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Before the U.S. Open was the U.S. Open

An interview with Matt Warshaw about the history of surf contests at Huntington Beach

Observing the crowd at this week’s Vans U.S. Open (whether in person or through the safety of your computer screen), it can be hard to imagine Huntington Pier and the adjacent Main Street being anything other than the surf-obsessed beach town that it is today. But before the 1950s, the scene couldn’t have been more different. According to Matt Warshaw’s most recent History of Surfing post [read here], Huntington Beach was a “grubby oil boomtown” between the two world wars and was very industrial. It wasn’t until the late ’50s that boardmakers and small businesses began to set up shop along Main Street, and then the culture of the place started to change. In 1959, the first West Coast Surfing Championships got underway, which brought hordes of spectators to the area. According to Warshaw:

Things grew from there, and quickly: more surfers, more divisions, more spectators. Pepsi signed on in 1962, becoming the first multinational company to back a surf contest, and the 1964 Championships were broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports. City fathers had a few nervous moments over the years about safety (all contestants had to wear hard-plastic crash helmets) and crime (hooligan fears weren't totally misplaced, as board thieves learned to worked the crowd mercilessly, even stealing from the competitor's area). But for local merchants the event was like Christmas in autumn, and Huntington residents in general seemed to think their town's embrace of surfing had worked out for the best. Civic pride was further stoked by Jan and Dean's 1963 chart-topper "Surf City"—their tribute to the wave-dependent good life at Huntington.

As the U.S. Open kicked into high gear this week, we reached out to Warshaw to get a little more insight into the history of contests at Huntington Beach:

How does today’s U.S. Open differ from when that first contest ran in Huntington Beach?
As a big gnarly professional event, the US Open isn’t too different from the original Op Pro in 1982 — just bigger. But going back to the 1959 West Coast Surfing Championships, the first HB contest, that was a small little thing. Not that small in terms of contestants (that first one had something like 75 people), but it was probably six-man heats, each heat was probably 15 minutes. They slammed it out in one or two days. Oh, but Pepsi was a sponsor, and that was big deal in 1959, getting a brand like that to put their name on a surf contest.

For having such average waves year around, why do you think people were so drawn to Huntington back then–and now for that matter? Why didn’t surfers claim Oceanside or Malibu as “Surf City”?
Easiest freeway access for the most people, tons of parking, huge pier for spectators, and the surf almost never goes completely flat. If you're putting on a "surf festival," that's four aces, right there.

A guy named Vince Moorehouse was the guy who came up with the idea for the West Coast Surfing Championships. Do you know much about this Vince guy? Do you think he had the foresight to imagine what the Huntington Beach contest would eventually turn into?Which event do you think had more of an influence on competitive surfing––when Pepsi backed the contest in ’62 or when ABC broadcasted it in ’64?
Network TV was a huge deal back then, and ABC went pretty big on surfing. Although I think they bailed on Huntington a year or two later and started doing the Duke contest instead. HB was a hard sell on TV when the waves were shitty. Although one of the years, 1965 I think, there was a huge south swell, and the camera guys were hanging off the pier in these like shark cage things, and got some incredible shots. Some wipeouts that could have easily gone snuff film.

Do you think the rise these types of surf competitions at the time had an influence on the soon-to-come shortboard revolution that arrived at the end of the decade?
Yes, but just in the sense that contests became the new Great Evil. Surfers wanted to throw out everything and start over, it was an all-or-nothing, burn-it-down period, with a lot of creative things going on, but also a lot of pointless destruction. Competition, and the Huntington contest, in particular, didn't fit in with the new revolutionary dictates. On paper, anyway. Mostly what you got was everybody bitching and complaining about how contests were a "plastic trip" or whatever, then they'd go home, sign the entry form and send in their $7.00 competition fee. In addition to everything else, the shortboard revolution was the most hypocritical age in surf history.

[Mantle image: Ron Stoner]