Sherman Oaks Karate was an institution from the time it opened on Ventura Boulevard in 1966. The original owners were world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Lewis and kickboxing champ Bob Wall, but it was Wall who really expanded the business and turned the whole martial arts movement into a major phenomenon in the San Fernando Valley and around the rest of the United States.
I spoke to Wall recently about his famous karate studio, in which actor Chuck Norris eventually became his business partner.
"I started doing business in Sherman Oaks because there were lots of vacancies near the location I picked at 14556 Ventura Boulevard—and I firmly believed it was a 10 on a location scale of 10 being best."
Wall was a self-proclaimed "93-pound weakling" who found martial arts to be a way of not only doing strength and body conditioning, but for building character.
"Young people are easy to teach martial arts to, as it improves their self-image and then that becomes the motivating factor," Wall said.
Wall went on to become a national fighting champion and one of the founders of Black Belt magazine, and fought with the legendary martial arts master Bruce Lee in several of Lee's films.
"Bruce was one of the most disciplined men I ever knew, at a very young age," Wall said. "He was an old soul and gifted athlete.
"I also taught many other celebrities during the time the Sherman Oaks studio was first getting going," including Elvis and Priscilla Presley, Steve McQueen, Brian Keith, Pat Burleson (the first national karate champion) and, of course, his eventual business partner Norris, who went on to become the successor to Bruce Lee as the most successful film star to implement the martial arts in his roles.
In the 1970s, the Sherman Oaks studio was renamed the Chuck Norris Karate Studio as Norris' name grew in marketing appeal. Norris and Wall opened up studios all over the Valley and other parts of California. Students who couldn't afford to pay for classes were given a chance to train by working at the dojos, or martial arts studios, cleaning up and doing clerical work. "This was my way of allowing everyone to participate in the sport who wanted to, and at the same time allowed Chuck and I to expand our business to other communities," Wall said.
Wall went on to become a major success in the commerical and residential real estate market, where his Wall Street Properties company is still thriving today.
"I used to have Mike Glickman [the famed Encino and Sherman Oaks realtor] delivering the listings for me all along Ventura Boulevard. That's how he learned the trade." Mike Glickman and his brother Steven were students at Sherman Oaks Karate back in the 1970s.
David Cohen, a former student of Wall's, remembered his days at Sherman Oaks Karate fondly: "Bob Wall was the toughest man I ever knew. He could withstand an inordinate amount of pain and yet he was a very disciplined student of martial arts and an incredible educator. I learned so much from him.
"One time I left my Schwinn Sting Ray parked in front of Bob's car in back of the studio in the alley," Cohen recalled. "Bob got out of his car and, like he flicking a dandelion over his shoulder, tossed my bike on the roof of the studio. I thought that was so cool!"
Wall has been happily married—"We're like newlyweds still"—for 42 years to Lillian Wall, who is also his partner in their real estate business.
"I love being with my family: my daughters, Shana and Kara, and my mom, Reva, who's 95 years old and in great shape!"
Wall keeps in shape himself using the Dynamic Flex machine, which he says is "the only stretch machine that really works," The Total Gym and a stationary bike. His positive energy is contagious and he shared his philosophy with me on staying in top form after age 50:
"Martial arts fighters are very skilled and disciplined. Some have the advantage of a traditional training, but some do not and therefore miss out on the 'respect aspect' of training. I relax by working out a lot and really hard. I think it's better to wear out than rust out!"
Many of us long-term Valley residents fondly remember the Sherman Oaks Karate studio, and I always admired the students who trained there. I found my discipline in long-distance running but Wall's commitment to pushing one's self to a higher level is really admirable. Wall really was a pioneer of the fitness movement early on in the Sherman Oaks area.