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Metropolis / So SoCal

Pipeline to the Glory Days of Surfing

Keith David Hamm

July 21, 2002

As a kid, James O'Mahoney borrowed paddleboards from Belmont Shores sunbathers and, aided by fellow Long Beach grommets, dragged the 10-foot wooden lunkers overland to surf the 72nd Street beach break. As a teen in the 1960s, O'Mahoney, who's the son of TV Tarzan Jock O'Mahoney and half-brother to 'Gidget' girl Sally Field, slashed it up tough in the Huntington Beach West Coast surf contest, though he wouldn't earn a top trophy until 1993. In 1976, he pocketed $500 a day as a skateboarding Ronald McDonald for a TV commercial filmed at Santa Monica's legendary Bellagio banks, the same slopes where Dogtown's Z-Boys carved history.

Today O'Mahoney, 56, is a professional surfer, skateboarder and photographer, but his memories and much more reside on a narrow side street along downtown Santa Barbara's waterfront. O'Mahoney's Santa Barbara Surfing Museum cradles a diverse collection of surf memorabilia and all things related. For starters, he's arranged flowery aloha shirts near Bing Crosby's ukulele. Grass skirts sway alongside a 1958 Fender Stratocaster played by surf-guitar king Dick Dale. Mellow surf tunes whisper from speakers hidden behind bamboo walls near which are displayed a quiver of surf-era skateboards.

But coolest of all are the surfboards: towering stands and overhead rows of some 50 rare and vintage redwood and balsa boards shaped by masters such as Renny Yater, Greg Noll and Bob Simmons. There's also an aircraft-aluminum replica of the Silver Surfer comic book character's surfboard, which O'Mahoney says 'goes like seven times the speed of light in outer space, but in the ocean, it's really lame.' Another highlight is former Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler's 1940s-era Pacific Systems 10-footer, ridden in the Santa Monica surf by the newspaperman on his first date with his first wife.

O'Mahoney's most famous conversation piece? The 8 1/2-foot imitation Yater belonging to Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall in 1979's 'Apocalypse Now.' 'A few years ago I was offered $25,000 for it,' he says, 'but there's nothing for sale here.' That would include admission: In O'Mahoney's museum, it's always free to ride the waves of nostalgia.

*

SANTA BARBARA SURFING MUSEUM, 16 1/2 HELENA ST.; (805) 962-9048.

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