De-evolution of a Species

Courtesy Newport Harbor Nautical MuseumAt first, they weren't surfers. In the very beginning, in the 1700s, they were probably referred to as something along the line of "Godless heathen savages": the natives Captain James Cook saw surfing during his time in the 'South Pacific, news of whom he carried back to England—the first recording of the curious practice of riding the waves atop hand-carved boards. But in the early days of Orange County surfing, they weren't surfers either—they were watermen.

"We talk of these early guys as watermen, because that's how they thought of themselves. They lived by the sea, they earned their living by the sea, and they spent their free time in the sea too," says Newport Harbor Nautical Museum president Glenn Zagoren. And this, he and curator Felipe Bascope say, is how they want early Orange County surfers to come across in the museum's latest show, "Orange Peel—A Slice of Orange County Surfing History," which opens tomorrow.

With this idea as a template, they've come pretty close to pulling it off—despite the fact that you long ago formed your own notion of what a surfer is. But in this 1,800-square-foot space, beginning with an enlarged photo from the cliffs of wave riders at post-World War II San Onofre and a re-creation of the famous San Onofre beach shack at the entrance, they amply demonstrate how the idea of the surfer has changed, and how they've gone from being loners to celebrities.

"Surfers, like Harley-Davidson [riders], were until recently looked at as the loser bad-boy crowd," Zagoren says. "When people started to understand the mind of the waterman—now we all want to be just like them." Now? Surfing has been attractive at least since the '50s, and its rise in the public eye coincides with a rise in ephemera—and then a decline in the quality of said ephemera.

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"When you surf, you don't need much—all this ephemera," Zagoren says, noting the purity of the early days, which is how the show proceeds: from the ukuleles and Hawaiiana of the 1920s through the hand-carved redwood and balsa boards that were the standards then (and the handmade abalone splitter) to the emergence of foam boards, the significance of shaping—a whole area is devoted to it—and the arrival of surfing magazines, surfing music and surfing toys.

Toys? Try fast-food toys—a plastic Garfield the cat riding a surfboard; assorted California Raisins doing the same. Others, too. Best not to look. Focus on boards once ridden by the likes of surf legends Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake and Mike Parsons. Mike Parsons? Lives in Laguna Beach, was towed in five years ago to a monster 65-footer off the Cortes Banks. The board he rode is here.

So's one of the hats seminal Orange County surfer Lorrin Harrison used to make out of palm fronds for himself and his buddies in the '50s—plus a vintage black-and-white photo of him wearing thathat,riding a wave. There's also a museum-quality print of the famous surfing Harrison family at their "ranch" home taken by Art Brewer in 1976.

Fortunately, there's vastly more artifacts here—things like an original 1958 cartoon surfer-on-a-wave graphic by John Severson, who went on to found Surfermagazine—than there is Garfield-iana.

And next to the plastic humanoid raisins, these vintage shortboards, Hawaiian shirts, redwood longboards and palm-frond hats become even more mythic, more totemic. So there isa deeper significance to Jim Davis' execrable feline. At last.


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