“Yes, he was swimming nearly every day. It was freezing, especially in winter. But he would be there…there’s Buster swimming across the lake…,” he recalled about the actor who starred in a series of Western movies centering around a cowboy character called Billy the Kid.
Although he predated the advent of masters swimming, Crabbe remained in shape throughout his life, eventually setting a world swimming record in the 60-64 masters swimming age group in the 400m freestyle – the event that he won the gold medal in 1932.
With his heavy work schedule, Crabbe had to stay in shape, especially in 1942 when he starred in 8 movies as a 34-year-old. He starred in 7 more Billy the Kid Westerns in 1943 in addition to making training films for the U.S. military.
Crabbe recalls the good versus evil theme of his over 45 movies in the 1940s in this genre. “The plots [of the Westerns] were simple ones. Basically, there were four standard formats: cattle rustlers, land grabbers, outlaws stealing money or gold, or outlaws terrorizing a community.”
In 1946, Crabbe’s continuous swimming paid off when he co-starred with his former swimming great, Johnny Weissmuller, in the movie Swamp Fire. At 42, Weissmuller was no longer in great shape, but the two performed a climatic underwater fight-to-the-death scene as their competitive juices never wavered, even in the ice cold water. Crabbe’s cold water training in Lake Arrowhead helped him greatly as the water was kept cold during filming in order to keep the alligators lethargic.
He also produced, invested in, and starred in his own live aquatic shows called The Aqua Parade. The actors he recruited were former aquatic athletes from his athletic days. In 1947, The Aqua Parade conducted a five-month tour of the United States.
By 1948, The Aqua Parade featured 20 synchronized swimmers in addition to divers and swimmers performing in the 2-hour show that included a show called The Evolution of Swimming. With popular acclaim, the show expanded from Los Angeles to Boston and included shows in Montreal and Toronto, eventually even to France and Italy.
In a key financial decision, Crabbe invested in a large portable swimming pool that moved with the show including to sites throughout the United States, Canada, France, and Italy. This enabled him to perform where he wanted as opposed to being tied to a permanent pool.
From Tarzan to Flash Gordon, from Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, Crabbe continued to play a number of roles in television and film while staying in shape swimming. Since his early days swimming in Waikiki Beach where he grew up as a child to his winter swimming in Lake Arrowhead later in his life, Crabbe was an aquatic icon.
Upper photo shows his lakefront home in Lake Arrowhead that he called the Key to Heaven that featured rooms with water views and meandering paths to the lake. Lower photo shows Buster Crabbe (second from left) with Duke Kahanamoku, Stubby Kruger, and Johnny Weissmuller in California.
Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association