Why the Aerobic Phantom Didn’t Work Out

A voice of our times has been silenced. The Aerobic Phantom is gone from the pages of Windy City Sports.

Let publisher Mary Thorne try to explain. “We’re here to promote amateur sports,” she says of her two-and-a-half-year-old monthly. And the Aerobic Phantom, after 18 months on the prowl, was not carrying his share of the load. “We were getting feedback from our readers and advertisers. And we were beginning to feel the column was alienating people in that it was bringing more of a negative aspect into the magazine than a positive aspect.”

Such alienation as the Phantom caused did not gently waft Thorne’s way. It hit her like a brick in the eye. Case in point: the Aerobic Phantom’s last stand–his September review of the aerobics program at the New City Y.

“While one is impressed that New City offers a moderately-priced fitness program, one is simultaneously dismayed that New City would consider a bare gymnasium with no shock-absorbing floor, no mirrors and no particular sound system a suitable setting for aerobics,” the Phantom wrote. He gave the instructor four stars for “technical skills,” but a single star for “charisma,” and commented, “Reading the phone book could be more fun.”

Back came a letter from Linda Anderson, executive director of New City’s activity center, that would run in WCS’s October issue (from which the Phantom had vanished). Anderson defended her floor as “appropriate to aerobic activity. I ask that you disprove that or print a retraction,” she declared.

And she did more. Anderson took revenge. After assiduous wooing, Windy City Sports had just persuaded New City Y to begin advertising monthly. Anderson canceled the ads. She also said that WCS–like the Reader a free read that banks on retail outlets–could no longer be distributed at her club.

So Mary Thorne and the Phantom had a talk. “She said, basically, this is the end of it,” the Phantom tells us. “She’s a struggling businesswoman herself. From my perspective, she got sick of having to go through that stress every time. She never told me ever to make something good or bad for the sake of advertising or circulation. There was total noninterference. But finally she said, ‘Hey! I can’t take it anymore.'”

Comments Carol Hartley, aerobics manager of the Downtown Sports Club, “I wouldn’t always agree with the Aerobic Phantom, but the Aerobic Phantom was the most entertaining thing about that newspaper. This last issue of the newspaper certainly had a hole in its heart as far as I was concerned.”

Hartley is not a neutral witness, although other Phantom readers tell us much the same thing. To Hartley had been revealed the Phantom’s true identity: Steve Jareo, writer, ad man, and aerobics instructor at Hartley’s club.

In a field that no one regulates, a roving critic with Jareo’s expertise does serve a function. “It’s uncharted territory,” says Jareo. “I consider an aerobics class to some extent a performance. The instructor is to some extent onstage. It’s supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be safe, it’s supposed to give cardiovascular improvement.

“Frankly,” he says, “there are some things in every class that are kind of nice and some things in every class that are kind of rotten. Say an instructor who has great music and dangerous moves. Or vice versa. It was always bittersweet, but these clubs couldn’t handle the bitter part. These places are either not sophisticated enough or mature enough to understand it.

“I believe every place that I reviewed that I said anything slightly nasty about, they would either discontinue advertising or, worse, they wouldn’t let [WCS] be circulated. As a result of my reviews, this magazine was losing thousands of copies of circulation.”

Thorne paints the damage done by the Phantom in less extreme colors. But she acknowledges one earlier debacle. A year ago August, the Aerobic Phantom visited Women’s Workout World. Unable to take a class at this far-flung for-women-only chain, the Phantom was not deterred. He and an assistant posed as husband and wife at the Downers Grove club, and as she dickered over rates and schedules he cased the joint. “Our anonymity as to what we were really doing there was quite intact,” says Jareo.

“WWW,” reported the Phantom, “is fitness for the masses. Plain vanilla workouts. The locker room has less charm than a changing room at a steel mill.” But, he concluded, “the fact is this: 60 or so people were getting a good, thorough workout for a very reasonable price.”

Jareo runs a small advertising and marketing firm, and as it happened, Women’s Workout World was looking for an ad agency. Feeling pretty good about his visit, he called and tried to get their business.

“I generally tend to raise the subject of advertising whenever there’s a remote possibility,” says Jareo, “and, frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by the experience there. Heck, this isn’t as bad as everyone says it is.”

Karen Thompson, then the national director for Women’s Workout World, recalls: “He said to keep our eyes open because he thought that he had done us a real favor with his article and even though it started out negatively it had a really positive slant.”

Says Jareo, “I thought the column was pretty terrific. They thought it sucked.” WWW runs about two dozen clubs in the Chicago area and the chain kicked Windy City Sports out of all of them.

“It was a major blow for Windy City Sports, frankly,” says Jareo.

He didn’t get the account.

Hagopian and Human Relations

“When you’re talking about veterans you’re talking about human rights, you’re talking about POWs and MlAs, you’re talking about the disabled,” Jim Balcer explained to us. “You’re talking about the homeless. Right! One-third of the homeless population of the United States is veterans.”

By the time Balcer was 19 he’d been wounded three times in Vietnam and shipped home. Today he is Mayor Daley’s veterans liaison.

“George Hagopian was a champion of our causes,” said Balcer. “George Hagopian was instrumental in passing a resolution honoring gold-star mothers. That was the side of George Hagopian I wish people would know. The kind and gentle man that was our friend. He was the veterans’ veteran. He was our guy.”

On September 30, the veterans’ veteran and alderman of the 30th Ward dropped dead. Balcer says Colonel Kenneth Plummer, who chairs the mayor’s veterans commission, then came to him with a wonderful idea: on November 3, when the Human Relations Commission holds its annual luncheon and hands out plaques to various do-gooders, let’s have one for Hagopian. Balcer spoke to the new executive director of the Human Rights Commission, Clarence Wood. Sure, said Wood. The idea was run past Mayor Daley. Balcer called Hagopian’s widow and gave her the good news.

Dr. Ron Sable, a gay member of Plummer’s veterans commission, knew nothing of this blithe scheme. Neither did Jon Simmons, coordinator of gay and lesbian issues at the Human Rights Commission; neither did Nancy Reiff, a special assistant to the mayor and informal liaison to the gay and lesbian community. Any one of them would have seen this folly for what it was and saved the Daley administration from looking ridiculous.

For if racism no longer slips through the cracks the way it used to, people still forget that homophobia is just as noxious.

Listen to George Hagopian. Return to June 1988, as the human rights committee of the City Council considers the proposed human rights ordinance.

“Saint Joseph’s Hospital, where I have had ten surgeries in the last 15 years–and I love the institution, it’s a great institution–there is one thing today that they are not proud of. . . . They are not proud that they have lost more AIDS patients than all the rest of the hospitals in the city of Chicago combined. And . . . whether people like me or not, I have got to be honest and true. I had ten surgeries at Saint Joseph’s, my family goes to Saint Joseph’s, but now if I had to go, I am deathly afraid, and I would have to ask my Lord if I would go back to Saint Joseph’s Hospital.

“Why should they be condemned because they had the compassion to help these people? Only because I am deathly afraid that I or my children or my other brothers and sisters that go there may be hurt by what’s there, and I am against this ordinance because of the sexual orientation; and there is many other things in it that are beautiful, I could go for it anytime.

“But until the day I die, if there is a breath left in this body, I will never vote to make that legal.”

Hagopian would argue that gays were seeking “the right to spread a fatal disease.” But despite his terrified opposition, the human rights ordinance became law anyway. And weeks before Plummer and Balcer put their heads together, the Human Rights Commission announced that on November 3 it would honor the gay community’s “gang of four”–Rick Garcia, Jon-Henri Damski, Laurie Dittman, and Arthur Johnston–who had successfully lobbied the City Council to pass the ordinance.

Gays were understandably outraged when Hagopian at the last minute joined the gang of four as honoree. So Clarence Wood quickly voided all the nominations and put off the luncheon to January. Wood says he needs to rethink the entire awards process, adding that so few tickets had been sold that the luncheon would have been a financial disaster anyway.

Wood told us that what he would hate to see is “the oppressed communities fighting among themselves.” He has a point, but that’s not what happened here. Plummer and Balcer backed off graciously, and there’s no squabble between gays and veterans.

The beef is with an administration hailed for its finesse that took a nosedive from the appropriate.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.