By Sarah Moore Hall
December 07, 1981 12:00 PM

Liquid protein and diet pills aside, one sure way of losing weight is to eat less and exercise more. Based on this simple wisdom, three Chicago women have founded a diet camp in nearby Lake Geneva, Wis. where there are no hot tubs, steam baths or exercise machines. Unlike most health spas, this one is not expensive. Six days at the Wooden Door costs fewer dollars (375) than there are calories in a pint of chocolate ice cream. “I don’t see why a woman has to pay $2,000 to feel good about herself,” says Shirley McAlear, 36, who owns the place with Naomi Stark, also 36, and Jill Adzia, 37.

Scores of flabby women agree. Since the Wooden Door opened last May, its popularity has spread as fast as a middle-aged derriere. By fall the camp had received 8,000 requests (mostly from the Chicago area) to fill 97 places for each weekly session. The owners decided to stay open through October and have even scheduled several winter weekends. Since not all cabins are heated, enrollment must be held to 75. “During the colder sessions,” says McAlear, “the program remains essentially the same. But we do have more speakers and indoor programs like self-defense.”

Whatever the weather, the Wooden Door (a send-up of California’s pricey Golden Door) has all the amenities of a Girl Scout retreat with its rustic setting, Spartan cabins and communal cafeteria. The women, who sleep as many as six to a cabin, must bring their own bedding for the steel cots; neither liquor nor TV is provided. There is only one pay phone. “We don’t coddle anybody. This is not a glamorous place,” understates Stark. “That way we can keep prices down. There’s also no reason for people to hang around their cabins all day contemplating their manicures.”

Although the program stresses strenuous physical exercise, the Wooden Door advertises itself as “a diet, fitness and beauty retreat.” That includes classes in makeup and fashion as well as massages (for an extra $20 an hour) and facials (at $20). The camp’s training starts at 6 a.m. with yoga in a large gazebo overlooking the lake. (During cold weather the class moves indoors.) Stretching exercises, aerobics and jogging supervised by the owners follow until lunch—after which the whole regimen begins again. To sustain them each day, the women are allowed 900 low-salt calories. Their infrequent treats include plain popcorn and vegetables and an evening snack—sometimes half a banana. Groans one client, “It’s just like boot camp, only without food.”

Cheating of all kinds is inevitable. Once a 70-year-old grandmother was caught leading a late evening expedition to the Sugar Shack, a male striptease parlor about half a mile away. Another time Adzia and McAlear went to a local restaurant for dinner, only to discover a group of clients surreptitiously drinking cocktails.

Although one obese woman couldn’t even make it up the slope to her cabin (she was given a room in the main lodge), most clients are suburban mothers who need to shed only 15 pounds or so. A fair number are recent divorcees who find that losing weight is their best revenge. “My ex-husband,” explains one customer, “just loves to see me fat and miserable.”

The three founding mothers of the Wooden Door have long been fitness nuts. Adzia, who has two children, taught dance at Jamestown Community College for eight years. McAlear, also a mother of two, has a degree in physical therapy, and Stark taught aerobic dancing in Glenview, Ill. for two years. They met in 1978 through a YMCA exercise class taught by McAlear. Last winter, with financial backing from their husbands (McAlear and Adzia are married to businessmen, Stark to a lawyer), they rented a 54-acre site owned by the fundamentalist Covenant Harbor Bible Camp and went into business.

With an average weight loss of five pounds a week—equal to that at the exclusive Maine Chance—the Wooden Door already has one measure of its success. Perhaps the true reason for its popularity is offered by McAlear: “At home, women never get a chance to see anyone who looks worse than they do. At the Wooden Door they do.”