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Making Waves: 25 Years Later, the Surfer Is Up : Magazine Celebrates Silver Anniversary in Froth of Nostalgia

March 15, 1985|DENNIS McLELLAN | Times Staff Writer

For a magazine whose international reputation rests on its eye-catching graphic design and spectacular color photography, the first issue of pioneer surf film maker John Severson's Surfer magazine published 25 years ago seems nostalgically quaint by today's standards.

After all, The Surfer, as it originally was called, contained only 34 pages and had the look of a high school yearbook. (In fact, it was subtitled, "John Severson's First Annual Surf Photo Book.")

No Color Photos

There were only a dozen advertisers--all surfboard manufacturers. The editorial content was minimal. And the photographs, taken by Severson in Hawaii and California while he was filming his 1960 film, "Surf Fever," were all in black and white.

But for the relatively small, loosely knit fraternity of surfers up and down the Southern California coast in 1960, the debut of Surfer--the first periodical devoted exclusively to surfing--couldn't have made a bigger impact.

They were, in the surfing vernacular of the time, "stoked."

Corky Carroll, who was to become a five-time U.S. surfing champion, was in fifth grade when a friend showed him the first issue of Surfer at school. Carroll was so "totally stoked" that after school he rode his bike eight miles from Surfside to Seal Beach to buy a copy. "At that time," Carroll recalled, "we didn't have any surfing pictures to look at."

Mike Doyle, 1970 champion of both the Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Surfing Classic and the World Contest in Peru, was then a Playa del Rey 18-year-old who surfed regularly at Malibu. Doyle has ample reason to remember the first issue of Surfer: He appeared on three of its pages. "I was excited as hell to be in it," he said. "It was really nice to see the photographs: You could see other surfers and their styles and their poses. The Surfer was like the voice of the people."

Robert August, one of the two surfers featured in the classic 1966 surf film "The Endless Summer," was a 15-year-old Seal Beach surfer when the magazine debuted. "For kids in that stage of surfing," he recalled, "it was a real happening."

Steve Pezman, who started surfing in 1957 at age 16 and took over as publisher of Surfer in 1970 after Severson sold the magazine and moved to Maui, remembers the first issue as being "a major validation and definition of what we were into."

In fact, Pezman recalled, "I remember walking into Ole's Surfboards on Coast Highway in Sunset Beach and seeing a little flyer that said, 'The Surfer is Coming!' and I promptly stole the flyer off the wall of the surf shop, which was how hungry we were for printed validation."

That Surfer would be celebrating its 25th anniversary--the January silver anniversary issue included a reprint of the first edition--may not come as a surprise to those who lined up in front of surf shops to buy a copy of the first Surfer back in 1960.

But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the future of a magazine devoted to what was then considered a small, eccentric pastime; one Los Angeles printer told Severson, "Forget it son, you're making a big mistake."

And while Severson admits that even he didn't predict surfing would become as big a cultural phenomenon as it did, he had no doubt the sport would be around a long time.

"I knew what surfing was," said Severson, who started surfing at Doheny Park and San Onofre as a teen-ager in 1947. "People on the outside really didn't see it. They said it would only last as long as the Hula Hoop."

As for being the first to publish a surfing magazine, Severson--a former high school art teacher who turned his hobby of filming his friends surfing into a career in 1958--maintains, "If I hadn't done it, somebody else would have."

Perfect Timing

His timing couldn't have been better, given the state of surfing in 1960--one year after the movie "Gidget" gave the nation a glimpse of the Southern California surfing life style, and one year before the formation of a musical group of Hawthorne teen-agers called the Beach Boys.

"Surfing was waking up; it was starting to boom then," Severson, now 51, acknowledged in a telephone interview from his beachfront home in Maui. "You could see things change from year to year, and there was really a startling amount of surfers in 1960. Another thing was happening: The interest in surfing started spreading inland. 'Gidget' opened some eyes."

Indeed, in 1960, Severson was not only getting larger audiences for his surf films--more than 2,000 surfers turned up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a showing of "Surf Fever"--but he started receiving calls from high schools miles from the beach asking him to show his surf films during assemblies. And, he recalled, these young audiences of inlanders who had never set foot on a surfboard "went nuts." Even those who didn't surf began imitating the surfer look (the bleached blond hair, the "baggies" (pants), the huaraches (sandals) and the lingo ("surf's up," "hang ten," "wipe out").

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