Larry Gleason remembers the first gymnastics school he ever opened, in 1966.
It was a small storefront on 28th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis. Just 14 feet wide by 55 feet long, it was tiny by today's gym standards at 1,500 square feet. It featured a low ceiling — 13 feet, hardly any room for high-flying tumbling — and just one trampoline and tumbling mat for his 30 students.
"That was it, that was my equipment," Gleason, 75, said. "I didn't have any money. I wasn't able to buy a lot of equipment."
It's a far cry from the Gleason's Gymnastics School of today. Spanning two locations in the Twin Cities — one in Eagan and the other in Maple Grove — Gleason's now boasts 2,200 students, 26-foot-high ceilings and plenty of beams, bars and trampolines.
On Saturday, Gleason will celebrate how far he and the school have come come during its 50th anniversary party. Along the way, though, there were times it didn't look like Gleason's would make it to 50. Or even 25.
"The gym was not profitable for the first 20 to 25 years before it started paying its own way," Gleason said.
One of the first in the country
Born in Minneapolis and raised by a single mother, Larry Gleason was a bit of late gymnastics bloomer. He didn't discover the sport until he was about 13 years old, when he started attending Marshall High School near the University of Minnesota campus. It was there that he found he had a knack for gymnastics.
"It was something that I did well. I won the state all-around in my junior and senior years in '58 and '59, and that allowed me to get a scholarship to the University of Minnesota," he said.
Gleason admits he wasn't the best student and ended up dropping out — twice.
"I had real problems doing things because I just had trouble concentrating sometimes. I always seemed to be interested in something else other than the courses I was supposed to be taking."
So he began working full time, doing surgical research for the University of Minnesota. Soon, doctors started asking him to give their kids lessons. That's when he got the idea to open up his own school.
"I started to realize that this was something that I liked doing," Gleason said. "I was good at it. Maybe I could make a living out of it."
He opened Gleason's Gymnastics School in 1966, one of the first in the country, according to USA Gymnastics.
Twists, turns and a TV show appearance
During the first year, Gleason only had about 30 students. And the future looked grim.
"I was having trouble paying the rent and was seriously thinking maybe this wasn't something that was able to be possible," Gleason said.
Enter "Clancy and Willie," a locally produced TV show.
One of the show's stars happened to pass the studio one day and glimpsed students through the window, jumping up and down and tumbling.
"He called me up and asked if I would come on his kids' TV show and talk about our program and do a little demonstration," Gleason said. "We went from 30 students to 60 students in 24 hours."
After the first year, Gleason was up to 100 students. After two years, 200. By then, they had outgrown the space.
So Gleason moved to a 4,000-square-foot spot in the Leola Theater near Lake Nokomis in south Minneapolis. The school was there four years until it was demolished and turned into a parking lot for a nearby bank. After a temporary stop in Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium, it finally relocated to Eagan.
But the timing proved to be problematic.
The U.S. was in the midst of an energy crisis, and many of Gleason's students — most of whom were from Minneapolis — began dropping out because of the longer commute. And since Eagan was still fairly rural at the time, he wasn't drawing many new students from the area.
Gleason started looking for a Plan B, and went back to school to get a teaching degree.
"For the first time ... I did really well. I got good grades," he said.
But a future in front of a traditional classroom just didn't seem to be in the cards for Gleason. With his reputation growing, business at the gym finally started taking off and he left his studies for a final time.
"I never looked back after that," he said.
The 'Gypsy Gymnasts'
Gleason's school has flourished since then. About 20 years ago, Gleason added a second location in the northwestern suburbs and says that school — now in Maple Grove — may need to move again because it's outgrowing its space there.
Gleason has also expanded its programs beyond what's seen as traditional artistic gymnastics (basically, Olympic gymnastics) to include classes in circus arts, parkour and even hand vaulting (where two or more people perform a combination of poses, throws, catches and acrobatics using one another).
"My definition of gymnastics is very broad," Gleason said. "My conception of gymnastics is anything that is a similar-related activity. Parkour and free-running uses a lot of gymnastics. It's a very natural thing for people that are interested in that to develop skills on trampoline, the tumbling mat and put them in parkour or free-running routines."
And, of course, he has competitive programs, including a tumbling and trampoline team called the Gypsy Flyers. The name is an homage to one of the first "programs" at Gleason's.
Back when he first opened the school, Gleason had a handful of adult students who would come in for classes. He organized them into a traveling act that would perform at county fairs throughout the state. During the hourlong shows, they'd delight fairgoers with hand-balancing acts, tumbling routines and comedy. In between the performances, they would camp out and practice outdoors at area parks.
They didn't get rich as traveling gymnasts — "we'd make a couple hundred bucks. It would pay our expenses," Gleason said — but they had fun showing off the sport, which was a bit of a novelty at the time. After the husband of one of his performers compared them to the storied travelers, Gleason took to calling the group the "Gypsy Gymnasts."
The group faded away after about two or three years, when Gleason began forming competitive teams for the younger students. But it remains a huge part of Gleason's history.
The next 50 years?
Gleason said he never had a grand plan for his school to reach 50, and still doesn't really have one for the next several years, either.
"I'm not one who makes a lot of elaborate future plans. I never really knew where I was going when I started the gym," Gleason said.
"All I knew was I liked to teach and I knew I was good at it, and I thought maybe I could make a living at doing this. Beyond that, I didn't have a lot of future plans of where I was going. It just kind of happened and developed."
Right now, he's mostly concerned about managing the gym well, and continuing to mentor coaches and improve the quality at Gleason's. He's no longer coaching regularly but still lends a helping hand here and there.
He's also branching out from Gleason's — sort of. Two years ago, he founded the nonprofit Gymnastics for All, which provides gymnastics classes in Minneapolis for underprivileged children. A portion of the proceeds from Saturday night's celebration will go toward the program.
"He's always been that generous. He's always been the kind of guy that wants every child — every person, even adults — to have a chance to experience this, for however long it suits them. Not for competitive reasons, just because it's enjoyable," said Joni Selden, Gleason's business manager. She's worked for Gleason for nearly three decades and has seen many of the same ups and downs as he has.
She says his generous spirit is one big reason why she has stuck around for so long — and why the school has rebounded and lasted as long as it has.
"It feels good here," she said.