By Raymond Rolak
BLOOMFIELD HILLS-- He had a spectacular business model and it took him amongst the glamorous of Hollywood. Roy Zurkowski (photo) took his hobby to a success level that he never imagined was possible. The Chicago native passed recently and had turned 81 on October 10, 2010.
His marketing model was to use Hollywood spokespersons that were just on the edge of super-stardom. Some of the celebrities that he convinced to promote Vic Tanny’s on national television included Cher, Lynda Carter, and Farrah Fawcett. He also signed Raquel Welch, Victoria Principal and Arnold Schwarzenegger to market the health clubs. “I would sign them before they went galactic, I couldn’t afford them later,” Zurkowski had said. All went super-nova and all fulfilled their contracts.
Schwarzenegger, now the Governor of California said, “Roy was a great fitness leader, a great entrepreneur, and a fantastic friend. We had a wonderful friendship and Maria and I were sad to hear of his passing.”
Zurkowski was also a champion body-builder and won the Mr. Chicago and Mr. Illinois titles in 1953. When Vic Tanny, an early pioneer of New York health club franchises, over-extended his expansion, Zurkowski and two partners bought the company.
Roy moved to Detroit in the 1960’s and kept the Vic Tanny brand and renamed the Illinois facilities as the Chicago Health Clubs. This became the nation’s largest health and fitness operation with more than 380 locations. Roy later formed a holding company called the Health and Tennis Corporation of America. He and partner Donohue Wildman also took over the Jack LaLanne clubs and the popular New York celebrity destination, the Vertical Club.
In 1983, the partnership sold to the Bally Entertainment Corporation for 72.4 million. Through 1987 there were contingencies for another $56.3 million, based on company performances. Both Wildman and Zurkowski stayed on as executives for a million plus per year, and they exceeded goals for the parent Bally Entertainment. By 1984, all the clubs became Bally’s Total Fitness.
After giving discounts to new club members and creating another wave of cash flow, expansion renewed. Bally’s acquired American Fitness Centers and Nautilus Fitness Centers.
Former Detroit Lion star, Mike Lucci, who was President of Bally’s said, “Roy was a dream to work with and after we acquired Lifecyle, (an exercise bike manufacturer), we got back into celebrity marketing.” Bally's marketed a promotion featuring the slogan "Turn on Your Life" with television's Terri Hatcher. At the time she was starring in the hit show 'Lois and Clark'. She became another Hollywood ‘A’-lister that went super-nova after an inspired merchandising campaign.
A world traveler, he kept his mansion in Bloomfield Hills and after retirement in 1990, split his time in Florida at a luxury ocean condo.
Roy served on several charitable boards including ‘Best Buddies’ in Washington, D.C., the National Special Olympics, the Detroit Institute of Arts, The Beaumont Foundation, and the Michigan Cancer Foundation.
He valued education along with fitness and donated exercise equipment to various institutions throughout the country. Zurkowski was a supporter at the former Orchard Lake St. Mary's College and had special friendships with Walter Ziemba and former celebrity TV-Chef, ‘Duglass-Duglass’ Grech.
Zurkowski always tan and fit was adamant about his own workouts. “The atmosphere of a club should make you want to exercise,” he had said. He stressed the ambiance of a workout facility. “It should be, 90% environment and enthusiasm and 10% equipment,” he relayed in a People Magazine article about celebrities and their fitness regiments. “Changing up routines is the key.”
Longtime secretary, Janice Broniak said, “Roy was blessed to have great friends and caregivers and Rick Murphy was such a devoted associate.” Loyal employees often referred to Roy affectionately as “Mr. Z”.
Zurkowski, also an army veteran is survived by former wife Lucia, a sister, Patricia, and a brother, Dan. A memorial was held at St. Thomas More, Troy, Michigan.
(Editors Note: Raymond Rolak is a well travelled sports broadcaster)