Dave Rabb – Culver City’s Gym Teacher

Editor’s Note – This memory of Dave Rabb ran in the Los Angeles Times. We are scooping it here to let people know that Dave has passed, and to offer a space to share memories of this wonderful teacher who was such a great part of our community for so long. Comments at the bottom will post, and we would love to hear your stories.

One morning 13 years ago, I brought my young son to a storefront children’s gym in Culver City. Ezra had recently been diagnosed with autism, and someone — a doctor or a therapist — had suggested that Dave Rabb could help.

I don’t remember what I expected, but not the man I met: Dave was short and sturdy, in his 60s, with a Brooklyn accent and an attitude to match. I told him I wasn’t sure Ezra would be able follow directions — at 4, our son was remote and distracted and rarely made eye contact — but that I could help.

Dave didn’t need my help. He told Ezra to leave his shoes in a bin near the door, then led him onto the carpeted gym floor. Over the next hour, I watched from a bench as this man with his gravelly voice directed my son through an obstacle course of ramps, ladders and slides. To my astonishment, Ezra listened. Following Dave’s directions — firm, direct, precise — my son made his way around the perimeter of the room with quiet intent.

For another child that might have been a simple feat. For Ezra, it seemed nearly miraculous.

I thought of that morning when I learned recently that Dave Rabb had died at 78 after a battle with pulmonary illness. People often ask me which doctors or therapists have been the most helpful in raising Ezra, who’s now 17. My answer: What matters isn’t the degree or title but the person’s ability to make a genuine, caring human connection.

I learned that from Dave, who had no advanced degrees and learned his people skills on the streets of Brooklyn’s Sea Gate neighborhood. He was rough around the edges, a onetime drill instructor who playfully shouted commands at kids and routinely cracked off-color jokes for the entertainment of the parents on the sidelines.

Dave Rabb’s Children’s Fitness Center wasn’t fancy. The pads and ladders looked like they dated to the Ford administration, and they did: The gym opened in 1976, long before kids’ gyms seemed as common in L.A. as yogurt shops.

Dave had not a whit of pretense. What he had was heart — and a child’s appetite for fun. Ezra’s occupational therapists would talk about proprioceptive input and sensory integration. Dave? He’d direct a class of kids to lie on the floor, roll a giant, inflatable hot dog over their bodies, and watch them giggle. He would have Ezra scurry up a wooden ladder, ring a bell with his toes and announce “Ta-dah!” He piped in circus music while children practiced on trapeze.

Ezra learned motor skills and gymnastics techniques — how to vault, how to execute a seat-drop on a trampoline. But mostly he learned something the therapists and educators left by the wayside: carefree, silly fun.

One summer Dave invited Ezra to a day camp he ran for a few children with special needs. There were no releases to sign, no medical insurance forms. He just loaded a bunch of kids into his car and drove them to the beach, where they played in the sand and roasted marshmallows.

Dave had spent a dozen years as athletic director of the Los Feliz JCC before he opened the gym, on a block he shared at the time with a gun swap shop, an Army recruiter and a credit dentist. Almost immediately it attracted a following. For a time, his clientele included the kids of celebrities like Michael Landon, Susan Dey and Matt Groening, “The Simpsons” creator. “I didn’t know who half of them were,” he once told me.

More recently, his focus was on children like Ezra, kids with autism and other developmental disabilities. Dave wasn’t much for labels. To him they were just kids, and like all kids they needed to have fun. He taught them, and though he was well into his 70s, Dave seemed to draw energy from playing with toddlers.

It was only in recent months that his illness slowed him down. When I heard in December that he planned to close the gym, I paid a visit just days before he retired. The place hadn’t changed much, nor had Dave. We sat on that same bench where I’d sat that morning years earlier, and I listened to him reflect on his life and work.

He told me that too many parents were afraid of their children, intimidated by the task of raising them. “What I’ve tried to do,” he said, “is give parents the tools to appreciate their kids, to notice the same things that knock me out every day, watching them.”

His retirement plan was to move to Hawaii with his wife, Marilyn, to be near one of his two adult daughters. And he was going to write a book. The working title: “How to Be a Fun Parent.”

I told him he’d already taught that, to me and to countless others.

Tom Fields-Meyer, a Los Angeles writer, is the author of the memoir “Following Ezra: What One Father Learned About Gumby, Otters, Autism, and Love from his Extraordinary Son.”

Photo courtesy of Dave Rabb

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  1. Lovely, poignant tribute to Dave Rabb.
    I, too, appreciated Dave while my young sons spent time at his gym many years ago and Culver City is not the same without him.

    He was the real thing and his memory lives on.

  2. Dave gave us so much.

    35 years ago I was in his gym classes when the Dave Rabb fitness center first opened. Life came full circle in that both my daughter and son these past few years got to experience his care, his teaching, and his love in the same classes that I had been in. I am forever grateful for what he has done not only for their growth and confidence, but also for them having encountered one of the most wonderful people they will ever meet.

  3. Dave was just the best. Both of my kids went to him for years because they so enjoyed the interactions, the gymnastic and that wonderful zip line. I also recommended his services for many special education students at my schools through the Regional Center. He will be sorely missed.

  4. What a fabulous article. The author truly captured Dave Rabb’s essence and was so poignant. I am sitting at my kitchen table crying, grieving the loss of a Culver City relic. The Rabbs really did give so much of themselves to children. I wish I knew he was sick and moving – I would have gone to say good-bye and thanks as well. He really did have a magical quality that kids found alluring. And he will be missed. When I spent time at the gym (with my two daughters many years ago) I always marveled at his very direct but firm and caring approach to fitness, and also at his and Marilyn’s warm relationship. Yes, parents should have more fun. I will try to do just that – in his memory. RIP Dave Rabb.

  5. I am a Counselor at Culver City High School, and my wife is a teacher at the same school. When I brought my son and daughter to Dave and Marilyn, I knew I had discovered gold! Not only did he have natural teacher abilities, but he commanded attention from his students. The kids responded to him in such a wonderful way, and it was always fun watching parent’s disbelief at how he handled each child in such a loving, but stern manner. I have fond memories of Dave telling me to be quiet while sitting on the sidelines, and I was moved by his obvious love of the kids, as well as his wife. Dave’s energy and off color jokes were outstanding, and I feel honored to have had the opportunity to be in his presence, and to have my children exposed to such a special human being. RIP Dave, and my heartfelt condolences to Marilyn and the family. Much love and admiration.

  6. Beautiful article. As a children’s caregiver I took many children including my nephew to play while learning with Dave and Marilyn. Dave truly listened with his heart and not just his ears to each and every child and gave honest and clear instruction to both child and parents. Although I was not the parent of these children I learned much from both Dave and Marilyn and will continue to put these lessons into my daily life in Dave’s memory. I know he has earned a special place of fun in the next life. My condolences and love to Marilyn.

  7. I worked at Dave Rabb’s Gym from about 1987 to 1999. It was my first real job. I learned so much from Dave and Marilyn. It was hard work where the hours passed quickly. I did some tumbling, spotted the little kids as they climbed and hung and went down that famous zip line. I learned the songs and played all the games. In between the classes we got to know each other and I eventually considered Dave and Marilyn to be like family. Dave ran a program for migrant workers’ kids and we would pack up the mats and hoops and wedges and drive to the border and run a full day of fun for these families. We would stop in Dana Point and have dinner, which was the first “fancy” meal I have eaten. Eventually I left the job to go to college. I visited here and there. When I had my own children, I realized how much I had learned about being a parent. If I ever asked my kids if they wanted to go to the park, I could hear Dave reprimanding me. “Why give a child an unnecessary choice?” So I learned to pack my kids up and take them to the park because of course it would be fun once we got there. I became a high school teacher and continue to believe that kids of all ages love to have fun. I tried adding that into the classes I taught for over 20 years. I am sad to hear that Dave has passed away. I noticed the gym had closed and figured that he had finally retired. Marilyn, if you read this, I think of you and Dave often. I wish you and your daughters well.

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