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On a Wave of Nostalgia

Ventura, Birthplace of Boogie Board, Seeks More Visible Site for Surf Museum

September 19, 1996|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Along the northern edge of town, a quarter-mile from the beach, stands a surf shop. Inside, rows of boards glisten in a long rack. There is a rubbery scent of wetsuits that have yet to be worn.

And in back, past all of the merchandise, an unmarked doorway leads to a room equipped with fluorescent lamps and commercial-grade carpeting and little else. Vintage longboards line the walls. A couple of wooden cabinets display a collection of old books.

The C Street Surfing Museum is strictly low-profile.

Perhaps that is fitting. The early surfers of this region, born to a domain of farmers and hot-rodders, tended to keep to themselves. Even today, Ventura remains at the geographical fringes of the scene. It will never be as flashy as Malibu or Huntington Beach.

But the coastline boasts some consummate surf spots. World-class Rincon lies north at the Ventura-Santa Barbara county line, and devotees frequent California Street or roam south in search of empty beach breaks. Ghosts haunt this stretch, the birthplace of the boogie board, the stomping grounds of such 1960s revolutionaries as Tom Morey, Bob McTavish and George Greenough. cq

"Ventura has never been recognized as a prime surf spot," said Jack Cantrell, who has surfed these beaches since 1953. "It deserves more recognition."

So Cantrell and a few other locals have been quietly raising money for a more visible museum location. They are close to their goal and, this Saturday night, they will hold a benefit concert during the two-day 1996 California Beach Party Longboard Championships at Surfers' Point Park.

The championships are an unpretentious affair, limited to 200 amateurs on boards of nine feet or longer, all of them operating within the realm of gradual, flowing maneuvers that are not possible on the shorter boards that dominate the pro circuit. Sunday, there will be an "old log" division for those whose boards date back at least a quarter-century.

"There are some people from outside," contest director Betty Elder said. "But most are local."

As it should be for an event that began 10 years ago as a reunion, a bunch of old-timers who had taken to the waves long before the 1960 film "Gidget" sent hordes of youths flocking seaward.

"They got together, drinking, saying, "Hey, it would be neat to put together a little contest,' " said Stan Fujii, whose Ventura Surf Shop provides a temporary haven for the museum.

Within a few years, the surfers had joined forces with the city's annual California Beach Party. Soon the little contest was taking entries from around Southern California. And it began to make money.

"By then, the group had gotten to be pretty big," Fujii recalled. "They said 'What are we going to do now?' "

Surf museums had already opened in Huntington Beach and Santa Cruz. Venturans took inventory, searching through attics, counting up who had what.

There were photographs from the 1940s, black-and-whites of the pier and the old bath house on Oak Street. Someone had a crude board the city had procured in the 1950s for beach rescues.

Cantrell recalls learning to surf on a similarly monstrous vehicle, 85 pounds of redwood. In those days men braved the chilly seas without wetsuits, and boards stayed on the beach because they were too heavy to carry home.

"I used to go up to Rincon and wait for someone to show up because I didn't want to surf alone," Cantrell said. "I know there weren't even 50 boards in the whole county."

It was a time of innovation. Enterprising young men put postwar technology to odd uses, transforming surfboards from wooden beasts to sleeker, lighter concoctions of foam and fiberglass.

In the early 1960s, a newcomer arrived in Ventura with a lumpy board that would become known to locals as "Mr. Brown." Tom Morey was a hot-shot surfer and the shop he opened in Ventura would issue forth a string of innovations:

* The Trisect, a board that folded into roughly the shape of a suitcase. An abject failure, it was meant to avoid the $100 surfboard fee that airlines charged in the days when a round-trip ticket to Hawaii cost less than $200.

* The Penetrator, a classic of the longboard era.

* The $1,500 Tom Morey Invitational, held in 1966 at Ventura, purported to be the first professional contest.

Regarded as something of a mad scientist, Morey stayed in business only by the graces, and the acumen, of his USC fraternity brother, Karl Pope. But in 1968, he sent a telegram from New York: "Dear Karl, I quit."

There were plenty of surfers and board shapers to fill the void.

There is an artistry to the craft of creating surfboards, which are shaped by hand, carved from foam blanks. Even the smallest variations in outline, rails (the rounded edges) or rocker (the curve from nose to tail) can alter the way a board rides the waves. No two boards are exactly alike.

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