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Surf Vets Plan for Sport's Past

A wealthy group envisions an O.C. museum. Existing facilities are troubled.

September 08, 2003|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The hang-loose, live-for-today world of surfing has never spent much time looking back. But a group of surfers, many well into their golden years, have decided to become curators for their sport, collecting the memories, the hardware and the images of an obsession that shaped Southern California culture.

Instead of gathering in a drafty warehouse, the moneyed and well-connected movers behind the newly formed Surfing Heritage Foundation held their coming-out party at a Laguna Beach gallery, where they unveiled plans for a museum, which has caused concern among the operators of California's three existing surfing museums.

Already, the new foundation boasts a $1-million endowment, the donation of a world-class surfboard collection and a board of directors that can attract many more gifts.

The list of those behind the foundation reads like the Who's Who of surfdom, including Steve Pezman longtime editor of Surfer magazine who now publishes the Surfer's Journal; surfboard collector Spencer Croul; Bill Blackburn, the former investment broker who owned Hobie sunglasses; and surfing legend Hobie Alter's former business partner, Dick Metz.

Some fear that this powerhouse lineup could hurt the fund-raising efforts of the other museums -- at Santa Cruz, Oceanside and Huntington Beach -- which survive on shoestring budgets and compete for the same contributions from the same pool of contributors.

Tom Glenn, interim director of the California Surf Museum in Oceanside, called the new group "elitists" because some of the supporters became wealthy riding surfing's wave of popularity with clothing and retail businesses but "rarely do anything for the small museums like us."

"If they want to come down and share their stuff with our museum, we'd be happy to do that," Glenn said. "But so far the phone hasn't rung yet."

Natalie Kotsch, who co-founded the Huntington Beach International Surf Museum, expressed surprise when told of the new group's plan for a museum, which may be constructed in Irvine in the Great Park on the former El Toro Marine base.

"They're a fabulous group," Kotsch said, adding there's "no way our local museum can celebrate surfers up and down the coast. In fact, their museum would enhance ours."

But Kotsch, whose museum now leases a small building from the city of Huntington Beach, conceded some concern when discussing the museum's $5-million fund-raising push to move the collection into Pacific City -- a proposed 31-acre development that will include condominiums, a hotel and a shopping mall.

"One of my heartaches," Kotsch said, "is we were supposed to have moved next to the pier with a new facility by 1985. It seems we never can raise enough money, so in a sense we all are after the same [charitable] pockets here."

Bill Blackburn, 61, the new foundation's president, insisted they will not compete with existing museums.

He said the foundation is interested in having a collection that shows the evolution of the surfboard from the early 1900s and also maintain a registry for historic surfboards and authenticate and certify early surfboards up to the mid-1960s.

"We want people to support their local museums," Blackburn said. "Our goal is to have these surfboards available to the public, perhaps at a temporary place at first, then at a museum. As far as competing with other surf museums, we hope they do well."

The idea for the Heritage Foundation started with Metz, the business partner of Hobie Alter, a surfing legend who crafted surfboards out of a garage and opened the first surf shop in Orange County in Dana Point. Alter went on to revolutionize surfing in 1958 when he began mass-producing surfboards out of synthetic materials.

"Hobie was the creator, and I owned and operated about 20 surf shops around the country, including 10 in Hawaii," Metz said.

Alter's other invention, a catamaran sailboat called the Hobie Cat, propelled him into business stardom. Over the years, Metz accumulated what some regard as one of the world's premier surfboard and surfing memorabilia collections. It includes more than 100 pre-1960s boards -- one of the largest wooden surfboard collections in the world. Three of the boards in Metz's collection were owned by Hawaiian legend Duke Kahanamoku, who died in 1968 at age 77.

Metz never married and has no children to inherit the collection.

"I had a dilemma," he said. "I had all these surfboards, and my choice was to what? Sell them off one by one? You can't sell off those kinds of boards. They're history.

"I went to all three surf museums in California, but all had no funding," he said. "So I went to Pezman, and he gave it some thought, and we came up with this idea for a foundation [to which] I intend to donate my collection. I also helped set it up with an endowment. The job for us all is to build on that gift."

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