "forgotten" Marx brother, "Gummo," Gilda's husband now heads Flexatard. They recently moved into a five-bedroom Beverly Hills home where Robert's children—Tracy, 19, Chris, 21, and Gregg, 28 (a Days of Our Lives actor)—and Gilda's children—Mitchell Guzik, 24, and Laura Guzik, 27—often visit.

Fortunately, Bob "sees humor in everything," Gilda says, so major disagreements are rare. But when they do arise, Gilda and Robert have a peculiar way of settling matters: They make use of Freddie and Frieda, two Muppet-like creatures with long tongues. Says Gilda, "We can be in a business meeting and when we start to fight we pull the puppets out of a briefcase and let them go after each other. Then we walk out of the room holding hands."

Marx, who like everyone else is writing a book on exercise, thinks it's high time that her contributions were recognized. And that means acknowledgment from Jane Fonda. "She's earned her millions," says Gilda, "and I don't know why she just doesn't say she learned everything from me. I take pride in being her teacher." Forget Freddie and Frieda. This may call for Kermit the Frog.

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