JJ Moon was an inside joke that blew up into a national phenomenon. “Moon” was really Ned Eckert, a high school football coach and weekend surfer with a broad “What Me Worry?” face and an amazing Sean Connery-like carpet of hair across his chest and keg-shaped belly. Mickey Dora, Corky Carroll, Joey Cabell, and Mickey Munoz were all on friendly terms with Eckert—he was a sharp, funny, friendly guy—and as a kind of performance art prank it was decided that they would transform him into a surf media personality. This was 1965. The joke got traction. SURFER interviewed Moon, Surfing gave him a regular column, and in the summer of 1966 Life jumped aboard (see below) with a two-page profile titled “Is JJ Moon Really King of the Surf?”
The premise was simple. A chunky guy in nylon competition-striped jams, gap-toothed and slightly cross-eyed, proclaims himself to be the world’s best surfer. Alfred E. Neuman meets Cassius Clay. Amazingly, Eckert and his well-placed surfer friends kept the gag rolling for three years. Then again, it was the 1960s. Media wasn’t the white-hot million-eyed fibre optic monster it is today.
Does the Moon episode, nearly 50 years later, have any juice left? Nah, not much. Not surprising. Comedy, all comedy, goes flat pretty fast. Watch “McHale’s Navy” and see if it still brings the funny. But I totally get why it clicked in 1966. “JJ Moon” is a great name, for starters. And you smiled just by looking at Moon’s cherub-cum-alky face. Hell, it worked because Dora and Severson and Corky said it would work.
The Life Magazine piece is below.
“Is JJ Really King of the Surf?” Life, June 10, 1966
The name is JJ Moon, and it is famous on every beach on the West Coast and in every surfing magazine. He holds more titles than there are championships. Saloons and surfing hangouts are filled to all hours with stories and arguments about his prowess. There are JJ Moon fan clubs and JJ Moon T-shirts and, naturally, JJ Moon surfboards.
JJ Moon himself is not hampered by a desire for obscurity. He is always on the move. He’ll be at Malibu one day, at Makaha the next, then suddenly he will pop up at Newport Beach. He is completely a product of his place and time when surfing, once an exotic sport practiced only by a handful of daredevils in Hawaii, has bcome an obsessive national pastime. In California alone, half a million people have taken it up. And because of the thrill and the risk and the speed, between blazing sun and the mysterious natural force of the waves, all surfers are, in one way or another, romantics. What they lacked until recently was a true folk hero. Then along came JJ Moon. His only drawback: he isn’t that good a surfer.
Some years ago, there was this young man-about-Los-Angeles by the name of Ned Eckert, a cheerful, carefree fellow known to the sporting crowd and to most of the bartenders of Beverly Hills. Eckert had speculated successfully in the stock market, then discovered the race track and quickly acquired a reputation among his friends as a handicapper.
A few years before, as destiny would have it, there had been a local handicapper named JJ Williams who peddled a tout sheet. “So one day,” says Eckert, “we were sitting around this bar, and for the fun of it I thought up a name for myself.” Thus, Ned Eckert became JJ Moon.
Meanwhile, Eckert had also become an avid hobby surfer, competent but hardly outstanding. At the beaches and bars, however, he numbered many top surfers as friends. And here the fun began.
In the winter of 1964 Eckert was planning to spend a vacation in Honolulu, which happened to coincide with the Makaha International Surfing Championships, one of the toughtest competitions of all. Unknown to Eckert, who hadn’t yet left California, a well-known surfer named Rick Steer had entered Moon into the Makaha event. On the entry form, to get him into a preferential heat for titleholders, Steer billed Moon as the Lake Michigan wake-surfing champion. When Eckert arrived in Honolulu, he—or JJ—was already in the papers. “Those waves at Makaha get 20 feet high,” he said to himself. Nevertheless, he told Steer, “It’s beautiful, baby!”—and decided to brazen it out.
It rained for the next five days, and the contest was postponed, waiting for good weather and good surf. During the lull a top competition surfer named Mickey Munoz, an old friend of Eckert’s from Malibu, was being interviewed on the air.
“And tell us, Mickey, who do you think will give you the most trouble in your heat? Who’s the man to beat?” asked the announcer as Moon and the other Californians crowded around the radio in a nearby bar.
“Well, I don’t know, there are a lot of tough guys,” said Mickey. “But the guy I really fear the most is the fabulous JJ Moon.”
“JJ Moon,” said Munoz, with a who-else nonchalance.
Moon and his bar companions erupted in unrestrained hilarity.
The rains passed, the surf came up, and at the appointed hour, before the eyes of thousands, there was JJ Moon, a squat 175 pounds, waddling out on the beach with a contestant’s jersey over his beer paunch and lugging a borrowed surfboard.
“It was insane,” Moon recalled later. “What I did was, I paddled out more than half a mile to where people lost sight of me behind the close-in swells—I wouldn’t go near those 20-footers farther out. Then I turned around and glided to shore on an easy one. Everyone saw me gliding forth with a world of style—but they didn’t see where I had come from.”
Moon didn’t advance, but his new identity was firmly established among his friends. He now was JJ Moon. One friend, Mickey Dora, a legitimate champion, wrote a surfing magazine article in which he rated the world’s best surfers. Dora rated himself unblushingly as Number One. Number Two, he said, had to be be JJ Moon.
By now, what had started as a an improvised underground in-joke had mushroomed into a hoax. The legend grew. Moon’s singular accomplishments were countless:
— JJ Moon was the winner of the Mekong Delta Monsoon Championships, a grueling event held in pouring rain and quagmire.
— JJ Moon holds the world record for noseriding with a time of five minutes on a single wave.
— JJ Moon is the only man in the world to shoot the Malibu Pier.
— JJ Moon was said not only to have shot the tube at the Banzai Pipeline but to have emerged from it completely dry, with his hair neatly combed.
Moon’s peak achivement, however, is probably his feat of hanging eleven. Merely to hang five—that is, to extend five toes over the nose of the board—is a difficult enough maneuver. To hand ten is the ne plus ultra of sophisticated surfing technique. Leave it to JJ Moon to have six toes on his right foot.
“Can you really hang eleven, JJ?” the youngsters would run up and ask JJ Moon.
“Sure, hell yes, I can!” Moon would assure them, scrupulously keeping his sneakers on.
JJ recently has expanded his franchise, assuming the role of a commerce-conscious and power-hungry leader, and talking bullishly of schemes that sound like circus posters. “I am going to organize my own JJ Moon Competition Team, which will feature JJ and other top riders in an unbeatable professional cadre that will monopolize the sport. I am also thinking of founding the JJ Moon Surf Club, which for a membership fee of $2.50 will entitle you to an official JJ Moon T-shirt and free entrance to the many miles of best surfing beaches—which will be bought up by the JJ Moon Corporation.”
As usual, only a small number of people can feel absolutely sure that he isn’t being serious. JJ Moon may be the greatest, as half a million people believe. But nobody has seen him with those tennis shoes off.