Once there was a three-piece surfboard that was sold in its own travel bag. A framed Morey-Pope print ad is mounted next to a shelf displaying aerosol cans with jaunty labels. Slipcheck, a wax substitute that didn’t catch on despite claiming you can save “1 1/4 pounds of dead draggy weight,” and the board-in-a-bag both had snazzy art direction. Capitalizing on the threes, ad copy asserts the trisect is fast, strong and reliable, while the layout includes a trio of stills from a 1964 test of the travel board shot in Mexico called Trisect South, which is viewable on YouTube. The surf-guitar soundtrack and the Kodak 16 mm look capture the feel of 1964 to perfection, from Mazatlán airport to San Blas’ waves.
Morey-Pope and the 21 other California surf shops participating in “Temples of Stoke,” Surfing Heritage & Culture Center’s (SHACC) current exhibition, have erected altars made of vast quantities of memorabilia. Photos and surfboards aplenty, the entries are also chock-full of primary documents, including a 1957 U.S. patent and a design book of custom surfboard orders detailing customer names, sketches, dimensions and notes.
A Val Surf Hang Ten team jacket, Jacobs Surfboards price lists, decades-long employee rosters that include names of clerks who went on to win championships, paintings, signage of every material, logo-heavy welcome mats, ukuleles, patches, bumper stickers and more compelled SHACC to double the size of its usual exhibition space. Loose-leaf binders hold plastic sleeves filled with cherished mementos of families, for many of these heritage shops are kept in business by the next generations. There’s a trust bestowed upon visitors that inspires respect in handling irreplaceable artifacts.
On the surface, the exhibit may appear to reek of nostalgia, but the impulse that led me from the appealing Morey-Pope ad to watch the 1964 film on my laptop once I got home feels more as if all the media in play are in sweet balance.
This slipping from historical object to further exploration in the digital realm doesn’t stop. David Scales’ podcast Surf Splendor is devoting an episode each to five of the shops in “Temples of Stoke,” often recording his laidback interviews on-site. So far, Scales has elicited the inside scoop on OC’s own Frog House (founded in 1962); Bing Surfboards (1959) in Hermosa, then Encinitas; Seal Beach’s Harbour Surfboards (1959); and Hansen Surfboards (1961) of Encinitas. Inside stories reveal connections in the lineage of California’s surf shops.
Don Hansen’s son Josh tells the tale of his dad limping down the beach, bleeding after stepping on a stingray, when he meets a kid who offers help. The encounter led Hansen to his longtime business partner Bob Driver, his new friend’s dad. Hansen, a tandem champ who shaped his first board in 1959, apprenticed under Jack O’Neill (whose shop is one of the West Coast’s oldest, opening in 1952), went on to sponsor such surf champs as Rusty Miller and Linda Benson and employ multitudes of local shapers.
The idea for this great amassing sprang from the mind of SHACC board member Don Meek, who helms the center’s content committee. The onetime lifeguard built a career in multimedia platforms, including broadcast television, cable sports, global events (U.S. Open of Surfing), traditional print, international network development and digital media. The exhibit’s title comes from 1977 world champ Shaun Tomson, who, in describing his 50-plus-year personal history with these retail meccas, said, “If surfing is a religion, the surf shops are the temples of stoke.”
To any screenwriters, novelists, surf-punk musicians or historians with an itch for surf culture, this window into that world is beyond fecund. Get down to San Clemente in time to visit more than once before this massive collection of ephemera comes down.
The DIY ethos of the whole exhibit oozes personality: with pushpins, clothes pins, cocoa mats, Mexi blankets, stark-white mannequin men and lifesize cutouts, and floral arrangements mixed with professionally framed archives. Walls separating one installation from the next are composed from a quiver of the shop’s boards, many of which are on loan from SHACC’s own primo collection.
Local OC entries represent well: Laguna Surf & Sport (1982) has the most cohesive look; Hobie (1954) is comprehensive with a lit-up model of its first shop and a sailplane suspended above; Frog House is Frog House, with a shark head mounted like a hunting trophy, its gaping jaw overflowing with smaller versions of itself; and Chuck Dent (1963)/Rockin Fig (1980) has the most psychedelic, eye-popping vibe.
But the most shrine-like is the altar to brothers Bill and Bob Meistrell of Dive N’ Surf (1953) fame. The Body Glove founders gave rise to “three generations of watermen and waterwomen” who idolize the patriarchs by caring for the ocean and exhorting us all to “Live like Bob & Bill.”
SHACC is no slouch when it comes to including women surfers in its spread of surf stoke. Last year’s exhibit and gala honorees of “Women Making Waves” and its publication Trailblazers In Women’s Surfing are proof. But “Temples of Stoke” is pretty much devoid of women’s presence—and thankfully, there’s barely a bikini girl posing near a board she’s never ridden in sight.
While it wasn’t a curatorial requirement to participate, most of the shops emerged from the shaping and glassing of surfboards. How many women were making boards in the middle of the 20th century? I’ve found none. As I learned from Surf Splendor’s Hansen Surfboards episode, the manufacturing of boards isn’t lucrative enough to make a living, but you stock your shop with the boards bearing your label because it imbues the “street cred” needed for brick-and-mortars to keep the doors open in the 21st century.
This exhibit is one vast compilation of Southern California surf cred. Don’t miss it.
“Temples of Stoke” at Surfing Heritage and Culture Center, 110 Calle Iglesia, San Clemente, (949) 388-0313; shacc.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Oct. 29. Donations suggested.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.