How Did a Southern California Confluence Create Lifestyle Sports?
By Paul Holmes
“Well they're out there a-havin' fun in that warm California sun” The Ramones via the Rivieras.
When Dale Velzy first moved to Redondo Beach with his family, he recalled riding his horse from his family’s compound down the beach with his surfboard conveniently strapped below the saddle. Small ranches and farms dotted the coastline, along with the newly erected aerospace factory looming out of the pastoral landscape like a shining steel Stonhenge. The son of a boat builder he became one of California’s most seminal beach culture pioneers, barely aware of several interlinked coincidences enabling him to create a blueprint of global board-sport culture a generation later.
If you took a random survey of people across the world and asked what three things they most associate with California, it’s a pretty safe bet that the youth lifestyle associated with surfing would be at or near the top of the list.
But how, exactly, did that came to be? Surfing, after all, was not invented in California. An exclusively Hawaiian sport and recreation for centuries before the islands were “discovered” by westerners, surfing eventually became Hawaii’s gift to the entire world.
Yet while Hawaii initiated wave-riding as a pastime, it was the West Coast where surfing really came of age. The beach culture that emerged on the Southern California shoreline drove the world’s imagination of a leisure lifestyle. Although fueled by Hawaiian tradition, it was Southern California’s unique conjunction of influences that made it the global hub of a new phenomenon.
In the mid-20th century a handful of characters, with Dale at the forefront, took the laid-back, free-and-easy, surf lifestyle and launched an industry of specialized equipment, clothing, accessories and endemic media (surf movies and magazines) generating billions of dollars in annual sales worldwide. And it was quickly mirrored by a number of spin-offs including skateboarding, snowboarding, sail-boarding, kite-surfing and wakeboarding, all of which have surfing as their original inspiration and California as their crucible. The factors involved and they harnessed them is a little known but fascinating read.
Fortuitous geography and great weather might seem so obvious as to be taken for granted. California—with its celebrated Mediterranean climate – had been on the frontier of “physical culture” and outdoor living since at least the 1920s and ‘30s when “beach clubs” were popular. But unlike the Mediterranean coastline, California’s had an endless variety of surf spots for beginners and experts alike—sandy beachbreaks, cobblestone pointbreaks, rivermouths, rocky reefs—provided an almost miraculous array of destinations for Pacific Ocean swells arriving from the west and north in winter, and in summertime from tropical storms off Mexico in the south and even long-haul trains of waves from roaring 40s off New Zealand, ensuring a year-round season of thrills under mostly warm and sunny skies.
Population and prosperity also played a major role in surfing’s development. Some 1.5 million people came to the region during WWII to work in defense industries. After the war many of them stayed, and the trend continued with about one million people a year coming to the greater Los Angeles area alone. Jobs were plentiful and well-paid—particularly from the construction and aerospace giants. Additionally, a broad range of ethnic groups created a robust economy from a diversity of smaller industries: Japanese Americans built nurseries, East European made films, Italians brought vineyards and Chinese revolutionized the seafood industry. Mexican American farm laborers made the region self-sufficient in food as well as a source of agricultural products to the rest of the world. The Fender Guitar Company was founded in Fullerton and helped spawn the surf music craze as well as the rock music genre in general - a burgeoning youth culture was tuning into amplified electric guitars everywhere. And real estate became the road to riches along with a building industry to follow.
The emergent affluence meant people had money to spend on fun in the sun—a big factor in the lifestyle’s rapid growth during the 1950s and ‘60s. And the number of young potential board sports enthusiasts exploded as the baby boom became teens.
Perhaps most importantly, California’s residents - new and old - had the entrepreneurial spirit. And Dale Velzy, along with Hobie Alter was right in the thick of it. Their independent, risk-taking, fun-loving attitude combined with wartime technological innovations were at the core of surfing’s development – and California’s style. From the aircraft industry came fiberglass that surfboard makers used to waterproof and give strength to lightweight but fragile and porous balsawood boards. By the late 1950s, locally produced polyurethane foam offered an easy-to-shape reliable alternative to balsa, which had a precarious supply from Central America. Neoprene, synthetic rubber developed as a wartime substitute for latex, became available in sheet form and was adapted to make wetsuits—greatly increasing the amount of time surfers could spend in wintertime waves.
The final factor consolidating Southern California’s place as the epicenter of surfing came from Hollywood’s music and movie-making machine. As music turned to the youth market, the Beach Boys made surfing on the radio waves familiar to audiences nation-wide.
The 1959 release of “Gidget” - the Malibu-based story of a teenage girl’s surf-stoked summer. A slew of so-called “beach blanket” imitations followed, along with a pop phenomenon dubbed “surf music.” California kids, by the tens of thousands, responded by taking to the waves, and the SoCal manufacturers, mostly clustered in the South Bay of Los Angeles, were ready with technology and materials to meet the demand.
Could surfing have taken off elsewhere with the same success? Possibly. But, absent any of the convergent elements that existed in Southern California, it likely would have taken years or decades longer. And never without California’s amazing characters.
How much of a world influence did guys like Dale Velzy have? When he passed away in 2005, Velzy’s paddle-out memorial service at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point was conservatively estimated at 500 participants, making it the largest water-born ceremony in the 100 years of modern surf history. Thousands attended the service on land. They came from Malibu and Maui, Rincon and Riverside, Coco Head and Cocoa Beach, from Australia to Zihuatanejo. There were guys he knew in Junior High and guys that are in Junior High now. If you mentioned his name at the gate, the $15 State Park entry fee was waived as an honor to him. That tribute alone speaks for the significance of the man and the culture he and his compatriots spawned. When the whole damn State of California opens its parking lot for you, that’s saying something.