The relationship between Southern California’s geography and its post-World War II development generated cultural expressions not found in the rest of the country. Among the most interesting is the rise of a uniquely Californian “surf culture.” California’s geographical situation facing the Pacific–has given it an orientation that has made it, in many ways, uniquely responsive to the cultural impulses of the Pacific rim. During the post-World War II period, surfers carved out a new cultural terrain on the warm beaches of Southern California; influenced by native Ha Hawaiian culture, Southern California surfers developed a distinctly “Californian” language, etiquette, and music.
The development of California surf culture fostered a “spiritual community” linked to the presence of the ocean as a system of signifiers that privileges an identity based on surfing over an identity based on working. Put in the terms of bumper sticker vernacular: “Work is for people who don’t know how to surf.” This new cultural terrain was defined through a complex set of negotiations between mainstream and “alternative” forces within the Cold War culture of the 1950s. California “surf culture” included notions as diverse as “mythic” Hawaiian origins, and the use of state of the art aerospace techniques and materials. While Southern California raced to complete freeway systems and build new defence plants, surfers adopted a “laid back” way of life that depended on their proximity to the ocean as a source of personal freedom and symbolic identity.
This paper will focus on Southern California’s surf culture in the post-World War II period; it will attempt to provide a snapshot of the ways in which a Polynesian cultural practice was transformed into a uniquely Southern California “experience.” The very meaning of surfing was transformed in the context of its Southern California post-World War II revival–both in relation to its Hawaiian origin and in relationship to its pre-war American incarnation. It will also investigate how Southern California surfers responded to a series of encounters with market-driven forces that transformed American culture at large. These encounters included attempts to capitalize on surfing through the professionalization of the sport, commercialization of surfing through Hollywood films, and the destruction of pristine beach areas. This paper proposes an initial foray into the relatively unexplored subject of surfing as a cultural form–a form that has its own history and moves against the background of Southern California’s cultural transformation during the post-World War II period.
The Hawaiian Roots of California Surf Culture
“Arise! Arise! Great surfs from Kahiki,
Powerful curling waves, arise with the Pohuehue,
Well up, long-raging surf.”
The Polynesian roots of California surf culture call attention to the complexities of Califor nia’s cultural evolution during the 20th century. Surf culture in California was not a product of Eu European presence in America, it evolved from Polynesian culture.
Anthropologists have estimated that Hawaiian surfing is over a thousand years old, and Polynesian surfing dates back as far as three or four thousand years. Surfing was interwoven into every aspect of traditional royal Hawaiian life: Instruction in surfing was an important part of a young chief’s education, and commoners were relegated to specific surfing beaches. The sport was inextricably bound to religion, elaborate rites and rituals surrounding the construction of the wood surfboards themselves.
The rituals began at the moment a tree was selected for the construction of a surfboard. The Hawaiians presented a fish as an offering to the gods in exchange for use of the tree. After chants and incantations by the kahuna, or priest, the tree was brought down to the beach and hand-shaped into a surfboard with stone or bone tools. Surfing festivals and meets were popular till the early 19th century, and heavy wagers were placed on the outcome of surf contests. It was not uncommon for a man to lose all of his possessions from betting on the outcome of surfing contests. In essence, surfing was deeply woven into every aspect of native Hawaiian culture, society, and religion.
From the point of European contact with native Hawaiian surfers, there existed a clash of cultural perceptions and values: surfing embodied values and morals that were antithetical to those of 19th century European-Americans who were instilled with a Calvinist work ethic, a puritan modesty, and a Christian industry. According to Polynesian historian Ben Finney, in 1778 Captain Cook was the first European to record an encounter with Hawaiian surfers. Finney noted that mid-19th century European-American observers noticed that surfing was privileged over the more mundane aspects of Hawaiian life. So great was the native’s love of surfing that when the surf was up “the thatch houses of a whole village stood empty,” and “daily tasks as farming, fishing and tapa-making were left undone while the entire community–men, women and children–enjoyed themselves in the rising surf and rushing white water.”
From the point of European contact, Hawaiian culture suffered a rapid decline. The people of Hawaii, long isolated in the islands, had virtually no immunity to the diseases carried by Euro peans. This period of population decline was also accompanied by social, economic, and political upheaval in the islands. Outside traders seeking sandalwood, whalers seeking supplies and women, and European plantation owners seeking financial gain came to dominate commerce in the islands and disrupted ancient Hawaiian land ownership patterns.
The arrival of Christian missionaries in 1820 marked the initiation of a “cultural revolution” in which surfing was denounced as an idle, carefree activity that stood at odds with Cal Calvinist notions of piety, industry, and modesty. The missionaries encouraged the native Hawaiians to give up surfing and other recreations. Because of the social upheaval wrought by traders and missionaries, the efforts to destroy surfing were successful. In 1826, for example, a missionary influenced the chiefs of Oahu to send an edict through the streets of Honolulu exhorting the people to give up their games and turn to Christian teaching.
Other, non-missionary Europeans were critical of these coercive measures to strip the na tive’s of their culture. In 1838 one non-missionary visitor commented upon the disappearance of surfing among the native pharma mix 3 people. A “variety of athletic exercises such as swimming, with or without a surfboard. . .being in opposition to the strict tenets of Calvinism, have been suppressed. . . .” However, the charges of cultural suppression were sharply rebuffed in defence of the missionary’s “successful” work. Hiram Bingham replied:
“The decline and discontinuance of the use of the surfboard, as civilization advances, maybe accounted for by the increase in modesty, industry and religion, without supposing, as some have affected to believe, that missionaries caused oppressive enactments against it.”
This “advance” of civilization meant the decline of the spiritual dimensions of the sport of surfing, as well as the almost complete disappearance of the material culture and generational passing down of surfboard making techniques. In Kauai, surfboards were turned into desks and chairs for new Christian schools. By 1892 Nathaniel Emerson, an expert on Hawaiian lore, reported that it was difficult to find a surfboard outside of museums and private collections. What the missionaries considered the “advance” of civilization was the almost complete destruction of the indigenous Ha Hawaiian culture. Between Cook’s visit in 1778, and 1900 the native population dropped from an estimated 300,000 to less than 40,000. Surf culture retrogressed and the few practitioners who remained engaged in the sport for quiet recreation.
United States annexation of Hawaii by 1898 brought a new type of “haole,” or white person to the islands. These new visitors were tourists and part of an emerging cultural ethos that celebrated nature, health, physical activity, and outdoor adventure. According to John Higham, the new American spirit of masculine, rugged adventure was an antidote to the perceived effeteness of late nineteenth-century culture. Two prominent American writers of this period, Mark Twain and Jack London visited Waikiki beach and were captivated by the sport of surfing which embodied the new masculine exuberance and fascination with nature. London, who published an article in an American magazine about surfing titled “A Royal Sport” is credited with leading a movement to revive the sport of surfing in the islands. In what Higham describes as the masculine oriented, increasingly secularized cultural context of the 1890s, surfing undoubtedly possessed all the ingredients to remedy the stiff, claustrophobic boredom of bourgeois society.
Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian born in 1890, was a teenager during this early revival of the sport of surfing. Duke and a group of friends who gathered to discuss technique, board designs, and wave dynamics profited from haole interest in surfing. Known as the “beach boys,” Duke and his gang found a new source of income by teaching mainland tourists and members of the Outrigger Canoe Club how to surf. With Jack London’s help, haole enthusiasts founded the Outrigger Canoe Club in 1908. Its express purpose was “preserving surfing on boards and outrigger canoes.”
The California Context
It was an Irish-Hawaiian named George Freeth who brought surfing to the Southern California coast in 1907. Freeth was hired by Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railroad to promote the opening of the Redondo-Los Angeles line by performing surfing exhibitions as a promotional stunt to encourage Angelenos to ride the new line and visit the coast. While George Freeth was introducing surfing on the West Coast, Duke Kahanamoku was carrying on a similar enterprise on the Atlantic seaboard. Kahanamoku, who had won a gold medal in swimming and set a world record in the 1912 Olympic Games, was known as the “father of modern surfing.” Surfing gradually continued to develop in its popularity.
By the late twenties, there were approximately thirty surfers who travelled between Hermosa Beach and Manhattan beach on a regular basis. During the 1930s, a surfer and innovator named Tom Blake developed the hollow paddleboard which weighed in at a light sixty pounds. Blake’s new design was patented in 1932 as the “Hawaiian Hollow Surfboard” and became standard rescue equipment in California’s early lifeguard corp. By 1934, the number of regular surfers along the California coast increased to approximately 80. Because the number of surfers was still relatively small in the 1930s and early 1940s, the arrival of each new participant was duly noted–it was a period in which surfers would stop to greet each other when passing on the road.
In 1968, the year of his death, Kahanomoku published Duke Kahanamoku’s World of Surfing, a book that helps capture the spirit of these early years of surfing in California. Over the years, he himself came to represent the link between Hawaiian surfing traditions and the more modern surf culture that existed in the pre-war period–his status as a folk hero among surfers embodied a nostalgia for this earlier, less complicated era of surfing. The massive explosion of surfing activity that was to arrive in the 1950s was still waiting in the wings for the development of new materials and better designs.
Surf Culture: Revolutionary Material
During the 1950s American culture was characterized by the culmination of the forces generated by war-related industrialism, technology, and the fear of nuclear annihilation. In the economic boom of post-World War II society, California’s gains were especially significant. Between 1940 and 1944 more than $800,000,000 was invested in new industrial plants. The sledgehammer effect on the economy led to new levels of domestic consumption and expectation. The development of suburbia, the building of freeways, and the purchase of new cars, appliances, and large houses all led to an ethos of consumption. The television set transmitted a steady stream of images designed to immobilize the viewer in a domestic space of consumer contentment. The universe of the G.E. Gold Medallion Home was emerging.
The massive expansion of the military-industrial complex during the Cold War era also encompassed American universities. In California particularly, institutions such as the University of California and the California Institute of Technology trained engineers, physicists, chemists and nuclear scientists to insure America’s technological supremacy. California universities, in part responsible for creating the H-bomb, were deeply involved in the Cold War. As institutions, they tacitly promoted the interests and ideals of the established powers in society.
The rapid rise of surf culture in post-World War II California was brought about by the introduction of materials developed during the war. Although wartime conscription actually delayed the growth of surfing, due to the fact that military service requirements drastically thinned the male surfing population, and reduced the availability of some of the materials used to make surfboards, surf culture permeated American society through music and film.
In the post-World War II period, Styrofoam, resin, and fibreglass, produced during the war were utilized to make lighter, cheaper, and faster surfboards. The man responsible for experimenting with these new materials was Bob Simmons, an aerospace engineer who worked intermittently for Douglass Aircraft, a man who, in some ways, embodied the tensions between the Cold War world of technocrats, experts and scientists and the world of the “laid-back” surfer who rejected the white-collar world.
Simmons was ineligible for military service because of a motorcycle accident in 1935 that nearly severed his right arm. A fellow hospital patient recommended that he take up surfing as a rehabilitation exercise. Because his withered arm made it difficult for him to carry the heavy redwood boards, then in use, he was particularly interested in developing a lighter design. (In fact, the old redwood boards were so heavy that surfers generally did not bother to carry them home; it was common practice to leave the 150-pound boards on the beach!) Simmons was one of the few active surfers during the war, and he applied his engineering and physics training to build a better, lighter surfboard. In 1949 Simmons became the first person to make a light surfboard using fibre glass and a Styrofoam core.
Utilizing Navy technology, Simmons applied the principles of hydrofoil physics to develop better riding surfboards. Simmons understood that a surfboard would function more efficiently if it were designed to travel on the surface of the water. He also used an electric stress gauge recently developed to test bridges and earthquake-proof structures to test the structural integrity of his surfboards.
Simmons was considered one of the most influential surfboard makers during the early 1950s, and with the help of war-related materials did much to advance the technological innovations in surfboard design. A recent interview with Simmons’ friend and fellow surfer, Peter Cole, reveals how instrumental Simmons was in developing significant material improvements in the craft of surfboard construction. Regarding the impact of Simmons’ new board designs, Cole states that they “revolutionized surfing.” “Simmons was way ahead of his time on thinking about things like dropping rails, elliptical rails, putting the widest part of the board up to the nose, scooping the board, kicking the nose and using concave bottoms.” Simmons’ new, light innovative surfboards were in high demand.
At first, he made a few boards in his garage for friends. When the requests overwhelmed him he got help from friends and opened a shop in Santa Monica. Nevertheless, as Peter Cole remembered, “when the surf was up all work would stop.” “[A]fter you ordered the board you had to go over there and pester him every week or nothing got done on it. Sometimes it took a year to get aboard.”
Simmons was an anomaly in a society generally characterized by “organization men” who were motivated by the promises of affluence and professional advancement. Simmon’s love for surfing always made him an unreliable participant in the cold war’s notion of responsibility to professionalism and domestic security. Simmons would quit work when the surf came up and live in his car, travelling to various breaks between Malibu and Baja California. Bob Simmons’ passion can be seen as an avenue of escape from the stifling “conformity” of the 1950s.
On September 24, 1954, Simmons met his death surfing the waves at La Jolla’s Windansea beach; because of his refusal to live the conventional lifestyle of the 1950s, and because of his love of surfing, Simmon’s own life has become part of the folk history of surfers in Southern California.
The Culture of the 1950s: Affluence, Anxiety, and Conformity.
During the 1950s the economic forces unleashed by post-World War II development produced an affluent, disenchanted youth population that included beatniks, surfers, and rebels without a cause. This matrix of social and economic forces is described in works such as Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound, Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men, Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reac tion to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s.
In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage Todd Gitlin notes that national cultural expressions of the 1950s hinted that discontent bubbled beneath a facade of affluence and contentment. This facade was accompanied by subtle apparitions of paranoia and insecurity: The spectre of communism was everywhere. The red scare of the McCarthy era, and the fact that the bomb had “entered our lives” created an environment of fear and existential confusion. Prescription pills and alcohol were the anaesthetic of choice to numb the mind from this fearsome undercurrent of paranoia and insecurity. The frequent occurrence of air raid drills, the preoccupation with bomb shelters, and proliferation of sales of life insurance premiums were indicators of the angst experienced by the affluent generation of the post-war baby boom.
Historian James Gilbert discusses the motif of the “existential outlaw” that emerged in the 1950s. Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s examines mass-mediated images of outlaws in film and television, in addition to the various ways in which intellectuals, film censors, and sociologists interpreted this ubiquitous social problem. The best example of this new type of American outlaw was James Dean who personified this image in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955). Another film that presented this popular motif, and was nominated for an Academy Award, was “Blackboard Jungle,” (1955).
“Blackboard Jungle” was the first popular film to feature a Rock n’ Roll soundtrack, and presented successfully defiant students who rejected authority and terrorized their high school. “The Wild One” (1953), starring Marlon Brando depicted youthful rebellion in the image of outlaw packs of motorcycle hoods, modelled after the Hell’s Angels. All of these films present evidence of the emerging divisions of American society into conflicting cultures of youth and adulthood. All these films presented ambiguous positions on the pervasive problem of juvenile delinquency in the 1950s.
The emergence of the figure of the “existential outlaw” in Hollywood films takes place against a background of popular writing and argument about the nature and degree of “conformity” within the dominant social structure of that period. Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men describes the American male’s obsession with the problem of “conformity” in the 1950s.
According to Ehrenreich, this “code word” which articulated male discontent, unfortunately, “described ev erything and explained nothing.” Ehrenreich suggests that the critique of conformity in the 1950s quickly became a national concern:
Best selling books such as C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956) and Robert Lindner’s Must You Conform? (1956) were indications that there were some readers who were critically uncomfortable with the grey flannel, middle-class character of the 1950s. Lindner’s Must You Conform? articulated the anxieties about conformity and consensus, while others, like David Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) lamented about the pervasiveness of the “other-directed” character of American society: centralized, bureaucratized, materially abundant, and thoroughly conformist. Reisman hinted that resentment or rebellion could ensue from “inner-directed” types who did not share the conformist values of mainstream society.
“Rebels Without Causes”
1950s Surf Culture
Two of the most best known surfing places in the Cold War era were the beaches of Malibu and San Onofre. Interviews with representative members of these surfing enclaves provide a picture of how Southern California’s surf culture came to be located within the discourse about conformity, work and leisure that was taking place during the 1950s. Tom Wert and Terry Tracey, better known locally by their nomes de surf, “Opai” and “Tubesteak,” describe themselves as a type of outlaw, or “rebels without a cause” who built shacks on the beach, avoided military conscription and spent more time surfing than pursuing career goals. In society’s view, they were “surf bums.”
Open, born in 1924, became a founding member of the San Onofre Surf Club, the oldest existing surfing club in the continental U.S. The experimentation with new materials and technology during World War II yielded an innovative product: the swim fin. With the aid of this new innovation, Opai started body surfing at San Onofre, once a quiet railroad stop on the route from Del Mar to Los Angeles. There he saw “older” guys riding surfboards.
He borrowed aboard and was soon hooked on surfing. Opa’s surfing pursuits were temporarily interrupted when he was called up for military service in World War II. During his service years (between `42 and `45), he recalls that all he could think about was surfing. Upon his return from military service, Opai moved to San Clemente and took advantage of the GI bill by enrolling in Orange Coast College in 1948. Opai chose the profession of a school teacher so that he would be assured enough time to surf. (Today, Opai is an instructor of American Government courses at Orange Coast College.)
Opai recalled that in the 1930s, before the Cold War, surfers were not considered counter-cultural icons. Early surfers were known as “watermen,” or people who had a multi-dimensional relationship with the ocean: swimming, diving, fishing, boating, and beachcombing. “Watermen” lived by the ocean and had an intimate knowledge of tides, currents, and weather patterns because their livelihoods usually depended upon it. Before the era of wetsuits and the surfboard industry, Opai’s generation surfed in cutoff Levi’s and handcrafted their own surfboards.
It was during the post World War II period that surfers came to symbolize a “laid-back” style of life that contrasted with the affluence, anxiety, and consumer contentment of the early Cold War era. Opai states: “Surfers evolved into a countercultural, James Dean sort of thing, a sign that you were different.” According to Opai, this identity lasted till the late 1950s, when, he felt, commercialization started to obscure surfing’s subversive meaning.
For many people, San Onofre is symbolized by the twin domes of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, a product of the “promise” of the nuclear age. Opai remembered his concern about the plans for the nuclear power plant, not for the dangers of radiation, but for what would happen to the San Onofre Surf Club. During 1963 Opai attended Atomic Energy Commission hearings and tried to get other members of the club to participate in political activism in protest of the plant. He said that generally surf club members already felt they were under siege because of their ongoing skirmishes with Camp Pendleton Marines over beach access and were concerned that their limited beach access privileges would be completely revoked if they spoke out against the plant.
In Opai’s words, surf club members felt it was “dumb to try to do anything, you can’t beat those damn politicians anyway.” The plant was built by 1965, and Opai recalled that when the knowledge of the danger of radiation became more widespread, many surfer’s were alarmed that they faced real disaster. Opai recalled that surf club members were horrified that the radiation danger was so close to their “hangout.”
Tubesteak, whose hero and mentor Opai represented the “older” generation of surfers at San Onofre, rode his first waves there in 1950 when he was 15 years old. Tubesteak recalled “see ing these old Sourdoughs out of the army on the beach surfing and playing ukulele.” The ro mance of San Onofre’s scene captured Tubesteak’s imagination. Later, he went to Malibu, along with surfing partners Mickey “Da Cat” Dora, Mickey Munoz, and Kemp Aaberg and attempted to recreate at Malibu the atmosphere they admired on the beach at San Onofre.
Malibu was–and remains–perhaps the most glamorous of California’s surfing enclaves (possibly because of its proximity to Hollywood). In fact, it was the Malibu scene which captured the imagination of screenwriters who were employed to bring surf culture to a national movie au dience. During Malibu’s heyday in the 1950s, Tubesteak and Mickey “Da Cat” Dora were its most famous surfers.
Before Tubesteak became dedicated to a surfing life-style on the beach at Malibu, he at tempted to follow the more conventional path of working as an underwriter for Home Insurance Co. Tubesteak (19 at the time), described how he and Mickey Dora clashed with “all these Spring Street executives, the Wilshire Blvd., Pacific Stock Exchange types.” After a couple of miser able days on the job, both young men were fired from Home Insurance Co. It was after this adven ture in social conformity that Tubesteak became a full time surfer. Broke and unemployed, the night after he was fired from his job, Tubesteak decided to sleep on the beach at Malibu.
The next day he hiked up Malibu creek with his surfboard, collected palm fronds, and floated them down stream using the surfboard as a barge. With help from friends, he built a beach shack, and fash ioned a way of life at Malibu that was radically different from the image of life centered in the Gold Medallion home. Tubesteak, commenting generally about surfers’ attempts at social confor mity, suggests that “surfers tried to do what people wanted them to do, but they didn’t fit in.” “We didn’t care about money; it didn’t cost money to live on beach.” Tubesteak and others spent sum mers living on the beach, but during the winter months when the weather was too cold, they got jobs like the “jerks with expensive suits.”
Tubesteak recalled that during the 1940s and 1950s, surfers did everything possible to stay out of the draft. However, their resistance was not for ideological reasons, “they just wanted to go surfing.” In the summer of 1956, Tubesteak recalled “the Feds were after me,” so he had to fly to Arizona for a military physical exam. Because of the calcium deposits which formed on his feet and kneecaps from prolonged kneeling on a surfboard, Tubesteak was unable to wear shoes. He was declared ineligible for the draft, and went back to the beach in Malibu. Tubesteak’s story sparked Opai’s recollection that “a lot of surfers actively cultivated surf bumps” and many success fully evaded the draft “with all kinds of subterfuges.” However, Opai remembers there was no political coherence to their resistance to the draft, the surfers just wanted to stay on the beach.
During the summer of 1956, Tubesteak met a young girl on the beach named Kathy Kohner, who said she wanted to learn how to surf. Tubesteak traded a ride on his surfboard for the sack lunch Kathy was carrying with her. He and his friends chided the small teenager, and called her a “gidget,” a hybrid word that combined “girl” and “midget.” The nickname stuck. The surf ers were impressed with Gidget’s tenacity in learning how to surf, and they incorporated her into their social clique at Malibu beach. Gidget relayed her surfing adventures to her father, who wrote a book titled “Gidget” which became an instant best seller. Frederick Kohner sold the film rights to Columbia Pictures for $50,000.
The movie “Gidget” dramatically changed surfing’s image, as screenwriters fashioned a highly romanticized beach atmosphere replete with tribal overtones: bonfires, ukulele sounds, flames from tiki lamps danced on the beach, all backed by the rolling beat of bongo drums. These representations all helped to create sensual images of the surfing life-style that stood at odds with the prevailing Cold War culture of sexual “containment” and social conformity. Kahuna, the “surf bum” character who lived in a beach shack in the movie “Gidget” was a composite character based on the real Tubesteak. During the summer of 1958, a casting call from Columbia Studios gave Tubesteak the opportunity to work as a technical consultant and perform stunt work as a surf “dou ble.” He also had a minor role in the film, which was released in 1959.
Shaping Domestic Tranquility in the Cold War Era
Surfing is also located in the cultural matrix of the cold war’s reshaping of domestic tran quility. In the work of historians such as Elaine Tyler May, there is a discussion of the ideological connections between Cold War culture and the American family. May’s book Homeward Bound suggests that the presence of “the bomb” prompted a reconstituting of older notions of family life and domesticity. Her study suggests that during the 1950s “experts” warned that the bomb and its awesome destructive capability could unleash dangerous sexual energy. Cultural images sug gested that women were particularly vulnerable to the socially disruptive forces of the unleashed power of the atom. Yet, at the same time, women’s fashion infused popular culture with “explo sive” images of female sexuality that seemed to undermine the tame, demure, idealization of wom en necessary for domestic “containment.”
The “revealing” two-piece bathing suit–the bikini–named after the location where the hy drogen bomb was tested, in May’s words, “suggests the swim wear’s explosive potential.” The bikini presented women in sexually enticing beach or pool side attire. May emphasizes the ways in which bikinis, “bombshells,” and other provocative images, styles, and characterizations of fe male sexuality had to be tamed, or “harnessed for peace” for the domestic version of the Cold War diplomatic strategy of Soviet “containment.”
The Cold War and the new realities of the atomic era demanded that women fulfill a mod ern version of the early19th century ideal of “Republican Motherhood.” Successful “nuclear” fam ilies were necessary to rear the next generation of cold warriors, who would garner university training and become future scientists, engineers and pundits. May suggests that much popular and social science literature connected with the function of the family suggested that if women fulfilled their domestic roles they would raise children who would avoid juvenile delinquency, truancy, and other rebellious behavior. Curiously enough, the movie “Gidget” presents its female protagonist in the role of a “domesticator” who tames the restless energies of the great Kahuna and steers Moondoggie back on the path of conformity.
May’s study is relevant to a discussion of surf culture in California. By suggesting links between dangerous feminine sexuality and new, revealing swim wear fashions, May presumes that the threatening female sexuality, symbolized by the emergence of the bikini, was expressed in pub lic social spaces: domestic containment was the antidote to such licentious, suggestive, public be havior. In California, “the beach” represents the public space in which the bikini is appropriate attire. For these reasons, the symbolic associations May draws between women’s domestic role, the dangers of unleashed sexuality, “explosive” swim wear fashions, and women’s responsibility for stemming the rise of juvenile delinquency suggest implications for the ways in which “the beach” became a site of contested cultural terrain in the Cold War period.
Celluloid Beaches: “Gidget” (1959)
When Hollywood began scouring Southern California’s subcultural enclaves for new mov ie ideas, the world that surfers inhabited was attractive to movie producers for several reasons. Many film makers who were reeling from the shock of HUAC investigations, were looking for a safe topic. “Beach party” movies were considered a “safe” topic, with no possibility of a politically subversive interpretation. The “beach party” films attempt to present surfers as juvenile delin quents making the transition to the world of adult responsibility and conformity.
In Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film Michael Ryan and Douglass Kellner argue that film is an important arena of cultural representation for car rying out political struggles. The control over the production of cultural representations is crucial to maintaining power. Not only can films give shape to psychological dispositions, but they also play an important role in determining the way in which social reality is constructed. For example, they can “determine wether capitalism will be conceived (felt, experienced, lived) as a predatory jungle or as a utopia of freedom.” With respect to surf culture, Hollywood films such as “Gidget” served to suggest that the surfer’s renunciation of middle class conformity was just a youthful sum mer excursion.
In “Gidget” a film the New York Times called “a surf portrait of adolescent America,” Kahuna, the self proclaimed surf bum lives a life of irresponsible hedonistic indulgence. Admired by all the college men who are on the beach for summer vacation, Kahuna proclaims that surfing is his passion, “not a summer romance.” When Gidget realizes Kahuna does not have a goal in life, she confronts him with the question: “doesn’t everyone need a goal?” Kahuna answers Gidget’s question with a question: . . . who said . . . ?” Nevertheless, Kahuna appears disturbed by Gidget’s question. He retreats to his shack and starts drinking.
The other major surf character in the film, Moondoggie, has a “bombshell” girlfriend, Joanne who embodies the type of feminine ideal described by Elaine Tyler May. When Moon doggie introduces Joanne to Gidget, he remarks to Joanne that Gidget is “the girl who surfs.” Joanne (defensive because she herself does not surf) retorts: “That’s great if you’re into that sort of thing. Moondoggie can tell you I’m not the outdoor type.” Gidget’s initial strategy of making herself more attractive to Moondoggie by learning to surf has failed–Moondoggie is clearly not interested in tomboyish surfer girls. In the next scene Gidget is shown doing breast enhancement exercises.
Within the loving confines of her nuclear home, Gidget is handed a bit of advice from her mother. Mrs. Lawrence points to a tapestry crafted by Gidget’s grandmother, which says: “To be a real woman is to bring out the best in a man.” Upon discovering that the Kahuna has taken a job and that Moondoggie wants to go steady, Gidget subtly acknowledges her grandmothers ad vice, triumphant that she was the silent force behind encouraging the men to make the “right” choices. Kahuna renounces his life as a surf bum and gets a job utilizing his training as an Air Force pilot. In deference to his parents authority, Moondoggie goes back to Law school after giving Gidget his promise pin. Gidget triumphantly wears Moondoggie’s pin while silently acknowledg ing to herself that her grandmother’s motto turned out to be right.
This presentation of surfers as juvenile delinquents who “come around” is problematic; in the “Gidget” version of surf culture, surfers are troubled adolescents who need to grow up and come to their senses, i.e. they need to grow up and accept adult responsibility. In “Gidget” ques tions about sexuality, careers and leisure are raised and answered so as to infuse the symbolic world of surf culture in post-World War II California with an important moral lesson: Surfing may be good clean fun, but the life of a “surf bum” is shallow and empty; that is to say, an adult must have goals and responsibilities that point to a career. Ironically, the attempt to transform surfing into a profession would result in the first signs of dissent within the surf community itself.
The Backlash against Professionalism
“Professionalism will be completely destructive of any control an individual has over the sport at present. These few Wall Street flesh merchants desire to unify surfing only to extract the wealth. Under this `professional’ regime, the wave rider will be forced into being totally subservient to the few in control in order to survive. The organizers will call the shots, collect the profits while the wave rider does all the labor and receives little. . . .A surfer should think carefully before selling his being to these “people” since he’s signing his own death warrant as a personal entity.
After “Gidget” in 1959, hordes of new enthusiasts were attracted to surfing and the “beach scene” that surrounded it. In addition to the popularization of surf culture through Hollywood films and musical recordings, surfing competitions began to evolve into commercial opportunities. In 1966 CBS sponsored the “Duke Kahanamoku Surf Classic” by providing a $1,000 cash prize for the winner. CBS broadcast this contest as a “CBS Sports Spectacular,” a television event that was viewed by 40 to 50 million people. The success of this event generated interest from other networks and businesses who sought to act as corporate sponsors for surfing contests.
These devel opments offered new opportunities for surfers to earn money and win valuable prizes. With the advent of corporate sponsorship and a television audience, surf “heroes” were created, and surfing was transformed into something that could be marketed and consumed. Market driven forces were attempting to relocate the meaning of surfing within the notion of careers and professions.
The commercialization of surfing, and the implications of the market potential of this sub culture generated much discussion and debate within the surfing community. Was surfing suitable for the world of competition? Were “outsiders” financially exploiting the soul of surfing? Should surfers seize the opportunity to cash in on these new opportunities or reject the crass commodifi cation of their sport? While many surfers were taking advantage of the opportunity for financial gain, there was a significant backlash within the surfing community during this time.
Many top surfers dropped out of the professional ranks in favor of what became known as “soul-surfing,” or surfing that celebrated the pure, non-competitive, aspect of the sport: the simple joy of riding ocean waves.
Another concern of “soul” surfer faction was the fact that media spectacles surrounding surf contests generated mediocre performances. In an article titled “Bad Karma at Huntington Beach” Drew Kampion reported that the United States Surfing Championships indicated that the commercialization of surfing was making it impossible for the surfer’s to perform to the best of their ability:
“As the finalists waited for the waves, a T.V. helicopter swooped low, flattening the water around Corky Carroll and David Nuuhiwa. . . . The helicopter swooped low for the best angle: a prime shot for prime time. Corky was blown off the wave, protesting silently beneath the chopper’s swarming droning blades.”
“ABC had to hire a herd of bikini beach beauties at a dollar a head so the nationwide TV audience could revel in its plastic ideal of what surfing was.”
Many soul surfer’s believed that the system of judging encouraged conformity and restrict ed a surfer’s creativity on the wave. Indeed, an article in Surfing by Duke Boyd posed questions intended to address these problems: “Why should surfing share its mood with whistles, rules and umpires?”
The Endless Summer (1964)
“The Endless Summer,” which appeared in 1964 was the first film to elevate surfing into the search for “the perfect wave.” In this film, which purports to be a documentary, surfing takes on transcendental meanings that work against the notion of surfing as a professional career or a summer lark. As the title implies, surfing is more than summer fun for misguided adolescents– it is a spiritual pilgrimage to find the ultimate “experience.”
“The Endless Summer” was also the first film produced by a surfer to reach a national audience. It chronicles the 35,000 mile around the-world travels of two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August. These surfers, on a quest for the perfect wave become the first modern day people to surf such locations as Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa. Mike Hynson and Robert August become international surfing apostles moving from country to country, beach to beach, using surfing as a language to teach a new awareness of how the ocean connects people throughout the world to a common experience.
Operating on a shoestring budget, Brown who was 28 years old at the time, spent more on producing “The Endless Summer” than all of his first five films together had grossed. In the sum mer of 1964 the film debuted at the 2,000 seat Santa Monica Civic and the film sold out 7 nights in a row. By 1966, Brown sought to distribute the film in regular movie theaters across the county; however, according to Brown, the film distributors he contacted replied, “Look, there’s no Frankie, no bikinis, no bongos on the beach. Let’s face it, it’s a documentary.” After this rejection Brown got a friend to take “The Endless Summer” to Wichita Kansas because, according to Brown, “it was as far inland as you could get.” The film showed for two weeks and broke the theater’s at tendance record, making more money than the two other premiere films, “The Great Race” and “My Fair Lady.”
Brown, working independently, spent all the money he had made so far blowing up the film to 35 mm and renting Kip’s Bay Theater in Manhattan. “The Endless Summer” ran at Kips for a year and generated significant attention from movie critics who published favorable reviews. These reviews indicate the ways in which non-surfing audiences perceived surfing, and also show how “The Endless Summer” served to help redefine surfing outside the cultural constraints of Hol lywood. Vincent Canby wrote: “`surfing’ is a sport which in California has become a way of life, if not actually a religion.” In addition Time pointed out “Brown . . . demonstrates quite spiritedly that some of the brave souls mistaken for Beachniks are, in fact converts to a difficult, dangerous and dazzling sport.” “The Endless Summer” was the surfing community’s first filmic attempt to represent itself during negotiations over the cultural meaning of surfing. The film also proved to be a big financial success.
Mickey “Da Cat” Dora
During the course of the 1960s, Mickey Dora emerged as one of the most stylish, “hotdog” surfers of the period; he also became the most outspoken critic of organized competition and cor porate sponsorship in surfing. When Surfer Magazine asked Dora to comment on his surfing ca reer, Dora replied: “What Career? My personal involvement died in the late fifties when the introverts were pushed out and the phony organized masses took over. . . . ” Before he initiated a ritual destruction of his collection of surfing trophies, Dora commented on the implications of corporate intervention in a sport that, to him, was a private, personal experience.
“Getting ready to bury this junk with the rest of the trashy rot that keeps bugging me! Scrap metal tokenism as a grubby little payoff to keep me in line and my mouth shut. Such outside pressures will never succeed in making me a lap dog for the entrenched controlling interests who have turned our once great individualistic sport into a mushy, soggy cartoon.”
Keenly aware of the implications of surfing’s co-optation by mainstream forces, Dora spoke out against what he perceived to be exploitative manipulation of surfing. To Mickey Dora, the rise of professionalism in surfing was equated with selling one’s soul to the corporate Moloch.
In a report on the 1968 Malibu contest in Surfer Dora suggested that surfing is about the search for the perfect wave. The tides, wind direction, and swell conditions, which can change within minutes, must all be just right for an optimum performance. A surfer watches and waits for these conditions to coalesce. The ocean doesn’t honor broadcasting schedules.
For Dora, the problems associated with professional surfing competitions were not limited to the small world that surfer’s inhabited on the beaches of Southern California. Dora linked the issue of the corporate exploitation in surfing to the larger and more radical critiques of American society articulated by the counter-culture during the 1960s. Dora saw the degradation of surfing in terms of apocalyptic calamities that appeared across the entire political/social environment. For Dora, the death of the president and the death of surfing were one and the same thing.
Since November 22, 1963, a curse has fallen upon this country. . . . Since this tragic date, the mainland breaks have gradually worsened, and the ground swell has been relegated to the ranks of the unlikely. Cities burn, schools are sieged and overseas commitments increase. It’s only a mat ter of time before this upheaval shall reach endeavors such as surfing.
. . . I hope you want the same thing I want, freedom to live and ride nature’s waves, without the op pressive hang-up of the mad insane complex that runs the world and this sick, sick war. These are incredible times. Thank God for a few free waves.
When Mickey Dora was interviewed by Surfer in September of 1969, his tone was apoc alyptic and tinged with paranoia, like much of the rhetoric of the 1960s. While Bruce Brown and Mickey Dora had joined the debate over what constituted an “authentic” experience of surfing, surfers near Camp Pendleton were drifting closer and closer to actual armed conflict with the se curity forces of the United States: the battle for “Trestles” was escalating.
The Battle for “Trestles”
“Persons surfing in the “Trestles” area do so in violation of the lawful regulations of the Commanding General, Marine Crops Base, Camp Pendleton. As such, they are guilty of committing an offense under Section 1382 of the United States Code and they may be apprehended by Military Police.”
J. J. Kelly
Colonel, U. S. Marine Corps
Base Provost Marshal
Camp Pendleton, California
November, 1968 ()
The battle for “Trestles” in the 1960s was part of a protracted war between surfers and the military over access to restricted coastal areas. In 1951, when Marine commanders at Camp Pendleton insisted upon erecting a gate to ensure controlled access to the beach, members of the San Onofre Surf Club rebelled. They tore down parking and other regulatory signs and used them for firewood, threw burning wood at commuter trains, and nearly burned down the railroad trestle which gave “Trestles” its name. Barry Berg recalled surfer’s confrontations with Marines in a recent interview: “Its like we lived our life during wartime. It got pretty intense.
Just to surf at Trestles, we had to come down a river on our boards and go through this jungle where the Marines would be hiding in ambush.” In 1969, an article in Surfer magazine by Drew Kampion suggest ed that the battle represented “a hassle that goes deeper than merely the surfer versus the jarhead. . . .” The problem was rooted in profound differences in surfing philosophy and military philos ophy.
The self-proclaimed philosophy of surfing, if there is such a thing, is freedom for all people in an en vironment of peace and brotherhood. The philosophy apparent of the Marine Corps. . . is restriction for all people in an environment of conflict and self-assertion. No matter how adamantly a military force might attempt to shroud its reality, its existence is to a sole end: killing.”
Kampion’s articulation of the philosophical differences between surfers and Marines suggests the ways in which surfing had become enmeshed in a widespread critique of society that took shape during the 1960s. Although Kampion did not clearly endorse an anti-war stance, the ideas of what it meant to be a surfer and the struggle to gain access to the waves at Trestles, clearly pointed surf ers toward an oppositional position in protest of Military activity. Kampion called upon surfers to “get behind this Trestles thing and make [your] voice heard to someone. Someone besides a fellow surfer.”
In 1969, there appeared to be a solution to the ongoing confrontations between surfers and the military at Trestles. Trestles was designated to become a new California state park; however, surfers soon discovered that because Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States, for security reasons, the creation of the park and access to the waves had been delayed indefinitely. The location of the “Western White House” at Cotton’s point was just above the main break at Trestles. The mother of a surfer, Mrs. George Lindsey, wrote a letter to Nixon in January of 1969 and asked the president to open the park. Her plea included an explanation of surfer’s peculiar philosophical dispositions, and the importance of having public access to the beach.
“Let me assure you, my son is a surfer, and I believe I know at least some of their feelings.” “. . . They have a very deep philosophical attitude toward life which comes from experiencing the exhilaration of surfing in powers they cannot control, but they bend and work with those powers to accomplish a feat no one else can do for them.
” . . . You need never be concerned about your safety from these people. Since your daughter gave you a surfboard it would surely be a wonderful thing if you could find the time to try it. It would be an ex perience for you that I am sure you would not forget.”
Lindsey expressed concern that the delay of the Trestles State Park could extend through the dura tion of Nixon’s current term, and another if he were re-elected. She reminded Nixon that surfers were, or would soon be, of voting age, and they might prove to be important allies in the future. Moreover, Lindsey suggested Nixon “get to know the surfing society” and she encouraged the President to have a conference with the Trestles surfers to discuss the park.
Nixon was unmoved. Trestles remained gated and guarded during his tenure in the White House. John Severson, editor of Surfer during this period, lived next door to Nixon at Cotton’s point. According to a recent article, Severson was under constant surveillance by secret service agents when Nixon was in town. His phones were tapped, the house was bugged, and according to Kampion, “the projected vibe level was enough to cause severe interference on the Severson’s television.”
Through the circumstance of historical accident, the “political” values of Richard Nixon, surfers, and the United States Marine Corp, were thrown into symbolic juxtaposition. The conflict was eventually resolved in 1973 by the establishment of the State park which guaranteed access to the general public. In 1972, the question of coastal access would become the dominant issue of concern for both surfers and non-surfers who lived near the ocean.
Surfing and the Environment
The Campaign For Proposition 20.
During the late 1960s, when the attempt was being made to transform surfing into a com petition-driven media spectacle sport, the uncontrolled pace of urban development along the coast was destroying surf breaks as fast as the waves could reach the beach. Upset by the rapid pace of coastal development, surfers began to express an interest in issues such as access to the beach, ocean pollution, and the destruction of popular surf breaks.
Urbanization was controlled more by each coastal area’s real estate market and corporate interests than by state or local governments. Coastal cities and counties, interested in increasing their tax base more than preserving surf breaks, or maintaining public access to the beach, gener ally welcomed land, harbor, and port developments. These developments, in many instances, dis rupted the natural contours of the ocean floor, and destroyed the natural formation of ocean waves. These assaults on the natural shoreline environment fostered the first stirrings of an environmental consciousness among surfers.
In 1970, Steve Pezman wrote a letter to Surfer touching on this fact: surfers were romantic individualists by nature, but the preservation of their sport demanded a more conventional form of political organization.
“Doheney State Park meant many things to many people. The surf fisherman, the camper, the skin diver, and the weekend wanderers all shared this picturesque cove with the surfers. Its gone now. Suddenly and without warning, the bulldozers came and in one short forty-eight hour period stripped the earth of all those lovely trees, carved away the green meadows through which the winding foot paths led to the beach, and rendered this oasis of breeze-rustled trees and natural sound and beautiful little curls. . . sterile! The wondrous wind-carved bluffs that surrounded the park are now terraced and molded to be used. By whom? Is our fate cast? Will everything be taken from us while we sit deaf and mute, unable to organize? By the very character of our sport, we are individuals.”
The war for coastal access on a large political scale eventually revolved around the fight for Prop osition 20. As Steve Pezman points out, surfers were not the only citizens in California concerned with the environmental issues surrounding the beach. By 1972, the alarming rate of urban de velopment combined with a 40 year history of legislative inaction regarding the enactment of a coastal development policy led the citizens of California to take the issue of coastal conservation directly to the people. The successful campaign for Proposition 20 hinged on representation of “the coast” as a sacred region whose “value” could not be assessed by real estate developers. By presenting the campaign in this way, California’s citizens combined inventiveness and effective political strategy to implement one of the most stringent systems of coastal development control and land use regulation in the United States.
Our Coast has been plundered by haphazard development and land speculators [who] bank their profits, post their “no trespassing” signs and leave. . . . The public has been denied access to hundreds of miles of beaches and publicly owned tidelands. . . . Ocean vistas are walled off behind unsightly high-rise apartments and billboards. Increase pub lic access to the coast. . . VOTE YES.
The campaign for Proposition 20 was a grassroots movement that argued its case in terms of a spiritual rhetoric, with those who appreciated the beauty and magnificence of the coast pitted against the powerful elites who had mismanaged the public trust. Indeed, this characterization was not altogether untrue: The “Yes on 20” campaign was made up of more than 700 organizations who represented an uncommon union of diverse interests: “The Coastal Alliance,” as the coalition was called during the campaign, included “lifeguards and airline pilots, sportsmen and auto work ers, surfers and university women, the Associated Students of the University of California and the National Council of Senior Citizens.”
Groups opposed to Proposition 20 included the oil, utility, and land-development compa nies, all of which had important political and business ties with both local and state governments. These companies had profited through the unregulated use of coastal areas. Not surprisingly, these companies also invested heavily in the “No on 20” campaign. The opposition outspent “Yes on 20” by more than 4 to 1 ($1,169,691 to $269,453), and some of the more notable contributors included: Southern California Edison, (who interests include the San Onofre nuclear power sta tion), General Electric Company, Irvine Company, Standard Oil, Bechtel Corporation, Gulf Oil, Southern Pacific Land Company, Mobile Oil, Texaco Inc., Occidental Petroleum Company, La Costa Land Company, and the California Real Estate Association, to name just a few.