South Bay Surf History

By Beck Cherry

The History of Surfing in the South Bay

Preface

The history of surfing in the South Bay is deep. The significant events that have taken place here, and, more importantly, the people who have resided in our small collection of beach cities is disorienting to research. South Bay surfing is a story molded by its many characters and their interwoven lives more than the events that transpired. Without exception, each name invoked belongs to a surfer with a personality and individual history deserving of a detailed biography and accompanying movie adaptation. Some of them and their families still surf in the South Bay, and I have done my best not to misrepresent anyone.

Without Matt Warshaw and his Encyclopedia of Surfing, this would not have been possible. Speak to him about researching your next surf film.

 

The Beginning

The first surfing in North America did not occur in the South Bay, but our home is where surfing took hold of the continent. In 1907 George Freeth, a Waikiki local and allegedly Hawaii’s best surfer, sailed to California with the intent of sharing his sport with the mainland. Though he landed in San Francisco, Freeth immediately made his way to Los Angeles where the emerging beach cities and novel culture presented him, and the city’s booming population, with trailblazing opportunities.

Henry Huntington owned Redondo Beach and ran the Pacific Electric Railway in 1907. The “Red Car,” as the railway was known locally, carried passengers from inner LA to Huntington’s beachside Hotel Redondo. Though Freeth first surfed the mainland on the shores of Venice Beach, the audience attracted by Huntington’s hotel in Redondo Beach was what his sport needed to gain traction. The hotel hired Freeth, and, introduced as “the Hawaiian wonder who could walk on water,” he gave weekend surf demonstrations on his 8-foot redwood board.

As the South Bay gained popularity so did Freeth’s surfing. He often rode the Red Car between Redondo and Venice to give demonstrations, teach swimming, and lifeguard; he earned a Congressional Gold Medal for repeatedly diving off the Venice Pier to save a group of fishermen in a 1908 winter storm. Freeth readily gave free, informal surf and surfboard making lessons in the South Bay and as far south as San Diego. These lessons created the first California-born surfers. A bronze bust stands at the Redondo pier to memorialize Freeth and his contributions to surfing and lifeguarding.

The above information was curated from Matt Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing and his Encyclopedia Of Surfing. The image of George Freeth was found on Wikipedia and is in the public domain (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Freeth.jpg).

 

The Palos Verdes Surf Club and Pioneers of Surf Photography

By the 1930s, formal surf clubs proliferated up and down the California coast. They provided a unique network of communities for fans of the fringe sport. The most notable and structured was the Palos Verdes Surf Club, established in 1935.

Nearly 30 surfers strong, the PVSC defied the stereotypes associated with modern surfing. It was a club of gentlemen, as stated in its oath. Cofounder John Heath “Doc” Ball, a dentist from Hermosa, did not smoke or drink alcohol. Members wore a suit and tie and also refrained from smoking during the regular meetings in Doc’s Gardena dental office. They were occasionally expected to give progress reports on their education and careers. Matt Warshaw, a famous surf historian and author of the Encyclopedia of Surfing, writes that “six months after one of the club’s top riders dropped out of college to spend more time on the beach, he was called to floor and told to return to class or face expulsion.”

Despite rigid social expectations, genuine fun and a shared love of wave riding were the heart of the Palos Verdes Surf Club. Each member owned a matching green jacket displaying the PVSC logo, which they wore proudly as they carried their 100+ lb logs, adorned with the same insignia, to surf contests and paddle races organized with other clubs. Ye Weekly Super Illustrated Spintail was their weekly newsletter featuring members’ stories and photos of memorable rides, wipeouts, and club moments. It was common for meetings to adjourn to the Zamboanga Club for a night out in Los Angeles.

Hermosa Beach local and PVSC cofounder Doc Ball is remembered as one of the early innovators of surf photography. He began shooting the South Bay surf scene in 1931 while attending USC dental school. In 1937, he built his own waterproof camera housing from pine and developed the habit of paddling out with its strap between his teeth. After serving as a Coast Guard dentist in World War II, Doc dove even deeper into surf photography and compiled more than 150 pictures of South Bay and Southern California surfing for his 1946 book, California Surfriders. Doc passed in 2001, but not before he was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame (alongside George Freeth) and the Surfing Walk of Fame. He continued to skateboard and surf through his 80s near his home in Eureka, California.

LeRoy Grannis, another early member of the Palos Verdes Surf Club, learned surf photography alongside Doc. Grannis was born and raised in Hermosa Beach and his surfing is featured in California Surfriders. After serving as a WWII supply pilot and installing switchboards for Pacific Bell, Grannis’ doctor recommended he pursue a stress-relieving hobby. Grannis, encouraged by his friend Doc, invested himself in photography. In 1964 he co-founded International Surfing magazine (today’s Surfing). But, true to his Palos Verdes Surf Club roots, Grannis ended his professional photography career in 1971 because he “didn’t like the way the magazines were going. They were making heroes out of druggies and guys with big mouths.” LeRoy Grannis of Hermosa Beach is credited as one of California’s best surfers of the 30s and 40s, and as the godfather of surf photography.

The Palos Verdes Surf Club met a somber end when America entered World War II. Nearly all of its members joined the military. The first recorded reunion was at the Camp Pendleton Marine Base where 24 members met for a weekend in 1988. In 2011, the Daily Breeze reported 93-year-olds Fenton Scholes and Richard Meine were the last two PVSC members to meet weekly at Hennessey’s Tavern in Redondo Beach.

Interview with Fenton Scholes and Calvin “Tulie” Clark by the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center on YouTube: https://youtu.be/5T2HhyeOiMo. Tulie was an early member of the Palos Verdes Surf Club. He learned to surf on his mother’s wooden ironing board.

The above information was curated from Matt Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing and his Encyclopedia Of Surfing, as well as a Daily Breeze article.

 

The South Bay Commercial Surf Boom… and the Rest of History

In the decade following the war, commercial surfing was single-handedly created by another South Bay local. Dale Velzy, born and raised in Hermosa Beach, began surfing and shaping balsa-redwood laminate boards under the Hermosa pier around the age of 10. After serving in World War II, he began shaping commercially in Manhattan Beach, establishing what many consider to be the first surf shop in 1949. Surfer once wrote: “He was the first to put a name on a surfboard, the first to sponsor a surfer, the first to open a surf shop and the first to print a surf company t-shirt.”

It wasn’t long before Velzy had created a surf retail empire. In 1954 he partnered with fellow shaper Hap Jacobs, a former U.S. Coast Guard and the future proprietor of the “Notre Dame Cathedral of surf shops” (located in Hermosa Beach). Within a few years Velzy-Jacobs Surfboards expanded from Venice to San Clemente, San Diego, Newport, Hermosa, and Honolulu. Their brand’s popularity was helped by Velzy’s experiments with early foam and fiberglass boards and his creation of the pig shape, an important predecessor to today’s longboards.

Though he was the “King of Surf Retail” in the 1950s, Velzy’s contributions to surf culture are deeper than that. It’s as if he imbued the sport with a little bit of his character. An article in Surfer’s Journal claimed “Dale could out-drink, out-shoot, out-ride, out-shape, out-sell and out-finesse all comers. And he made it all up as he went along.” Velzyland on the North Shore of Oahu is a tribute to the South Bay local, and he inspired Bear in the 1978 movie Big Wednesday. Dale Velzy is said to be the first surfer to ever hang ten.

He wasn’t the only influential surfer to open up shop in the South Bay, however. After journeying to New Zealand and teaching the locals the “Malibu” style of wave riding, Bing Copeland returned home to Manhattan Beach and opened Bing Surfboards in Hermosa in 1959. He became one of the most popular board makers of the 1960s, which is unsurprising considering he learned to shape from Dale Velzy.

Before partnering with Velzy, Hap Jacobs co-founded Dive N Surf with surfer/diver Bev Morgan in Redondo Beach. After acquiring a copy of a U.C. Berkely study on wetsuits, Morgan began making them himself. Wetsuits sold mostly to divers until 1962 because, as Matt Warshaw explains, “the general consensus among surfers was that wetsuits were for sissies.”

Morgan started the slow process of popularizing wetsuits in surfing by convincing the top shapers of the South Bay to have their sponsored riders wear them (adorned with logos, of course). He offered to pay their rents for a year if they couldn’t sell enough suits, but within a few weeks he had over 2,500 orders.

The increasing prevalence of wetsuit-clad surfers must also be attributed to twin brothers, best friends, and legendary South Bay watermen Bob and Bill Meistrell. At 14, while living in their hometown of Boonville, Missouri, they began diving. Not high diving with speedos. Underwater diving with the possibility of an embolism. They hacked together a functioning dive helmet from an old vegetable can, glass, tar, and a bike pump so they could survey the bottom of their local pond. When they moved to Manhattan Beach in 1944 they purchased a professional dive helmet at a discount (because the previous owner had died in it) and explored the Redondo breakwater without knowing how to clear their ears. In an interview with Easy Reader, Bill admitted, “I don’t know why we didn’t get air embolisms.”

After learning to surf, playing football for El Segundo High, and becoming the smallest Lifeguards in L.A. County history, the Meistrell twins bought Hap Jacobs’ share of Dive N Surf when he partnered with Dale Velzy. Around that same time, Bill discovered that neoprene, a closed-cell, insulating rubber in the back of refrigerators, would also insulate a wet human relatively comfortably. This was the biggest breakthrough in the history of wetsuit technology. The twins, along with their business partner Bev Morgan, used neoprene to develop “the first practical and commercial wetsuit”: the Dive N Surf Thermocline.

The Meistrells acquired Morgan’s share of Dive N Surf in 1957 as wetsuit popularity rose among surfers. In 1965, they founded Body Glove to market their suits to surfers and divers alike. It was undoubtedly the most popular wetsuit brand in southern California. Today, Body Glove is the most recognized watersports brand globally and its annual sales are nearly $200 million. The Easy Reader writes, “Today’s incandescent, accessory laden wetsuits worn by lobster divers, aerial surfers, triathletes and squealing Boogie boarders are essentially the same neoprene suit as the Dive ‘N Surf Thermocline.”

Bill and Bob Meistrell were both inducted into the Surfers Walk of Fame in Hermosa Beach, as well as the Diving Hall of Fame. Their lives are celebrated by a life-size bronze statue at the Seaside Lagoon in Redondo.

Hermosa Beach boasts two similarly life-sized statues to memorialize South Bay surfers. At the base of the Hermosa Pier, Tim Kelly is depicted in bronze dropping smoothly into a back-hander. He was a local surfer and well-known L.A. County Junior Lifeguard instructor who died in 1964 at 24 years old. The statue’s plaque reads, “The Tim Kelly lifeguard memorial is dedicated to the brave men and women who have passed through the ranks of the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division. Their courage, professionalism and devotion to lifesaving is recognized worldwide.”

The other statue stands in front of the Hermosa Beach Community Center and commemorates legendary shaper, Dewey Weber. It is based on a famous Leroy Grannis photo of Weber carving a steezy drop-knee cutback at 22nd street Hermosa.

After moving to Hermosa at 5 and learning to surf at 9, Weber befriended Dale Velzy whose pig enabled him to develop the hotdogging style. Because of his innovative style (and possibly early experience as a child actor), Weber’s surfing was featured in most surf-related movies in the 50s and 60s. A man of many talents, he was also a three-time national yo-yo champion by 14 and was on track to wrestle in the Olympics before he injured his elbow in the team trials.

The Weber name became one of the most popular brands in surfing after Weber Surfboards opened in 1960. The shaper cultivated a reputation as “the surfing millionaire,” but also became an alcoholic. In the mid and late 60s, Weber was a strong competitor in early, organized, professional surfing and in 1981 “inaugurated the Peff Eick/Dewey Weber Invitational Longboard Classic at Manhattan Beach Pier… an event that has since been described as marking the beginning of the longboard renaissance” (Matt Warshaw, Encyclopedia of Surfing). He was living in his surf shop when he died of alcohol-related heart failure in 1993.

Greg Noll is a name that cannot be left out of surf history, South Bay or otherwise. He was born in 1937 and, like many, moved to Manhattan Beach at a young age. Matt Warshaw writes that “by the early ’50s [Noll] was one of the Los Angeles area’s best hotdoggers.” In an interview with Southbay, Noll recalled that older surfers in the South Bay used to light beat up boards on fire and throw them off cliffs to “bring up the surf.” He traveled to Oahu when he was 17 and finished high school there, surfing the whole time of course. After the death of surfer Dickie Cross in 1943 at Waimea Bay, Noll was one of the first to surf the bay again in 1957 while seeking big waves. For decades he held the unofficial record for the biggest wave ever surfed. That famous Makaha wave in 1969 marked the end of his big wave surfing, though he remained obsessed with it up until his recent passing. In 1965 Noll opened the largest surfboard factory of the time in Hermosa Beach after starting his company, Greg Noll Surfboards, in his family’s garage a decade earlier. Among other accolades for surf related filmmaking and surfboard shaping, he was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996.

The above information was curated from Matt Warshaw’s book The History of Surfing and his Encyclopedia Of Surfing, as well as the Easy Reader, Best of the South Bay, Southbay, and Surfer.

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