Mel Zuckerman, Co-Founder of Fitness Resorts, Dies at Age 94

Mel Zuckerman’s

life as a home builder in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1960s and 1970s was so stressful that he often consoled himself at night by eating half a gallon of ice cream.

Taking his wife’s advice, he tried going to a “fat farm” in Mexico, featuring exercise and vegetarian food. He was the only man there, found himself pathetically less supple than the women in stretching classes and left on the third day.

In 1978, rattled by warnings from his doctor and the recent death of his father at age 77, Mr. Zuckerman decided to try again. This time, he checked into the Oaks health retreat in Ojai, Calif., where he met a highly persuasive fitness trainer, Karma Kientzler.

She proposed walking a mile. Mr. Zuckerman protested that he had asthma. She didn’t back down. “Resistance was futile,” he wrote later.

That first mile took 25 minutes. Soon, however, Mr. Zuckerman was astounded to discover that he could jog a mile in eight minutes. He stayed four weeks at the Oaks, lost 29 pounds and gained a new business plan: opening his own fitness resort in Tucson.

With his wife, Enid Zuckerman, he opened Canyon Ranch on the site of a former dude ranch in Tucson in December 1979. Canyon Ranch turned into a leader in what became known as wellness programs, with low-calorie food, exercise, medical care, massage and a dash of spirituality. It now has locations in Tucson, Lenox, Mass., Woodside, Calif., and Las Vegas.

Mr. Zuckerman stayed fit and worked out frequently into his early 90s. He died on March 18 at his home in Tucson at the age of 94.

His original idea, he told the New York Times later, was to create “a fat farm where people would enjoy themselves.”

Melvin Zuckerman, an only child, was born May 23, 1928, and grew up in Hackensack, N.J. His father, Norman Zuckerman, struggled to make a living out of a paint and wallpaper store. His mother, Shirley Zuckerman, prodded him to study hard.

Diagnosed with asthma, young Mel believed exercise could be fatal. In “The Restless Visionary,” a 2010 memoir written with Louisa Kasdon, he recalled growing up anxious and lonely, a Jewish kid in a neighborhood with few Jews.

He commuted across the river to New York University. Because he was good at math, his parents pushed him to study accounting. Though he hated the idea, he complied. On a blind date, he met Enid Slotkin, a dental hygienist. They married in 1953.

He moved his young family to Tucson in 1958. “We sold everything that wouldn’t fit in our car,” he wrote. Rejuvenated by the West, he soon quit accounting and went to work for a home builder to learn that business. Within about 18 months, he co-founded a home-building firm.

Though he was generally successful, stress induced by boom-and-bust cycles made him into what he described as “an angry father, terrified of becoming a failure,” afflicted by ulcers and high blood pressure.

The first time his wife suggested the switch from home building to operating a fitness resort, he resisted. By 1978, he was all in. “I had found my mission: helping people with unhealthy lifestyles and restless souls make the transition to a healthier life,” he wrote.

The Zuckermans paid $714,000 for the initial 42 acres that became Canyon Ranch. They hired Ms. Kientzler to lead fitness programs. On opening night in December 1979, there were eight guests, only one paying the full price.

Word-of-mouth gradually expanded the clientele. Then a 1982 Time magazine article about Canyon Ranch attracted throngs. The timing was right. Jane Fonda was flexing her leg warmers, and Americans were ready to believe that getting fit could be the whole point of a vacation.

Canyon Ranch added a resort in Lenox in 1989. Mr. Zuckerman kept striving to extend the empire, though later forays into Florida and Turkey didn’t work out. The business is now owned by John Goff, a Texas billionaire.

Mr. Zuckerman is survived by his wife, two children, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren. The Zuckermans have made major gifts to the University of Arizona, whose public health college is named for them.

In 1985, Mr. Zuckerman gave his gold 1973


450SL to a nephew, Jonathan Molk. Mr. Zuckerman set a condition: The nephew had to donate $1,000 to charity annually for 10 years.

Mr. Zuckerman wrote about his pleasure in seeing guests at Canyon Ranch discover healthier habits and become “more receptive to joy in the universe.” As for himself, he found it hard to stop chasing new business projects, with all the anguish they could bring. It was ironic, he wrote, that he had built a business allowing others to find an inner peace that so often eluded him.

Write to James R. Hagerty at

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