History Of Surfing: The Sport Of Spoiled Princes

Matt Warshaw on California's emerging rebel culture of the 1950s

“Maybe it was his writer’s instincts, or just plain good luck,” Matt Warshaw writes in his newest History Of Surfing chapter, “but Frederick Kohner’s Gidget dropped into a culture that had to an unprecedented degree become fascinated with its teenagers.” Key generational shifts that influenced ’50s America — transportation, clothing, new music — kneeled to the vision of its youth, which enjoyed a version of California that was itself young and impressionable. The teenage nonconformity that followed at breaks like Windansea wasn’t based in weakness. It was braced by an air of comfort. Warshaw explains:

Still, while surfing bred a certain amount of genuine rebelliousness, mostly it produced a lot of rebel posing. Even with their bleached-blond hair, moldy fur coats, and spray-painted rattletrap cars, America’s teenage surfers as a rule remained contented sons of suburbia. On hot summer days they lobbed water balloons at their girlfriends and had doughnut-eating contests on the beach. They didn’t carry weapons. They didn’t drop out at a rate any higher than that of the high school population at large. They didn’t thrill ride themselves to a gory death on the streets and highways.

The fictitious Gidget learned as much during her first days with the Malibu gang, when she found out “Lord Gallo” was really a Pomona College student named Stan Buckley. As Gallo explained, a bit sheepishly, the rest of the guys, not counting the great Kahoona, were “all sort of seasonal surf bums.” Even Moondoggie, a rich man’s son who secretly drove a Corvette and who in the end courts Gidget by giving her his fraternity pledge pin.

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We reached out to Warshaw and asked him more about SoCal’s teenage rebel culture of the late ’50s.

How impactful to surfing was the American automobile boom of the 1950s? And what about when the national highway system was expanded in 1955?

Cars had a giant impact on surfers, but probably not more so than for teens of every description. Car prices dropped, freeways were built, leisure time was up — everybody, surfers and non-surfers, were driving off somewhere. And again, Los Angeles was way out in front. L.A. murdered its really excellent light rail system, built the biggest, widest, finest freeways, and lots of huge parking lots along the way, and driving 20 or 30 or 50 miles to a party, a game, a beach—something your parents never would have done—was an everyday thing.

Was California’s reputation as a beauty lab the state’s own promotion, or was it largely done by out-of-state media seeing California as nothing but green grass?

Both. The country had been facing West throughout its history, and that didn’t stop once California was settled. Although by the 1950s, if you were from the Midwest or the East, you’d be fascinated by the West for different reasons. L.A. was raw, young, uncultured. A lot of people laughed at L.A. But then a lot of people were jealous, too. After the Rose Parade became a big media deal outside of California, and those poor bastards in Chicago and New York were slipping on icy sidewalks while the Rose Queen waved to her fans on Colorado Boulevard while it’s 72 degrees and sunny—who’s laughing now? California sold the hell out of that, yes. But it was an easy sell.

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Greg Noll about the civility shift at Windansea: “It wasn’t a gradual change. It was like someone threw a switch, and all of a sudden, guys didn’t give a shit about society, or what other people thought about them.” How much can we trust Noll knowing that he was directing “Search For Surf” at the time, and knowing that rebellion made for compelling viewing?

Greg isn’t the most reliable of narrators as a rule, but on this one, I think he’s right. Surfing gets that huge growth spurt in the late ‘50s right when teenagers in general power up. There’s a few years after the war where everybody is catching their breath and settling back in. But then there’s a long period where the economy is throbbing, jobs are everywhere, America’s on top of the world. And if you’re 17 in, say, 1959, that atmosphere of confidence puts you a hop, skip and jump away from thinking you’re bulletproof.

What’s this story of Butch Van Artsdalen falling into depression after Jose Angel’s free-diving death in 1976? Did Artsdalen’s spiral typify anything about The Windansea Surfer? Or surfers in general?

Surfers didn’t give a shit, like Greg says, and if you don’t give a shit for enough years, the options get really narrow. Jose actually DID give a shit, he was old school, he had a family, was a great dad, had a career he loved. Jose was never a punk like, say, the Windansea crew. Like Butch, to be more specific. Jose was crazy in his own way, and I think he and Butch connected on that level—doing things nobody else would do, really dangerous stuff in the water. Except Butch did really dangerous stuff on land, too, just with all the fighting. Jose’s death, I’m guessing, was a signal to Butch that he was no longer indestructible.

Did surf clubs like Windansea’s harness the debauchery any? Or did they amplify it?

Windansea tried to have it both ways. The club was super well-organized, and guys at the top would put on suits and ties and visit the mayor, business leaders, newspaper editors, and do a great job at presenting surfing as healthy and wholesome. But at club meetings and events, it was Animal House meets Caligula.

“They weren’t fatalistic, dissatisfied, angry, or even moody. The wave-rider’s rebellious act was rarely anything more than an expression of vulgar contentment. Surfers looked out at the rest of the world not with a feeling of oppression, but of superiority. The sport of kings had produced a generation of self-indulgent young princes.” Was this uniquely American?

Australia, too. The Aussies were congenitally more prone to being outrageous than the Yanks, and as soon they ditched those big hideous toothpick paddleboards and starting surfing for real—and as a nation they got good so fast—they could out-indulge and out-vulgar anybody in the world.

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