- Historic Sites
The Beach Boy
How Southern California capitalism and one mysterious loner met, courted, married, and gave birth to our modern surfing culture
July/August 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 4
Perhaps Freeth began to feel the pressure of population. At any rate, by 1917 he had moved on down the coast. In San Diego he continued to teach and to set up lifeguarding teams. Surfing became his secondary occupation; he kept saving lives. In April 1919 he was in Oceanside, some distance from his San Diego base, rescuing a bunch of distressed swimmers. He emerged from the operation thoroughly exhausted and came down with a cold that turned into flu. But this was a special kind of flu, the Spanish influenza pandemic that had been raging since 1918 and which was eventually to kill more people than the Great War had. It claimed Freeth on April 7, 1919. Like one of A. E. Housman’s “smart lads,” he slipped away while still in his glory.
One surfer, returning from World War II, was disgusted to find as many as fifteen guys crowding the waves
Did he leave papers, to be indexed and stored at an institution such as the Huntington Library in which I now sit and write? No such luck. Nor is there a swimsuit or a movie. But near Redondo Pier stands a bust of George.
George Freeth’s real legacy, though, is his vigorous, silent life: the introducing, by glamorous example, of surfing into Southern California, and thence to the world; the saving of sea-threatened lives, which led, without any desk-bound scheming, to the fully equipped lifeguard who still today sits silent, high on a wooden perch, scanning the ocean for trouble.
After Freeth, Southern California beach culture expanded slowly for two decades, even clandestinely in one notable case: The Malibu Ranch, a private and heavily guarded estate, was breached by two adventurous youths who found an Eden of a beach, watered by small, fast, and sexy waves. Word was passed along to a select few. The next year saw the inauguration of the Pacific Coast Surfriding Championship in Orange County, with Duke Kahanamoku himself giving a demonstration of his skills. In the 1930s hermetic knots of surfers were to be found in such spots as San Onofre, where they had a penchant for grass skirts and ukuleles, and Bluff Cove on the Palos Verdes Estates, where the waves could be monsters.
In the tradition of George Freeth, surfers were looked up to as heroes, for they were always rescuing swimmers and boaters. They were also in terrific shape, because of the weight of their boards and their Spartan diets (dictated by the Depression), fighting fit on the eve of being shipped out to World War II. They had picturesque names: Red Dog, Black Bass, Scobblenoogin, and even Nelly Bly. Soon they’d be merely numbers. Some would be statistics. The pristine beaches of Eden waited.
In the early 1940s it was estimated that there were no more than five hundred surfers in the world (which meant California). Nevertheless, when Leroy Grannis, later a legendary surfing photographer, returned from the war and made his way to Malibu, the beach of his dreams, he was disgusted to find as many as fifteen guys crowding the waves. “That’s it! ” he announced. “That’s the end of paradise!”
First came a revolution in boards. Freeth’s musclemaking planks disappeared; instead, thanks to the technological demands of the war, a new breed of manufacturer offered lighter, streamlined products made out of fiberglass and Styrofoam. Perhaps the leading surfboard scientist was Bob Simmons, a Caltech graduate in aero- and hydrodynamics and a bit of an eccentric: He found other people a distraction from his study of the perfect board to suit his withered arm and was known for ordering interlopers away from his Malibu waves with profane fluency. In 1954, at the age of thirty-five, he died in wicked surf near San Diego, not far from where Freeth had rescued his last bathers.
In the 1950s Malibu was the place for what was being called the in-crowd, blond and beautiful and even famous. At the Pit you might find Peter Lawford and his pal Cliff Robertson. Pretty girls in tight sweaters hung out with the boys. One of them, little Kathy Kohner, insinuated herself into the coterie of kookie beach-bum surfers and was eventually accepted as their mascot. She told her father, Frederick, of her adventures in this subculture, and he rattled out a yarn called Gidget that sold a lot of books. Cliff Robertson, a real surfer and Malibu regular, played Kahuna in the hit movie of 1959. He lives in a shack and studies existentialism—a supercool dude.
Now the secret was out, and the outsiders—the gremmies—flocked in. Gidget spawned all the beach movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, both clearly wave-scared. There were Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine and Beach Blanket Bingo . The lone surfer in his simple swimsuit was now jostled by a horde sporting Pendleton shirts, white Levi’s, baggies, and woodies, lured by the siren song of the Beach Boys with their chocolate harmonies.