Canyon Ranch founder Melvin “Mel” Zuckerman was born in 1928 to Norman and Shirley Zuckerman in Jersey City, N.J. While growing up in Hackensack, N.J., his severe asthma limited his activity, but he excelled in his studies, graduating from Hackensack High School in 1946 and then earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from New York University.
While in college, in 1949, a childhood friend invited him for a visit him to San Francisco. During the trip, he fell in love with the West and decided that was where he belonged. But first he worked in accounting for 10 years in New Jersey and Florida.
When he married Enid Slotkin, in 1953, she made it known that she wasn’t leaving her family in New Jersey. Their son Jay was born in 1955, and three years later, Enid decided she was willing to give the West a shot.
With Enid pregnant with their daughter Amy, the family left Hackensack. They drove for five weeks around the western United States, then headed to Yuma so his wife and son could rest and visit her sister. Zuckerman continued the search for a new home, eventually ending up in Tucson.
He visited Sabino Canyon and decided he wanted to live near the waterfalls, mountains and natural beauty. Once here, he decided he didn’t want to be an accountant anymore and spent several months working for a building company and learning the trade.
In 1960, Zuckerman and a partner formed Harmony Homes. One of their early subdivisions was Melody Lane Estates, near Wetmore Road and La Cholla Boulevard. He chose the name because it went well with Harmony Homes, and he named two streets after his kids: Jay Avenue and Amy Drive.
In 1962, he bought 400 acres near Sabino Canyon Road for subdivisions to be called Sabino Vista. His goal was to create high-quality homes for lawyers, doctors and other professionals, but a serious decline in the economy made business tough. Along with financial stress and family difficulties, Zuckerman had gained a lot of weight on his nightly half gallon of ice cream and was in poor physical shape.
In the 1970s business began to improve and, in 1977, Zuckerman was president of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.
After his father died of lung cancer that year, he decided it was time to change his life. He went to a health resort in California in March 1978 and not only lost 29 pounds, but felt a calling to help others regain their health. “I want to feel like this forever,” he told his wife on their way home.
The Zuckermans decided to open a health resort in Tucson. They visited the Double U Dude Ranch, south of Snyder Road, and felt the land had a magical quality, although the ranch was in disrepair. They bought the 42-acre ranch in May of 1978 and decided to call it Canyon Ranch, a name derived from Sabino Canyon and the Double U Dude Ranch.
They considered razing the old run-down ranch buildings but feared that tearing them down might damage the energy of the place and scare away the wildlife. They rebuilt them instead.
During construction, Zuckerman and his new partner, Jerry Cohen, needed more money to finish the project, but no banks would help. Jim Click, a fledgling car dealer at the time and partial owner of a bank, offered a loan and told Zuckerman, “We believe in you.”
Canyon Ranch opened on Dec. 20, 1979, with 66 rooms and a staff of 88.
The Zuckermans soon moved onto the ranch, and while filling the role of president, Mel also carried bags, swept the portico and hosed down the driveway. His wife made beds, cleared tables and assisted guests.
Zuckerman hired fitness trainer Karma Kientzler, who had helped him lose weight in California, to run the ranch’s fitness team, and he hired Phyllis Hochman to run the hiking program after she worked for free for months to prove it would be popular.
While Zuckerman was skeptical of the value of astrology, a session with astrologer Nancy Bissel convinced him it had a place at his new resort. He created a metaphysical department that includes astrology, handwriting analysis and clairvoyant readings.
In 1981, Canyon Ranch Drive, the main street through the resort, was recorded with Pima County.
In 1982, with business slowly climbing, Time magazine ran an article on the resort in its April 12, 1982, issue. Soon other media followed with Glamour, Vogue, Mademoiselle, Money and others running stories.
From 1985 to 1989, Canyon Ranch went from 66 rooms to 190 rooms with condominiums and private homes. It also opened the Health & Healing Center, with medical doctors who might prescribe meditation, acupuncture or reiki instead of drugs.
In 1989, the Zuckermans opened a second Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Mass., and later opened one in Miami Beach that also includes condominiums. They also have day spas at the Venetian and the Palazzo resorts in Las Vegas and on several cruise lines.
In 2010, Zuckerman wrote an autobiography, “The Restless Visionary,” and the following year he wrote “Mel’s Tips for Healthy Living.”
Dec. 20, 2014, will mark the 35th anniversary of Canyon Ranch in Tucson. It is still operated by Zuckerman, now 86. He and his wife also are the namesake of the Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona.