Wave of the Future

Surfer magazine's sometimes-wild, sometimes-mild 50-year ride

The new blanks cut down weight, production time and cost and made boards more durable and maneuverable. Even the advent of a viable surfboard product, however, could do only so much for a sport with little to no exposure.

Enter Kathy Kohner. Better known as Gidget, the 5-foot-nothing young woman wanted to learn to surf and hung out with a mostly male group of hip Malibu surfers. Her father, Frederick, turned her story into a book, and in 1959, Columbia Pictures released Gidget in movie theaters across the country. It was Hollywood’s first surf movie, and it starred Sandra Dee and James Darren.

After Gidget, surfing went from “somewhat exclusive, full of eclectic adventurers” to a part of the public consciousness and, eventually, into the mainstream, according to Mickey Muñoz, one of the hot surfers from that era.

Severson (left) and a colleague work on an early issue of Surfer
Courtesy of John Severson
Severson (left) and a colleague work on an early issue of Surfer

Born in New York, he grew up in Santa Monica, got into surfing early and arrived in Malibu at the dawn of the first boom. Muñoz appeared in the first issue of The Surfer in a pose Severson calls “the quasimoto”: his back hunched forward, head facing down, left arm extended to the front, right arm to the rear, racing along a small wave at Secos in LA County.

Encouraged by the response to the initial issue, Severson introduced The Surfer Quarterly in the spring of 1961, with a 75-cent cover price.

Surfer magazine, when it came out, filled this gaping, raw need that surfers had to look at themselves, to look at their sport and to have it be sort of validated on paper and have the feeling you get while surfing, there, just sort of humming in your hands, instead of being something you just talk about with your friends,” says Matt Warshaw, a surfing historian and former editor of Surfer.

Herbie Fletcher—now a well-known surfer, filmmaker, photographer and artist—was a teenager in Huntington Beach when the magazine began. “We couldn’t wait for [the newest issue of Surfer] to come out; every kid wanted to see it,” he recalls. “We were all part of surf clubs. We’d hang out together, we went to the beach together, we’d surf. And then we’d stand around the campfire because we had no wet suits and were freezing; we’d be wearing fur coats, and we’d pass around the magazine.”

“[Surfer] started communicating the appeal and charm of surfing,” Muñoz says. “But it was a double-edged sword: good for business, but eventually, it contaminated our spots, as there were more surfers than waves.”

Letters poured in to Severson, raving about the new magazine. “We had guys write in saying, ‘Show my spot!’ We’d show their spot, and then a few months later, they’d write again: ‘Don’t show my spot again!’” Severson says with a laugh.

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As Surfer’s popularity grew, so did its role in the surfing community. “We had a whole lot of people coming into surfing who had no idea how to act as surfers; a hell of a lot of them were just Hells Angels on surfboards,” Severson says. “There were the old-timers. They were the muscle men, and they were the guys who had carried the sport through the ’30s and came back from the war and found the sport changing: balsa-wood boards, kids riding the nose and gremmies—which came from the war, from Gremlins—who mucked up everything. Surfing got itself in a lot of trouble with lots of pranks and rebellious, in-your-face operations and outright destruction, and cities started shutting surfing down. Newport Beach licensed surfboards, and the East Coast was shutting beaches down [to surfing]; we were having a real crisis, and we had no economic base, no political base. The only thing we had was this little magazine through which I could talk to them. And I, by default, became a spokesman for the sport.”

Almost 40 years removed from his time with Surfer, content in his still-busy life, Severson has the time to consider his impact. “I sometimes wonder if I hadn’t [created Surfer], if I hadn’t done anything and just meatballed off and surfed or whatever, what would the landscape of surfing look like today? It might be a day or two behind,” he says with a slight chuckle.

As surfing grew in popularity through the ’60s, an industry slowly sprang up around it. It began with an increase in surfers, and in turn, surfboard builders and shops. Then came the magazines, followed by the surf-style clothing brands: Hang Ten, Janzen, McGregor and Catalina.

The shift was reflected in the advertisements that appeared in the magazines’ early issues: Velzy, Yater, Surfboards Hawaii, Wardy, Ole, Gordie, Hobie—nearly every known shaper of the day, along with the occasional shop. By the third volume, Severson shifted the production schedule to bimonthly.

Just as the clothing mirrored the styles on the beaches, the content of the editorial pages shifted with the changing scene. With each of the first issues, a new surfing frontier was introduced, beginning with California and Hawaii, then South America, Australia and Europe.

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