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Back to the Beach

History of surfing is on exhibit.


VENTURA — "...He's not afraid of body whompin' 10 feet or more; he never backs away from a swell. Huaraches on his feet, bushy hair on his head, and where he's goin' he'd never tell . . . "

--"Noble Surfer" by the Beach Boys, 1963


It seems the answer to any surf-related question never changes.

It's always something like "Dude, you should've been here yesterday" because the surf, inevitably, was always better before.

At the Ventura County Museum of History and Art is a display called "In the Curl: Evolution of Surfing in Ventura County," a nostalgic look back to when the surf really was better. Surf's up at the museum until Nov. 26.

One reason the surfing scene was better 40 years ago was that there were far fewer fin heads on the scene to fight over the waves. Surfing is an ancient sport invented by the natives of the Sandwich Islands (before they were even called Hawaii) known as "he'e nalu" or wave sliding. The first recorded mention of the sport was by Capt. James Cook in 1778.

This exhibit is a tribute to the golden age of modern surfing, which began in the late '50s up and down the Southern California coast--from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The sport went from being a cool local hobby to a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry.

Faded jeans, Pendleton shirts and huaraches sandals were the beachwear fashion statement in the days when cruising Main Street was still a viable option and skateboards were steel skate wheels nailed to a 2-by-4. Frankie and Annette were making out on screen at the drive-in, and so were the teens in their cars. There was plenty of free parking at local beaches, a place where surfers, gremmies (beach slang for young surfers) and hodads (wannabe surfers) alike could still get stoked by building a bonfire out of driftwood after dark without fear of one of those embarrassing early morning conversations with the cops.

Contemporary role models included Murph the Surf, the Rick Griffin cartoon character that graced the pages of the new Surfer magazine. The Beach Boys were singing a million great songs about girls, surfing, girls, cars, girls, the beach and more girls, convincing everyone from Back There to move Out Here. Instrumental surf bands such as the Chantays ("Pipeline") and the Bel-Airs ("Mr. Moto") were popping up all over the place, and Dick Dale & the Deltones were tearing up the radio airwaves with "Surf Beat" and "Miserlou." And everyone wanted a woody, the coolest beach ride imaginable. Surfers needed the wood-paneled station wagons because boards were much bigger and heavier in those days.

The walls of the museum's Edith Hobson Hoffman Gallery are covered with vintage photographs of good waves at local spots such as Surfers Point in Ventura, long before the Promenade and the Holiday Inn arrived, as well as all those famous spots up north, including Stanley's, Solimar Beach, Rincon Point, Mondo's, Faria Beach and the Overhead, at Emma Wood State Beach just north of the Poinsettia City.


By contemporary standards, vintage boards were like the Titanic--many well over 10 feet long and often redwood. In addition to these giants on exhibit are examples of early boogie boards and a knee board used by Santa Barbara legend George Greenough. There are examples of primitive wetsuits and lots of scary Hawaiian shirts that in less enlightened times would have caused big trouble with the fashion police.

Paintings depicting the perfect wave on a perfect day are also included. Numerous posters advertise surf movies from the early '60s such as "Have Board, Will Travel" and Bruce Brown's "Slippery When Wet," shown at Ventura High for about $1 or so at the time and narrated by the filmmaker himself.

One of the cool old photos shows Sherman Thacher, founder of Thacher School in Ojai, standing alongside surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku in about 1922. Thacher is the overdressed guy, and the Duke looks as if he just came from the beach. A legendary surfer, Kahanamoku helped popularize the sport on the mainland. On display is the board he used to shred at the Overhead in the '20s, astounding the locals to no end.

Look for the nice photo of Bill Flores, considered the first Ventura County surfer, as well as another interesting picture of a group from the Palos Verdes Surf Club, trying to look cool on the beach near the Hueneme Pier in 1937. Also check out shots of such surfing legends as Mickey Dora, Dewey Weber and Mike Doyle, tearing it up on uncrowded local beaches, and lots of shots of the first U.S. Professional Surfing Organization contest, held in Ventura during the '60s near the County Fairgrounds. A short video features old color footage of Ned Bartels surfing in Ventura on a very uncrowded day.

In less than 20 years, the watery world view changed from the Beach Boys touting "Surfin' U.S.A." to the Surf Punks in 1980 singing "My Beach," which began, "My beach, my chicks, my waves--go home!"

But the time-warp tenor of this exhibition is the early, innocent days of the sport--innocent as well as affordable. A vintage pinball machine with a surfing theme sits just outside the exhibit room. It takes quarters, about the same price as a pack of cigarettes or a gallon of gas in 1963.


"In the Curl: Evolution of Surfing in Ventura County," an exhibit at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, 100 E. Main St., Ventura, daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through Nov. 26. COST: $1 to $4. CALL: 653-0323.

Bill Locey can be reached at

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