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Cal Porter's Then & Now
BiographyThere are many famous opening lines from great works of literature: “It was a dark and stormy night”, Bulwer-Lytton, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Charles Dickens, “Call me Ishmael”, from Moby Dick, but ever was there a line more to the point than, “I Am Born”, in Chapter 1 of David Copperfield. So that’s where I will start. It happened to me in the year 1924, and by my calculation that makes me 88 this year.
I surfed at an early age. I had older brothers, and we had surfboards of one kind or another before I was five years old. I’ve surfed all my life. I’ve bodysurfed all my life. I dived for lobster and abalone and fish for dinner, and I sold them to restaurants and fish markets. I had a small fishing boat and fished commercially. I taught swimming. And when I was old enough I became a lifeguard so that I could earn a living and still be on the beach and in the water. Lifeguarding put me through college and graduate school. I became a teacher and then a school principal for many years. But I never left the beach. All my spare time and days off were on the beach. It’s a good thing for me that my family shared my love for the ocean. Most of our trips were to the watery places of the world, where the sea was warm, the water was clear, the diving was good, and the waves were beckoning. I lifeguarded for almost 40 years. And now many years into retirement I’m still on the beach. I live on the beach. Through my windows I can see the beach. And when that day comes and it’s time to “shuffle off this mortal coil” (Hamlet), I will return to the sea once more.
AN EARLY RESCUE
It’s called Dockweiler State Beach now, renamed in 1955 for the late, prominent lawyer and civic leader Isadore Dockweiler, whose name was put forth by the then California Governor, Goodwin Knight. Dockweiler had little to do with the beach but he was an important politician in the first half of the 1900’s, and in fact he was known at the time as “The Democratic Party of California”. And he did father thirteen children which is quite an accomplishment in itself. Back when I was a kid growing up on the beach there, some eighty years ago in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it was known as Surfridge Beach since the residential area overlooking the beach where I lived was called Surfridge Estates, which in turn was a part of Playa del Rey. It was also known as Moonstone Beach for the abundance of semi-precious pebbles that could be found there.
The Pacific Electric streetcar brought people from inland to our beach in the 1930’s.
Unlike the wide expanse of sandy beach that is there today, this photo shows the narrow strip that was there back then when the ocean abounded with much greater waves for swimming and surfing than is seen now. The beach at our house was some distance south of this photo and seldom drew even this sparse Sunday crowd; it was usually just my two brothers and I, our friends, and maybe a couple of neighbors. The lifeguard force for the beaches was started in the late 1920’s but the guards were mostly stationed on the crowded stretches of Venice Beach and Ocean Park with only an occasional patrol down our way on the road above the beach; we seldom saw a lifeguard. It would be a great many years later before a tower and summer guard would be on hand. We swam and surfed daily on our beach in the summer months and almost daily in the winter. After a while our non-swimmer mother gradually stopped worrying about us as she watched us from the front window in our home above the beach swimming, paddling, rowing, and disappearing far out to sea on all kinds of boards, boats, and homemade floating contraptions.
Cal, Lee, Dog, Ray
My best school pal, Bob, lived on Caroll Canal in Venice about ten miles north. On school days my dad, on his way to his office in Los Angeles, often dropped me off at Bob’s house. From there we would paddle and pole our way down the canal system on his homemade raft ending up on time right behind our school, Florence Nightingale Elementary; a lot of fun unless the raft tipped and you fell overboard (it happened to me in my school clothes). I was at his house a lot but he was seldom at mine since it was a long bike ride and he didn’t have a father to drive him, and I don’t remember that his mother even owned a car. On this particular Saturday I convinced him to get on that bike and we would have a great time all day on the beach and in the water. I knew nothing about his swimming ability but since he lived just a block from the ocean I assumed he was probably in the water a lot just like we were. I guess Bob and I were about eleven or twelve years old, maybe fifth or sixth graders. Anyway, he made the trip and we first explored the nearby sand dunes for a couple of hours looking for snakes, coyotes and such and then decided it was time to head for the beach for a cool-off swim. There were some fine little waves breaking that day, no double overheads or anything like that, but good enough. We splashed about awhile and then I moved on out a ways and picked up a couple of nice body surfing waves passing by Bob each time where he was still standing in chest deep water. As I headed back out after the second ride I noticed Bob was further out now and in over-the-head water. There was a bit of an off shore flow running, a very minor rip tide, certainly not one of those white water terrors by any means. I thought Bob had moved on out there to position himself for a ride, but far from it, he was floundering and dog paddling straight up and down and looking like, “how did I get way out here?” I swam to him and said, “Hey, are you ok, can you swim in?” He sputtered that he could barely swim at all, which suddenly became obvious to me, and besides he was starting to panic. Now this was no great, heroic rescue, the water was about a foot over his head. I just propelled him by swimming and pushing against him and going down to the ocean floor with my feet to get a push off the bottom to keep his head above water. It took a while but I was able to move him out of the little rip current back into the surf zone where I knew the waves would give us some momentum toward shallow water. When he finally got his feet on the bottom and his head above water he was going to be okay. Once on shore Bob thanked me but I assured him he would have made it on his own. But in truth I felt pretty good about it.
Bob passed away some years back; I think he was about eighty. He lived in Malibu and I would see him from time to time, and occasionally he would bring up the subject of that day so long ago and we would have a good laugh about it. I worked as a beach lifeguard for thirty-seven years, and from time to time I worked the very spot of that little, long ago rescue. It is now Dockweiller State Beach, Lifeguard Towers 49 and 50.
And there’s always a lifeguard on duty.
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 03 , 2013
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFRIDGE ESTATES - THE LOST RESORT
Where stately mansions overlooking the beach and the Pacific Ocean once clung to the sandy hills of Surfridge Estates, today the visitor sees only this surreal, ghost town visage of what once was there. Barricaded by a high, chain link, barbwire fence with posted warnings of arrest if trespass occurs, what could possibly have occurred here, a catastrophic earthquake, an atomic blast? The roads are still there, but cracked and invaded by vegetation, and a few old globeless lampposts jut eerily skyward from the sidewalks. No cars or people have traveled these streets for forty years. Crumbling walls and foundations of the hundreds of former homes are visible, appearing as if in a movie scene of some cataclysmic disaster, with the former residents vanishing without a trace.
This was once Surfridge Estates, the southern section of the beach community of Playa del Rey, with Venice Beach to the north and Manhattan Beach to the south. In the mid 1920’s my father and my grandfather were looking for beach property to build homes for our families and they fell in love with what they saw at Surfridge. Perhaps this real estate ad at the time helped them with their decision: “Playa Del Rey, the King’s Beach, with the finest climate in the world, the grandest resort within reach of Los Angeles, the finest site on the Pacific Coast for high class homes for people of means, destined to become the most popular all year round resort and residence city in the United States”. Sold! An architect was selected and our homes were soon under construction following the strict building code for size and style. Each home had to be of the Mediterranean or Spanish style with white stucco walls and red tile roofs, and with the required square footage. Surfridge soon became home to many Hollywood actors, directors, and writers.
A Surfridge Estates Home
With the sand dunes to roam, the deserted beach below the house stretching for miles in each direction, and with the ocean for fishing and excellent waves for surfing, this was a paradise, especially for my two brothers and me and our friends. Inland to the east a block or two, where the sand dunes ended, lay what we called the valley. The valley was an uninhabited, wild and scrubby expanse full of rabbits, coyotes and crawling things. We shot our bb guns at targets there, built forts for mock battles, using the wild tomatoes that grew there for ammunition, and explored this empty, desolate area that ran all the way inland to what a couple of decades later would develop into the town of Westchester.
Then something exciting happened in our quiet valley. Some acreage was sold and cleared, and a single dirt airstrip was created. There was no hangar or building of any kind but occasionally a 1920’s style biplane or two would land and take off from Mines Field, named for the real estate agent that handled the sale, William W, Mines. Now we had an added attraction since we seldom saw planes in our skies at that time over eighty years ago. This air strip in the valley was some distance south of our homes on the beach so the sound from the engines seldom reached where we lived, and after taking off the planes usually made a turn inland before reaching the ocean.
Early Mines Field
All was quiet for many years at little Mines Field except for the once or twice that air races were held there. Pylons were erected and the planes would race round and round the oval course until the winner crossed the finish line. It was scary but fun to watch, except for the time one of the planes rounded a pylon too low to the ground and crashed, with the result that there was not much left of the plane or pilot when my brothers and I were first to arrive on the scene. By this time the first small hangar had been built. Air travel was starting to become more common, and then in 1937 the City of Los Angeles purchased Mines Field for use as a municipal airport. In a few years the real estate agent’s name was removed and replaced by Los Angeles Airport. The rest is history. Constant expansion of the airport in every direction through the years was necessary to keep up with the growth of air travel, and now LAX is the sixth busiest airport in the world. The homes of Surfridge Estates lay directly under the flight path of the much expanded airport. Eventually it was decided that the people and the houses could be in danger and should all be removed by eminent domain. In a losing battle, a great many residents fought the edict for many years in the 1960’s and early 70’s since almost no one wanted to leave, but since then more than one airliner has crashed into the ocean after passing over Surfridge Estates.
I was long gone, married with a family, and living in Malibu when my boyhood home and that of my grandfather’s and all the others were removed. It was at the time, and remains to this day, a sad sight to behold.
Aerial view of the vacant streets of what was once Surfridge Estates.
To the right, giant LAX sprawls over our “Valley”.
My home overlooking the beach was near the double street seen above.
All plans for a park or golf course have come to naught after forty years.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Feb. 05 , 2013
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE PIER JUMPERS
I never jumped off the Malibu Pier when I was a kid. Oh it was there all right, built back in 1900 by the Rindge family, the owners of all of Malibu at one time. It’s just that it was far away from where I lived on the beach at Playa Del Rey when I was of pier jumping age. In the late 1930’s when I started to frequent Malibu it was not to jump off the pier, it was to surf the fine waves of Malibu Point at what was then called Keller’s Shelter. Of course when I was a very young kid you couldn’t get into Malibu anyway, it was all private and fenced off at what is now Duke’s Restaurant, and guarded by armed horseback riders.
Malibu Pier, 1930’s
1. But going south from Malibu we come to all those piers I did jump off starting with the Santa Monica Pier. I usually wasn’t alone; there was often a buddy or two along who also had this thing about jumping off piers. The Santa Monica Pier had a swimming area established where you were almost encouraged to jump off, unlike today’s mind set of over protection. Where the pier narrows just beyond the present day fun zone where the old La Monica Ballroom once stood, a ladder allowed you to climb half way down to a platform built against the pilings. From there you could dive or jump into the deep water below and then climb back up another ladder from the ocean to the platform. The platform doubled as kind of a hangout spot where you could be with friends, sit in the sun, eat lunch or whatever. Usually we would jump from the top of the pier instead of the platform since it was twice the height and twice as scary. If you tried it today you would hit the ocean floor since the water is so shallow there from the gradual widening of the sandy beach. In later years, when I was older, my brother and I would quite often jump or dive off the end of the Santa Monica Pier to swim to our fishing boat that was moored there in the small boat harbor if we got tired of waiting for the shore boat, or didn’t want to pay the ten or twenty cents for the ride.
The SM Pier with the ladder to the water visible, 1930’s, early 40’s.
2. The Crystal Pier was the next pier, about a mile south of the Santa Monica Pier. It was once quite glamorous with actor-comedian Nat Goodwin’s restaurant, cabaret, and ballroom on the pier where Hollywood stars would play. When I was a kid it had become quite seedy with its run down bath house, but the popular Rendezvous Ballroom was going strong at the foot of the pier. We would run to the end of the pier and jump off the south side to pick up some nice right breaking bodysurfing waves back to the beach. To warm up after the swim, one of the only four volleyball courts on the whole beach in those days was there and waiting for us. The pier made the news some years later when, in a fierce storm, our thirty foot fishing boat, “The Clara” (another story), broke loose from its mooring in the Santa Monica Harbor, went through the pier pilings, and ended up on the beach completely destroyed and in pieces.
The Crystal Pier in the distance, with the red roofed Rendezvous Ballroom on the beach.
3. The most popular pier in those days was the Ocean Park Pier, a few blocks down the sand from the Crystal. It had more thrill rides, games, roller coasters, dance halls, saloons, restaurants and bandstands than any of the rest plus two movie theaters. If we jumped off the end of this longest of the piers where the tower for the boat slide was back then we were in for a very long swim. We did it but we preferred the jump from half way out on the pier where the old Egyptian Ballroom stood.
Ocean Park Pier with boat slide at the end
4. The Lick Pier was adjacent to the Ocean Park Pier and attached to it at the beach. The Bon Ton Ballroom was half way out to the end of the pier when I was a kid, later called the Lick Pier Ballroom, and then the Aragon Ballroom during the big band era where Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and all the rest of the swing bands played. It wasn’t even half the length of the Ocean Park Pier but it was fun to jump off and catch the excellent right breaking body surfing waves that formed alongside the pilings. Years later the area was made famous by the team of surfers and skateboarders called “The Z-Boys”; a film was made about them. I worked as a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard there for several years alongside the Lick Pier and always thought I would be going off the end of the pier in the line of duty, but rescues were always accomplished faster by just swimming out than going up the stairs to the pier and losing sight of the victim.
Lick Pier with Ocean Park Pier and boat chute beyond.
5. The Venice Pier was a long pier a mile or so south of Ocean Park with lots of good jumping off spots on both sides. The main one was at the end of the pier on the south side where there was an open area where tourists could stand and throw pennies, nickels and sometimes maybe even dimes (Depression Era, 1930’s) for us kids to dive for. It was the most popular jump off spot of all the piers since in a short time you might end up with enough for a hot dog, (ten cents), and a roller coaster ride, (fifteen cents). It is also the place where I described in another story of jumping off during a cold and fierce winter storm, swimming a hundred yards out to sea with newly invented (1940) swim fins and bodysurfing the biggest waves and longest rides of my life, breaking far out beyond the end of the pier.
The Venice Pier, second from bottom
6. The Sunset Pier, at the bottom of the above photo, was the pier I jumped off from more than all the others put together. This was our beach, between the piers, where all the Venice High School guys and gals hung out. The end of the pier, where the band stand and stage were, was enclosed by a glass wall. We could sit in the hot sun, play handball or practice handstands on the stage, and watch for the largest and choicest sets of waves to come rolling in. Then over the wall for the long drop into the ocean and a ride on the chosen wave to the beach, finishing with a run back out to do it all over again. Of course there was “no diving off the pier allowed” but the lifeguards in the headquarters building at the foot of the pier in the above photo knew us, mostly high school swim team members, and they knew what we were doing but left us alone. Most of us became beach lifeguards ourselves later.
7,8,9. Further south there were two piers at Playa Del Rey where I grew up, the Del Rey Pier and the Hyperion Pier. I fished on both and jumped off both. In the south bay beyond there were three piers but usually beyond my roaming when I was a kid. However, I did go off the Hermosa Pier several times in lifeguard training sessions.
1930’s. Neither the Del Rey Pier or the channel to the lagoon are there now.
So there it is, the end of the long ago pier jumping saga. Almost all of the piers in this story are gone now, gone a long time ago. But there are a few left, and I’m wondering if at eighty-eight it’s not too late to get back in pier jumping shape. I miss those days.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 23 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
ZEROS, A HISTORY
We called it Zero Point after the one mile, legendary ride of Duke Kahanamoku from the far outside lineup called Zero Break all the way through connecting peaks to the sand at Waikiki Beach near the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The Duke did it in 1930 and it was thought to be the longest ride ever, so it seemed an apt title for the well-shaped, unsurfed waves at the point that is now called Nicholas Canyon County Beach. It was all privately owned beach when I first surfed and dived there in the 1940’s while living and working at Zuma Beach as a Lifeguard. I was renting one of the original houses on the beach at Zuma for $25 dollars a month but I loved Zero, and eventually in the mid-1950’s I bought a one-half acre beach and bluff piece of property there for $4000 dollars and built a house. Many zeroes would have to be added to that amount for a beach property in Malibu today (the owner actually wanted 4500 but I talked him down). Comedian Bob Hope had a small beach house near ours. My family and I lived there for many enjoyable years where a locked gate discouraged the few beachgoers and surfers who knew about the spot since it was unseen from the highway. We welcomed to Zero the small number of Zuma Lifeguard surfers there were in those days, and unlocked the gate for Zuma Guard and world champ Mike Doyle and the rest of the guys. On two occasions I let in surf film maker Bud Brown and surf magazine photographer Leroy Grannis to film our wave riding but somehow fame eluded us. Miki Dora would call occasionally and ask if I would mind letting him in for some of the best left breaking waves anywhere. But for years my young son and I mostly surfed the place alone.
Zero, late 1940’s, early 1950’s (me)
The place was just too good for the few of us to have all to ourselves. The lobster and abalone diving and spear fishing were almost as good as the surfing. So it was natural that the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches started to think about what a nice public beach that would be. The purchase went ahead in the 1960’s and our house and the few others that were there then were paid for and demolished. A lifeguard would be needed on this new public beach and I asked if I could be the first since for sure I knew the area well. I was a school principal by then as well as a county guard and working that early summer at Leo Carrillo when the County, not the State, still operated that beach. My first location on the new beach was on the sand midway between Zero and Leo sitting on a beach chair under an umbrella not far from the off shore rocks that were still loaded with abalone. I kind of liked that assignment. Some time passed and a tower arrived and was placed a hundred yards or so toward the point. But since most of the activity was at the surfing point itself the tower much later was relocated on the sand adjacent to the point. It wasn’t until I was long gone that the tower ended up on top of the point where it is today.
I retired from the lifeguards and the Zero tower in 1976, one of my favorite assignments, and I had worked most of the beaches from San Pedro to Leo Carrillo. The morning workouts there were, needless to say, fabulous. The surfers now call the place Zeros, not far off from when we named it Zero Point some sixty-five years ago. The waves look pretty much the same today but unlike then, when I surfed alone, each wave seems to be crowded with a half a dozen surfers scrambling for position much like all the other spots these days. So I just go up and take a look now and then and spend a little time thinking back about those gone forever days. And now there’s just one more thing left to say: I’d like to be working that tower today.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 09 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE GAMBLING BOAT AND THE LIFEGUARD
Tony Cornero was a notorious bootlegger during prohibition, and a gambling entrepreneur during the 1930’s into the 40’s. “Tony the Hat” circumvented California’s anti gambling laws by anchoring two luxury casino vessels in international waters three miles off the coast, one moored off Long Beach and the “S.S. Rex” off Santa Monica. The Rex could be reached by water taxi from the end of the Santa Monica Pier, and was a very popular attraction for numerous shady characters and deep pocket, wealthy customers. It had a crew of 350, including waitresses, gourmet chefs, a full orchestra, and a squad of gunmen. $300,000 a night was the average take.
One evening before nightfall a group of dark suited men came onto the beach and approached an off duty beach lifeguard with a proposition. Would he be willing to row one of them out to the Rex, wait for him and then return him to shore for a fee? Well, three miles out and three miles back was a pretty good paddle but maybe not for a dory man. I could name a couple of our lifeguards that have rowed all the way from the islands to the California shore let alone a mere six miles. Now in the late 1930’s beach lifeguards were paid about 75 cents an hour and I was making 35cents an hour as a Venice Salt Water Plunge Lifeguard at the time. So our un-named lifeguard, a great guy who many of us worked with on the beach for many years, agreed, but all the time he wondered why this guy just didn’t take the water taxi like everybody else. Obviously he didn’t want to be seen or give his name at the check in for some serious reasons. Luckily it was a calm evening and the trip out went without incident, but any attempts at small talk on the journey were to no avail, the passenger uttered not a word. The man in the dark suit boarded the Rex and a half hour passed before his return. Our lifeguard reported later that he heard no gunshots during the interval but it was noisy with the water sloshing alongside the Rex. The man was carrying something under his arm when he climbed back aboard. On the trip in our lifeguard again thought of asking a question or two, but when he thought he saw a telltale bulge under the man’s jacket he decided that it would not be a good idea and maybe they just might want to get rid of the witness. With little surf running the dark suited man barely got his shoes wet climbing out of the boat and joining his equally dark suited friends on the beach. A wad of bills was pressed into our lifeguard’s hand, and with no conversation involved the men hurried to their parked car on the beach road and were off. Well, all in a day’s work thought our un-named lifeguard, but what he discovered in his hand when he looked down was more like a month’s work.
P.S. A couple of years later the Rex was raided by the authorities on several coast guard boats, a fight broke out, fire hoses were turned on the police, and it took three days to get “Tony the Hat “ to surrender and be arrested.
Tony the Hat
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 30 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING, THE EARLIEST EVIDENCE, briefly
Tahiti was the setting for the earliest written record of surfing. It was first mentioned in the journals of the voyage of French explorer, Louis de Bougainville in April, 1766. After he had watched the natives in the water for some time he wrote in his log that the islanders “were capable to overlap the crest of the waves while upright on boards”. A year later the HMS Endeavour, under Captain James Cook, arrived in Tahiti in 1767 on a scientific expedition to observe the infrequent passage of Venus across the face of the sun. These findings were to be used to accurately determine the distance between the earth and sun. In his journal Cook described canoe surfing in some detail: “He sat motionless and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave till it landed him upon the beach”. However, Joseph Banks, the botanist on board, describes in his journal something more like board surfing. He describes the board as something possibly made from a part of a canoe that the native would swim out with to the breaking waves, then turn it shoreward, jump on board, and “was hurried in with incredible swiftness”. Ten years later, in 1777, Cook took a voyage on the HMS Resolution in a search for the Northwest Passage, which he didn’t find, but he did find Hawaii, along with more surfing. It was here that John Webber, the expedition artist, put to paper the first depiction of man and surfboard. It was at Kealakekua Bay, Big Island, south of today’s town of Kailua Kona on January 17, 1778. When natives paddled out to meet Captain Cook’s ships the artist went to work.
Out to meet Captain Cook, 1778
Previously, however, ancient Hawaiians, perhaps hundreds of years before the arrival of Captain Cook, left evidence of surfing in the islands. The first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii in the fourth century A.D., probably bringing the knowledge of surfing with them. Surfing was mentioned in old Hawaiian songs and chants, and petroglyphs are found in many places in Hawaii, carved into the lava rock by a sharp stone. Some of these petroglyphs, especially on the Island of Lanai near Shipwreck Beach, look very much like surfers in action.
Photography was invented when an image was first produced in France in 1826. However, it would be another sixty-four years before a surfer and his board would pose for a photographer. Dating back to 1890 the following photo is thought to be the first. Surfing had been pretty well stamped out in Hawaii by this date, but here is a Hawaiian in his traditional loin cloth standing in the water at Waikiki Beach with Diamond Head in the distance, holding his small, finless, Alaia type board behind him.
1890, Waikiki Beach
The following two photos are surely the same surfer and same board and locale, and most likely taken on the same day.
Waikiki and Diamond Head
A fourth photo of a surfer standing in front of a grass hut with his long, thin board is also thought to be 1890 or soon after.
Those are the first known surfing photographs. But as for the first moving pictures of surfing, the honor goes to the Thomas Edison film company. Edison patented his movie camera in 1891 and set out to film everything that moved. Edison first filmed waves breaking on the shore at Monterey, California in 1897, but nine years later the company traveled to Waikiki. In 1906 the first known moving images of a group of surfers in action was filmed by cameraman, Robert K. Bonine. The two minute reel was called “Surfboard Riders”, and for a penny or two the film could be viewed in nickelodeons and penny arcades across the country. Not much surf filming happened for a few years after that but it marked the beginning of the thousands of surf films to follow in later years and the huge surf film industry that exists today. We’ve come a long way since the simple etchings on the rocks of Hawaii some five hundred years ago.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 06 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
PLAYA DEL REY, THE EARLY YEARS
When we built our home in the late 1920’s and moved to Playa Del Rey it was a very small town. The sand dunes were sparsely populated with homes and each dwelling had to adhere to strict building regulations. Two of these rules were that each home had to be of white stucco with red tile roofs in a Mediterranean or Spanish style. Stucco consists of Portland cement, sand, and lime, and was used for covering the outer walls of every home in Playa Del Rey. Each home was built individually and architecturally different; the only similarities were the colors white and red. The appearance of all this was meant in some way to be reminiscent of a village on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Riviera or Spanish Coast. In later years these restrictions were either thrown out or conveniently overlooked since homes of all types were finally allowed to be built, from glass walled modern beach houses to oriental mansions.
Playa Del Rey Home, Late 1920’s
The house pictured above was across the street from our home on Rindge Avenue, and at that time it was the last house in Del Rey going south. In those days our section of Playa Del Rey was called Surfridge Estates and inland to the east was vast empty land, with no city of Westchester and no LAX for a great many years. However, in 1929 construction began on Loyola University that was to stand all by itself out there in those lonely fields on an empty bluff. From one building at first, today there are many, and it is surrounded by homes and businesses with the ever growing Playa Vista development below it. At the time it was called The Loyola Del Rey Campus since there was nothing else nearby to identify with. Famed Notre Dame Football coach, Knute Rockne, turned down the coaching job at Loyola and the position went to Tom Leib, Rockne’s assistant coach and a former football star at Notre Dame. In 1929 Leib had coached Notre Dame to the national championship while Rockne was on leave. Under Tom Leib Loyola, out in the middle of nowhere, was a powerhouse in the 1930’s beating many of the major universities. He became a family friend, an idol to us kids, and a frequent visitor to our home around dinner time.
Loyola U., in the beginning
Very small was how you would have to describe the town of Playa Del Rey when I was a kid growing up there eighty or so years ago. Our town at that time consisted of one small brick building containing a grocery store on the north side of the main street (Culver Boulevard), and on the other side of the street a building housing a drug store presided over by pharmacist, “Doc” Dolson and his Latina wife and her sisters. And that was about it. Other than that, where the Outlaws Restaurant now stands there was the T.O. McCoy Real Estate Office, a small frame bungalow behind which was the house where T.O. and his family lived, wife Cora and their three daughters. T.O. and Cora for a time also ran the market. Our families socialized a lot together, and Cora and my mom were great pals. The Playa Del Rey One Man Fire Department was also under T.O.’s management and I remember when a couple of mischievous boys set a small, non-serious bonfire in a field just to watch T.O. spring into action and fight the conflagration in his little, red vintage fire truck. I was there and watched but wasn’t one of those rascals, honest. Across Vista Del Mar, where the Pacific Electric Streetcar tracks from Los Angeles to our little town made a left turn south to follow the coastline on the way to Redondo Beach, there was a small concrete structure containing a combination streetcar depot and sandwich shop where tickets to ride the big red car could be purchased. Beyond the shop there was nothing but empty beach land leading down to the Westport Beach Club where today there are streets crowded with homes.
Doc Dolson and the drug store, 1929
Inland a ways down the main street was the Playa Del Rey Riding Stables where you could rent a nag and ride anywhere you wanted, on the beach, through the sandy hills, or across the flat swamp land. It was run by an old, real cowboy type of guy who was good to us kids and whose name I wish I could remember since we sometimes rode free. Then a few years later, at the fork of the road that leads up to Pershing Drive, a Richfield station opened managed by Jim Bussey, selling gas for about ten cents a gallon. The station is long gone and on the window of the building that stands at the fork in the road now it reads, in small print, “Mind Body Spirit”. I didn’t go in.
Well that was the whole town over eighty years ago, mainly just the two buildings, one on one side of the street and one on the other. They are no longer a grocery store and drug store but those two buildings are still there to this day. Del Rey was a very small town and very friendly place when I was a kid back then; everyone seemed to know everyone else and a lot of socializing went on, especially among the ladies. Here is a fuzzy photo of the leading Del Rey socialites of 1930. In fact it’s a photo of every lady that was living in Del Rey in 1930.
My Mom, far left. Cora McCoy seated far left
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 12 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
TO SCHOOL, A DAILY ADVENTURE
The journey to and from school in the late 1920’s and1930’s from my home in Playa Del Rey was not an easy task. There were no schools even close to our sparsely populated beach town. To the east of us lay miles of barren land, all empty except for some acreage used for farming; today’s city of Westchester and the airport at LAX would not exist for many years. Some distance to the south of Del Rey was the small Standard Oil town of El Segundo, incorporated not many years before. To the west was the sand and the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest elementary school lay some miles to the north in the beach town of Venice, with the junior and senior high schools a few miles beyond. Getting to these schools was the problem. Each morning my father and the family car headed in the opposite direction to his office in downtown Los Angeles. Occasionally he would be able to take the long way and drop my two brothers and me at school, but it was a rare day when his and our hours would coincide.
8721 Rindge Avenue
Our home in Playa Del Rey was on the sandy corner of Rindge Avenue and Epinard in the section known as Surfridge Estates in those days, with an unobstructed oceanview. My grandfather’s larger house was on the hillside directly below ours connected by landscaping, patios, and pathways. A few steps downhill would put you on Vista Del Mar overlooking the beach below. From there the beach was reached by a rustic dirt trail bordered by a handrail made up of artistically connecting tree branches so unlike the paved trails and rusty metal handrails found there today. At the bottom, running along just above the sand, were the tracks of the Pacific Electric Railway that ran all the way from Redondo Beachto Los Angeles, and that begins the story of how we got to school.
At the bottom of the trail to the beach below our home was a pickup stop for “The Big Red Car”, as it was called. The street car would only slow down and stop if someone was seen to be waiting there. We would board the streetcar in the morning, pay our nickel or token, and take the two mile, ocean view journey along the beach to our little town of Playa Del Rey where we would disembark before the tracks and the red car took a right turn heading inland for Los Angeles.
For the next leg of our journey toward higher education we would board “The Dinky”, a miniature version of the big red car much like the one pictured above. The Dinky, that was waiting for us on separate tracks, served as a beach link between the big streetcar that turned inland at Del Rey and the one a few miles north that reached the town of Venice from the inland cities and then went on its way up the coast to Santa Monica. The Dinky route paralleled the beach and ran alongside the Grand Canal through the hundreds of oil wells from Del Rey to Venice on what is now called Pacific Avenue. In number of wells, this oil field, long gone now, was the fourth largest in California. The Dinky was operated by an elderly, former motorman on the big red cars who was nearing retirement and thought this would be an easy last few years. I mentioned in an earlier story that his retirement was probably hastened by the many pranks that were pulled off due to the dinky size of the Dinky. It didn’t take more than three or four rowdy boys to easily pick up the rear of the car and derail it just for fun when the motorman was away and not looking. And then you could always pull the emergency cord bringing the car to a sudden stop and then look innocent as the motorman searched for the guilty party. Another trick was placing various objects along the tracks for the Dinky to collide with; anything containing a lot of water worked well. It was a very slow moving car so nothing really serious ever occurred. The only accident I recall was when the Dinky was out of service for a while and a rickety old yellow school bus temporarily took its place. I was sitting with my pal Bucky McKay when he opened the window and stuck his right arm out to pretend he was flying in the wind. Not a good idea since the Speedway was and is a very narrow road with telephone poles very close to the street. Bucky was rushed to emergency with a badly broken arm and maybe that’s why today you cannot open a school bus window, or if you can there are iron bars to prevent this sort of thing from happening.
Venice oil field, PlayaDel Rey far right
When I attended Florence Nightingale Elementary, the Dinky ride for us ended at the school where Washington Boulevard meets the sea. The Dinky would then proceed to the heart of Venice town, turn around, and reverse the journey back and forth all day long. Where today there is a myriad of touristy shops and restaurants all along the boulevard, plus a fishing pier and huge beach parking lot, back then was the school and little else. The school playground was beach sand at Nightingale and all the games and activities were played there: football, baseball, soccer. Many of the kids never wore shoes to school. On the rare days my father drove I would have him drop me at my friend Bob’s house on Carroll Canal, some blocks beyond. From there we would Huckleberry Finn it to school by polling his homemade raft down Grand Canal and beaching it on the muddy bank that ran right behind the school. Falling overboard and getting drenched on the way is another story; Bob’s clothes didn’t fit me at all.
Later, getting to Venice Junior and Senior High School (both on the same campus) added a third leg to the journey. The Dinky would take us past Florence Nightingale to the heart of Venice where we would transfer onto the big red streetcar that ran on its tracks down the middle of Venice Boulevardand conveniently drop us off at Venice High on its journey to downtown Los Angeles. At the end of the school day the three train journey was reversed, all very time consuming. Of course, as I recounted in a previous story, there were times when we conveniently “missed” the after school streetcar so that we were forced into the adventure of hiking our way towards home through the uninhabited, swampy jungle wetlands that is now covered by the Marina Del Rey Boat Harbor with its Ritz Carleton and fancy restaurants. An exciting variety of plant and animal life thrived there for a kid to experience. There even existed a small, freshwater lake to take a swim in on the trek through this wilderness back in those days.
Ah, those are great memories! But then something eventually happened to change all this way of life as we grew older. And it was called CARS! My brothers who were older first experienced this, and then I along with them. We could drive! First a 1926 Model T Ford appeared on the scene to tool around in sometime in the mid 1930’s. Then there were a couple of Model A Fords and other makes to get us back and forth to school.
So now who needed the Dinky or the streetcars when you had your own wheels? And it was so much faster, and fun too, and you could take your friends, and maybe even girls. But still it’s hard not to think back to those great days without plenty of feelings of fondness and nostalgia because, really, how could a mere car ever compete with the Dinky?
Polishing that 1933 Ford V8
Submitted By Cal Porter on Feb. 20 , 2012
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
BETWEEN THE PIERS
Venice Pier, 1939
I loved that pier, with its Giant Dipper roller coaster, fun house, games of chance, flying circus, salt water taffy and hot dog stands. This was the 1930’s and there were all kinds of ways for a kid to have fun or get into trouble out there. In addition, my buddies and I dove for the pennies, nickels and sometimes dimes that the tourists would throw into the ocean for us off the end of the pier. The water was crystal clear in those days and you could make enough money for a sugary snow cone in half an hour. And then the rock breakwater visible just beyond the end of the pier was always good for a few lobsters when we searched the rocky bottom wearing our primitive water goggles that Santa Monica Lifeguard Bill O’Connor made for us out of fire hose and glass. The tourists on the pier would sometimes pay up to twenty-five cents for one of the tasty crustaceans. However, Fat Frank, a real character who lived under the end of the pier over the rough water in primordial accommodations and had lobster traps strung out all along the rocks was not too fond of us, but lobsters were plentiful in those days. O’Connor’s goggles were a great improvement over the Japanese swimming goggles we had that distorted your vision under water. Later the diving became much easier when home made face plates were invented and we got our first ones around 1939 or 40, about the same time Owen Churchill invented his black, vulcanized rubber swim fins. The pier also helped create some nice board and body surfing waves for us in those uncrowded days. Then in 1939, for thirty-five cents an hour, I landed a job as a lifeguard in the Venice Salt Water Plunge, the building on the sand just north of the pier in the photo where today the skateboard park stands. A couple of years passed and I was old enough to be a Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard starting at seventy-five cents an hour and working out of the headquarters at the base of the Sunset Pier, the first pier in the photo above, with the Lick Pier, Ocean Park Pier, Crystal Pier, and Santa Monica Pier in the distance. Today the modern County Lifeguard Headquarters building is on the sandy site where the base of the Sunset Pier once stood and where Venice Boulevard meets the beach.
Between the Piers
“Between the Piers” was the title of our home beach, with the Sunset and Venice Piers on either side. “See you tomorrow between the piers” was the usual so long from your Venice High School pals or perhaps a girl you were hoping to spend some time with on the beach. Our hangout on the sand was right about where the paddle tennis courts are on the beach today. In the photo above you can see the attraction for surfers and bodysurfers with the waves peeling off the sandbar buildup from the two piers. The photo shows a big day with waves forming in deep water beyond the end of the very long pier. In an earlier story I recounted the rough and stormy day of the biggest surf I had ever seen in my young life when we sneaked past the police and the safety barricade that had been erected to keep people off the endangered pier. Fortunately fins had been invented by then when my pal and I jumped off the end of the damaged pier and swam another fifty yards or more out to sea to the very deep water where the storm waves were cresting and beginning their march shoreward, one of which carried me through the passage between the piers and all the way to the beach, the biggest wave and longest bodysurfing ride of my life before or after.
Waves far beyond the end of the damaged Venice Pier
The end of the shorter Sunset Pier to the south was a bodysurfing, jumping off place, too, for some really fine, left breaking shoulders. We would watch and wait for a good set of waves while sitting in the hot sun behind the glass windbreak next to the empty bandstand at the end of the pier and then climb the wall for the long drop into the water and a fast ride to the beach only to run back to the end of the pier and do it all over again, and again. Waiting during lulls in the surf action out there we would play a bit of handball or practice our hand balancing stunts on the empty bandstand stage in order to show off later to anyone we could get to watch, maybe even girls.
Toward the late 1930’s board surfing became popular enough between the piers that the lifeguards decided for safety’s sake to designate a surfing only zone and set out a lifeline separating swimmers from the surfers for the first time on any beach in the U.S. and probably in the world. The lifeline is visible above in the photo of my two buddies with me in the middle ripping on a challenging one foot wave.
A sad day for many of us occurred a few years later at midnight on April 20, 1946, when the Venice Pier was ordered to be closed down and demolished. An amusement pier had been on that site, in one reincarnation or another, since 1905. The City of Los Angeles refused to renew the lease on the historic but run down, gritty old amusement pier, thinking the beach town would be better off without the old relic of better days. Dismantling the rides and concessions and taking down the pier was to begin immediately. This was going to be dangerous work on the rickety old pier, with heavy trucking involved and the possibility of injury or some one falling into the ocean. City lifeguards were sent to the pier by Captain Myron Cox to be on the scene in case of a mishap of some sort. Bill Pruitt and I were assigned the duty there together occasionally and had some interesting experiences for another story. Bill later became a captain with the L.A. City Lifeguards. After the Venice Pier came down the Sunset Pier with its lifeguard headquarters was soon to follow.
Today, sixty-five years later
The pier is gone now and at low tide you can walk on the sand all the way to the breakwater where the ocean was once twenty feet deep. The Sunset Pier where the groin is in the photo is gone also, along with all the other amusement piers from here to Santa Monica. But of course it’s very nice now with the wide, white sandy, unobstructed beach that runs for miles and the concessions all along the boardwalk but somehow it’s just not the same. I take a nostalgia walk out there to the breakwater from time to time where Fat Frank lived under the pier, where we dived for pennies and the lobsters were plentiful, and I stop at the lifeguard tower to tell the young guard that long ago his tower would be under the roller coaster and in ten feet of water, and that just over there where the skateboard park is stood the largest indoor salt water plunge in the world where I was a lifeguard. And when I get that look that says, “Where did this old guy escape from?” I know it’s time to move on.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 12 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
FRIENDS, ROMANS, COUNTRYMEN
"Lend Me Your Ears", thus spake Mark Anthony on the steps of the Roman Senate on the ides of March in the year 44 B.C. Julius Caesar had just been assassinated on the senate floor by a group of senators that feared that Caesar was becoming too powerful and wanted to rule Rome as king. But Mark Anthony was a Roman general, a loyal friend of Caesar’s and had no part in this conspiracy. There on the senate steps he sets out to sway the restless, unruly mob to his way of thinking and to his plans for revenge.
It was almost sixty years ago, the summer of 1953. I was working as a lifeguard and swimming instructor at Malibu Colony Beach after finishing the night shift at Zuma Beach as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard. I set out that morning to patrol the area between the Colony and Malibu Surfrider Beach where some of the Colony kids liked to swim. I had pulled a couple of them out of a shallow water, minor rip tide there the previous day. There were no lifeguards there at the Rindge family’s privately owned beach, which was simply called Malibu in those pre-Gidget days; the State wouldn’t be taking over the beach and assigning me there as the first L.A. County Lifeguard for several more years . On my return to the colony beach I glanced inland where the sandy beach met the Malibu Lagoon at the mouth of Malibu Creek. There among the low lying dunes I saw and heard a man in swim trunks waving his arms and talking in a low but audible voice. Since there was no one else in the area, I thought perhaps this animated man was hurt, had a problem, needed help of some kind. As I approached I saw this young, well-built guy with a dark tan clutching some reading material in one hand. When I drew closer, Marlon Brando looked up, saw me, and said "hi". I quickly said sorry, I’m the lifeguard, thought maybe you needed some help over here. He said no, just studying a movie script and visiting Dore Schary who lives in a house over there.
Malibu Colony, lagoon area lower right
Dore Schary was a writer, playwright, motion picture director, producer, and at the time of this story, president of MGM Studios. He lived in the Colony, and frequently on his beach walks he would stop, sit down, and spend some time chatting with the lifeguard. I got to know him a bit and mentioned that I had by now bumped into Marlon Brando two or three times studying scripts over near the lagoon. Schary replied that Brando was starring in their new MGM film, Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, that recently had its New York premier, and he went on to say that the Hollywood premier would soon be held. I thought nothing more of it until Schary stopped by one afternoon and invited me to attend the premier. You’ll enjoy it, he said, and bring your brother along too; your names will be on the VIP list when you arrive. Brother Lee was also a lifeguard, occasionally working at the Colony on weekends. Schary explained that the premier would be held at the Carthay Circle Theater, which along with the Grauman’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard was where all the big premiers were held in those days. The Carthay was built in 1926 and was one of the most famous movie palaces of Hollywood’s Golden Age, hosting premiers of Romeo and Juliet, Disney’s Snow White, and maybe the greatest premier of all, Gone With The Wind. Schary instructed me to be sure to drive my car right up to the sidewalk in front of the theater where the red carpet and screaming fans would be, and a valet parker would be there to whisk the auto away for us.
Well the night came and we did drive right up to the red carpet, saw the screaming fans and the searchlights, and the row of black limousines expelling the rich and glamorous, but we kept right on driving. The two beach boys had worn shoes for the occasion, and clean shirts and ties; it wasn’t that, it just appeared to us that our vintage Ford V8 seemed out of place and didn’t exactly fit in with the long line of chauffeur driven limos. We quickly hurried past, drove up a couple of side streets until we found a parking spot, then ran back to join our fellow A Listers on the red carpet. There was a good deal of screaming from the ardent fans behind the ropes as we walked down the carpet, but feeling a bit put out that no requests for autographs were forthcoming, we reached the greeter at the door who quickly found our names on the invited list and had an usher show us to our seats. And very fine seats they were thanks to Dore Schary. It was a very good film with a great cast of mainly British Shakespearian actors. The movie was nominated for many academy awards that year, including best picture and Marlon Brando for best actor. It was the third year in a row that Brando was nominated, and in the following year he would win the Oscar for On the Waterfront. After the show a milling crowd gathered for drinks and conversation in the ornate lobby where Schary saw us and introduced us to a couple of movie people he was with. Brando was there, but all I can say is he apparently didn’t recognize me without my red trunks on; otherwise I am sure he would have rushed right over with a warm greeting. For some reason Portia (Deborah Kerr) and Calpurnia (Greer Garson) surely must have tried, but couldn’t locate us in the crowd either.
Back to reality and sitting at my post on the beach at the Colony the next morning, I regaled the kids with the saga of ancient Rome, with Mark Anthony, Caesar and Brutus, and all the battles and sword fighting of the previous night, then I hustled them off into a free-for-all volleyball game. Premiers like that are a thing of the past, they are no more. Today a blockbuster movie comes out and is immediately seen in five thousand theaters across the country the first night. The extravagant, one night gala opening, the premier with all the stars, directors and producers present, and with all the glamour and clamor and searchlights is gone. Gone also is the Carthay Circle Theater, considered obsolete and demolished in 1969, replaced by modern cinemas with a dozen screens. Today, two plain low rise office buildings occupy the once glamorous site where the Bogarts, the Cagneys, the Garbos, the Gables, and two lifeguards, once strolled the red carpet.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 18 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A LIFE MOST VARIED
The decision was made with no request for advice or input from me. I was neither asked for my opinion nor did I make any attempt to influence the outcome in this matter. Had I been consulted I am sure I would have been in hearty agreement with the decision but I had only been thrust into this equation by my very recent birth, and no one thought to consult with me. Since I was only a few months old at the time, the matter that follows had to be settled completely without my voiced opinion: WE WERE GOING TO LIVE ON THE BEACH.
In 1924 I was brought home from The Hollywood Hospital to a perfectly fine and lovely home on a tree lined, residential street in the heart of Hollywood, not far from Hollywood Boulevard itself. But fate interceded when my father and grandfather fell in love with a newly opened stretch of coastal beach called Playa Del Rey, The King’s Beach. After many exploratory visits to the area, the empty sandy sites they chose for our new homes in Playa Del Rey was called The Surfridge Estates, a name I certainly would have approved of. However, my family having lived in California for only a few years and not being beach types at all (my father, mother, grandfather, and two older brothers all having been born in the state of Utah) it would seem a surprising decision. If we were to build new homes why not nearby Beverly Hills, Westwood or Hollywood itself? Well it seems that my grandfather, along with his many other enterprises and a later run for governor of California, was founder and president of the Los Angeles based firm, “The National Thrift Corporation of America” (the largest company of its kind west of the Mississippi, so its slogan said, whatever that means) and this company did a lot of buying, developing, and selling of real estate. It follows then, I am sure, that they felt that Surfridge would not only be a fine place to live, but also that beach property was a very good investment and could only go one way, UP. My father was a vice president in the company.
Goodbye to the Hollywood house.
(My only photo of it)
And on to the beach, 1925
Now and again as I look back over the last eighty-seven years I often wonder how radically different my life would have turned out if that one decision hadn’t been made that resulted in my being inexorably attached to the ocean and beach forever. Living inland I surely would have taken a different route, maybe more attracted to mountains, desert or big city life, and taken up a different kind of work. As it was, I grew up roaming the Del Rey sand dunes and our miles of long, empty beach, swimming, surfing, diving, fishing, and building home made boats, rafts and primitive surf boards.
Custom built craft, 1929
Cal-Lee-Ray with dinner
Almost everything I did was beach and ocean related. My elementary school was on the beach a short ride away; and even reached by boat sometimes, rowing through the salt water canals. We could go to school in bare feet, our playground was the sand. My high school was a ten minute drive from the ocean and oriented toward beach activities. Choosing a college, I picked the closest one to the water that I could find, UCLA. Going out for school sports I was a swimmer and water polo player. For a sport not involving water I was a volleyball player, on the beach of course, with a swim afterwards. When I was a kid I had a job keeping the beach clean in front of the local hamburger stand that was built right on the sand with the ocean handy for a dip only steps away. As an older kid I free dived and sold abalone and lobsters to fish markets. When I was fifteen I became a lifeguard for the Venice Saltwater Plunge that was built on the beach and pumped ocean water into its huge swimming pool. In a couple of years I was old enough to become a Los Angeles City Beach Guard, and then later an L.A. County Beach Lifeguard. I lifeguarded for almost forty years and worked most of the beaches from San Pedro on the south to the Ventura County Line on the north. My brother and I owned a boat and we fished and dived commercially. I have dived and surfed almost everywhere up and down the coast. I became a teacher and school principal but saved my weekends, holidays and vacations for the beach, the ocean, and lifeguarding. I was so lucky that my family shared my love of the ocean. Our vacation trips usually took us to other watery parts of the world to do more swimming, surfing, and diving. Sometimes I go in the ocean for no other reason except to just get wet. And except for brief periods in my life I have never lived anywhere where I couldn’t see the ocean, Playa Del Rey as a kid and Malibu as an adult. I lived at Surfridge Beach, Zuma Beach, Westward Beach, Broad Beach, Encinal Beach, Nicholas Beach, Big Rock Beach and Paradise Cove Beach, all ocean view.
And so that’s a life, and it’s a life that is still on the beach and still in the ocean, a life with the ocean to view out my window, and with a run out to the bluff several times a day for a closer look to see just what the waves and ocean are up to. It never gets old, and it’s always good, but I have to go now, I haven’t seen the ocean in a couple of hours.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 06 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
Jake at the Beach
It happened at Navy Street in Ocean Park, that stretch of sand halfway between Venice Beach and Santa Monica Beach. It was a summer day long ago, but nothing described in this story remains there today; all is gone, disappearing without a trace, only the white sand remains with not a clue as to what once occupied this now empty beach. On this day it was mid morning in the early 1940’s and I was in my tower on duty for the Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguards. It was a weekend, sunny and hot, and the crowd was starting to arrive. It was going to be one of those very busy, hectic days at what was the most popular beach in all of Santa Monica Bay back then. This was almost seventy years ago, and something was about to happen.
Navy Street, Ocean Park
This particular day Jake was almost finished with his job of sweeping out the Lick Pier Bath House, which he did most mornings for the owners, Mac and Marge. The old and faded bath house, where towels, umbrellas, swim suits, and locker rooms could be rented for the day, was built into and under the pier itself. The Lick Pier was a small section of the greater Ocean Park Pier which drew thousands of daily visitors to its roller coaster, band stand, fun house, games of chance, dance halls, bars, restaurants and two movie theaters. Most of this crowd ended up on the beach and in the water for part of their day, or strolled the board walk along the sand. Next to the bath house on the ocean side under the pier was a sandwich stand that was called, appropriately, “Hamburgers 10 Cents”. This establishment served soda pop and mostly uneatable food, and with the waves slamming against its seaward wall at high tide eventually the whole place was carried out to sea one stormy night, a great loss. Above the bath house on the pier stood the elaborate Lick Pier Ballroom, formerly The Bon Ton when I was a kid, and much later The Aragon of early TV fame. All the name swing bands of the 30’s and 40’s played there: Harry James, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman. To the right on the pier was The Bingo Parlor, where rumor had it that more than bingo was going on in there, something more in the nature of gambling and drinking. Friends Fuzzy and Soggy worked there and would always respond to a call for assistance, deserting their post at the Parlor to help out when trouble occurred on the beach, which was often. They were two very tough guys, street fighters. And on the corner just beyond the Parlor was a most educational and major attraction run by Dave and Izzy involving the throwing of a baseball at a target which, if successful, would plummet a scantily clad young lady from her perch above into a tank of water below, a very popular attraction. But then as the day wore on and the sun faded and dipped in the west, the waterfront gave way to the night and the glare of neon lights would take over, the crowds would increase in the amusement zone, and the pier and boardwalk would teem with visitors, sailors, and servicemen on leave. And then what happened out on the beach was that a few of our ladies of the day, who we sometimes swam and played volleyball with, would now become, when darkness fell, ladies of the evening. The locals knew who they were. But now back to the Lick Pier Bath House.
My only photo of the elaborate façade of the Lick Pier Bath House.
Brother Lee, in foreground, lifeguarded down the beach a ways.
There were other Jakes about so the Jake of this story was always referred to as “One-Leg-ged-Jake”. He walked with crutches and his story about what happened to that missing leg varied with the person he was telling about it. It was always a dramatic account: It was out at sea, in enemy waters, there was a terrible explosion and many lives were lost, he lost a leg; It was in a factory in the South, there was a grinding noise and no one was able to turn off the machine, he lost his leg; After the plane crashed, the pilot was dead, and Jake’s leg was missing, the right one; After a wild party one should never drive fast in a car, especially in the mountains. Where Jake came from, how he ended up on this beach and his age were unknown. He wasn’t a young man but not yet an old man and he spent all day, every day, on the beach, and his skin turned very dark from the sun. He slept under the pier wrapped in a blanket at night as did several other homeless types; there was quite a community under there at times, including a few women (another story). Jake had the odd or maybe bizarre habit of slathering his body at the end of the day with found sun tan oil, then after pulling on his tattered clothing he would sleep in that greased up condition among the pilings, which he staunchly maintained kept him much warmer than his room mates in the chilly air of the underpier. He swam several times a day; and sometimes, to my alarm, so far from shore I could barely keep track of him. But he always made it back, and upon his return to the beach sometimes a helpful person would meet him in the shallow water with his crutches. Otherwise Jake would crawl and drag himself to the dry sand where he had left them. He appeared to have no discernable income, and in the evening he would roam the amusement zone and would not refuse the offer of a few coins as he stood and leaned on his crutches at a busy corner with his hand outstretched.
The Ocean Park Amusement Zone
On the morning of this story Jake was just finishing his sweeping chore in the bath house for Mac and Marge and he knew that the loose change they would give him would buy a bit of something for breakfast. It wasn’t a hard job and he could handle it alright on crutches. The floor was always wet and covered with sand after a day’s use in this gloomy and dark place. As Jake was approaching the counter in the dim light to pick up his anticipated twenty or thirty cents he saw that Marge was in an argument of some sort with two men in rented bathing trunks, dark skinned and accented, maybe Asian. They appeared to be quite drunk for so early in the day, and Jake observed the argument becoming overheated with accusations of being cheated or overcharged for something. The more aggressive of the two men became quite animated, waving his arms about in a threatening way and shaking his fist at Marge. Marge then asked them to please leave before she had to call for the police, whereupon the aggressive man reached over the counter with his arm in an apparent attempt to grab Marge by the neck or shoulder. Jake was now close by and saw Mac’s tool chest lying open on the counter. He reached in and took hold of the nearest implement, a large heavy hammer. The stranger did not see Jake and did not see the hammer as Jake raised it above him. Then Jake brought the hammer down very hard with all his strength on the stranger’s head. The man seemed surprised at first and momentarily turned and looked toward Jake, and then slowly slumped against the counter and went down onto his back hitting the cold cement floor, staring straight up. It was quiet then, and the stranger was dead.
Marge was the only witness to this event, the friend had fled, and when the police queried her as to the identity of the killer of this man so that they could take him into custody, it seems that Marge didn’t know, couldn’t describe him, really didn’t get a good look at him.
Then it was that we never saw Jake again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 20 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE SAND AND STARS
I have written before about the many motion pictures that were filmed in the Playa Del Rey sand dunes when I was a kid there in the 1920’s and 30’s. Some of the early Spanish styled beach homes, with their beautiful, white exteriors, patios, and red tile roofs were used for both their exteriors and interiors in the movies. The beach below the homes, however, was seldom used because it was too difficult for the film crews to get their equipment down to the sand. There was no road along the sand then, only the car tracks for the big red streetcars that ran all the way from Los Angeles to Redondo Beach. The movie crews would use nearby Venice Beach and boardwalk for their filming. Mostly the film makers came to Del Rey for the sand dunes and the wide open spaces where homes in the area where I lived were few and far between.
Filming in the sand dunes across the street from my house, early 1930’s
Many movie actors lived in Playa Del Rey in those days, maybe not quite like Malibu, but we had our share. I’ll just mention three that stand out in my memory more than the others. My best buddy whose house was just up the beach from mine, and the only kid my age that lived within a couple of miles of me in our sparsely populated dunes, was a famous child actor from his first movie, “Strong Boy”, in 1929, through 1943, making as many as six movies a year. Douglas Scott, a name probably not remembered by many these days unless you’re a little on the old side, for one thing starred as Stinky Davis in all of the Mickey Rooney, early 1930’s “Mickey McGuire” comedies. But through the years he was a very versatile actor in a great variety of parts. He had many British roles such as the young Admiral Horatio Nelson in “Lloyds of London” with Tyrone Power, 1936, to name one. During the years I knew him he played in such films as, “The Eagle and the Hawk”, with Cary Grant, 1933, “The Last Gangster”, with Jimmy Stewart, 1937, “Intermezzo”, with Ingrid Bergman and dozens more. We were pals for some time before I knew he was an actor, then my mother took me to a movie one day and there he was. I went to most of his movies from then on. Doug didn’t go to my elementary school with me and I had wondered why he had private tutoring. My favorite role of his was as the very disagreeable Hindley Earnshaw who hated Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and made him sleep in the stables in “Wuthering Heights”, 1939. He played in films with all the big stars from Edward G. Robinson to Shirley Temple. The two of us romped in the dunes and swam at the beach until he moved away, having appeared in over forty-one movies by 1943.
Doug’s House on Rindge Ave., a block from mine.
As Hindley Earnshaw
Charles Bickford lived on the corner of Rindge and Redlands in Playa Del Rey. His house is still there today although LAX condemned and tore down all the houses a couple of blocks away that were under its flight plan, including the one I grew up in, and later my father’s second house there. After acting on the stage and Broadway for sixteen years, when sound arrived in 1929 Bickford turned to the movies. He acted in films for five decades and was nominated for an Oscar three times. He played with Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, and after he was Greta Garbo’s lover in “Anna Christie”, 1931, he became a star. He almost always played strong, tough, hard-fighting guys with his burly frame, craggy features and gruff, powerful voice. To me he seemed pretty much the same off the screen as on. He had some great parts in almost a hundred movies such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Duel in the Sun”, “The Song of Bernadette”, and “Reap the Wild Wind”. I think my favorite role of his was as the ranch boss in “Of Mice and Men”, 1939, maybe because I liked the book so much by John Steinbeck. “Days of Wine and Roses” with Jack Lemmon was much later and another great one. When we were kids Bickford was a nice guy and let us swim in his pool and play on his tennis court, and we went to birthday parties there. Of course it probably didn’t hurt that we knew his niece and nephew who were our age and lived nearby.
Bickford House, 1930’s
Charles Bickford in Of Mice and Men
If you went to the movies during the 1920’s and early 30’s you knew the actress who carried the title of “The Girl with the Bee Stung Lips” and “The Gardenia of the Screen”. Mae Murray was on the Broadway
Stage by 1906 and a Ziegfield follies headliner by 1915 before heading for Hollywood and becoming a silent film star in 1916. Playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in “The Delicious Little Devil” made her one of the major stars of the 1920’s along with Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. She built her opulent Playa Del Rey beach home on the sand at Sixty-Fourth Street and Ocean Front Walk in the late 1920’s and lived there with her husband, a European prince (according to him) and their young son whose identity was kept secret since in those days that could affect her glamorous screen career. On the beach just north of her home I kept an extra surfboard at a friend’s house in order to ride the fine waves that peeled off the Ballona Creek jetty. When oil was discovered nearby, Mae invested in and owned a few of the wells that sprang up. I was just a kid when she lived there, and I saw her around a time or two since I hung about the Del Rey Pier there and swam and surfed in front of her house sometimes, but I’m sure at that time I couldn’t care less about a famous silent screen star. When talking movies came in she was a failure and only lasted through a couple of them. By 1933 she was broke, mainly due to her “prince” of a husband, and was forced to sell her home by court order. In later years she was seen wandering the streets of Playa Del Rey and sitting on the beach in front of her former home. She suffered dementia and died in poverty in the Motion Picture Retirement Home that she had helped establish years before. The role of Norma Desmond, the demented former silent screen actress in the 1950, three time Oscar winner movie, “Sunset Boulevard”, was closely patterned after the life of Mae Murray. Gloria Swanson, herself a faded silent star, played the part, and Mae’s former director in the silents, Erich Von Stroheim, played the role of her devoted servant in the film. Mae Murray watched the film and saw the way she was portrayed by Swanson, then uttered the famous remark, “None of us floozies was that nuts”. Today her star is on the sidewalk of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and I’m sure people see it and look at each other and then say, “I wonder who she was?”
Playa Del Rey
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 26 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
MORE TALES OF THE DUNES
Surfing the dunes was one thing we tried that was fun, but sometimes didn’t work as well as we hoped. The Playa Del Rey sand dunes could be put to a great many uses by us kids in the 1920’s and 30’s but only the steepest ones could generate enough speed to get going on a surfboard, even though there were no fins on surfboards in those days. It was a very short ride before sinking into the soft sand. A better plan was to run from the top of the hill under full gallop, not with a surfboard but with a very thin, lightweight piece of plywood and leap aboard for a quick, high speed, thrill ride; this worked well. Another fun thing was just letting your body roll over and over all the way from the top to the bottom of the dune, but this always resulted in pounds of sand in clothing, hair, ears, nose, mouth and sometimes eyes. We would have to shake like dogs or remove our clothes completely before we were allowed back into the house. Accidents from these various escapades were bound to happen from time to time. For one thing you didn’t have to be too bright to know that riding a bike down a sand dune wasn’t a smart thing to do, so of course I tried it on the short, steep dune right across the street from our house. Even though there was a bit of traction on the sand afforded by some scrubby plant life, half way down I knew I was out of control. One thing that was bound to slow me down at the bottom of the hill was a concrete lamp post on the street curb below, which of course I had planned to avoid and just sail out into the street itself. My front wheel was the first thing to collide with this immovable object, but the next thing to make contact was my head. Sometime later with the blood cleared away and an ice pack firmly planted on my forehead, Doctor Boyce announced that I would probably survive. Doctor Boyce lived just down the road from us and came in handy for these little emergencies that could occasionally arise when three young brothers just happened to live close by him in this hilly terrain. On another occasion the doc did a good job of sewing up the long gash in my brother’s leg when one of our many ocean going mishaps occurred; this particular one was when our latest expertly handcrafted, wooden raft went somewhat astray on a day of big surf. He was a good man to have around, Doctor Boyce, however this sort of E.R. type work was completely out of the well-known doctor’s specialty, which I believe was proctology.
One of our finest
Dr. Boyce’s Cottage Below Us on Vista Del Mar
T.O. McCoy’s Real Estate Office
That hill behind T.O’s office, the top of which is barely seen through the palm trees in this photo, was very tempting for a couple of kids on bicycles. It was quite high and it was very steep. If you could just control your bike and fly down that hill at breakneck speed, racing through the sand and bushes and on into T.O.’s backyard, what a wild ride that would be. Now T.O. was not only the real estate agent for Playa Del Rey, he also ran the grocery store, was the one and only official fireman for the area and was also the honorary mayor. My friend Bucky and I sized up what we thought was the best route down and, ignoring certain past disasters, I said I would go first unless we wanted to do it together. Bucky wisely said that I should go first and he would see how I made out. Again, not being too bright about such things, I got a grip on my handlebars and pushed off. Well that had to be the fastest, scariest and out of control bike ride I had ever had before or since, but somehow I managed to end up at the bottom of the hill at the same time as my bike. Up above Bucky hollered down something about how much fun that looked like, and then, since I sputtered and gasped out something in the way of agreement, he started out. Well Bucky made it just part way down the hill when it appeared that he was about half the time on his bike and the rest of the time under it or holding on to it for dear life and rolling to the bottom of the hill. Once Bucky’s downward progress came to a stop he immediately started to express his discomfort in no uncertain terms, whereupon T.O., hearing the commotion, came out to investigate his backyard, which culminated in a speedy phone call to Bucky’s mom. The upshot of this was that the doctor (not the proctologist this time) found that Bucky had two or three broken ribs and several strains and sprains. After he was treated and patched up and assured that he would be as good as new after a period of healing time, I found it noble of Bucky not to blame me for encouraging him to go on that wild ride, and we remained friends for a good long time. Some years later when he was just old enough to drive a car (I wasn’t yet) he proposed we leave our usual local spots for a change and take a surfing trip to Dana Point to ride the splendid waves that were found there before the harbor was created ending forever that fine surf venue. Bucky was going to bring along his sometime but not always girl friend, the very attractive Pickles, and encouraged me to bring one too. Having no luck in convincing a young lady of my acquaintance of what a thrill it would be to drive all the way to Dana Point and back just to watch a couple of guys go surfing, only the three of us started out. Things went very well on the long drive down to Dana, what with Bucky preoccupied with his driving and me squeezed against Pickles and trying to think about the waves. And the waves were good. There was no one in the water but the two of us that day, as was usually the case in the 1930’s. Later, on the way back, with Bucky’s eyes still on the road, more than friendly Pretty Pickles convinced me that she considered us both as her boy friends. It was then that I knew for sure surfing was my favorite sport.
Killer Dana, 1940
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 04 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
LIFE IN THE SAND DUNES
It was basically all sand, one giant sand dune. That was Playa Del Rey in the 1920’s when my father bought property for our new home overlooking the sea. Oh, there were a few scrubby plants here and there, and down in the flat lands before you ascended to the palisades it was more earthy than sandy, but our section of Del Rey was on high where the major sand dunes were located and it was called Surfridge Estates. In the early 1920’s when these sand dunes were being transformed and civilized with roads and curbs and lamp poles, perhaps the item that follows in the real estate section regarding these Surfridge Estates is what caught my father’s eye: “Each estate is in itself a masterpiece of planning, each looking out on the sea. Unquestionably this is the first and only opportunity for the family of means to procure a highly restricted spacious residence site on the Los Angeles oceanfront”. “For the family of means”? Well it was many years before The Great Depression would arrive, and my father and grandfather, who were in the real estate investment business, bought adjacent sites.
A Lot of Sand
We kids loved the place, my two older brothers and I. We roamed the sand dunes that were full of rabbits and coyotes and a myriad of flying and crawling things. We fished and swam and surfed in the sea and wandered the empty beach that we felt was ours alone, seldom seeing those other people “of means” who apparently were not beach people. The afternoon west winds were often relentless in those days, before more houses were built and windbreak trees were planted, blowing stinging sand against uncovered skin and faces and covering newly planted lawns and gardens with a layer of the white sand. It was not an unusual site to see family members out with shovels and brooms the next day not only digging and sweeping the sand off their driveways and walkways but also sweeping their lawns clean as well. From this my enterprising older brothers soon discovered a means to be of service to our fellow residents and at the same time earn a bit of spending money. Ice plant, a bright green succulent with pretty yellow and pink flowers, easily grows in sand, needs little water, and when planted soon spreads across a large area, securely holding down the sand beneath it and off of lawns and gardens in it’s windy path. We knew where there were great wild beds of it growing nearby, and so with boxes of plant cuttings and trowels in hand we approached our neighbors with this answer to their dilemma, and they welcomed our suggestion, and what’s more they felt that fifteen cents an hour was not at all exorbitant. This enterprise continued off and on for some time in our young lives, and in those days when you could see a double feature at the movie house for fifteen cents and have a hot dog for five cents, and for another nickel a soda or malted milk, we felt quite in the money.
A Del Rey Sand Dune Before
Many motion pictures, first silent and then talkies, were shot in our sand dunes in the 1920’s and 30’s. That is, of course, on the vast uninhabited stretches of sand we hadn’t covered with ice plant. Our sand dunes often stood in for the wild Sahara Desert, the Gobi, the Kalahari or our own Mojave. Cowboy westerns found a home here, but we especially enjoyed The French Foreign Legion marching across the endless sand tracking down the enemy, or the mysterious Bedouins searching for an oasis. I think my favorite movie shoot was the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy making the 1931 film, Beau Hunks, in which Stan and Ollie join the Foreign Legion so that Ollie can forget his girl friend, Jeanie-Weenie, who had dumped him. The boys proceeded to get good and lost in a sand storm in Africa (Africa being a barren dune two blocks from our house) and fall and roll to the bottom of the hill as the wind machine blasts them with sand. As it turns out all the other legionnaires in the story have also known and are trying to forget the very same girl, Jeanie-Weenie, played by early, blond bombshell actress, Jean Harlow. We were usually the only kids watching the action and were always welcome at these sets, sitting in on many a tasty meal during a break, and often even meeting the actors and other movie people. We sometimes did odd jobs or errands but were never offered a starring role.
Filming. My house in background.
To be continued. (With other exciting Tales of The Dunes)
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 16 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING ON THE SMALL SCREEN
He was a good choice for the part, an Australian surfing legend, named the best surfer of his day. He won the very first World Professional Surfing Championships, clinching the title in the big surf of Hawaii. He was a dominate force during surfing’s formative years. When he moved to California he became the head coach of the U.S. Surf Team, and was later the voice of surfing on the ESPN and Prime Ticket surf contest broadcasts. He was inducted into The Surfers’ Hall of Fame and his hand and footprints are enshrined on the sidewalk at The Surfers’ Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach.
The television show was called, “Name Your Adventure”, and it ran on NBC for three years in the early 1990’s.
The two hosts of the show, Mario Lopez and Jordan Brady, would seek out a new adventure each week, live out their fantasies by doing something they had never tried before; rock climbing, sky diving, something like that. Neither of them had ever tried surfing, so, in this early version of a reality series, surfing was chosen as the adventure for an upcoming show. Then after signing up Peter, the still young, former world champion surfer, they decided for contrast they should also have an older surfer “starring” in the film with Peter, maybe a gnarly old guy in his seventies if they could find such a thing. There weren’t too many old surfers of that age around in those days so they put out a call, looked us all over, and then held some tryouts to see if they could find one of that ancient vintage that could still stand up without assistance.
Chosen for the shoot was Leo Carrillo State Beach, known as Secos to surfers. Peter and I met with the director and the rest of the cast and crew on the sand early one morning for a briefing. It had been decided that the ocean and beach were not to be cleared for this filming; it was to be an ordinary, realistic, normal day with lots of surfers in the water and activities on the sand. And in keeping with that, our speaking parts were to be more or less improvised on the spot, just guys talking, but we were told what we would be talking about and where the conversation was to lead us. So the filming starts with the two would be surfers arriving at the beach with their rental boards and deciding to just sit on the sand and observe for a time, but all the while confident that they would master this adventure on their very first try; really, how hard could it be? So they sit a while and watch all the wave riders having fun, when suddenly one of the actors points at this surfer out there who is making it look fairly easy, and with some nice moves, who is going to end up on the beach right in front of them.
So they decide they will ask him some surfing questions when he hits the beach, but when he gets in closer they turn and look at each other and say, wow, how old is that guy anyway? I tell them seventy and that I’ve surfed all my life. And then as directed I proceed to show them some fundamental stuff, how to lie on the board, how to paddle, and how to jump to their feet. With all that new knowledge in mind they grab their boards, run to the water full of confidence, and then when they’re out of my hearing they say to each other, and to the camera,“If that old guy can surf anybody can do it, this will be a piece of cake!” Of course it wasn’t a piece of cake, the camera recorded them failing on every try, boards and bodies flying every which way, and gasping for air after every wipe-out. When they finally drag themselves back on the beach exhausted, I point out former world surfing champion Peter on a wave approaching us. I call Peter over and introduce him to the boys, who are duly impressed, and he graciously proceeds to impart some of his expertise and advice to these adventurers. The movie wraps up with the four of us, displaying our happy, laughing faces for the cameras, paddling out for another surf session where one of the actors actually manages to stand up on his board for a few brief seconds.
1. The pay was good, but it’s hard to believe they paid the world champion more than that old guy.
2. Mario Lopez has had a great career in movies and television since Name Your Adventure. He was even seen recently on TV going to the finals of “Dancing With The Stars” and losing to the eventual winner, pro football great, Emmett Smith.
3. Peter Townend was the stunt double for actor William Katt in the Hollywood surfing movie, “Big Wednesday”. In “reel” life, Katt played the first lifeguard assigned to Malibu Surfrider State Beach. In “real” life, I was the first.
All photos are from the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 07 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING, ITs A HARD LIFE
It wasn’t just a hotel room, it was a suite, with a separate bedroom, living room and kitchen, each room equipped with a telephone and television set. There was a corner office with a writing desk and luxurious couches and chairs were in abundance. A sunny, ocean view deck opened off the main room through two large glass doors. Dinner would be served soon in the dining room below, or it could be delivered to my suite if that was my desire stated the bellman who showed me to my suite. And here I was in the best hotel in the coastal town of San Clemente, California a few miles up the coast from San Onofre Beach where filming would commence the following morning.
My agent, if you can believe that, had called to tell me about a commercial that was soon to be made at San Onofre State Surfing Beach and I should give it a try. I don’t know how it came about but Homer had called me some time back and said he would like to be my agent at no cost to me and I said go for it. Homer had been in the business for a long time, he was even older than I was and I was seventy-five when he called about this job. Homer had sent me on a couple of other possibilities before this and the one previous to this one I remember very well. He said they needed a surfer my age with board and wet suit to appear in a commercial for a well-known motel chain that would be shot on the beach in San Francisco. So I appeared for the audition where a few other old guys had gathered, some were surfers that I knew, but none as old as I. After I had been interviewed and was waiting for the decision on which one of us old guys they were going to send to San Francisco, in walks Corky Carroll, well-known winner of three United States Surfing Championships, who had won more surfing contests than anyone in the world during his day, and had been named the best surfer in the world by Surfer Magazine some years back. Well he looked like he was in his thirties or forties so I knew he didn’t have a chance for this job since Homer said they wanted a guy just like me. But it wasn’t ten minutes before the director stepped out of his office and dismissed all of us to go home since they had picked the one they needed, Corky. With that in mind I had little faith when Homer told me they needed a guy my age for this San Onofre job.
On an April morning in the year 2000 I journeyed to Studio Seven at the On Your Mark Studios, La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, for my tryout. They needed three surfers: a grandfather type, a son type and a grandson type, and there were a whole lot of us gathered there in all three age brackets. After they interviewed us and looked us all over, they had us demonstrate some dry land surfing maneuvers for them to judge us by, and then those of us who were selected were told to report to Topanga Beach two days later for a surf off to determine which ones would get the job in the three categories. Well the day arrived and the surf didn’t amount to much that morning and some of the older contestants didn’t fare so well, but I knew the Topanga waves pretty well and came out ok. The lifeguards there had been cheering me on since I had worked there myself some years back and they all knew me.
I left my luxury suite at the hotel early in the morning on April 25 so I would be at the beach on time and be ready for the first day of filming at San Onofre for Palomar Pictures. The sight that greeted me on my arrival made me think I was at the wrong location. The whole park had been taken over. Hundreds of workers, long tables of food, equipment and trucks lined up along the entire stretch of San Onofre Beach. This couldn’t be for a Honda Automobile commercial, it must be at least a new Star Wars movie. I soon met up with the other two surfers and we were escorted by one of the female aides, assigned to us for the day, to a large trailer to meet the director, several assistant directors, the producer, the marine coordinator, a couple of camera men, the production supervisor, the ocean coordinator, the location manager and several Japanese executives who had flown over from Japan to be on the scene. The plan that was outlined for us by the director seemed simple enough; the cameras would record grandpa, son and grandson having a great time catching a few waves individually, and then in the grand finale the three of us would all get on the same wave, laughing and hollering for the camera, ride it all the way to the sand, jump off, grab our boards and run with them to the brand new Honda Wagon parked on the beach. There my “daughter-in-law”, the mother of my “grandson”, would be waiting to greet us with a smiling face. Piece of cake! And the waves were cooperating and looking mighty fine.
After breakfast at tables laden with an amazing assortment of delicacies, one of our aides took us to the makeup trailer where three ladies tried to see what they could do with us. One hair stylist decided to fluff up my hair for the camera and part it in a more creative way. When I informed her that it would be all wet in five minutes anyway she seemed surprised that surfers of our superior caliber would be getting our hair all wet in that salty old water. Next we went to the equipment trailer filled with all kinds of surfboards and wet suits awaiting our choice. Lots of color was wanted and the board I brought with me was ok but the other two picked new ones. Now a driver with a ski boat was assigned to each of us. None of that paddling out to catch waves on the part of us important leading men, we were to be boated back and forth out to where the waves were breaking. And if we lost a wave during the middle of a ride the driver would be right there to pick us up and whisk us back out to the waiting waves. Also a large boat was moored just beyond the surfline, there just in case we got tired and needed a break to rest or get a drink. There would be a crew there to assist us. There were two or three cameramen in boats and in the water shooting from different angles. I started to think maybe some of this activity had to do with the fact that there was a seventy five year old guy out there, but the three of us decided that out of the crew of a hundred or so on this project not one had the foggiest notion of what surfing was all about. It was either that or they were trying to see just how much of that Japanese capital could be spent on this commercial. We figured the three of us could have grabbed a surf photographer and shot this whole thing in about an hour or so for a couple of hundred dollars. But time after time for two full days, from every angle, and different locations, they had us do our surfing routine, hit the beach, grab our boards, and run up the beach to the Honda.
Grandson - Grandpa - Son Daughter-in-Law and Honda
They couldn’t have been nicer or more ready to accommodate our every need or desire, always asking if we were tired, needed a rest, could they do anything for us. One of the girls would even hand us our towels when we came out of the water and bring us a drink if desired. When the director one time after a long session asked how I was doing, and I said great, lots of fun, and that I did have a little cramp in the right calf for a short time out there he immediately said, well now, we’ll take care of that. He had my girl aide escort me to the medical trailer where a physical therapy guy was waiting to give me the best leg and body massage I ever had. Between takes we even had our own star trailer where we could rest, read, play cards or order food and drinks. Late at the end of the second day the production was wrapping up and everyone was picking up to go home. It was after the wrap meeting and paper work were done that I found that I had earned more in these two days of surfing than I had made in two full years of working when I first became a married man and permanent year around LA County Lifeguard in 1946. The Production Manager turned to me and said, say, why don’t you stay another night in the hotel, you’re probably tired after all that surfing, and then you could drive home in the morning. I happily took him up on that and returned to my suite of rooms at the hotel and another fine dinner. In the morning, after a good night’s sleep, there was just one more thing to do.
I went surfing.
Unless noted all photos are from the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 22 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING, AND A MOST UNUSUAL DAY
I know it was a winter day; but was it fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years ago? Not sure about that. Rick couldn’t remember either. Twenty is probably close. There had been a strong winter storm for the previous two or three days, with fierce winds and rain, and no good reason to go in the water. But today was different, the storm was on the wane, the wind had all but ceased, and in the aftermath there were waves, lots of waves. But the skies were still dark and overcast that morning as if nature was announcing that there could still be trouble afoot for later in the day; but for now I donned my wet suit, picked up my board and headed down the trail to the beach. Soon friend and neighbor Rick appeared carrying his board, and we stood on the sand surveying the possibilities. The waves were big all right, well overhead, something that often occurs after a heavy storm is on the way out. But these waves were different, very different. One thing affecting the waves was the ocean current, the strongest lateral current I had ever seen here on our beach, roaring downcoast. A lateral this strong is sometimes seen at sandy bottomed beaches like Zuma or Manhattan but much milder on a rocky beach like this with obstructions along the way. The lateral this day could carry a swimmer far down the coast before he knew what hit him. This current plus the heavy downcoast winds that had been blowing for a couple of days had a profound influence on the waves. Usually most waves break more or less parallel to the shoreline and roll toward the beach. The waves on this day were breaking almost perpendicular to the beach, angling sideways down the coast, all due to the aftermath of the cross wind we’d had and the lateral current that was pulling the waves at a greatly increased rate of speed down towards the pier in the distance.
There was no one on the beach that day and no one in the water as Rick and I watched for a while hoping for a lull in the wave action, but that wasn’t going to happen, so we finally just paddled straight through everything and on out to Hut Point. Storm waves with lots of power were everywhere out there, and fast following, one after another, with no great exertion needed to catch them. A couple of strokes and you felt yourself effortlessly being swiftly swept away and on down the coast at a more or less right angle with the shore, all dictated by the current and the wave itself, independent of the surfer who was as one with this wave and merely a passenger thereon. More distance was covered faster and in a shorter time than I ever remember before. The rides ended far down the beach at a site that could never be attained by riding a normal, regular wave on the biggest of days; all this due to the lateral current flowing as a river. The end of our rides was way down the beach near the point that is just before the cove and the pier, although some of the waves appeared to connect with the next section continuing on to the pier. Walking and running all the way back to catch another of these lengthy rides was tiring after three or four go outs, at least for one old guy, and we were out of the cold, winter water in something over an hour. It was all pretty exciting stuff but not a great accomplishment as the wave did all the work and the surfer was just along for the ride. It was truly a unique day. It was not long after our session ended that the weather suddenly worsened, the wind picked up, and we watched as the waves became ragged and unruly, our window closed, and then what we had was over.
Before that day and since that day I have seen a few times when conditions in a lesser way were similar to that event long ago, but never even close to equaling it. I guess for me, in all the years that I have been here, I would have to say that in my mind that day stands out foremost as the most memorable of all the days I have witnessed at our home break.
Unless noted, all photo's are from the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 22 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
TWO DAYS ON THE BEACH
It was 11:45 in the morning on the beach in Malibu, and in the shade my thermometer registered 100 degrees; others claimed it was 103. This was a Monday, September 27, 2010 on the day that the all time record of 113 degrees was set in Los Angeles. I don’t recall ever a hotter day on the beach; there wasn’t a hint of a breeze or air movement of any kind. So I did what I must do, what I had to do; I went surfing. The waves were somewhat on the small size that day, but of pleasing shape and not another surfer within sight. With an ocean temperature in the cool and low 60’s, and the blazing sun’s hot rays dancing off the water’s glassy surface, “I wantoned with thy breakers, they to me were a delight” (Lord Byron, 1812). Paradise Found could be an apt description of that day.
With the temperature still hovering around 100 degrees, and trying to keep cool at home later that afternoon, I found myself drifting back in thought to a time long ago and another beach day quite in contrast with this day’s experience. It was a Monday, January 10, 1949, over sixty years ago. And it was early morning when I pulled up and stopped my car at the lifeguard headquarters at Santa Monica Canyon State Beach where I was working that day as I had for several years. The sight that greeted me is one that has never been seen again in the sixty-one years since that day, and going by my research had probably never been seen in the history before this day. What I saw was that the wide, sandy beach before me that I knew so well had disappeared; in its place was a cold blanket of bright white snow running across the volleyball court and covering everything down to the water’s edge. I quickly recorded the sight with a hazy photo from my primitive camera that did little justice to this panorama before me.
Amazingly, it had, of course, snowed in many other places that night and morning in the Los Angeles area not just here, but the incongruity of seeing snow on the beach was startling. The air temperature that morning hovered in the low 30’s, and when I took the ocean temperature, as we did each morning, a surprising 47 degrees appeared on the gauge. That is common far north of here but I had never before seen a reading that low in Santa Monica Bay waters. I did recall an unusual 49 some years back. Our senior guard, Mac, had never seen it that low either, and he had been working the beaches since the year 1906 when he started as a lifeguard in the old Venice Salt Water Plunge where I too had worked as a young teenager. Now as lifeguards it so happens that we almost always took a swimming workout soon after we arrived at work. And with snow on the beach and the water at an all time low temperature, for sure we were going to do it, just to be able to brag that we did it, and maybe tell our grandchildren some day. Mac passed on the opportunity, but the three of us headed for the water. Now I won’t say that we covered our usual course of swimming down to the beach club and back, a distance of several hundred yards, but we did thrash around a bit and did some high volume screaming and hollering. And this was years before the invention of wet suits. Afterwards, when good and frozen, we ran back across the snowy beach to the station; and thank heaven for hot showers.
Heading up Topanga from the Beach in Deep Snow
A few of our lifeguard buddies who weren’t on duty that day set off in search of a hillside smooth enough to lend itself to a bit of snow skiing. They found what they were looking for on the slopes of Palos Verdes where, in those days, there were few houses or trees or brush to get in the way. They were rewarded with a day of good skiing and by getting their photos plastered on the front pages of the newspapers the next day. I envied them as the snow melted quickly near the beach, and when my days off arrived a couple of days later my friends and I had to go a bit higher in the local hills to find enough snow left so that I could show off my amazing skill and have my photo taken streaking by with blinding speed.
Just a blurrrrrrr----
All photo's are from the private collection of Cal Porter
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 13 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
TODAY AND YESTERDAY
Today (photo source: wikipedia)
I grew up on the beach in the middle of this photograph, but almost nothing in this modern picture was there when I was a kid in the 1920’s and 30’s. To start with, the beautiful marina in the photo, the largest small boat harbor in the world, at that time was a wild and overgrown salt marsh with a small lake and a swamp full of animal life and creepy things for us kids to explore. Exciting times we had there. Excavation for the waterway was not commenced until 1963 although the idea was hatched in the minds of some planners as far back as the late 1800’s. The town of Marina Del Rey with its beautiful homes and shops that now surround the harbor in the photo wasn’t there, it was all vacant land. The Venice Pier seen in the lower right in the photo at the terminus of Washington Boulevard was not constructed until 1965. The original Venice Pier was a couple of miles to the north and was removed in the 1940’s. Ballona Creek, the thin blue line of water alongside the inlet to the harbor, was there when I was young but in a much wilder state. It was a free flowing river with sycamores and willows along its banks and often flooded the countryside. In 1935 the river was tamed and contained within concrete walls making it a flood control channel. Long ago this was the outfall for the larger Los Angeles River, but after flooding one year the river changed its own course and now empties into the ocean at Long Beach. The creek had two short rock jetties at its outlet to the ocean. The short one in the photo was there when I was a kid, and it’s still there. In the 1930’s I kept a spare surfboard at a friend’s house on the beach right there so that we could ride the waves that peeled off on each side of the jetty. The waves on the north side of this jetty would take us some distance up the creek itself, depending on the size of the swell. We also did a lot of swimming up and down Ballona Creek which is unwise today considering the water quality, although it was probably just as bad then but we didn’t worry about things like that. The crossbar rock breakwater in the photo that blocks the waves today was not there of course.
Future Sight of the Marina Del Rey Boat Harbor where I Played as a Kid
(photo source: wikipedia)
Now going south, or up in the aerial photo, the little, blue Playa del Rey Lagoon on the beach alongside Ballona Creek can be seen, but it’s far different than when I was a kid. There was a deep, man-made channel that ran from the lagoon across the beach and into the ocean. The sea water would rush in or out of the lagoon depending on the tides, keeping the water fresh and clean, a great place to swim. Alongside this channel and jutting out into the ocean was the Del Rey Fishing Pier that was removed some fifty or sixty years ago. We kids considered this “our” pier and it furnished us with many a fish dinner. On the sandy banks of the lagoon stood the Lagoon Lunch Stand, owned by friends of the family who occasionally employed me for a dollar a day. At the stand I was sometimes called upon to expertly cook and prepare tasty hamburgers at six cents apiece for the customers, and hot dogs for a nickel in 1935. All I know about cooking today I owe to the Lagoon Lunch Stand. The Westport Beach Club with its fine swimming pool was just down the beach, gone now for many years. Straight inland a few miles from the lagoon in the photo is Playa Vista, a huge home, condo and shopping development that in my day was all agriculture land cultivated for celery, beans and tomatoes, and later owned by Howard Hughes. Just above this in the photo is the sprawling city of Westchester, none of it there in my day, it was all farmland except for a gas station and store or two.
Now to my home town. In the photo looking directly toward the ocean from Westchester until you hit the sand lies what is left of Playa Del Rey, “the King’s Beach”. There is a cluster of homes there and then beyond along the beach is a vacant stretch of land with many squiggly white lines. Those lines are the remains of the roads along which many large and beautiful Spanish style, red tiled beach houses once stood. Our home overlooked the beach in just about the middle of that now vacant landscape. What happened to all those homes? Well if you look directly inland from that spot you will see the culprit, and its name is LAX. That locale was chosen on which to establish the Los Angeles International Airport. When my family built our home there in the mid 1920’s that land was completely wild and vacant with some of the acreage devoted to the raising of lima beans. Then the airport was built and it was small, but through the years it was forever expanding. The decision was finally made that our house and the others there were in the way and had to go. And go they did, by eminent domain. I was grown up and long gone when this occurred but my father was still there.
Our Home at Playa Del Rey
In the aerial photo at the beginning of this story the white, sandy beach is quite wide. In my day the beach was a narrow strip of sand with great breaking waves for some fine surfing and bodysurfing. Tracks for the big red streetcars that ran along the inland edge of the beach from Redondo to Los Angeles were there. Down the beach a ways from our house was a short fishing pier, another hangout for my brothers and me. Just south of Playa Del Rey towering sand dunes once covered a large area. This site was chosen for the Hyperion Waste Water Treatment Plant, and the dunes had to be leveled to make room. In the 1940’s the sand was pumped for several years through a system of large pipes onto the narrow beach, forever changing its size and contour, and also negatively affecting our surfing waves. The white buildings of the plant can be seen in the photo. Beyond the treatment plant lie the beach towns of El Segundo, Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo, all there of course when I was young but much smaller in size.
This photo illustrates the changes that have taken place in the Playa Del Rey area between the time almost 86 years ago when we built our home here and the aerial photograph that began this story. Our home was on the beach just off to the right of this photo. The vast empty land that we kids called the valley at the top of the photo is where the city of Westchester and the LAX Airport lie today. To us this was a play land where we could roam, explore, build forts, and chase rabbits and other wild things. The lagoon at the bottom of the photo was there but much larger than today. The Lagoon Lunch Stand was on the white sand peninsula. In earlier days a hotel, bath house and restaurant were on the lagoon shore. The channel that connected the lagoon to the ocean can be seen with a bridge spanning the inlet. The Playa Del Rey fishing Pier is in the lower right corner. The two white buildings in the middle of the photo are still there today. One was the village market and the other contained a restaurant, drug store with soda fountain, and some offices. One man alone ran the market, the fire department and the real estate office. I think he was also the honorary mayor. All this and he had three daughters around my age.
The first photo in this story shows the many changes, improvements, diversions, and progress that have been made through the years since the last photo above was taken. This black and white older photo shows a much simpler time, a time that no longer exists.
Each era had its own advantages and drawbacks. I think I know which I prefer.
Besides, the surf was much better back then.
Unless noted, all photos courtesy of the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 17 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE SAGA OF THE LONG DISTANCE SWIMMER
I used to fancy myself as a half-way decent long distance swimmer. After all I always did pretty well in the annual pier to pier swim, Manhattan Beach to Hermosa in the 1940’s; I’ve got a medal or two. I suppose that was about a couple of miles in the ocean, pretty much the same distance as my occasional workout swim from the Ocean Park Pier to the Venice Pier in my youth. I swam across a few lakes, too, Arrowhead and Big Bear for example. And I did take first place in the one mile ocean rough water swim against the other competitors in the Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguard exam in the early 1940’s. However, I’ll have to admit, all of the swims above was like I was dog-paddling in the kiddie pool compared to the real long distance swimmers.
photo source: 17hourtrainingday.com
When I was a kid living on the beach and swimming in the ocean daily, I would look out across the water and see an island and thought that swimming to Catalina would be the ultimate but impossible swim. This was the late 1920’s, early 30’s. Then I read somewhere that it had been done. William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of Catalina Island, had offered $25,000 to whoever won the first island to mainland race he organized to take place on January 15, 1927. That was a whole lot of money and eighty-seven men and fifteen women entered. Only one swimmer finished the race in that first attempt to swim the channel. Seventeen year old George Young from Canada did the twenty two miles in fifteen hours, forty-four minutes and thirty seconds. Of course that record has been cut in half now and numerous swimmers have accomplished the feat. Even fifty mile double crossings have been made.
photo source: wikipedia
I suppose the modern age of long distance swimming began on May 3, 1810 when British poet, Lord Byron, at the age of twenty-two, swam the several miles to cross the Hellespont from Europe to Asia. Although earlier, in Greek mythology anyway, in about 25 BC, Leander would swim across the Hellespont every night to tryst with his lady love, Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite. Hero would light a lantern in the tower each night to guide his way. But Leander drowned one night, after many successful crossings, when a storm blew out the lantern and he lost his way. In Byron’s day no one thought a swim of that distance in rough water would be possible. Byron decided to prove them wrong since swimming was one of his great passions: “Once more upon the waters! Yet once more! And the waves bound beneath me as a steed”. Childe Harold, 1812.
Today the Hellespont is swum frequently by those emulating Leander and Lord Byron. There are even races across the Hellespont occasionally.
photo source: reelyredd.com
Leander swims the Hellespont
photo source: wikipedia
Sixty-five years after Byron’s feat, Mathew Webb, after being in the water twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes stepped ashore in Calais, France to be the first person to swim the English Channel. In 1926, nineteen year old Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to do it, bettering the time to fourteen hours, thirty-nine minutes. She became an instant celebrity with a ticker tape parade through New York City. She declined the invitation to swim the one mile longer Catalina Channel race the following year since her fame had brought her so many opportunities she couldn’t fit it in. Today well over a thousand swimmers have conquered the English Channel and the record is seven hours three minutes. One swimmer has done it forty-three times and has completed a three-way channel crossing, a return journey to Dover and then back to France again. In 1988 an eleven year old boy did it.
photo source: astro.com
These channel swims pale in comparison to what some other long distance swimmers are attempting these days. In 1979 Dianna Nyad took the longest swim in history up until that date from the Island of Bimini in the Caribbean to Florida, 102.5 miles. It took her more than two days of constant swimming. She also swam from the Bahamas to Florida. Then in 1998 Australian, Susie Maroney, swam 122 miles from Mexico to Cuba, the longest swim in the open sea. She swam continually for thirty-eight hours and thirty-three minutes. But how about Martin Strel in 2001 swimming the 1,875 miles down the Danube River in fifty-eight days. Of course this was not a continuous swim. Then in 2002 he did the Mississippi River, 2,360 miles in 68 days. Next he did the Amazon River, all 3,274 miles of it with all its hazards. But the longest of all was the feat of swimming across the Atlantic Ocean. Benoit Lecomte did it by swimming eight hours a day for seventy-two days, a total of 3,736 miles. But, hey, all these guys got out of the water every night for a hearty meal and a bit of shut eye before starting again the next morning. Any of us could do that, right? I still like Susie Maroney swimming for thirty-eight straight hours from Mexico to Cuba.
photo source: thewaterisopen.com
Well all this talk of long distance swimming is making me tired. After all, I did swim out to the surf line and back in front of my house this morning, and that’s got to be at least a hundred feet or so.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 27 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
It is now the late 1930’s, it’s early morning, and I am just leaving Santa Monica with a couple of friends heading for Malibu for a day of searching for waves, some diving adventures, and warm sandy beaches. This is an account of what we see on this journey over seventy years ago, and how the landscape has changed from then until now.
Balsa Surfboards Atop My 1938 Ford
First we exit Santa Monica’s McClure Tunnel and connect with Roosevelt Highway, renamed Pacific Coast Highway today, and head north. The tunnel was originally called the Olympic Tunnel and later the Palisades Tunnel back in those days; and before that the cut through the hill was first a railroad right of way leading to the Long Wharf at the Port of Los Angeles. The tunnel was named for Robert McClure, the editor of the Santa Monica Outlook Newspaper. Once on the highway we will not encounter even one stop signal, boulevard stop or slow down if we drove the 50 miles all the way to Oxnard. What a contrast to today where there are signals every few blocks. On the beach side we now pass the spectacular William Randolph Hearst-Marion Davies Mansion of which only one small wing remains today, and then we pass Santa Monica Canyon Beach. We soon see the lighthouse and restaurant-bathhouse that were just beyond at that time, the site where the old Long Wharf once extended a mile out to sea. This was to be the Port of Los Angeles before Long Beach-San Pedro came up with the same idea. Everything is gone now, only a short rock jetty remains where TV’s Baywatch was filmed in later years.
Lighthouse with Malibu in Distance Castle Rock
photos sourde: Santa Monica Public Library
We pass the lighthouse and next we see the piers that are no longer there but at that time jutted into the ocean just a little before we reach Sunset Boulevard creating some fine surfing waves for us. And then just before what is now the turnoff for the Getty Museum we pass Castle Rock. Castle Rock was a landmark, a tall rock pinnacle alongside the highway, and fun to climb on. It was removed some fifty years ago to stop the constant flow of pebbles and gravel it deposited on the road for cars to run over. The beach is still called Castle Rock. Next we would soon be surf checking at Topanga Beach in front of a solid row of houses that are gone now, removed after the area became a public beach. Only a lifeguard station is there now. On the right we pass the Topanga Beach Auto Court that was built in 1912 and though considered an eyesore by many it is still there today, only now called the Topanga Ranch Motel. Of course it wasn’t called a motel back then; that term was not created until 1925 from the two words, motor and hotel for a motor court in San Luis Obispo.
Still There Today Almost 90 Years Later
On the beach side of the road we now pass La Esperanza, famous movie star Greta Garbo’s house that she built in 1928 and is still there. We pass a few other beach houses along here that were built in the early 1900’s, and a couple of those are still there. In a few miles we reach the Las Flores Inn, built in 1912, later becoming the Sea Lion, and now reincarnated as Duke’s. This marked the spot where the Rindge Ranch fence and the armed vaqueros stopped us from all further travel in the 1920’s when I was a child out for a Sunday drive with my parents. Now in the 30’s we drove right through, the highway having been opened in 1929. There were some homes but not many on the beach and very few on the hillsides along this stretch from Duke’s to the Malibu Pier, whereas now it is built solid without an open beach lot anywhere. The La Costa Beach Club was already there way back then, built to lure would be buyers to the area, but the beach around it was empty. Edgar Rice Burrows, the creator of Tarzan had one of the few houses on the beach there. The only market in Malibu was in the building on the landside at La Costa, and there is a market there in the same spot today. The first Malibu Post Office wasn’t there yet; mail had to be picked up in Pacific Palisades even when I moved to Malibu in 1949. The following year the little one room Post Office opened in that building with one postman for Malibu. This building was the commercial center of Malibu then. Still there today, built in 1933, was the brick courthouse nearby, presided over by Judge John Webster doling out his justice to miscreants. Next door was a gas station which now houses Terra Restaurant.
Malibu in the 1930’s
We are now driving on our way to what was our usual goal, Malibu Surfrider Beach as it is now called. Then, in the 1930’s, it was simply referred to as Malibu by surfers or by its earlier name, Keller’s Shelter. There is a scattering of houses on Carbon Beach and a lot of empty sand there but nothing on the inland side of the highway along this entire stretch on the way to the pier except the Associated Telephone building (now Verizon and still there), and the old iron shed that was originally the engine house for the Rindge Railroad, and then later became the lumber yard among other uses. It was torn down in 1984 and a modern office building is there today. Where there was nothing, this whole stretch of highway today is covered with restaurants, shops and condos. As can be seen in the photograph above there was nothing in the middle of Malibu either, which is the main business district today, no stores, restaurants or buildings of any kind. The only thing besides nature to be seen on that side of the highway was the Rindge Estate high atop Vaquero Hill. There were some homes on the beach in the “Malibu Movie Colony”, as it was called; the first cottage was built in 1926 for Swedish actress, Anna Q. Nielson, soon to be followed in the 30’s by Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Harold Lloyd and many more as the years went by. The Adamson House on the surfing point was there, built for Rhoda Rindge in 1930. You can see that the highway, that now goes inland over the hill toward Pepperdine, at that time followed Old Malibu Road along the beach. There was no Malibu Canyon Road. Opposite the Colony stood the Malibu Inn, long before it moved to its present location across the road from the Malibu Pier. It and the Las Flores Inn were the only two places to eat in Malibu in contrast to the dozens and dozens of restaurants of all kinds throughout Malibu today. The pier was there then, built in 1905 for ranch use. It was much shorter before it was rebuilt to its present length after a storm in 1938. There were very few surfers at Malibu in those days, usually just you and who you brought with you, a very different story today. It was first surfed by lifeguards Tom Blake and Sam Reid in 1926 when they parked their car, avoided the armed guards at the fence and paddled the remaining miles to what is now one of the most famous surfing spots in the world.
Malibu Surfrider Today
photo source: cpucashin.net
If we ventured beyond our favorite surf spot there were just a few homes as we drove along Old Malibu Road, and then nothing until we reached Corral Beach where there was one house that is gone now. Then beyond there again there was nothing on either side of the road at Latigo, Escondido, Paradise Cove, Point Dume, nothing, until we reached what is now Zuma Beach where we would bodysurf in the crystal clear water. Point Dume was empty fields and cattle grazing with no one on the beautiful beach or in the waves for miles, we had it all to ourselves; today it is quite a different story. There was no Kanan Dume Road. Across from Zuma Beach, Malibu Park was bean fields and tomatoes, not one house, but on the sands of Zuma Beach there were six homes, one of which my family and I lived in later for several years; all are gone now to make room for parking lots. There were also four houses on the sand at Westward Beach, all removed when Westward became a public beach.
Our House on Zuma Beach with no Houses in Malibu Park, 1952
At the intersection of Trancas Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway there also was nothing, whereas now there is a market, Starbucks and a thriving business corner. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the Malibu Trading Post was established there, the second market in Malibu, where we could buy most anything from groceries to clothing to hardware items. The Trading Post had the only telephone in Western Malibu for many years. A gas station was next door. Malibu West was not there until the early 1960’s when I bought a four bedroom house there for 35,000 (in the millions now). But getting back to the 30’s on our trip north, Trancas Beach or Broad Beach as it is called was all an open stretch of sand except for five or six houses, the most prominent ones being the one in the shape of a lighthouse owned by famous silent screen actress, Pauline Frederick and the Boathouse next door, built in the early 1930’s along the dirt road. Today there has not been a vacant beach lot left on Broad Beach for many years where such residents as Frank Sinatra, Robert Redford, Jack Lemon, Dustin Hoffman and Ronald Reagan have all had homes. Going north from here on our 1930’s adventure I recall seeing only one house of any kind along the beaches and bluffs or on the inland side of the road all the way to Oxnard, except for some sheds or barns. Only pristine surfing waves and clear water for diving possibilities greeted us along this stretch. Today the bluffs are covered with beautiful homes and the hills are filling up. The one structure we did see back then was the Phillips Ranch House where the lifeguard station stands today, situated on the beach at what is now Leo Carrillo State Park, established in the late 1950’s. Ventura County is a mile beyond.
Phillips Ranch House on the Point
So ends our trip along the coast in the 1930’s, definitely a different time. Incidentally, the photo above was taken from my property at Nicholas Beach that I purchased in the early 1950’s and built my home. The property consisted of a whole acre of bluff and beach land.
The price: 4000 dollars. Nostalgia all over again.
Unless noted, all photos courtesy of the Cal Porter collection.
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 04 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
PARADISE ENOW, THE COVE
Paradise is defined as a place of harmony and contentment where existence is not only positive but timeless. In the eleventh century when Omar Khayyam wrote in his long Persian poem, The Rubaiyat, that “Wilderness were Paradise Enow” he was saying that anyplace can be a paradise, even a wilderness, if certain conditions exist there. In his case it was, “A book of verses, a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, beside me singing in the wilderness”. That was enough to make the wilderness a “paradise enow” for Omar, “enow” meaning “enough” in early English. For others Paradise might require a quite different set of requirements, perhaps a beautiful beach with good surfing.
Omar in the Wilderness
photo source: Wikipedia
Places called Paradise this, or Paradise that, are everywhere, and Paradise Coves abound in the world. There are several in California alone. There is the one here in Malibu where many of us live. Then there is a Paradise Cove in San Diego, and one up on San Francisco Bay, another on Lake Isabella in the Sierras, one on Clear Lake up in Northern California, Sequoia National Park has a Paradise Cove, and there is one on the far north coast. And these are just the ones I’ve heard of. The rest of the world is also full of Paradise Coves. They are to be found in Florida, Hawaii, Australia, France, Fiji Islands, Samoa, and the Cook Islands to mention just a few. Look at a coastline map and chances are you might spy a Paradise Cove.
Paradise Cove, Malibu
Paradise Cove in Malibu didn’t exist when I was a kid coming to the beaches in this area. Of course the place was here but not the name, it was just a nice beach off the highway to have a picnic or to fish and swim, there was nothing here. The Chumash Indians were the first ones at Paradise Cove. Their settlement was called Sumo and was second in size only to the village of Humaliwo at Malibu Lagoon, now called Surfrider Beach. Sumo was a major fishing and trading village. The Chumash date back eight or nine thousand years. There was a sacred Indian burial grounds at Paradise Cove and many artifacts have been found here. When Spain took over California in the eighteenth century Malibu was handed out in the form of land grants to several families through the years. Finally in 1892 all 26 miles of Malibu was purchased by Frederick Rindge for ten dollars an acre. The former owner, Mathew Keller, had paid ten cents an acre for it some years previously. “Keller’s Shelter” at that time, and long after, was the name for present day Malibu Surfrider Beach.
The Early Days, Point Dume and Paradise Cove
The Rindges had cattle in Ramirez Canyon and on down into Paradise Cove. I remember seeing cattle as late as the early 1940’s grazing in the canyon before any houses had been built there. I also remember a lot of dry farming going on nearby with lima beans, tomatoes and other crops that didn’t require irrigation. There were no homes on Point Dume next door to Paradise cove. We would drive our car across the open fields to find a way down the cliffs to surf and dive. Evidence of the “Hueneme, Malibu and Port Los Angeles Railway”, built in 1908, can still be seen in Paradise Cove. This Rindge owned railroad was built to thwart the efforts of the Southern Pacific to gain a right of way through Malibu. An immense trestle was built from hill to hill across Paradise Cove to carry the cars. The cut through the hill for the railway alongside the recreation hall is still there and can be seen today. Some years back we were still finding railroad ties and rails along the route.
Paradise Cove Trestle
There also were no homes along the bluffs down the beach from the Cove where the mansions are today. I remember a narrow dirt road, the only one along that stretch that would take you from the highway down a small canyon right to the beach between the Cove and Escondido Beach. There was a sizeable sand dune that ran up the side of the cliff there in those days, and this completely deserted beach was a great place to bring your girl friend.
Paradise Cove, pre WW2.
Club House but no Pier yet.
Rumors abound that during the prohibition years, 1920 to 1933, bootlegging rum-runners used Paradise Cove and Pirates Cove just up the beach to unload their contraband. I guess I must have missed that. But anyway, in 1939 a development plan for the Paradise Cove, Point Dume area was published showing a golf course, polo field, tennis center, and resort hotel but nothing came of it. Before World War 2 came along Frank Wilson and Al Camp bought the Cove, built a club house (restaurant now) and laundry-restroom building, but their plans were put on hold when the war interrupted. In 1945 they sold the cove to Bill Swanson who completed the plans and opened a vacation RVcamp and trailer park with seventy-one spaces. The pier was built in 1945. Swanson sold the forty acre property to Joe Morris in the late 50’s. Morris then added the 30 acre upper section of the park, buying it from Fred Roberts who owned most of Solstice Canyon and other properties. Morris sold Paradise Cove in 1964 to the Kissel Family who own it to this day.
You know, I never have found out who named this place Paradise Cove. It wasn’t called that in my youngest days, and it wasn’t on any old maps so I have to believe it was those two early buyers, Wilson and Camp who had big plans for this beach, or maybe Bill Swanson who took over in 1945. At any rate, I think even Omar Khayyam would judge this place to be a paradise even without his “Book of verse, jug of wine, loaf of bread, and thou beside me singing in the wilderness”.
But those things couldn’t hurt!
Unless noted, all photos courtesy of the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 17 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SWIMMING, THEN AND NOW
“To swim or not to swim that is the question”! Maybe that’s not quite the way Shakespeare phrased it, but it wasn’t the question anyway; I had to swim, no choice. I was born and raised on the beach at Playa del Rey, and that was all water out there. We also belonged to a beach club, The Santa Monica Deauville Beach Club, with a great indoor swimming pool. I don’t ever remember not being in the water in one place or the other, but mostly it was the ocean. I suppose my first formal instruction, if it could be called that, was in the club pool by my father. This would be in the mid 1920’s when I was about two years old, but mainly I was on my own. If you’re in the water a lot swimming is something that happens. Many people at that time, probably most, couldn’t swim at all. My mother couldn’t swim, and my father was just ok. They were born far inland in 1891 and there wasn’t a whole lot of swimming going on at that time unless you lived on a river or a lake and you figured out how not to drown once you got in there.
It’s not that swimming was anything new, it had been around for a while. The fact is swimming has been recorded since prehistoric times. The first dates back to about 7000B.C. in southwestern Egypt. These Stone Age paintings are on the wall in what is now called, “The Cave of Swimmers”, and the figures seem to be doing some sort of a breast stroke or dog paddle. If you saw the Oscar winning movie, “The English Patient”, a few years ago, you saw this cave that played a prominent role in the picture.
The Cave of Swimmers, 7000 B.C.
photo source: heritage-key.com
Almost as old as the cave swimmers is a depiction on an Egyptian clay seal showing four swimmers doing what looks like a variant of a front crawl stroke of sorts. As for written references to swimming, they date back to 2000B.C. in “Gilgamesh”, a historical account of the king of Babylonia written in the Sumerian language on clay tablets. Then there was Homer’s, “The Iliad and The Odyssey”, around 800B.C., and The Bible that both mention swimming, as does the later work, “Beowulf”, which was made into a movie recently. And let’s not forget the Greek Ovid and his story of Leander swimming the rough, mile-wide Hellespont to tryst with his lover on the other side, about 25B.C. Too bad that one night Leander drowned when the storm blew out the beacon light on the far shore and he lost his way. His lady love threw herself from the tower onto the rocks below when she heard the news. None of these works describe what sort of swimming is taking place, but there must have been some sort of swimming going on at a palace discovered in India, dating back to 2800 B.C., that was found to have a swimming pool of considerable size, 30 meters x 60 meters. Lastly, there is the first written work devoted solely to swimming, “Colynbetes”, written by a German language professor, Nicolas Wynman in 1538. It was mainly about how to learn the breast stroke and avoid drowning.
Leander Swims the Hellespont, 25 B.C.
photo source: wikipedia
But enough about ancient history, on to the twentieth century. A lot has changed in the world of swimming since ancient times, and a whole lot has changed just since I was a high school swimmer when you compare those days with the sport of swimming today. Swimming competitively in the late 30’s and early 40’s, seventy some years ago, was a far different world.
1. Shaving. Would any guy back then shave any part of his body before competition hoping to increase his speed? Wow, no way. Never heard of such a thing. Now I understand that some guys shave everything, even their heads sometimes.
2. Starting blocks. We dove from the pool wall. Never heard of a starting block. We would spread a wet towel on the concrete so we wouldn’t slip and get off to a bad start. Our feet were standing only a few inches above the water level. I read that a low version of the starting block was used as early as the 1936 Berlin Olympics but we didn’t know about it, and it didn’t catch on until sometime later.
3. Lane lines. Early on we didn’t have floating lane lines. If we were lucky some of the pools we competed in had black lane lines painted on the floor of the pool so you could stay on course, that is if your eyes didn’t hurt too much from the chlorine to see them. Floating lane lines came later; I know we had them when I swam for UCLA in 1942.
4. Flip turns. Nope! They weren’t developed until the 1950’s. They were used in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. We swam straight to the wall, touched with our fingers, tucked and turned, and pushed off with our feet.
5. Goggles. Most all swimmers use them now. We had some primitive goggles we used for skin diving before diving masks were invented but no one used them in swimming competition. In the Olympics they were used for the first time in 1976.
6. Butterfly stroke. No such thing. Crawl, breast stroke and backstroke; that was it. I remember hearing something about the stroke at the time. Then a few years later, when I was still competing, some swimmers started to combine a bit of butterfly with the breast stroke; they got away with it and it was accepted as part of that event. Originally it was considered a novelty and too tiring to swim for any distance. In 1953 it was made into a separate event.
7. Dolphin kick. We had seen dolphins do it but even if we knew how to do it ourselves the dolphin fishtail kick violated the rules and was not allowed.
8. Backstroke. Turning over completely on your stomach approaching the wall before touching to make a turn? No way, disqualified. But they do it today.
9. Hi-tech speed suits. How did these things ever get Ok’d for swimming competition? Almost 200 world records in just the last two years. A pair of trunks for men and a swim suit for women, that’s all that should ever have been allowed.
10. How about competition in a nice, hot, salt water plunge? No longer, I’m sure. Hard to believe but our home pool at Venice High School was the huge Venice Plunge at the beach. We worked out there daily in that comfortable environment, and we seldom lost a swim meet when our opponents arrived from their cold, fresh water tanks and entered our realm. Of course we lost a few when we had those away swim meets at their venues.
The Venice Plunge
This list could go on and on with examples of how swimming has changed with improvements in pool construction, better coaching, training, and all that but I’ll stop at ten. I’ll tell you what has really changed though, swimming records. We thought we were pretty good in the old days. I even thought it was hot when I took the L.A. City Beach Lifeguard test almost seventy years ago and had the fastest times in all the three qualifying races, the 1000 meter pool swim, the half mile rough water ocean swim, and the run-swim-run. Big deal, today a decent 12 to 13 year old girl club swimmer could beat those times with ease. Some at that age are swimming the 50 yard free style in 22 seconds and the 100 yards in 47 seconds. Johnny Weissmuller, Tarzan in the movies, and the greatest swimmer of all time, who never lost a race in ten years and held 67 worlds records couldn’t even come close to matching those times.
It’s kinda humbling, that’s what it is.
Unless noted, all photos courtesy of the Cal Porter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 01 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SANTA MONICA YACHT HARBOR
I was ten years old when I watched the Santa Monica Harbor breakwater being completed and then dedicated on Sunday, August 5, 1934. It had taken almost two years to complete after the first attempt utilizing a series of concrete cribs cracked and failed due to strong currents on the ocean floor. Tons of rock quarried on Catalina Island and towed to Santa Monica by barge finished the job. As early as 1922 there had been serious talk of constructing a large harbor adjacent to the Santa Monica Pier that had been there since 1909. The thought was that a safe anchorage in Santa Monica Bay would result in a yacht haven for boats from all over Southern California, if not the world, and be of great benefit to the growing city. At the time the nearest boat harbor was thirty miles away at Long Beach, and Marina del Rey was many decades off in the future.
My family and I had watched these proceedings from the pier, the beach, and from the Deauville Beach Club where we were members. We lived a few miles south on the beach at Playa del Rey but we had been members of the club since it opened in the mid 1920’s. The Deauville was the most beautiful and lavish of all the beach clubs with its indoor and outdoor swimming pools, ballroom, and fine restaurants; it was on the sand directly opposite the new harbor. We had looked forward to this harbor with great excitement after seeing the early renderings of what it would look like.
The Los Angeles Times, 1930.
For many reasons, financing as one of them, this plan never reached fruition. The pier and breakwater were never connected by a bridge, the long concrete walkway along the breakwater where strollers could promenade and enjoy the sights never happened. The large sailing ship in the middle of the harbor where the municipal band and other musical groups would blast away was but a dream. What we got was a plain and simple, but substantial, straight rock wall, but we kids loved the harbor for all the new activities it provided for us, excellent lobster diving being one of them.
Engineers at that time didn’t seem to have a clue as to what could happen when the natural flow of the currents and sand were altered. Almost immediately a sand build up was created on the narrow beach behind the breakwater. Where the high tide previously came right up and lapped against the glass wall in front of our beach club, now it was a one hundred yard walk for a swim. Other home owners and club members up the beach complained that where they used to take a few steps out their doors or off their decks to get wet now it was as if their places had been transported inland. Constant dredging commenced to keep the sand build up from extending halfway out to the breakwater. Some of the southern beaches, however, had the opposite complaint; their beaches were eroding away due to the breakwater.
The Deauville With Ever Widening Beach, 1930’s.
The harbor was very popular and soon crowded with fishing boats, pleasure boats, and a few very large yachts. Movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and many other celebrities kept their boats here where it was close to the studios and their homes. However, the single row of rocks running parallel to shore that formed the breakwater often didn’t afford adequate protection. Some years did go by with few problems. If the wind, surf and currents were straight on shore that was one thing, the boats were somewhat protected by the breakwater, but if the elements were coming in on an angle from the south or especially from the north with no rock barrier to block them, there could be rough, stormy water and trouble. Boats were routinely lost after pulling loose from their moorings. Sometimes a great many would end up on the beach during the strongest of storms. Some could be salvaged and towed back out to their anchorage, others were lost. My brother and I owned a thirty foot fishing boat which we fished commercially when not lifeguarding at our jobs on the beach or attending our college classes. We could conveniently sell all of our catch to The Santa Monica Seafood Company located right there on the pier. We felt relatively safe in the harbor since we had a mooring with 1500 pounds of weight on the ocean floor. However, that proved to be not enough one night during the worst storm in years that succeeded in wrenching our boat free. A call from the harbor department in the early morning hours informing us that our boat was not on its mooring got us to the beach in a hurry. Ours was not among the boats that we saw on the sand opposite the breakwater so we headed south of the pier where there were others. What we eventually found was that our boat had the misfortune of blowing straight toward the next pier, the Crystal Pier, taking out a piling or two on its way through to total destruction. Only a few pieces were left to identify.
After The Storm
For a good many years the harbor continued to be immensely popular and drew huge crowds to the beach. The steamship, Cabrillo, offered the tourists daily service to Catalina Island from the harbor, and a shore boat was there to ferry patrons three miles out to the gambling ship, the Rex, run by underworld notable, Tony Cornero, a colorful, recent prison inmate jailed on bootlegging charges. He was closed down later at gun point. But sadly through years of damage by storms the harbor’s waters were becoming increasingly unsafe for boat mooring, and gradually yacht and sailboat owners began departing for quieter waters. By the late 1940’s mostly fishing boats braved the rough waters with just a few yachts remaining. And then in later years it was finally deserted for good without a single boat remaining. Today at high tide the deteriorating rock wall is hardly visible, and at lower tide it looks lonely and forlorn, serving little purpose
But once upon a time it was a glorious sight.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 26 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A TALE OF WARMER WATERS
My brother Ray and I had some vacation time coming. A week and a half would be about what we would need. Our plan was to do some exploring and diving along Mexico’s west coast with no particular destination in mind. We would scan the beaches and stop when and where a stretch of water looked inviting and held some promise of clear water and good diving. This was the mid-1940’s and not a whole lot, in fact nothing, was known or written about free diving this area. The fact is very little diving was going on in Southern California either in those early days since scuba and wet suits were not to arrive on the scene for many years. Those two items would later attract countless enthusiasts and change diving forever. At the time of this story, however, even diving masks and swim fins had only been in existence for a few years, fins having been invented by Owen Churchill in 1939 and on the market in limited numbers by 1940, and primitive diving masks shortly after. Before that time our skin diving consisted of bare feet and water goggles, preferably from Japan.
The First Commercial Diving Masks and Fins, early 1940’s
Ted, the area beach lieutenant, granted our vacation request and made plans to fill in with replacements. Ray and I were permanent, year around, Los Angeles County Beach Lifeguards working in the county’s central division at Santa Monica Canyon State Beach. The diving right there in front of our station was quite good in those days before the beach widened considerably through the years, covering the lobster crowded reefs with many feet of sand, and at the same time spoiling the fine, peaky surfing waves we enjoyed in the area.
Another reason for our enthusiasm for this travel venture was that brother Ray had just purchased a brand new, shiny, dark blue Chevrolet Fleetmaster Sports Sedan automobile, among the first to roll off the assembly lines after the end of World War II. No cars had been produced in four years, and Ray was anxious to give the new car a good workout. So we packed that new car with the necessities for a camping trip: sleeping bags, cooking equipment, food, and diving gear. We had hopes that the sea would provide us with essential protein.
1946 Chevrolet, photo source:retro-classics
Our plan was to drive down the west coast of Mexico as far as the town of Los Mochis, or maybe all the way to Mazatlan to try out the fine surfing waves there and then make our way leisurely back up the coast exploring and stopping where we pleased. The first night we camped in the desert outside of Tucson, Arizona, arising very early the next morning to cross the border at Nogales. There was no long line of cars at the border, a la Tijuana, and we sailed through in no time. It was still early morning and we figured maybe we could make the seven hundred miles to Los Mochis in one very long day’s drive, then decide whether to go on or start our backtracking journey of exploration. Our plans were soon to be decided for us. Camping in the dark some miles north of Los Mochis we rose early in the morning to cross the bridge at El Rio Fuerte to enter the town of Los Mochis where we could pick up a few life sustaining items such as fruit and so on. We had heard nothing of the heavy rains that had been falling in the nearby mountains of the Parque Natural, the headwaters of El Rio Fuerte. But we soon became aware when we approached the swollen river and saw that it had overflowed its banks in every direction. Not only that, the bridge across the river, the only way north or south in Mexico, was gone; hardly a trace of the rickety wooden structure remained. It had probably been out for a day or two because by now an enterprising local farmer had rigged up a makeshift wooden raft, attached an outboard motor to it, and was willing, for a price, to ferry anyone daring enough, with his car, across the river to join the highway on the other side. We watched in amazement while some owners with their old cars, one at a time, were willing to try it in the rushing water with the raft teetering back and forth on the whole trip. They must have needed to get to the other side badly to risk it, maybe to reach home or work. While we were there we saw no one lose his car or his life but Ray took one more look back at his brand new car and uttered these words of wisdom, “I don’t think so”.
We had come far enough anyway and proceeded back on our trip north, turning off Highway 15 on many a side road to the beach for swimming, diving and camping, but no surfing here since waves in this stretch of coastline are pretty well blocked by the peninsula of Baja California. We found lots of good diving which provided many an aquatic meal for us. We also never encountered one problem camping on any beach at that time in Mexico. I doubt that the same could be true today. After many great days, the last place we stopped on our Mexican Coast venture was just north of the town of Guaymas. At Guaymas Highway 15 turns inland and the ocean would not be seen again until we reached our destination in California, so we hoped for a big finish. Be careful what you wish for. We camped our last night at a series of beautiful little coves, not far from where a spectacular Club Med would be built thirty or forty years in the future. At this time there was not another soul for miles. On an afternoon dive on our last day I picked up my bag and float and kicked out to the middle of the little cove where we were camped to see about a couple of lobsters for our last dinner. Ray was on the beach taking care of some chores. The water was warm and crystal clear, and soon a couple of lobsters for our dinner were in the bag, but I decided on a couple more for an easy breakfast before our long trek home. The lobsters in this area have a greenish tinge to them unlike the reddish tone of our Southern California bugs. The breakfast lobsters were now in the bag when suddenly I heard a loud, “HEY! HEY!” from the beach. Ray was screaming and waving his arms frantically and motioning toward the rocky point. “KILLER WHALES, DOZENS OF THEM”! I turned and recognized the unmistakable appearance of the beautiful monsters heading into the cove my way. I was far enough out and in deep enough water that I would be directly in their path, and they were coming fast. They were probably cutting in and out of each of the coves along the area on a search for seals or large fish on which to feast. I had been around killer whales a bit before and they always seemed like nice fellows, but I had seen films of what hungry killer whales can do. Immediately deserting my bag and float, and happy that I was wearing swim fins, I struck out for shore with all the speed I could muster. I kept glancing over my shoulder as they approached closer and closer, hoping I could put enough distance between me and their unwavering course. By the time I reached chest deep water and felt the bottom with my feet, I turned and there they were, right where I had been in the water moments before, and there were a great many of them. Through all the foam and white water from time to time I could see my float and lobster bag being knocked about by their bodies as they thrashed through at a pretty good rate of speed. And then suddenly it was over, they were gone, and on their way to the next cove. I breathed a little easier after my escape. I could see my float out there bobbing around in the still turbulent water and after a few minutes I thought to myself, what the heck!, it was most unlikely that they would reverse their course and return, so out I went to retrieve our food supply, that is if the bag was still attached. It was, and with the lobsters shaken up but intact.
The lobster dinner somehow tasted awfully good that night, never better. But we both sat there wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t suddenly left the scene when I did out there with so many of them thrashing around. Perhaps I would have just been tossed about in the turbulence like my lobster float, and escaped unscathed. However, I had seen what killer whales can do with seals; but then again, without a black wet suit on they probably wouldn’t have taken me for a seal, and maybe they wouldn’t have thought I looked tasty enough for a meal. I’m glad I never found out.
The trip home was uneventful.
But did I remember to thank Ray for the warning?
Unless noted photos are from the Cal Parter collection
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 01 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
Poling a raft down a waterway to get to school? Sounds like something right out of Mark Twain. Maybe Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer did it. But in more modern times? Not very likely. But the fact is my friend Bob and I did it; and we did it many times to reach our elementary school in Venice, California in the 1930’s.
A Venice Canal, the Early Days
photo source: wikipedia
When I was a kid growing up in the 1920’s Venice was a town based on canals. They ran just inland from the beach to all parts of the city. These many waterways with romantic names like Venus, Coral, Altair and Grand Canal culminated at the large Venice Lagoon in the center of town. This is where thousands of spectators would gather in the grandstands to watch swimming and boating races and to see lifeguard Jake Cox perform high diving stunts from a lofty platform in the middle of the lagoon. The lagoon was surrounded by hotels, restaurants, boating concessions, a miniature railway and an amusement park complete with roller coaster. This is where the popular gondola rides set out with a gondolier standing in the stern singing and poling the tourists through the colorful waterways. Excavation had started on the canals in 1904 and they were finished and filled with ocean water by the grand opening of Venice, California on the Fourth of July, 1905. All of this was under the vision and supervision of founder Abbott Kinney who had dreamt of a Venice of America ever since he had seen the other Venice on his travels to Italy. Bungalows, cabanas and homes were built along the canals. Colorful plant life and trees were introduced and flourished. The canals became an attraction where people wanted to live and tourists wanted to vacation. But there was only one little problem with these picturesque canals; they never really worked very well. The flow of fresh ocean water that came in and out with the tides from a distant inlet down the coast a couple of miles never circulated properly. The water level became low and stagnant in some places, there were occasional sewage overflows, mosquitoes thrived.
Filling in the Canals, 1929
photo source: westland.net
Twenty years later as the 1920’s started to draw to a close and automobiles had multiplied and crowded the few roads in Venice, the canals had gradually fallen into disrepair and a decision was made to fill in the major ones and pave them over. Dump trucks were soon busily discharging load after load of dirt into the waterways, followed by paving equipment to finish the job. Few of the streets retained the colorful names of the canals beneath them, but Grand Canal became Grand Boulevard. The circular Venice Lagoon where so many exciting events took place in earlier years became a traffic circle, with the Venice Main Post Office built on the west side where the roller coaster once stood. The only canals that escaped the fill-in were the minor ones on the south side of town beyond Venice Boulevard. I have only sketchy memories of Venice in those glory days with all the gondolas and gondoliers plying the waters through the heart of Venice since I was a very young kid at the time. My memories are mostly of the six smaller canals that escaped the fate of the others and are still there to this day. Which brings us to the point of this story of the early 1930’s.
Original 13 Canals of Venice. The Six Small Canals That Remain Today. Our School was at Far Right on Grand Canal
photo source: westland.net
My friend and classmate Bob lived in one of the original bungalows on the waterfront of Carroll Canal, fourth from the right on the map. I lived on the beach in Playa del Rey a few miles south of Venice. Our school was the Florence Nightingale Elementary School built on the sand near the corner of Washington Boulevard and the beach. We attended there from 1929 to 1935, kindergarten through sixth grade. On school mornings I often made my way to Bob’s house from my house on the big, red Pacific Electric Streetcars that ran along the coast, or by being dropped off by my father on the way to his office. Bob and I would then journey to school together. The usual method was to walk the half mile or so to school, but we devised another method that was surely more fun but took a good bit more time; we built a raft. We gathered up boards and planks and scraps of lumber from the neighborhood and managed to put them together with ropes and nails into quite a seaworthy craft. A couple of sturdy bamboo poles were utilized for forward propulsion and we were ready to go. To reach school we would pole toward the ocean on Carroll Canal and under the car bridge at Dell Avenue, and then under the foot bridge just before we took a left turn on what remained of Grand Canal. Down Grand Canal we would continue poling until we passed Linnie Canal, and then under another foot bridge before reaching Howland and Sherman Canals. Grand Canal then passed directly behind our school toward its final destination beyond Marina del Rey (which was then a swamp) and on to Ballona Creek where it flowed into the ocean. All we had to do was beach our raft on the muddy bank behind school and we were there.
An Example of Expert Raft Construction, 1929
Nightingale School was unique in that it was built on sand. Our playground was sand. All games were played on sand: baseball, kickball, dodge ball, touch football and all the rest. It was here that I achieved fame and glory by capturing the school championship in high jumping by catapulting myself off the concrete walkway and over the cross bar at an unheard of height and landing in the sand beyond. Because of this sandy environment it was commonplace for some of the kids who lived along the beach to come to school barefoot. My mother saw to it that I always wore shoes to school but one time it was fortunate that the above custom was acceptable. Not far on our journey down the canal from Bob’s house one morning my bamboo pole got stuck in the muddy bottom and would not come loose, and by not letting go of said pole I ended up in the water with it; and with my school clothes on. Back to Bob’s house we went in order to doff my wet clothes and don some borrowed duds from Bob. I looked ridiculous since he was much taller than I. But as for his shoes, none would stay on since they were many sizes beyond my proper fit. Thus I became a barefoot school boy, albeit temporarily, but I realized then why so many of my classmates preferred this way of life.
All of this was over 75 years ago. The school is gone, hasn’t been there for some sixty years. The area is now completely crowded with shops and restaurants and high-rise condos, and the boat marina itself. Bob’s original bungalow is still there on Carroll Canal, but it is alone and surrounded by large, beautiful, modern homes with luxuriant landscaping. This is considered to be one of “the” places to live on the west side. Even the star and his son of the TV series Baywatch lived on the canals in the show.
Venice Canals Today
One thing hasn’t changed much, and that is what’s left of the Grand Canal itself, beautiful and spruced up in the residential section but not looking so grand at all in other places. In fact it hasn’t changed a bit where it flowed behind Florence Nightingale Elementary. We could easily beach our raft on the very same muddy bank today. There the canal looks much the same as it did in 1905 when the gates were first opened and water rushed up the dry bed on its way to join and fill the dozen other canals in the heyday of Venice of America.
As I write these lines I am gazing at an object on my desk that is a reminder of my friend Bob who passed away a few years ago. When we were young playing marbles was a favorite pastime for kids. In 1930 we were in the first grade. One day we drew a large circle on the ground close by the Grand Canal behind school. We daringly placed a few of our favorite marbles in the center for a winner take all shoot out. We shot a few times without much success for which I was glad, for I had placed my most favorite marble in the game, a beautiful, brown agate shooter with white circles. But with his final turn Bob took out my agate with a dead shot. My shooter was his. When Bob was dying he gave his wife some instructions. After he passed away, 75 years since that game, she showed up at my door one day and said simply, “Bob wanted you to have this back”.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Feb. 15 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A SOJOURN IN THE SOUTH BAY
In 1949, after having worked for some years as a Los Angeles County Lifeguard at Santa Monica Canyon State Beach, and before that as a Los Angeles City Lifeguard in the Venice area, I transferred to the South Bay Division of the county beaches. There I enjoyed my assignments at El Segundo, Manhattan and Hermosa Beaches, with their numerous rescues, and then settled in for a longer spell at Redondo Beach before moving on to Zuma Beach later that year. I mainly worked out of the small lifeguard headquarters building on the beach at the foot of Sapphire Street which was there at that time a few blocks south of the Redondo Piers. Our territory extended from the pier south to Topaz and Knob Hill Streets, a distance of about a mile. There were no enclosed lifeguard towers at the time, just the little, open, wooden box types. It was a pleasant stretch of beach, with the grassy, tree shaded Veterans Park as a backdrop just across the boardwalk. I worked with a bunch of great guys and enjoyed my time there.
Monstad Pier, Redondo Lifeguard Hdqrts, 1949
Our busiest section of beach was alongside the Monstad Pier which was connected to the Pleasure Pier and the Horseshoe Pier. The whole complex was referred to as the Redondo Pier or simply as the Municipal Pier. The lifeguard tower there was called Ainsworth Court after a small street that ended there at the beach. Crowds of people frequented this beach due to its proximity to the popular piers. There the Redondo Beach Saltwater Plunge once stood, opening in 1909. I swam in it many times as a kid but in 1943 it was torn down, as were all the other beach plunges when their popularity waned.
The Redondo Plunge George Freeth
This is where George Freeth from Hawaii became the first professional lifeguard and probably the first surfer in the United States. Starting in 1908, “The Man Who Could Walk On Water” as he was called, gave surfing demonstrations for the many tourists arriving at the beach on the big, red streetcars. The King Harbor for small boats just north of the piers would not be there for many years, but at one time 25 cents would take you from the pier by water taxi on a three mile trip to the gambling ship, “The Rex”. It was operated by the underworld notable, Tony Cornero, a recent prison inmate jailed on bootlegging charges. It was eventually raided at gun point, and Tony and The Rex were put out of business for good in 1940. I frequently saw The Rex out there but was a bit young to get involved, although a paddle-out occurred to some of us from time to time in order to see just what went on in that infamous boat.
George Freeth surfing at Wharf #3, 1908
This now leads us to the main idea of this story and to another pier that was once in the area. It was called Wharf #3 or The Lumber Pier. It ran some distance out to sea just south of the lifeguard building where I worked. It was a major shipping pier until San Pedro Harbor took over most of the business. It was demolished in the late 1920’s so I probably saw it but don’t remember since I was a young kid then. However, when they took down the pier they cut the pilings and left those stubs imbedded in the sand that were offshore out in deeper water. Nobody I talked with seemed to know anything about the old pier or remembered it, but those pilings had to still be there when I was lifeguarding at that beach. And so once I heard that there had been a pier there I just had to check it out. With my swim fins and diving mask one early morning I started exploring in the crystal clear water, not knowing exactly where the pier was. After some time I located it and found that the first sets of pilings were not too deep for free diving, which was good since that’s all we had, scuba diving was many years away. From then on each day that I went diving on the old pier I would try to go deeper, go to the next set of pilings, and then the next. I found that I was diving much deeper than ever before by gradually increasing the depth over a period of time. What I also found, clustered around and under the overgrown bases of the pilings, were lobsters, dozens of lobsters, hundreds of lobsters, lobsters of all sizes, a bonanza of lobsters. I had been diving for lobster and abalone for years but I had never seen anything like this. I had been diving ever since I was a kid with goggles, before fins and face plates. I had set lobster traps in the waters off Palos Verdes from a boat my brother and I had. I had a commercial fishing license. This looked like no one had ever touched or trapped this area. At first I just took a couple for dinner. Then I started giving them away.
Then one day I talked to the owner of the fish market on the Redondo Pier. He said he would take all I could bring him, his local source wasn’t reliable, and I did have a license. So now I would often arrive at the beach long before I was scheduled to work, attach two burlap lobster bags to my floats, and out I would go to the remains of the almost fifty year old pilings. It would take a while, with a great many dives, and there were no wet suits in those days, but in the cold, deep water I would fill the bags as quickly as possible and then haul the lobsters down to the pier. I never saw anyone else dive there, and I didn’t exactly spread the word. This went on for some time, and the extra money was good, especially since during that time I became the father of a son who is now over sixty years old and worked as a lifeguard himself for some time.
Days turned into weeks, then months. I did a lot of diving and time passed quickly. Then the day came when I left Redondo Beach with its old pier and all those lobsters and transferred to the Zuma Beach area in the Northern Division. It was there that I lifeguarded for almost the next thirty years right into retirement
I never dove Wharf #3 again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Jan. 06 , 2010
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
LITTLE COVE, A BAJA STORY
It wasn’t my first surfing trip to Baja but it was early on. The year was either 1940 or ’41, almost seventy years ago. I hadn’t been there surfing since my first trip to the Baja Coast the year before in 1939 along with my high school friend Bob, with our boards sticking skyward from the rear seat of his 1928 Chevrolet Phaeton. On that trip we were told by both the Mexican and American border guards that we were the first they had ever seen coming into Baja carrying those odd things on the roof we called surfboards. Since that trip, the year before, we still had never heard of anyone else that had gone down there, so on this trip, with my older brother, Lee, we were going to spend as many days or weeks as it took to find some good surfing, diving and beachcombing along this unknown territory.
Car prep for the Baja trip, 1940
It was early on a summer morning when we left home in our 1933, black Ford V8, owned in common by the two of us plus my other older brother, Ray. We packed plenty of provisions in the car as well as our other gear which included homemade, broomstick spear guns with rubber slings, water goggles made by Santa Monica Lifeguard, Bill O’Connor (primitive diving masks wouldn’t be available for another year or so), and swim fins which had been recently invented by Owen Churchill in 1939 and put on the market in small numbers in 1940. With a towel spread on the roof of the car we tied on my balsa-redwood, Pacific Systems surfboard. I can’t recall why we were down to one surfboard at that time, maybe it was difficult enough on a long trip to hold down one board on the roof with a piece of rope tied across the board and through the car windows since surf racks would not be seen for a great many years. Anyway, I guess we figured while one of us would be surfing the other would be diving or body surfing. And now we were off.
Balsa board purchased 1939 The first swim fins
There were no freeways back then so it took a good many hours to reach the border. We had no trouble this time with the guards so we were soon heading out of Tijuana and over the hill on Avenida Benito Juarez toward the coast. Our plan was to find a beach to camp on right away since it was getting late, and then continue on our exploration in the morning. The two lane, winding, dusty road was sometimes called Highway 1 before the coastal toll road was built thirty years later, and it took us to the coast north of the village of Rosarito. We camped on a stretch of no-name, sandy beach for the night. On my previous surfing trip to Baja in 1939 we covered all the coastline from the U.S. border to Rosarito Beach and a few miles beyond. On this trip we would explore farther south. In those days the coastline hadn’t changed a whole lot since the Spaniards discovered it in 1553. In 1930 the Mexican government had issued land grants for farming on the barren land, and that’s what we saw there, with an occasional small house here and there. The town of Rosarito was the only settlement and it was very small with a couple of stores and cafes. What it did have was the Rosarito Beach Hotel, built in 1926, drawing American hunters looking for deer, quail and rabbit. From there south to Ensenada there was very little, just a scattering of farms and houses and not much built along the beach leaving it wide open.
The next morning we sampled some pleasant beach break not far out of town and found the water to be crystal clear and a bit chilly, and with no wet suits for another twenty-five years. Continuing south for several miles we came across a number of points and bays that had definite surfing and diving possibilities, unknown to surfers then but all with well known names today. But we were still looking for a secluded, protected, out of the wind spot on the beach somewhere to set up a sort of permanent site for our base camp. We doubled back remembering that we had passed a stretch of coastline that couldn’t be seen from the road. Arriving there we found a dirt trail that could be driven on out to the bluff to see what was there. We drove the car carefully through the field to the edge of the cliff, looked down, and suddenly, THERE IT WAS! What we saw below us was a small sheltered cove with a white, sandy beach protected by rocky points on each side and the bluff behind. The ocean was so clear we could see the bottom far out into deep water. But more than that, peeling off from the rocky point on the north side of the cove were these perfect, head high, right breaking waves, one after the other, seemingly non-stop. Eureka! We had found what we were looking for. We also found that we could drive the car down a dirt trail right to the beach where we could set up our camp, which we proceeded to do. We were in the water in ten minutes.
The break at Little Cove
We never left. We called it “Little Cove”, since it was too small to be mentioned on any maps. We didn’t budge for almost two weeks. We lived off the land, or rather the sea, for the sea provided us with all the fish, lobsters, scallops and abalone we could possibly eat. And while we were there the waves never quit. It was a fairly short, fast ride with an easy paddle back out where the waves backed off in deeper water. When it got well overhead a wave could be ridden from point to rocky point. All this, and with a deserted, white, sandy, sheltered beach and a warm sun. “Ah Wilderness is Paradise Enow”, as Omar Khayyam, the Persian poet wrote in the eleventh century. And we knew what he meant. Only once during that time did we see another soul. One early morning four friendly Mexican fishermen pushed a dory out into the little bay and returned in the late afternoon with a nice load of fish.
I surfed Little Cove off and on for the next fifty years. I took friends there. When I married and had children I took them to Little Cove, with their friends. When I had grandchildren I took them to Little Cove, with their friends. I never saw another surfer there in all that time, while other spots in Baja started to become popular. Perhaps some of them saw it but went on for bigger waves or longer rides, I don’t know. But mainly I don’t think they knew it was there, concealed from view. The fact is I never saw another surfer anywhere in Baja for some years after my first visit in 1939, but then they started to come. We, of course, surfed all the other breaks up and down the Baja Coast but always stopped at Little Cove.
Children and grandchildren at Little Cove
A perfect day, a perfect wave
Today the Baja Coast is unrecognizable from what was there seventy years ago. Rosarito Beach is a big city with a population of more than 50,000. Condo developments, hotels, resorts, and beach houses are everywhere blocking many surf breaks. Every spot has a name now like Baja Malibu and Baja Santa Monica among others. Now on the bluff to the right of Little Cove a high rise condominium building stands. To the left above the cove is a resort with swimming pool and restaurants. And there are people on the beach, lots of them, and swimmers in the water. All the surf spots in Baja have become crowded with surfers; although maybe there is a slight decrease right now with all the drug wars going on and the hassling of visitors by la policia.
Rosarito Beach today
Finally, the last time I went to Little Cove was in September of 1993, fifty three years after my first visit. I was seventy years old. I wanted to surf Little Cove at least one last time. We pulled off the road and the surroundings were so different than in the old days. But then I looked down at the sea and there they were, those old familiar, clean, clear waves just peeling off from the rocky point like always, nothing had changed. But then I saw something I had never seen before: two surfers were bobbing around out in the drop zone; oh no! I slid my board out of the van, climbed into my wet suit, and paddled out. I was met by two young friendly guys and introduced myself. They immediately knew who I was, knew all about me, and in addition knew almost all the surfers that I knew and surfed with at my home breaks in Malibu. We chatted, we laughed, and we took turns riding wave after wave that afternoon.
And then something hit me all at once. It seems that I didn’t mind at all, not a bit, sharing those waves with other surfers at “my” Little Cove.
That was my last visit, but then you never know.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 23 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
WATCHING THE WATER
I was born in the early 1920's before there was such a thing as professional, paid lifeguards along our beaches. You were on your own when you ventured into the ocean, and my brothers and I were out there daily. The very first beach guards to be hired in this area were Jim Reinhard in Hermosa Beach and George Wolfe in Venice, both in 1925. Before that time if there were any lifeguards on the beach at all they were either unpaid volunteers or worked in the saltwater plunges that existed then along the beaches; none were to be found along our long stretch of beach where I lived. Then as a young kid one summer in the late 1920’s I saw the first paid lifeguards arrive on the sands at Playa Del Rey where I was born and raised. They were hired by the City of Los Angeles, and at first, in their full length, wool bathing suits, they were either patrolling on foot or scanning the water from a vehicle; there were no lifeguard towers. Eventually the little, open, wooden towers were placed at intervals along the sand. I got to know these lifeguards, I looked up to them, they were my heroes; and at a very early age I vowed that some day I would join them, I would be a lifeguard!
Competing at the Venice Plunge for the Venice High School Swimming Team in the 1930’s, I got a job there first as a towel boy, and then as a key boy and locker room boy. Then one day the chief lifeguard at the plunge, Frank Rivas, called me aside. He said he had been watching me in our swim meets and wanted me to join his crew and be one of his lifeguards. That was a day that I will never forget; I was going to be a lifeguard! And the pay was 35 cents an hour which was a good bit more than I was making. I was 15 or 16 years old, and back then you could buy a hamburger, hot dog, or a malted milk for a nickel and go to the movies for 15 cents.
Plunge Guards, Early Days
Venice Salt Water Plunge
I very much enjoyed my work there but in a couple of years I was old enough to take the test for beach lifeguard and went to work for the Los Angeles City Lifeguards with a huge raise to 75 cents an hour. Then in 1946 I took the Los Angeles County Lifeguard test and became a permanent, year-around guard at $200.00 a month, enough to rent a house and get married.
Through more than three decades I worked almost every beach in L.A. County, and enjoyed every minute of it. The comradery among lifeguards is something very special, like no other job. Lifelong friendships are formed.
While working for the lifeguards I finished college at UCLA and then completed graduate school for a master’s degree. I became a teacher, and eventually served many years as a school principal. But I always looked forward to weekends, holidays and vacations so I could continue to be a lifeguard. The thought sometimes entered my head that my school position, although very rewarding, was my moonlighting job and lifeguarding was the real me, my first love.
I have always loved the beach and the ocean, and surfing and diving, and I have always enjoyed being a lifeguard and the satisfaction that comes from doing lifeguard work. I loved it right through the day I retired from my last assignment at Nicholas Canyon Beach - Zero Point, a good many years ago, and I’m still on the beach today. I'm over 85 years old now but at night I have this recurring dream that I'm back in a tower, I'm still a lifeguard. And to this day, wherever I go, to a beach, a pool, a lake, I find that you can't get away from it, I am still watching the water.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Dec. 10 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
LIFEGUARDING, AND THE WAY IT WAS
This is a short story for lifeguards about what it was like almost seventy years ago when I was a teenager starting out as a Los Angeles City Lifeguard on the sands of Venice Beach. So much more has changed through the years other than just the wages, although those have gone up a bit from the 75 cents an hour we were paid then. However, since I had been working as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge for 35 cents per hour at that time I was overjoyed to have my salary more than doubled.
I had been assigned to work the Navy Street lifeguard tower at Ocean Park a mile or so north of Venice, the busiest of all the city beaches. What follows is an account of what a lifeguard would have seen and done then, seventy years ago, as apposed to what he would see and do there today along that same stretch of beach; a sort of lifeguard travelogue.
Sunset, Venice, Ocean Park, Crystal and Santa Monica Piers, 1939
My routine in those days would be to arrive at the Lifeguard Headquarters on the Sunset Pier before my shift began at Navy Street just to see what was new and to visit with the guards there, Captain Myron Cox, Babe Dillon, George Wolf, Putt-Putt Snelling, Bruce Kidder, Bink Hedberg and others. I loved to hear stories from the old timers who had been there almost from the beginning of the lifeguard force in 1925 when George Wolf was first assigned as the one and only guard on the entire beach from Ocean Park to El Segundo. I knew the Sunset Pier very well from all the time I had spent on its end waiting for the biggest set waves to form and then to jump or dive in to catch the long ride to shore, and then go out and do it all over again. If I had a car at the time I would park it there at headquarters for the day; there were no parking lots along the beach at that time where now there are many. If I was without a car I would oftentimes arrive from my house down the beach in Playa del Rey on the big, red Pacific Electric Street Car as so many beach-goers did in those days. I would pick up my emergency telephone and red, rubber rescue tube there at the station to carry with me to my lifeguard tower. We also had the old, aluminum torpedo cans for rescue work but I much preferred the tube perfected by Santa Monica Lifeguard, Pete Peterson, the preeminent water man of his day. The cans, however, worked very well for under the pier, piling rescues. I would then walk the few blocks along the boardwalk past the beach playground to the Venice Pier. Incidentally, the walkway was made of concrete but was always called the boardwalk since years ago that’s what it was. The Venice Pier was the starting point for the electric trams which had been traveling up and down the boardwalk from Venice to the Santa Monica Pier since they went into operation in 1916. The tram was an open air conveyance that carried a dozen or so passengers and let them off and on anywhere along the beach. The fare was five cents, but lifeguards had the privilege of riding back and forth free at any time.
The Beach Tram
As we started our journey north on the tram the lifeguard would see on the beach side the Venice Amusement Pier and The Race Through the Clouds roller coaster, and on the right, the famous and lavish St Marks Hotel on the corner of Windward Avenue. We soon passed the Venice Movie Theater, and then came to my all-time favorite, The Venice Salt Water Plunge. This building was constructed in 1907 and I had spent a good bit of my youth there as a high school swim team member and as a lifeguard. It was located right behind where the modern lifeguard tower at the breakwater is now, and where the skateboard park stands today. George Freeth is credited with being the first surfer in the United States when he paddled his board out and rode waves at that very spot in 1907. When I spoke to the lifeguard stationed there recently he was surprised to learn that the largest swimming pool on the Pacific Coast once was there.
The Venice Plunge
On the tram we now passed Jack’s at the Beach restaurant where you could often see comedian, Bob Hope and his movie friends dining. He would sometimes pop his head into the plunge building and watch us swim. We would next drop off the lifeguard at the Westminster Avenue tower on the beach just beyond. In those days all the towers were the little open air, wooden boxes on four tall legs. Brooks Avenue was the next stop where the original Lifeguard Headquarter building stood before the move to the Sunset Pier; now it was a substation. The Gorman Café, where lifeguards often ate, was across the boardwalk. If the lifeguards working the Sunset Avenue and Dudley Street towers were aboard they would be let off soon, but if we cast our eyes to the right, looming up before us was the Waldorf Hotel. The Waldorf opened in 1916 and had a guest book full of the leading movie luminaries of the day, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and others. But just beyond the hotel we were reaching the end of the line for me and many of the other passengers, Navy Street. The tram would continue on its way to the Santa Monica Pier and then repeat the course many times during the day.
The Navy Street Tower was alongside the Lick Pier which was part of the larger Ocean Park Pier and opposite the Lick Pier Bath House. The bath house was built under the pier itself and was run by Mark and Mame Peterson where you could rent bathing suits, towels, lockers and take a shower. The lifeguard tower was white in color and was a sturdy, wooden lookout to watch for bathers in distress, and to also occasionally enjoy a visit from a lady friend; which, of course, is not done these days. Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday morning many buckets of hot water from the bath house were needed to clean up after late night revelers, spilling down from the amusement pier, decided to use the tower for purposes other than lifeguarding.
My Navy Street Tower
One of the few volleyball courts found anywhere on the beach in those days was located behind the tower. The court was good for a warm-up before the daily workout swim to Brooks Avenue and the run back in the soft sand to the tower, quite often done with Rube Wright, lifeguard and California State wrestling champion. Next to the bath house, and also under the pier, was a no-name hamburger, cold drink stand serving uneatable food and loud music. On the pier above stood the Lick Pier Ballroom where all the name bands of the day played, Harry James, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw. During afternoon sessions the bands could clearly be heard on the beach. In its later years it was known as the Aragon Ballroom with radio shows broadcasting from its bandstand. Also on the pier overlooking the beach was the Bingo Parlor where friends Fuzzy and Soggy worked, two fellows who could always be counted on for backup if trouble started on the sand. Next to bingo was a ball throwing concession run by Dave and Izzy. If you had a halfway decent aim you could cause a young lady in skimpy bathing attire to fall from her perch into a tank of water, resulting in the girl being wet most of the time. Next door was the Rosemary Movie Theater where it was possible for a lifeguard to acquaint himself with the attractive usher girls working there and thereby gain free admission to the movies and other benefits. All of these Lick Pier and Ocean Park Pier employees spent their time off frequenting the beach where the Navy Street Lifeguard ruled.
A Day At Navy Street
Ah, but all this was so long ago. Almost nothing described above remains today. The Navy Street Tower is now a comfortable, enclosed structure with a deck and ramp. The towers now are identified only by numbers instead of colorful street names. There is no amusement pier alongside the tower drawing throngs of people to that particular spot on the beach. The beach is now one long vacant stretch of sand in both directions, all looking the same. The dance halls, roller coasters, theaters, penny arcades, restaurants, games, rides, fun houses, and saloons built right out over the sand are all long gone. The electric trams were discontinued years ago. A parking lot stands where the Sunset Pier once entered the ocean at the foot of Venice Boulevard. Everything on the beach side of the boardwalk, the Venice Pier, my beloved Venice Plunge, the movie theater next door, and even the grand St. Marks Hotel across the way came down long ago. One thing that remains along the strand is the Waldorf Hotel where Charlie Chaplin rode the elevator to his penthouse, and then on up above to hear the Rooftop Orchestra. The hotel is now a National Historic Landmark, and when I last looked inside the original elevator was still working. Most important though, the lifeguard force is still with us, and today is the best in the world, the best equipped, best organized, best run, and capable of handling any emergency on land or sea.
However, and I wonder if Charlie Chaplin would agree, somehow it just seemed like a lot more fun back then. But at least there is one good thing that hasn’t changed, girls are still allowed to sit in the towers. Now they work there.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 16 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
IN SEARCH OF JUAN CABRILLO AND SOME GOOD WAVES
The island of San Miguel lies approximately thirty miles off the coast of Southern California, and west and a bit south from the city of Santa Barbara on the mainland. It is the westernmost of the Channel Islands and has always been less visited than the other islands in the group, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara. These islands now comprise The Channel Islands National Park but it wasn’t long ago that they were all privately owned, and before that inhabited by the Chumash Indians dating back 12,000 years.
San Miguel Island, photo source: wikipedia
On October 18, 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese explorer and the discoverer of California, was the first non-Indian to land on San Miguel. He claimed the island for the King of Spain as he did for all the land he touched. He and his ships, the San Salvador, Victoria, and the San Miguel had been exploring the Pacific Coast and he decided they would winter on the island to make needed repairs. Sometime during that winter Cabrillo fell and broke either an arm or a leg which later became seriously infected, gangrene set in. On January 3, 1543 he died as a result of his injury and it is believed he was buried on the island. His ships later sailed on without him. A small monument to Cabrillo stands there on a knoll overlooking Cuyler Harbor, although his grave has never been found.
And thereby lies our tale.
Cabrillo Monument, San Miguel The Death and Burial of Juan Cabrillo
By 1960 no visitors had been allowed on San Miguel for many years, and for good reason; since the 1940’s the island had been used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range. And this was a shame since many of us for years had longed to explore pristine San Miguel for surfing and diving possibilities. We had done the other Channel Islands and had always hoped to visit mysterious San Miguel where the unknown awaited. No reports of an aquatic nature had ever surfaced and reached us. Then a way to the island at last turned up for us some fifty years ago, which in itself was a bit of a mystery to me since I was not part of the arranging that made the trip possible. But in my memory it seems that we received permission from the Navy or Washington D.C. or someone there to conduct a scientific expedition to the island in hopes of discovering the burial site and remains of Juan Cabrillo himself and perhaps the jeweled sword that was reputed to be buried at his side, thus proving once and for all that San Miguel was his final resting place.
Since we were to make history on this journey, shovels, picks, maps of the likely search location, and other equipment for the dig were gathered up, as well as camping gear, food and water; and of course surfboards and diving equipment because you can’t dig all the time. We were to fly to our destination from the Oxnard, California airport in a cargo plane and a small passenger plane. The cargo plane would carry a jeep and two or three motorcycles for transportation around the island, plus all our other gear and a few passengers. Wives and children decided they wanted to go along too, and be in on all this fun, including my son, 12, and daughter, 7. So along they all came, resulting in a great group of friends and families, and not another soul was on the island. The first day we attempted the trip to the island we were met with such a heavy blanket of fog that landing was impossible, although a couple of harrowing attempts were made. A few of our members decided this trip was not for them and headed home, but the next attempt was successful in bright sunshine, even though the condition of the too short landing strip gave the appearance of it not having been used by the Navy since WW2 some fifteen years earlier; scary!
San Miguel Island, photo source:wikipedia
After we had departed from the planes, and had discussed with the pilots the plan to pick us up in two weeks, the members of our group gathered all the equipment each one could manage to carry and headed for what was to be our camping area. At that time, fifty years ago, the remains of the old ranch house that had originally been built in 1888 were still there. The owner had bought the island for $10,000 at that time and the ranch had quite a history. After several others had lived there through the years raising cattle and other livestock, in 1930 Herbert Lester and his wife Elizabeth moved into the house for the purpose of raising sheep. They lived there in complete isolation and seldom left the island. Two daughters were born there and were home schooled. Lester ruled and became known as the “King of San Miguel”. Twelve years later, on the morning of June 18, 1942, after becoming despondent over his failing health and worried about the navy taking over his island, the “King” ended his life. He left a note to his wife, kissed his family goodbye, and then took down his gun and walked to his favorite spot on the island near Devil’s Point where the buckwheat bloomed. He was found there the next day, dead at 54. He was a victim of shell shock from WW1 and moved to the island because he and his doctor thought it would help; it did for a while. Both Herbert and Elizabeth are buried on the island, as well as one daughter. We didn’t tell the children in our group any part of this story since many of us slept inside the old ruins which were claimed to be haunted.
The Haunted Ruins All That Remains Today
We had heard that the weather on San Miguel could be horrendous, with the winds unrelenting since the island receives no protection from the open sea. While we were there it was fine with warm and sunny days. We would often hike down the hill to Cuyler Beach to take a morning swim and then back to the ranch to prepare breakfast and plan the day’s adventures.
The jeep and motorcycles took us and our surfboards and diving gear everywhere, over dirt roads or no roads. But let’s not forget why we were there on the island. One of our members had obtained maps of probable spots where Cabrillo could be buried, so off we went with our equipment. Harris Point, the northernmost spot on the island, affords a spectacular panorama, an unobstructed view of the sea below and all the way north as far as the eye can see of the route Cabrillo and his expedition had planned to follow. There could be no more appropriate final resting place for the great explorer than this. Herbert and Elizabeth Lester also chose the Harris Point area for their burial. With the information we had we started excavating in a sandy, sloping area with a full view of the way north that Cabrillo had anticipated following on his exploration of the Pacific Coast. We dug, and we dug, and then we dug some more. An early model metal detector we brought along clicked frequently giving us some encouragement but after two days of this all we had to show for our efforts was fatigue. Much filming and photography had taken place but no explorer or his jeweled sword could be found. Now, fifty years later, he still hasn’t been found, but with the modern detection methods that are available now, that we didn’t have then, perhaps someday the mystery will be solved.
Simonton Cove lies beneath and southwest of Harris Point, and the biggest surf we found anywhere on the island was there. The waves breaking far from shore rolled in continuously, uninterrupted by obstacle, time or sequence. George Watkins, legendary, longtime captain of the Santa Monica Lifeguards, was with us on this trip. He conservatively estimated the size at fifteen to twenty feet, and he had been lifeguarding and studying the ocean since the early 1900’s. There were some nicely shaped peaks out there but we all gave up on the possibility of battling our way through the unrelenting whitewater of Simonton Cove since there was no channel in sight to help with the paddle out. But we surfed other breaks on the island. The most interesting, we agreed, was found at Cardwell Point on the southern tip of the island. A shallow sand bar or sand spit runs underwater straight out from the point for some distance causing a wave to approach the bar from both directions. My son and I appeared to be the only surfers interested in sampling this phenomena, which we did several times coming at each other on our boards from opposite directions. This convergence caused boards and bodies to fly into the air after each collision with the oncoming wave, much to the amusement of both spectators and participants. Filming was done of this session, and some time later Bud Browne, esteemed surf film maker, expressed great interest in showing this footage as part of his film tour through towns and cities up and down the coast. Bud felt that it might be a crowd pleaser due to the novelty of the act and the fact that in all probability no one had ever surfed San Miguel before because it was an off limits bombing range. However, when he discovered the amateur, homemade quality of our film he decided it didn’t quite meet the high standards he set for his productions. Alas, cruel fate; fame and fortune once nearly was ours.
Cap Watkins at Simonton Cove
The diving in the clear, cold water was excellent, the beachcombing and exploring of this deserted island were as good as it gets, the sea elephants at Adams Cove and Tyler Bight were in all their glory, and the comradery of our fellow castaways was most memorable, especially around the huge campfire at night after a hardy outdoor dinner prepared by our excellent cooks. But it was time to gohome.
Loading the Jeep and the Surfboards for the Trip Home
Today San Miguel and its neighbor islands are part of the National Park System. Until the 1960’s planes, ships and missiles had bombarded the island. Naval aircraft practiced strafing it until 1988. Any trespassers were evicted immediately; smoke grenades were dropped as a warning to leave. One such dropping resulted in the destruction of the old ranch house when it caught fire. We were so fortunate that our group was permitted to freely experience the island fifty years ago. Somehow the island has changed very little since we were there so long ago, except now a small number of visitors are occasionally allowed on the island, and there is a primitive campground with nine sites where the old ranch house stood. Where we explored every mile of the island and every inch of the beach San Miguel is mostly closed now to protect plant and animal life, and that’s a good thing. Only short hikes are allowed from the campsite unless accompanied by a park ranger in a group walk, and even then where he will lead you is very limited. The old haunted ranch house, built in 1888 and added to through the years was removed long ago. Only a sign denoting its one time presence is left. Otherwise everything looks pretty much the same.
And what of Juan Cabrillo, the Portuguese explorer, who claimed the island for Spain, and who found the island much to his liking, and decided to spend just a few months of the winter there almost 500 years ago?
Fate had other plans.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Nov. 01 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
ALL THINGS AQUATIC
Owen Churchill is given credit for inventing the swim fin. His fins are well-known throughout the world. The idea came to him while on a trip to Tahiti in the mid-1930’s, where he observed a group of natives on the beach weaving small mats from palm fronds and dipping them into a tub of hot tar. When the tar had cooled and hardened they would tie these mats to their feet and enter the ocean to swim or free dive. Churchill was fascinated by the tremendous increase in swimming speed this generated. He returned to the States and immediately began developing and patenting the first rubber swim fins. I was there at the Olympic Swim Stadium in Los Angeles in 1940 when he first introduced his invention. I watched in amazement as each swimmer wearing the black, vulcanized rubber, Churchill swim fins easily shattered the world’s records for the 50 and 100 meters. Soon after, Churchill made his fins available to the public. He sold very few that first year but I rushed out to be one of the first customers at $4.95 a pair. It was a sizable expenditure but no problem; in 1940 I was making 35 cents an hour as a lifeguard at the Venice Salt Water Plunge.
Churchill’s First Fins, photo source: Smithsonian
But let’s take a look back a few years, back to over 200 years before Churchill’s 1930’s invention. It is the year 1720, and we’re not in the South Seas, we’re in the waters of Boston Harbor. Bostonians were terrified of the water at that time. One writer summed it up this way: “The most frequent use of the harbor is for transport, and drowning”. However, there was one 14 year old boy who had no fear of the waters of Boston Harbor. He frequented the wharves, marshes and docks, loved the water, and taught himself to swim expertly. In later years he advocated universal swim lessons for all, unheard of in his day. In his own words, “I had a strong inclination for the sea; living near the water, I was much in it and about it and learnt early to swim well”. He developed powerful arms and shoulders from swimming and soon showed how inventive he could be at his favorite sport. He was about to conduct his first experiment and test his first invention; dozens would follow. His name? Benjamin Franklin.
I learned of his exploits by studying his own writings in the Philadelphia Franklin Library, and from others who wrote about his amazing life. This quote is from the book, The New American, by Milton Meltzer: “He loved playing in the water, and not content with using his hands and feet to swim, he made oval paddles to be held in the palms to increase his speed. Then he added flippers to his feet to further increase his speed”. And a quote from Ben Franklin, himself, from a letter he wrote some years later to his friend, Barbeau Dubourg: “When I was a boy I made two oval palettes, each about ten inches long and six broad, with a hole for the thumb in order to retain it fast in the palm of my hand. They much resembled a painter’s palette. In swimming, I pushed the edges of these forward, and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I remember I swam faster by means of these palettes, but they fatigued my wrists. I also fitted to the soles of my feet a kind of sandals; but I was not satisfied with them because I observed that the stroke is partly given by the inside of the feet and the ankles and not entirely with the soles of the feet”.
So here in 1720 we have the very first hand paddles or hand fins, and the first swim fins for the feet (Leonardo da Vinci briefly gave thought to the idea of fins in the 1400’s). The first commercial hand paddles I ever saw were put out by the Sea Net Manufacturing Company of Los Angeles in 1944, and of course fins arrived in 1940. To fully utilize these two inventions of his for increasing his swimming speed Franklin probably experimented with some sort of front crawl stroke, (“I struck the water with their flat surfaces”), and a flutter kick with his feet to make the fins work, both of which would again put him a hundred and fifty years ahead of his time since the breast stroke was the only method used by the few people who could swim at all at that time; even the side stroke was unknown.
In addition, Franklin came up with other ideas to increase his speed in the water. The marsh or pond area of the harbor where he swam was one mile across. On days when a brisk wind was blowing, he would send his friend with his clothes to the other side, a mile away. He would then let loose above the water and into the wind a sturdy kite that he had made, and hanging onto the cord, he would race across the harbor “at a most agreeable speed”. Sounds like the precursor of many later water activities that we now know, and are popular today. If there had been a handy plank around I’m sure Franklin would have aquaplaned across the harbor. Who knows what other aquatic ideas he might have come up with if he hadn’t been sidetracked harnessing electricity, inventing reading glasses, and heating stoves, and lightning rods, and the odometer, and countless other inventions, and then, of course, taking part in forming the United States of America and signing The Constitution.
And what if he had lived closer to the beach when he was a kid in 1720 instead of inland on the other side of the harbor? And what if he saw those beautiful, white- crested waves rolling unridden toward the shore, and there was an old, thin plank of wood lying on the beach? Do you think it possible, with that imagination and inventiveness of his, that he just might have come up with another of his aquatic ideas?
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 21 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A SURFBOARD STORY
I guess I have Meyers Butte to thank for my first balsa-redwood surfboard that I acquired in the 1930’s. You see, Meyers traveled to Hawaii in the late 1920’s, fell in love with the place, and returned to California an avid surfer. It just so happens that his father owned Pacific Systems Homes and used a lot of redwood in their construction business. So Meyers proceeded to convince his father that there just might be a market for these surfboard things some day. Following up on Meyers’ suggestion, Pacific Systems went to work and produced the first commercially made redwood surfboards in late 1929 or early 1930. They were made from redwood strips that were bolted and glued together with waterproof glue that only recently had been introduced. Before this time if you wanted a surfboard you made it yourself, got someone to make one for you, or bought a used one from somebody. During the 1930’s we had a couple of these redwood boards at our house on the beach, along with hollow paddleboards that were invented by Tom Blake in the late 1920’s. These Blake paddleboards were built commercially by the Thomas Rogers Company of Venice, California in the early 30’s. The redwood boards worked well enough for the primitive type of surfing we did in those days, but the trouble was that they weighed a ton; well 80 or 90 pounds anyway, making it difficult for us kids to transport them. The paddleboards were lighter and easier to carry, but they were unwieldy things, and with no fins at first. Tom Blake put the first fin on a surfboard in 1935.
Tom Blake, Waikiki, with redwood and hollow boards he built in the 1920’s and early 30’s. photo source: Bishop Museum
Then along comes balsa wood. Balsa started arriving from South America around 1932, but it was hard to come by in any quantity or quality. It was so much lighter than redwood, and a few surfers at that time experimented with making boards out of this new wood. What a difference it made, 30 to 40 pounds instead of 90 to a 100, but even with several coats of varnish the balsa was so fragile it damaged easily and the boards didn’t last very long since there was no such thing as fiberglass until after World War II. Then in the mid 1930’s Pacific Systems came out with balsa-redwood boards that were so much lighter and responsive than their redwood boards. These boards had redwood rails and redwood stringers for strength and protection for the balsa wood. The cost for one of these boards was about $40.00.
Chauncey Grandstrom was a surfer and Santa Monica Lifeguard, and then a Los Angeles County Lifeguard at Santa Monica Canyon State Beach. He would often come to the Venice Salt Water Plunge where I was a lifeguard to get in a swimming workout with a bunch of the other lifeguards. He knew I was using a Tom Blake paddleboard at the time, and one day in 1939 he asked if I’d like to buy his old Pacific Systems balsa-redwood board since he had a new one. Wow! Would I! How much? I think I paid Chauncey around $15.00 for it, which was a lot of money but I was making 35 cents an hour as a lifeguard. It was in good shape and became my favorite all-time board. It was about a ten footer.
Cal with his balsa - redwood surfboard on the right early 1940's
Pete Peterson was a Santa Monica Lifeguard and the greatest all-around waterman of his time. He was a great swimmer and diver and won most of the surfing contests and paddling races that were held in those early days. He had a shop under the Santa Monica Pier where he built boards and boats, invented rescue equipment, did all sorts of other aquatic work, and repaired surfboards. After I had my balsa-redwood a few years Pete took a look at it one day and said bring it into the shop and let me do some reshaping on it and bring it up to date, we’re in the 1940’s now. He slimmed the board down a bit, put a little two inch high fin on the tail, and did some reshaping on the nose. This was good because the next day Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole and I jumped into Peter’s 1932 Packard Phaeton convertible and headed for a day of surfing at Malibu. I was going to show these guys a thing or two with my newly shaped board. But of course, as usual, they showed me a thing or two.
Pete Peterson and friend
Pete Peterson repaired my board one more time in about 1949 or 50, but by now fiberglass was available and I had gone into the new, lightweight, solid balsa wood boards; redwood was no longer needed. I bought that Pacific Systems board from Chauncey seventy years ago, I still have it today, and remember it as my favorite board. So thank you Myers Butte for talking your father into making surfboards.
Sometime in the 1950’s I took the board to the Zuma Beach Lifeguard Headquarters where I was working at that time. In our best calligraphy we inscribed the date and all our names on it, the earliest lifeguards of Zuma Beach. We bolted it to the wall in the entry hall and to this day there it hangs.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Oct. 04 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
VENICE OF AMERICA
Or The Coney Island of the West as it was sometimes called long ago. It all began in 1900 when wealthy cigarette magnate Abbot Kinney started construction on his dream city, which was to be a duplicate of that other Venice, the one in Italy that he visited on his European tour. Soon he had 16 miles of canals completed that depended on tidal action of the ocean to maintain circulation and keep the water clean and wholesome. It worked fine in that other Venice, but eventually failed miserably in Venice, California many years later. Next Kinney convinced land promoter, Henry Huntington to construct a streetcar rail system to Venice from Santa Monica and another from Los Angeles in order to bring visitors to this formerly barren area. And come they did, by the hundreds and thousands. And why not, along with its beautiful beaches, every type of amusement imaginable could be found along the waterfront and on the long pier with its roller coasters, dance halls, thrill rides, games of chance and cafes. Mardi gras, beauty contests, aquatic competitions and parades were frequent events. Venice was an independent city and it flourished for many years until Abbot Kinney’s death and the town’s eventual annexation to the City of Los Angeles in 1926. Many of the canals were soon filled in and gradual neglect by the city started to take its toll.
Grand Canal, photo source: wikipedia
I loved this place when I was a kid in the late 1920's and 1930's. Especially the Venice Plunge, the largest heated, salt-water pool on the west coast. It was built right out on the sand, and I started swimming in it at a young age. While a student at Venice High School and on the swimming team, I applied for and got a job at the plunge and worked my way up from towel boy, beach boy, locker room boy and finally, LIFEGUARD, my dream come true! And the pay in 1939, a whopping 35 cents an hour. Sounds like a minimum wage but in the cafe next door you could order a malted milk for 5 cents, a hamburger for 6 cents, and then see a double feature at the Venice Movie Theater across the street for 15 cents; those were the days.
Salt Water Plunge and Lifeguards. photo courtesy of Liz Smith collection
Venice today, of course, is not the Venice described above. Yes you can still stay at the Waldorf Hotel where Charlie Chaplin was a constant guest, and see what's left of the beach houses of movie idols Janet Gaynor, Norma Shearer, Harold Lloyd and cowboy actor, William S. Hart. Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Rudolf Valentino and Gloria Swanson frequently stayed in hotels along the boardwalk. Many of these hotels are still there today in one form or another. But the amusement piers and all the attractions on the beachside of the boardwalk are gone, including the plunge. Never-the -less, it's still fun there, with all the entertainers and exhibits along the strand, and plenty of restaurants to choose from. There are nice hotels for visitors nearby, and Marina del Rey is just down the beach. It's just that it all seems a bit faded and tacky today when you think back and remember the glory days of the old Venice of America, the Coney Island of the West
Venice Today, photo source: mahalo
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 27 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
ONCE IT WAS A SWAMP
It's true! Where the beautiful Marina del Rey hotels, condos, restaurants, homes and yacht moorings are located today it was once a swamp; and a wild one at that, full of coyotes, foxes, birds, snakes, and a lake full of fish and crawling things. There were even occasional reports of a mountain lion or puma sighting in this dark jungle as we called it. It was a mile or two across the swamp, and as kids in the 1920’s and 30’s we loved to explore this exciting but scary place. Our parents did not want us in there where you could get lost, hurt, meet up with wild animals, or occasionally an equally wild human being, who was usually up to no good, hiding out from the law or hiding something else. The law seldom ventured into this place, something like The Casbah in the old movies. It would be too difficult to find your way in and out of this tangled maze let alone to find who or what you were looking for. But we were drawn to the place, so our plan was to somehow occasionally “miss” the big red streetcar that ran along the waterfront in those days taking us from our school in Venice, and past the swamp and over the bridge on the way to our homes on the beach at Playa del Rey. Of course that forced us with no other choice but to shortcut through the swamp on foot and make our own way home, fending off the wild beasts and other scary stuff, through no fault of our own. Once home we would complain to our mothers how the streetcar must have left early again, leaving us stranded.
Our swamp and lake where Marina del Rey stands today. source:wikipedia
To make a nostalgic return to this jungle today and stand at the edge of our swampy lake (Lake Los Angeles we called it for some long forgotten reason) I would have to reserve a room at the beautiful Ritz Carlton Hotel, for that is what stands on the site today. The entire area, many years ago, was dredged out and cleaned up to create Marina del Rey. Luxurious yachts sail in and out of the waterways where we would wade and swim across murky creeks. Skyscraping condos have replaced our thickets of bamboo and cattails with no wild animals in sight.
Our swamp is gone. Marina del Rey Boat Harbor today. source: wikipedia
I’m glad I knew our swamp in my youth and experienced its cool darkness and exotic setting, it brings back great memories. But then again, today we have the largest small boat harbor in the world and all the possibilities that go with it, and that's not too bad either.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 10 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
Besides rafts we built boats, my brothers and I, several of them. None were very seaworthy, in fact they usually sank. We were just kids in the late 1920’s and early 30’s, and we were always looking for new foolhardy exploits to try in the ocean in front of our house in Playa del Rey. All of this kept my mother in a state of nervous apprehension most of the time. There were three of us, and the names of the boats, which we painted on in big, bold letters, were always combinations of our three letter names, The Rayleecal, The Leeraycal, and so on. I was the youngest so my name was usually last, but after three or four of these crafts had been built I finally made it to the front.
One of our fine water crafts, 1929
Our boat building was unique and probably never copied. We would scout sites where new homes were being constructed and gather lumber scraps of various sizes and shapes. Since any old thing would do, this accounted for the asymmetrical appearance of our boats, a bit misshapen over here and a bit crooked over there. They all were square tailed in the stern but we managed to construct pointed bows for that modern streamlined effect up front. How to calk the seams between the nailed together boards came in a stroke of genius. The roads through the sand dunes of Playa del Rey were all constructed of concrete. Between the sections of concrete, the road workers, many years before, had poured in hot melted tar to hold the gaps together, I guess. This tar hardened immediately. Years later here we were in the street chipping away at the excess tar until we had buckets full. Next we would deposit these chunks in a big iron pot and place it over a hot, wood fire that we had going next door in a vacant sandy area. When the tar was sufficiently melted we would ladle it out with various implements and fill the seams and cracks of our boats with this caulking material. When it hardened we were sure the boats would be absolutely watertight. They never were. The three of us would squeeze into these tiny boats, and we often made it out past the surf line before they would sink. We sometimes got in a little fishing or diving before they sank. One time we made it halfway to the horizon before the boat sank. It was a long swim back to the beach that day, but when we finally made it to shore we were in much better condition than my mother who had been watching as usual with the binoculars
Chumash tomol (canoe): source (2) Chumash Life Sealed hull planks
In later years we learned we were not the first to utilize this boat building method. The Chumash Indians had been using tar on their boats for thousands of years with great success. They must have known something we didn’t.
Then we heard about a boy who had a rowboat for sale. It was factory built and he wanted three dollars for it, and this included the oars. We pooled our money and thought, at last, no more sinking boats for us, a seaworthy craft would be ours. We made our way to the appointed address by streetcar and by walking the remaining few blocks to the seller’s house, and then we parted with our three dollars. This was in Venice, California, the beach town with the many canals, stretching in all directions, that had been constructed in 1904 by Abbott Kinney, the founder of Venice.
Carroll Canal joining Grand Canal photo source: wikipedia
Our plan was to row our new prize the two or three miles through the canal system to reach Ballona Creek where we would leave our boat at a friend’s house on the sand. Our house was further down the beach, but from this point we would be able to make future excursions up the creek, through the canals, or out to sea in this trustworthy boat. Saying goodbye to the boat seller, we first had to navigate the waters of Carroll Canal where we bought the boat, then take a left onto Grand Canal, the main waterway that ran through Venice to Playa del Rey, and eventually row the boat through the tunnel under Washington Boulevard on our way to the creek. All was going along as planned when we noticed a bit of water gathering around our feet. Not to worry, the seller had told us, the boat might have to “swell” a bit, whatever that meant. Then more water seeped in and we started bailing. And then it wasn’t very long before bailing with a much more accelerated pace became necessary. Just before we passed the site where Marina del Rey would be constructed many years later, we were waist deep in water. And before we could reach our destination at Ballona Creek we found ourselves overboard in the murky water swimming and scrambling for shore, with the boat sinking fast behind us. We reached the muddy bank and looked back, only to see that our boat and our three dollars were gone, settling out of sight, deep down on the floor of the canal.
We never saw that boy again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 03 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
I was lucky; I didn’t have just one, but two heroes to look up to in the 1930’s and early 40’s when I was a kid growing up and swimming and surfing along the beaches of Southern California. One was the greatest swimmer and surfer of his era. The other was the greatest swimmer of all time.
The Duke in California, 1920. photo source: wikipedia
Every surfer knew who Duke Kahanamoku was. If you had never heard of any other surfer you knew the Duke. He passed away in 1968, but even today his name is that of legends. Duke learned his water skills in Hawaii, mainly along Waikiki Beach where he lived and worked as a beach boy. He was one of the first to surf California in 1912, and he eventually toured the world giving surfing demonstrations everywhere he went. He was the ambassador of the sport. A statue of Duke and his surfboard stands in the park at Waikiki Beach to honor his contribution. But not as many knew of his fame as a swimmer. At the age of 21, in 1911, he broke the 100 yard freestyle world record by four and a half seconds. Then in the same meet, broke the 220 world record and tied the 50. He held many more world records through the years and was the star swimmer of the 1912 and 1920 Olympics (none held in 1916). He was second to Johnny Weissmuller in the 1924 games at the age of 34. To top off his swimming career, he swam on the U.S. water polo team in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. He was 42 years old. I attended these ’32 Olympics but missed this event. Duke was the greatest waterman of his age.
The Duke at Waikiki. photo source: wikipedia
My other hero when I was a young swimmer was Johnny Weissmuller, who without question was the greatest swimmer of all time. And here’s why: Weissmuller held 67 world records and 52 national titles. He held every freestyle record from 100 yards to the half mile. From 1921 to 1929, eight years, he won every freestyle event he entered. He also held world records in the backstroke, and if the butterfly stroke had been invented by then he no doubt would have held those records, too. In the first swim meet he ever entered, as a youngster, he won all his events but was second in the 440. For the rest of his swimming career he was never anything but first in every event he entered. He had many Olympic gold medals in swimming and water polo. He would have gone on winning for many more years but retired after the ‘28 Olympics to turn pro and earn a living, mainly by playing Tarzan in films. Later, at the age of 36, he again broke the 100 yard freestyle world record but it didn’t count since he was a pro. No one has ever dominated his sport like Johnny Weissmuller, not even Michael Phelps.
Weismuller, Olympic swimmer, 1920’s. photo source: fanpix
I met and knew Weissmuller slightly in the early 1940’s when I competed with our mutual friend, Paul, who was his movie stunt double and swam on our team. He would come to our swim meets, sit in the stands, and cheer us on. He had made many Tarzan films by then, and made six more in the next several years before becoming Jungle Jim in the movies. I saw him as Tarzan in his first film, Tarzan the Ape Man, in 1932 when he uttered his famous, “Me Tarzan, you Jane”, and I was inspired by his many scenes swimming through crocodile infested waters to rescue Jane.
Tarzan and Jane. photo source: fanpix
Now then, what would these two swimmers be doing today if they were of this age? This age with its much improved swimming facilities, fast flip turns (which didn’t exist then), better coaching, training and diet, shaved bodies (unheard of then), and most important, new high tech racing suits that streamline the body and minimize drag (they wore the old fashioned, full length bathing suits). I’ll tell you what they would be doing: winning every race, breaking records and dominating the swimming world as they did in the 1900’s and 1920’s.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 24 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A WILD PLACE
We called it, “The Valley”. It was an area overgrown with plant life and scrubby trees and fields full of coyotes, bobcats, rabbits and snakes. No one lived in our valley and there were no signs of civilization for many miles around. Part of this land, this valley as we called it, is now known as LAX or Los Angeles International Airport. Where now the numerous airport hotels, terminals and businesses are located along Sepulveda and Century Boulevards there were open fields. The area had gone from a Spanish land grant to private ownership many times since the late 1700’s. In the 1920’s, when I was a kid there, it was owned by Andrew Bennett, and he eventually planted acres of lima beans and tomatoes on one corner of the vast ranch. We kids often returned from the valley over the hill to our home on the beach at Playa del Rey bringing back bags of fresh lima beans to have with our dinner. After harvest time, we would build opposing forts among the vines and bombard each other with the rotting tomatoes. That would be right about where the huge jet planes leave the ground and take flight today.
Playa del Rey Beach, 1920’s. And “The Valley”, where LAX is located today. photo source lapl.org
In the late 1920’s, the owner allowed a short, rough, dirt runway to be built on his property for the use of a handful of aviators who mostly owned one or two seater biplanes. It wasn’t long before they got the idea of having air races in their primitive crafts. A few monoplanes soon joined in, and pylons were erected at intervals to show where the turns were to be made. They flew dangerously close to the ground . You could clearly see the faces of the pilots as they raced by. In one of these races a pilot flew too low rounding a pylon, caught his wing on the ground and crashed. I was nearby, first on the scene, and witnessed what was left of the pilot and his airplane, a sight as a young kid that I have never forgotten.
Lined up for the start of the races, late 1920’s. photo source lapl.org
Soon after this, one William Mines, an official with the City of Los Angeles, negotiated with the land owner for a parcel to be used for a possible future airport. This section was henceforth called, “Mines Field”. I watched it being constructed in the early 30’s with its one landing strip. After it was used by civilians and the military for many years, and World War 2 came to a close, it was renamed Los Angeles Airport. In 1946 the first commercial services commenced.
Mines Field, early 1930’s. The lone terminal is about where United Airlines is today. Los Angeles suburb in the distance. photo source lapl.org
We lived on the beach, over the hill and out of sight and hearing of Mines Field and the few planes that landed there in the 1920’s and 30’s. Playa del Rey and its miles of beach was a paradise for kids in those days. The homes were all large and some distance from each other, with plenty of sand dunes to roam and play in. Each house was required to be of Spanish/Mediterranean architecture, bright white stucco with red tile roofs. Many movies were filmed there, at first “silents” and then later “talkies”. I especially enjoyed watching Laurel and Hardy in the making of Beau Hunks in 1931, with the French Foreign legion roaming our sand dunes. The beach towns of Venice and Santa Monica were to the north, Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo Beaches to the south.
Our house at the beach, Playa del Rey.
After I had left the area and lived in Malibu with a family of my own, LAX was constantly expanding. The time came when the airport felt it had to buy and remove the homes on the beach under the flight path of the great planes. This they did, resulting in my father settling into another home on the beach a mile north. As the years passed the airport grew again, and more demolition took place, causing another move farther along the beach to a home he had for his remaining years.
No one ever understood the need for removing these beautiful homes. The planes in and out of LAX fly low over all of Los Angeles with thousands of homes and businesses right beneath them. None have been removed. It is sad to visit this section of Playa del Rey today and see the miles of empty, wind blown, weed covered sand dunes where our homes once were. And surrounding the entire area is a high, unattractive chain link fence with frequent signs attached reading keep out, no trespassing, subject to arrest, and so on.
It is all reminiscent of a scene out of The Twilight Zone with all the roads, street signs and lamp posts still there, intact, stretching along the beach front, with nothing changed, except that all the homes and people have somehow vanished. It is indeed ironic that the only way that I can get a look at the place where I grew up and had an exciting young life, with such great memories, is to book a flight out of LAX, get a window seat, and catch a quick glimpse as we pass over.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 17 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE ZERO LIFEI never knew who Mr. Nicholas was, an early settler or land owner I suppose, but on the maps of Malibu the beach and the point are both named for him. Most people going there today would know the area not as Nicholas Beach but as Zeros, and most people going there today are surfers. The name Zeros is just a slight distortion of the name Zero Point that we gave the break when we first started surfing there over sixty years ago. Zero break is not a term used much anymore, but in the old days of surfing it referred to the biggest, farthest out, rarely seen waves, waves that only came every few years. The term was used at Waikiki Beach for waves that occasionally formed and broke far beyond what was usually seen and ridden by the locals. It is reported that Duke Kahanamoku once caught a zero break wave a very great distance out, and rode it farther than anyone else before, surfing through many reforms for over a mile, and all the way to the beach. Thus the name Zero Point seemed to us an appropriate if rather exaggerated name for the beautiful, good sized, well formed, left breaking waves we encountered there.
Working as a lifeguard at nearby Zuma Beach in the 1940’s and early 50’s made Zero a favorite surf spot. No one else surfed there or even knew about the place. Malibu Surfrider was about as far north as anyone ventured. My young family and I lived in a spacious beach house on Zuma Beach for which we paid the County of Los Angeles the princely sum of twenty-five dollars a month. I knew this couldn’t last forever so I was always looking for property to build a house. Zuma Beach was getting popular and I figured that sooner or later they would tear down my house and the other houses there on the beach in order to “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”, as the Joni Mitchell song goes. And that’s what eventually happened. I found a five bedroom house on the beach near Malibu Colony for $28,000 but I wanted something way out, hopefully near Zero Point. One day I noticed that a small, hand written for sale sign with a phone number had recently been placed there. I called and the voice on the phone said it was a half acre bluff and beach parcel for $4500. I got it for $4,000. It seemed like a lot of money at the time but today in Malibu a great many zeros would have to be added to either of the above properties.
We built our house on the property and settled in at one of the prime surfing spots on the California Coast. It was all private, with a locked gate to get to the surf. We had the key to the gate along with a couple of other property owners. My son Lon and I were usually the only surfers out there, and by age eight he was surfing better than I was, which I thought was not at all fair.
Lon alone at Zeros, late 1950’s
In those days along the West Malibu coast there was a security guard who patrolled the private beach for possible trespassers. First it was Homer Greer and later John Gondon who responded when an owner would call them about running off a surfer or beach intruder (of course I would never think to do such a thing). I did invite my friends in, and also the lifeguards from Zuma Beach, Mike Doyle, Dave Rochlen and others. Miki Dora would occasionally call to see if we would unlock the gate and let him surf. Donald Takayama stopped by. Not only was the surfing at Zero great, the diving for lobsters, fish and abalone in the crystal clear water was also great.
The bodysurfing was fabulous. Those big, clean lefts were the best waves for bodysurfing that I have ever had. And with no boards in the water it was a bodysurfing paradise. Bud Browne called and came to film one day. I had a surfer friend come down, and the plan was for him to board surf and I to bodysurf on the same wave for Bud’s film. We caught a few and then the perfect wave came, big and great shape. I took off on the inside and he on the shoulder. He immediately cut back and did a go behind me, and I shot for the lip and then took a drop for a go behind him. We kept doing stuff like this all the way in on this very long ride that held up clear to the beach. Later going to see many of Bud’s films and never seeing that scene, I asked Bud whatever happened to it. He said he remembered that wave well, he saw it while he was fiddling with his camera, and when he started filming he only got the last part of the ride which didn’t come out very well on the film. Darn!!! Surf photographer Leroy Grannis also shot there, and his photos of me made a couple of mags and books in the early 60’s
Cal bodysurfing at Zeros dragging a bag of lobsters. 1950’s: Leroy Grannis photo for Surfing Magazine.
Our property deed referred to the “land of Mathew Keller”, who once owned all of Malibu that he bought in 1857. He paid ten cents an acre for the land. In 1892 he eventually sold all twenty-six miles of the beach and mountains, which was once Chumash Indian land, to easterner Frederick Rindge for $133,300; that’s Malibu for ten dollars an acre. The Rindges started selling off pieces of their land in the late 1920’s and we bought our Zero piece in the early 50’s. It was a splendid if isolated life there at Zero Point with its waves, our unlimited ocean view, and surf break Secos just a short walk up the beach. Secos was private then, fenced off, and called Phillip’s Ranch with no surfers but us. But this life, too, wasn’t to last for ever. Los Angeles County started casting an eye toward what they thought would make an excellent public beach. And of course it would. And as it did some twenty years earlier at Zuma Beach, eminent domain entered the picture, the county purchased all the property, demolished our house, and we moved down the coast to Big Rock Beach. The county officials told us that our land would soon be a campground, picnic area and beautiful public park. Today it is forty-five years later and the property is unchanged, it looks much the same as when the Chumash Indians lived on it hundreds of years ago. Nearer to the point itself they did tear down a couple of houses in order to once again “pave paradise and put up a parking lot”.
Surfers no longer have to go through our locked gate like the old days but several dollars have to be shelled out to use the parking lot. When the county first opened Nicholas Beach to the public in the 1960’s I was the first lifeguard sent there to manage the area. I knew the place well. I finished my lifeguard career there that started in 1939, after working almost every beach from San Pedro to the Ventura County line. A surprise costume parade and party arrived on the beach that afternoon to send me off.
The Zero Tower, 1970’s
The waves at Zero Point look much the same as when I first surfed there all alone over sixty years ago. But now the parking lot is full, the beach is full, and every wave seems to have a half a dozen surfers scrambling for position. I have a more private spot to surf these days so I go up to look, but seldom go out at Zero. However, I remember those waves well, and how great the uncrowded days were, but those waves were just too good not to allow all surfers to participate and enjoy them as we did.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 11 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
FREE DIVING, THE WAY IT WAS
When we were kids in the 1920’s and early 30’s our first attempts at viewing what was undersea was done simply by opening our eyes and taking a look. This never worked out really well since the salt water stung our eyes and the viewing was limited and blurry. Water goggles at that time were practically unknown outside of Japan, and hard to come by. But by the mid to later 1930’s we were able to get a hold of some of the Japanese goggles that long distance swimmers used to keep the water out of their eyes, however the lenses created double vision unless you kept one eye closed. Along about this time a Santa Monica Lifeguard, Bill O’Connor, one of the best free divers, started making goggles out of fire hose and glass lenses. These worked much better for us. There was no other diving equipment at that time, more than seventy years ago, just the goggles and a pair of gloves. Diving was at first mostly in shallow waters, abalone were plentiful. We used tire irons or kitchen gadgets to pry them from the rocks. In fact at a very low tide you could gather these delicacies in knee deep water, it didn’t take much diving. We also made primitive fishing spears out of broomsticks with slings of surgical tubing for quick release, and, when lucky, a fish or two was brought home for dinner.
Porter Brothers, 1935
The first civilization to practice skin diving, or free diving (diving on one breath), was a settlement of folks on the Baltic Sea known as “the shellfish eaters”. The oldest findings there confirm that these divers were after something to eat between 10,000 B.C. and 7000 B.C. Then in the fourth century B.C. Aristotle wrote that something like scuba diving was taking place off the coast of Greece by using an upturned caldron which trapped air inside. A thousand years later Leonardo Da Vinci, always ahead of his time, drew diagrams of an underwater breathing system incorporating an air tank and diving suit. Today there is every type of equipment imaginable for the modern scuba diver, but in the 1930’s we were lucky if we could find water goggles.
In late 1939 and early 1940 two things happened to change skin diving for ever. Owen Churchill invented the rubber swim fins. He sold only a few hundred that first year for a couple of dollars, but my purchase was one of them. With the increased speed and maneuverability that fins brought, new underwater adventures were possible. And face plates or diving masks, replacing water goggles, were becoming available for the first time. In the beginning the masks were handmade by individuals, and then later went into commercial production. The first face plate I ever had was made by the wife of a diver and was constructed of soft rubber and a glass plate. I still think it was as good as any on the market today, and better than any of the early commercial ones at that time.
1941 diving gear with tin can float and burlap bag, diving in Baja.
We now had the visibility and speed to explore new realms at greater depth; it was a new world underwater. We found at that time, seventy years ago, that in deeper water abalone were thick in every crevice and stacked on top of each other. Ten and twenty pound lobsters were everywhere, and almost as abundant as abalone. The golden age of skin diving was here. To gather this sea life we used inner tubes or large empty cans for floats, with burlap bags attached for the cache. If there was a season or a limit on sea life we didn’t know about it. Little did it matter for we seldom ever saw another diver on our dives in the Palos Verdes and Malibu coves that we frequented. As kids we did pretty well selling to fish markets and restaurants. Every reef was teeming with lobster, abalone, scallops and fish. And then along came Jacques Cousteau.
Jaques Yves Cousteau. photo source: environmentalheroes.pbworks.com
In 1943 the Aqualung was invented. It was used during and after World War 2 but was not available commercially in the United States until 1952. I took one of the first scuba courses ever given and became certified, although scuba never took the place of free diving for me. The Aqualung changed diving for ever. Where there were only a handful of divers on the California Coast when I was young there soon were thousands and thousands. Some new divers who had never seen the ocean and were marginal swimmers now had the equipment and safety to pluck off every abalone and catch every bull lobster in sight. Today there is not an abalone left on the Southern California Coast, and only a few off the islands and in Northern California. Where abalone used to be available in every fish market for less than a dollar a pound, and on all fish restaurant menus, now it is not available at all. Plentiful lobster and big bull lobsters are a thing of the past, where you used to see them jammed in by the dozens upon dozens beneath the reefs and pier pilings.
Today there are well over 5,000,000 certified scuba divers in the U.S. alone, plus the many that are uncertified. When I was a kid there were none, only a few skin divers. And I think I knew most of them.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Aug. 03 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
I only ditched school once in my life. It was too hot to go to school that day, and besides that the surf was up. When you put those two elements together an irresistible force seems to take over the mind and body of a young surfer; it’s sometimes useless to resist. It was the third day of a heat wave and the temperature was over 100 degrees in the valleys and not much cooler along the Southern California beaches. It’s not that we didn’t go to school that day, it’s just that we didn’t stay there. This was in the late 1930’s and one of us had a car. The four of us left Venice High School and headed for the beach. We were first going to check our favorite surf break between the Venice and Sunset Piers. We knew we could pick up boards there and it was also a choice bodysurfing beach. It was the favorite stretch of sand for my fellow students at high school, and during summer and holidays it was the place to be. It was also the home of The Venice Paddleboard Club established in 1937, one of the first surfing clubs in the United States, predated only by the short-lived Corona del Mar Surfboard Club in the late 1920’s, and The Palos Verdes Surfing Club in 1935. The Santa Cruz Surfing Club followed in 1938.
Venice Pier and Sunset Pier, late 1930’s. photo source: 'Venice California - Coney Island of the Pacific'
But a funny thing happened on the way to the beach. Well two things happened and maybe not funny at all, one was more coincidental and the other a work of nature. We had parked the car on Windward Avenue and headed for the boardwalk, passing the Bank of America en route. Now who steps out of the Bank of America at the moment of our passing? My mother! Five seconds before or five seconds after and the encounter would never have happened. But my mother (sweetest one ever), after her initial surprise, merely said something like,”Hi, well what do you know, how’s everything, what’s going on?” or words to that effect. Maybe the school had burned down, or maybe the principal had declared a national holiday. At any rate I explained the situation to my mother, and she, knowing what a splendid, upstanding, fine son and brilliant scholar I had always been, merely said, “Oh, I see, ok, well have a good time surfing fellows”, and departed. I never heard about it again.
The other thing that happened was something people who live along the beach are familiar with. When we reached the sand we couldn’t see the ocean, let alone how good the waves were. What happens sometimes after two or three days of intense inland heat, heavy fog develops over the ocean. There we stood in the wet and cold and wondered if our great escape and plans for the day had gone hopelessly and irreversibly awry. Had we become truants with nothing to show for it? But after having a hamburger and a chocolate malted milk at Clarence’s Greenhouse, which was a landmark on the boardwalk for many years, suddenly the fog started to burn away, the hot sun came out brilliantly, the waves were out there, good size, and with not another surfer in sight. My mother told us to have a fine day and we did just that, we had a fine day.
photo source: 'Venice California - Coney Island of the Pacific'
I never ditched school again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 26 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
STUFF HAPPENS IN BAJA
Anyone who has traveled numerous times to Baja on surfing trips has no doubt experienced interesting or curious events along the way in addition to finding some great surf and beautiful beaches. Invariably something unexpected will occur that will be remembered long after the trip is over. I have written about many of these experiences before, such as problems at the border with both the American and Mexican guards, being knocked unconscious by a flying surfboard deep in Baja, running out of gas in San Ignacio, and sleeping on the beach with a dead mule near San Quintin. Among many experiences here are just a couple of others that come to mind:
K39, Baja, early 1960’s
One summer trip, over forty years ago, we arrived at a surf spot we knew well called K39. We had always camped on the bluff above the beach there and made our way down the cliff to surf the waves below. This time we found that Senor Santini, who claimed ownership to the property, and backed it up with a shotgun, had somehow cut a narrow road or trail of sorts down the hillside to the beach. This meant that possibly a car could make it down this trail so that camping could be accomplished right on the sand in front of the surf break. Nothing could be finer. We did make it to the beach, surfed all day, cooked our dinner over a fire, and crawled into our bags for a good nights sleep.
So what could go wrong? What could happen? Our sturdy Volkswagen Camper made it down the bluff and it would make it back up the bluff. Well, what happened is it started to rain during the night, and it rained, and it rained, and then it poured. In the morning the first thing we noticed was our dirt road up the bluff, or where it used to be. It was gone, and in its place was a slushy mud slide, probably difficult to walk up let alone drive up. Even if we waited a few days for it to dry up the damage would make it impassable. What to do? Santini was nowhere to be found, and what could he do anyway? In those days this was in the middle of nowhere; but could we possibly hitchhike somewhere and find a tow truck? But a tow truck wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near our VW at the bottom of the cliff to hook a tow line to. By the time we had resigned ourselves to despair, hopelessness and all being lost we heard voices at the top of the hill. Hurrying and slogging our way through the mud, we made it to the crest and were amazed to see two cars stacked with surfboards and loaded with surfers. A surprised Mike Doyle, an old friend, famous surfer, and fellow Zuma Beach Lifeguard saw us and hollered a greeting; then he and his friends surveyed our dilemma. Mike said with the twelve or fifteen guys we have here all working together I bet we can get that VW up the hill. It was worth a try. And sure enough, with me flooring the gas peddle for all it was worth, and all that manpower pushing and almost carrying the car up the hill, we somehow managed this feat and made it over the top to safety. It took a good deal of time and muscle to accomplish this, and when we finished we were all covered with mud from head to toe. So what do you do when that happens? You go surfing, of course, and a great session was had by all. Without Mike Doyle and these Good Samaritans miraculously deciding to stop at this particular surf spot at this particular time, we no doubt would still be there today, forty years later, still surfing everyday and living on a diet of sea urchins and hermit crabs.
Mike Doyle on a nice double overhead wave. Voted best surfer in the world, 1965 – 66, Surfer Magazine. All around waterman and world champion. photo source: Surfer Magazine
I suppose every surfer has a story about La Policia when journeying through Baja on a surfing trip, I have many. One that comes to mind happened at the conclusion of one of our successful surf ventures. This occurred many years before the toll road along the beach was constructed, and we were returning from the coastline through the hill route, dropping down into the sprawling city of Tijuana and heading for the border. As we got into town, with a line of cars behind us, we noticed a uniformed guardia or agente de policia standing in the street before us directing us and the cars behind us to make a left turn down a side street. We obeyed, of course. After he directed the other ten or twelve cars behind us down this unfamiliar avenue, the policeman mounted his motorcycle, sped to the lead car, ours, and stopped the procession. He approached my window and informed me that I had broken the law by driving the wrong way down this one-way street. I mildly protested, knowing it was useless, that he, himself, had directed us on this course. He repeated that we had broken the law and he would be taking us to jail to appear in court at a later date. Knowing full well what my next move had to be, I responded by saying that I wondered if there was some way we could settle this matter here, pay him the fine, and save him all that time and trouble. He replied that it could be arranged, we could pay him the fine of fifty dollars and avoid the unpleantness of going to jail. And now it was my turn. Knowing the amount was negotionable, I said we didn’t have fifty dollars. His retort: well how much do you have? My answer: twenty dollars. His reply: all right, you can pay me the twenty dollar fine and move on. He took our money, and as he waved us through we could hear him calling out to the car behind us, “Next”! And as we drove away, through my rear view mirror, I could see him moving from car to car collecting whatever the traffic would bear from each one. I doubt that anyone went to jail that day for this serious breach of the traffic laws of Tijuana.
But the surf was great!
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 17 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A STRANGER AT THE BEACH
My first sight of him coming across the sand toward my Navy Street Lifeguard tower on the beach at Ocean Park was something of a shock. It was a warm, sunny beach day in the early 1940’s and the usual crowd of regulars and tourists was present. Many were in the water, some were playing volleyball, and some were just relaxing on the sand, but all were wearing swim suits of some sort. This stranger approaching was not dressed for a day at the beach. His attire consisted of long, white, flowing robes covering him from head to ankles, held together with a length of rope, and on his feet a pair of leather sandals. He appeared to be a man somewhere in his middle thirties. It was difficult to determine since he had long, uncombed brown hair that reached his shoulders, and a full beard. All of this gave him a rather Christ-like appearance.
photo source: myspace music
This was a most unusual sight. If it had been some twenty-five years later, after the hippie era burst upon the scene, his appearance would be commonplace and wouldn’t garner a second look, but not at this time. He asked a few questions about the area and wondered about a place to stay. I pointed out the numerous hotels and motels nearby but he replied that he always slept outdoors and lived on less than three dollars a week. Well, with that information I did tell him that a few of our beach regulars spent their nights out of the elements sleeping under the pier, and that there seemed to be quite a thriving social life going on there. He thanked me and left the beach that day telling me that his name was eden ahbez, spelled with lower case letters since only God was worthy of capitalization.
eden and his group of five or six similarly dressed friends spent a good bit of time at Navy Street Beach that summer. The only other group that diverged radically from the dress norm of the day was the Zoot Suiters, but they mainly stayed on the pier and observed beach life from afar. After the so called Zoot Suit Riots with the navy sailors in the early 40’s we didn’t see them any more. eden’s group was a gentle bunch who didn’t often take advantage of the excellent swimming available, and I seldom could get them to join in our volley ball games, but they did spread their robes open on occasion to soak up the rays of the sun. They told us that they lived only on raw food, fruit and vegetables, seeds and nuts, and never touched tobacco or alcohol. They called themselves “The Nature Boys”, lived a back to nature lifestyle, and were searching for health, inner calm, and communal living; unusual in the early 1940’s.
The Nature Boys, eden in foreground.
They had camped for a while in the hills above Palm Springs, and sometimes picked fruit up north, sleeping in trees and haystacks. They always slept outdoors and bathed in streams or waterfalls. I liked these guys, they wouldn’t harm anyone, and we were all fascinated by the stories they told of their journeys, especially the one about an idyllic place on the coast of Mexico where we could all go and live off the land, mainly on a diet of dates that grew there in profusion. They felt that the date could just about provide all the nutrition needed to sustain life, although one of their members, referred to as “Gypsy Boots”, preferred figs. The news of this coastal Shangri-la was met with great enthusiasm by my group, and we were ready to go until we found that none of the vagabonds could tell us whether the surfing and diving was of some quality at this paradise. They lost us right there, even though we were all quite fond of dates.
eden wrote music. I didn’t know it at first. He had written many songs but with little success with them so far. He had even played piano in a raw food restaurant for a time. One day he said that he had convinced The Ocean Park Band, that performed weekly, to play some of his compositions one afternoon. When the day came he asked if I would like to accompany him, and we set off walking to the band’s outdoor venue on the north side of the Ocean Park Pier next to the Casino Gardens Dance Hall. We sat down with the sparse crowd in front of the bandstand.
The Ocean Park bandstand. photo sourc: lapl.org
After a few rousing Sousa marches, the conductor announced that the band would now play a couple of numbers written by one eden ahbez who was seated in the crowd. I can’t say that at the time I was swept away by these compositions but they were pleasant enough, and I told him so. eden said a couple of the numbers would come off better if the words were sung since he had written lyrics for them. That was the only time that I had heard eden’s music. As the summer came to a close he and his friends eventually moved on from the beach to other outdoor living accommodations. I never saw eden or his nature boys again.
In 1947, eden made his way backstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles, found the manager of world famous singer Nat “King” Cole, thrust a tattered and folded up piece of music at him and asked if there was some way he could show it to Cole. The song was called, “Nature Boy”. Cole saw it and liked the song, and started to sing it to audiences who also liked it. He decided he had to record this song but couldn’t find ahbez anywhere to get his permission. He was finally located living outdoors, camped in the Hollywood Hills under the letter “L” of the famous Hollywood sign. The Nat “King” Cole recording of Nature Boy immediately shot to number one on the Billboard charts and remained there for eighteen weeks. All the leading singers and musicians of the day and later days rushed to record this song including Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Sarah Vaughn, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Shirley Bassey and David Bowie. eden ahbez was suddenly featured in Life, Time, and Newsweek Magazines all at the same time. The song became a pop standard for years. Countless recordings have been made of it and it has been used in many motion pictures through the years.
photo source: myspace music
Nat “King “Cole and eden ahbez
Later days with the Nature Boys:
Gypsy Boots, one of the group, became quite famous after living in caves and trees for many years. He wrote books on health, opened a health food store patronized by Hollywood celebrities, acted in movies, and appeared on the Steve Allan Show twenty-five times playing up his roll as a health advocate. He passed away in 2004 just short of his 90th birthday.
eden ahbez continued to write songs which never attained the success of Nature Boy. He supplied songs for Cole, Doris Day and The Ink Spots. In later years he often performed on the flute and bongos, and read poetry at gigs for Los Angeles coffee houses. He continued to live the simple, healthy, outdoor vegetarian life, and passed away in 1995 after an accident; he was 87. Many people remember him best for the last line from his song, Nature Boy:
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved in return”.
Afterthought: I often wondered in later years if maybe on that sunny day long ago I had actually, without knowing it, listened to “Nature Boy”, being performed at the Ocean Park Bandstand while sitting with my friend eden ahbez, the archetype hippie who was 20 years ahead of his time; “a very strange enchanted boy” as his song goes.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 08 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE TALE OF THE DUCK, A WATER ADVENTURE
It was thirty-one feet long and weighed six and a half tons. It wasn’t a pretty sight, and looked somehow out of place on our pristine beach at Zero Point, Malibu, California. It was army gray in color, ten feet high, and about that wide, with a place for a machine gun mount on the bow. It was called an amphibious duck, spelled DUKW by the U.S. Government. It was used during World War II for the transporting of goods and troops over land and water, and also for landing and crossing beaches in amphibious attacks. General Motors built these six-wheel drive, water going trucks that could attain a speed of fifty miles per hour on land and six miles an hour on water.
A duck. Photo source: www.militarymashup.com
Our friend Bill, who was our nearby neighbor on the beach, saw one at a government surplus sale and promptly purchased it, thinking this is just the thing to have if you’re going to live on the beach. Just imagine all the fun and possibilities with a thing like this, he thought, everyone should have one. So there it was resting on the sand on our mutually owned piece of beach at Zero Point, our favorite surfing spot.
Bill’s house was on Zero Point itself where the lifeguard tower stands today, and ours was just down the beach. This was years before Los Angeles County through eminent domain purchased and removed the homes to create a public beach.
Bill's house on Zero point
Now, from experience, I knew if you got involved with Bill in one of these adventures he dreamed up, your life could very well be in peril. One example is the time I rode home from town with him after he had just purchased a new Mercedes Benz SL 300 and wanted to see if it really could go over 125 miles per hour on Pacific Coast Highway in the middle of the night. It could. Fortunately at that time, over fifty years ago in the 1950’s, there were no cars on the highway and no homes along that stretch of road. Then there was the time Bill asked two of us to accompany him in an attempt to climb Bony Ridge, the highest peak in the Santa Monica Mountains, in his jeep. And this was after a previous attempt by two daredevils, over the same terrain, resulted in a turnover and two fatalities in the bottom of the canyon. We made it. And what about those frequent motorcycle races at high speed over the sand dunes along the beach that resulted in many a spectacular spill. One friend did a front somersault over his handlebars rendering himself unconscious, among other things, and with his wife Janet Leigh, of shower stabbing fame in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, watching the race nearby. A doctor lived down the beach a ways, and I hollered to Bill that I’d make a run for him. Bill’s reply was that this stuff happens all the time and that they would just throw him in a cold shower and maybe he’d be ok. I got the doctor. Another time Bill got hold of an old white porcelain bathtub, tied it to his jeep with a length of rope, and often piled kids in the tub and dragged them through the sand dunes at a pretty good rate of speed. Scary! Especially for the moms. Then there were the hopped-up go-cart races up and down the dirt, beach road, and the water skiing while being towed by a rope tied to the jeep speeding along on the sand, with the skier out in the surf line. Then there was Bill’s successful attempt to be the first ever to conquer the Colorado River rapids at flood stage in a speedboat, with famous movie maker, Warren Miller, along to film the whole thing for TV and movie theaters. And what about when we tried to land a plane on an almost non-existent runway that hadn’t been used since World War II on San Miguel Island in a dense fog (but that brings up a whole other story). This recitation could go on and on, the list has hardly started, but it’s time to get back to the duck. Bill was a good athlete, swimming, surfing, tennis, but he said he was never comfortable unless he had an engine under him.
The amphibious duck in wartime had a crew of two or three. We would pile all the kids and the whole neighborhood on board and go on diving and surfing excursions along our coast. It was fun to cruise into a secluded cove, stop and beach the duck for a picnic lunch, and take a swim. There were almost no homes along the beach in those days between what is now Leo Carrillo State Park and the five miles to Broad Beach Road. Sometimes Bill would show up and land his craft at my tower on busy Zuma Beach where I was lifeguarding. As a crowd of curious onlookers would gather I would have to run down the beach and tell him he would have to get that thing off the beach immediately since we didn’t even allow inner tubes or flotation gadgets on a public beach, let alone a six ton ocean going truck. Of course he would leave, but then return another day to do it all over again. We even went to the Channel Islands in the duck, a great many miles out to sea depending on the route you took. These crafts weren’t designed for long, rough ocean trips, not that a little thing like that would stop Bill, they were more for short invasion jaunts; although they did make it across the English Channel in the war. In the middle of a rough afternoon crossing from the islands to the mainland, with the swells coming clear over the bow, you began to wonder about the seaworthiness of a slow, heavy craft like this. Sometimes I and others would accompany Bill in testing the duck by plowing out through the biggest waves that would hit our beach to see if the duck could make it, and then turning about to attempt to ride a breaker to shore. Sometimes when Bill pulled this stuff it made you want to just bail overboard and swim for it.
Bill, the duck and crew
One of the most memorable experiences on the duck occurred at Anacapa Island with about five of us older guys plus some kids and a couple of moms along on this adventure. There are some huge water level caves on the northeast side of the island. At low tide, at the largest of these, it is possible for a small boat to enter and explore the interior and sandy beach at the rear of the cave. It is necessary, however, to exit before high tide sets in closing down the mouth of the cave to such an extent that a boat can be trapped.
The cave mouth. Photo source: www.photo-tours.org
The planning is not at all difficult for a small boat or kayak, but something as large and bulky as an amphibious duck is another matter. Of course we had to do it. We motored in, and after exploring the cave and beach on foot for some time we climbed back on board for departure only to discover that we were hung up and held fast on the rocks, the duck wouldn’t budge. Everyone but Bill climbed back off the boat to lighten the load to see if that would help. It didn’t. The tide was coming in and the mouth of the cave would soon be sufficiently closed that there would be no escape. There was a winch on the bow of the boat and Captain Bill instructed a couple of us to don our diving masks and fins, take the cables from the winch to the ocean floor and see if we could find suitable rocks to wrap the cables around.
View from inside the cave. Photo source: www.photo-tours.org
The water was dark and cold but the idea was that perhaps we could winch our way gradually forward and eventually break free of the rocks in time to escape before the cave closed in on us. The alternatives, if this plan failed, would be to abandon ship, swim out through the opening and be stranded on the beach for the night, or stay in the cave with our heads above water and wait for daylight and another chance when the proper tide arrived. Neither of these plans was at all attractive, especially with kids (two of which were my own little ones) and ladies to provide for. Swimming this group out into deep and rough water and then reaching shore would be a challenge, and would require rescue measures. Spending the night in a cold dark cave didn’t sound at all appealing either, and as time passed children were wondering out loud if the cave was going to fill with water and drown the lot of us. After reassuring them that nothing of the sort was going to happen, we kept winching away for what seemed like an hour without much progress at first, with time and tide waiting for no man and all that. But when suddenly we broke loose into deeper water, success finally was ours. We scrambled aboard out of the inky water onto the duck and headed for daylight. Our ten foot high craft cleared the opening by what seemed to be mere inches as we all ducked and looked up at the rocky mouth passing above us.
I guess all fun things have to end sometime but it came too soon for the amphibious duck. One day coming back through the surf to the beach and reaching shallow water the engine up and quit. No amount of urging and tinkering with the engine availed. It was fortunate that this didn’t happen in the middle of the ocean somewhere, as it well could have. Six and a half tons of duck started settling and sinking in the soft sand. A call went out for a bulldozer to come and yank the duck free. By the time one arrived the craft was deeply mired in the sand and couldn’t be budged. A second bulldozer arrived and the two of them made no headway. With impending doom rapidly approaching, and resigned to its fate, the duck sank deeper into its grave. It took but a few days and then it was gone, completely buried. Only once more did we see a bit of the duck when a cutting tide and big surf revealed a corner of its bow, and then it was gone forever. It was then that the thought occurred to us, what would Bill come up with now to put our lives once again in jeopardy.
It has been over fifty years since the demise of the duck but the memories linger, especially in the minds of all the kids that sailed with her, and loved every minute of it for that brief period of time long ago.
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 18 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
The first job I ever had paid 15 cents an hour. This was during the early 1930’s, and I was not yet ten years old. My two older brothers and I were hired to plant ice plant cuttings on the sand dunes of Playa del Rey where we lived. Ice plant was the only plant that could survive and thrive without water in this sandy environment along the Southern California beaches. It was planted to hold down the blowing sand around newly built homes against the constant afternoon westerly winds. My second job was delivering magazines and newspapers on my bicycle, which probably paid about the same.
The narrow Playa del Rey beach in the 1930's. Railroad tracks for the Big Red Streetcars that brought people to the beach are to the right of the telephone poles, upper right.
My third job came about unexpectedly. Friends of my family owned The Lagoon Lunch Stand that stood on the sand close to the salty waters of the Playa del Rey Lagoon. One evening they asked if I would like to help out around their little restaurant. I was eager to do it for I would often ride my bike to the lagoon to meet up with friends to swim, fish and to boat around on the calm waters. I also liked their hamburgers. The clean and clear water in the lagoon ebbed and flowed with the tides through a channel dug many years before through the beach to the ocean. Another inlet for water came from Ballona Creek near what is now Marina del Rey. A few hundred years back this creek was once the mouth of the Los Angeles River before it flooded and changed channels redirecting itself to empty into the ocean at Long Beach.
Playa del Rey Lagoon 1905. Photo source: http://www.playadelrey.com/history.html
The Del Rey Lagoon had a glamorous past when the luxurious Hotel Del Rey, the Del Rey Dance Pavilion, a bowling alley, boat race course, grandstand and restaurant stood on its shores. Many early silent movie films were made here. This was considered one of the best all around beaches on the Southern California Coast when Charlie Chaplin first created his character, “The Little Tramp”, in the 1914 movie, Kid Auto Races, filmed at the lagoon. A fishing pier extending 1200 feet into the ocean was constructed here.
A car raceway (Playa del Rey Metrodome) was built just inland where the famous Barney Oldfield often raced. photo source www.lapl.org
The Playa del Rey pier and Pacific Electric Lagoon Line track route at the base of the palisade. Photo source www.lapl.org
The Pacific Electric Lagoon Line brought tourists to the area. This line connected to the main Big Red Streetcar at Venice that continued to Los Angeles, and connected to the other main line at Playa del Rey that ran on to Redondo Beach. At this junction tourists could walk to The Cable Railway, consisting of two cars, “Alphonse and Gaston”. These cars carried would-be buyers to the top of the palisade to view the beach lots for sale in this new subdivision. My father was one of these buyers.
Playa del Rey homes under construction on the bluff. Photo source: www.lapl.org
Many of the Lagoon attractions were gone when I was a kid, mostly from fires and tidal action. The hotel itself, after developing a somewhat shady reputation in its final years, burned down the year I was born. But the pier, the channel to the ocean, the lagoon, the boats, the streetcars and the beautiful beach homes were still there. The Lagoon Lunch Stand was still there.
Sailboats in the Lagoon 1920's. photo source: www.lapl.org
My job at first was to keep the beach in front clean and tidy, and to carry rental umbrellas and chairs to the area desired by the customers. Nice outdoor work, broken up frequently for refreshing swims in the lagoon. Then on occasion I was called indoors to do stock work and such, eventually becoming grill boy. I couldn’t have been more than twelve. Hot dogs were five cents and hamburgers six cents, and there I was frying away. Ice cream bars were a nickel and we had all the latest in modern, bottled soda pop for five cents: Nehi, Hires, and Delaware Punch. Our biggest selling chocolate covered ice cream bar was called Big Bear. One day two foreign language speaking gentleman misread the poster for “Big Bear, 5 cents” and demanded to be served a “Big Beer, 5 cents”. They became incensed with our false advertising when we informed them that we didn’t serve beer. I think they had had too many “big beers” already.
If you visit the Del Rey Lagoon today there’s not much to see. Nothing of its former glory remains. The pier is gone, the outlet to the ocean is sanded over, and just a trickle of water comes in and out of Ballona Creek. Nobody swims or fishes in the murky lagoon. The Lagoon Lunch Stand, where I learned everything I know about cooking, has been closed and gone for over 65 years.
And where are you going to find a decent six cent hamburger anymore?
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 08 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
SURFING AT SECOSThe Early Days
It’s another one of those surfing questions that has no answer, the old “who rode those waves first” conundrum, not that it is a matter of any great consequence. I do know that surfing there in the 1940’s I never encountered another person on the beach or near the water let alone another surfer, except for whoever journeyed there with me. It was a nice, clean right break in crystal clear water with a kelp bed outside to keep the surface glassy. We had it all to ourselves. All of the Leo Carrillo State Beach area was privately owned and fenced off in those days. It was called Phillips Ranch after the owner. Phillips had a brown frame ranch house on the point where the lifeguard headquarters now stands. He had cattle and horses on his beach land, and on up the canyon along the road now called Mulholland Highway. The large state campground that is there in the canyon today was built many years later. Climbing through the fence to surf or dive, Phillips never bothered us nor did we bother him, leaving everything as untouched as we found it. The canyon and creek that end right at the surf break was and is called Arroyo Sequit. I suppose for the sake of brevity or a better name for these pristine waters we started referring to the break as Sequit instead of Phillips Ranch, much as we called the break to the south, that we had all to ourselves, Zero Point instead of Nicholas Beach. Today surfers through the years have altered these names a bit to Secos and Zeros for some reason.
Phillips Ranch house on the point at Arroyo Sequit
The original inhabitants of the area, of course, were the Chumash Indians, having settled there near the running stream some six to eight thousand years before the rest of us. The story I like best regarding how they happened to be there goes like this: All of the Indians at one time lived on the Channel Islands but overpopulation became a problem. The mother-spirit decided she would send a great many people to live on the mainland over a narrow, rainbow bridge she prepared for them, admonishing them not to look down or they would fall into the sea. Of course, many could not resist the temptation to take a look and they did fall into the ocean below. The Chumash were always known for hunting, fishing and eating everything that swam or crawled in the sea, but never a dolphin. The Chumash knew the dolphins were their brothers, transformed by the spirit-mother to live in the sea when they fell from the rainbow bridge. To this day we still see these dolphin brothers swimming in the ocean off the shores of Malibu.
All twenty-seven miles of Malibu including Sequit went into a Spanish land grant, and was eventually purchased by Frederick Rindge in 1891 for ten dollars an acre. The Rindges began selling off their Malibu land in 1926, and the Sequit area became the Phillips Ranch. Sometime in the early 1950’s the State of California purchased the land for conversion to a public beach and campground, naming the area for actor and California Beach and Parks Commissioner, Leo Carrillo. The state had always requested the local municipalities of Los Angeles City, Santa Monica and Los Angeles County to operate the state’s beaches, and Sequit was county land. It was a big area and would probably require a lieutenant to manage the beach, much as was the case at Zuma Beach where I worked as a permanent county lifeguard. Since I was next up on the lieutenant’s list the possibility was discussed by our chief lifeguard that I might be the one transferred there, and my family and I could take up residence in the Phillips Ranch House. Since I was paying L.A. County the huge amount of twenty-five dollars a month at the time for a five bedroom beach house at Zuma this sounded like a splendid idea.
Zuma Beach house 1950's
But in the midst of planning, the State of California suddenly decided that since they owned so many beaches in L.A. County, and operated none of them themselves, that maybe they should run at least one of them, and this was going to be it. The fine ranch house fell to the wreckers, a lifeguard tower was constructed, and the state took over operation. Before my number came up again, I took my credential and college degree and was off to become a teacher and later principal for the school system, but I continued to maintain my beach lifeguard position in order to work all my time off as a lifeguard for the next twenty-five years. Many years later Leo Carrillo did come under the jurisdiction of L.A. County, and I was sent there to help with the transition and was lucky enough to work there. I eventually moved south a mile to be the first lifeguard at Nicholas Beach when the county commenced operation there. Later Leo Carrillo once again went back under state control.
Cal at Zero Point tower early 1970's
The waves still roll in at Secos, and I surfed there frequently through the years. One time the TV show, “Name Your Adventure”, arranged to film there and needed two surfers, an old surfer and a pro surfer. I was contacted by the studio and was hired as the old guy, I was in my seventies, and former world surfing champion, Peter Townend, was hired as the pro. The story was that these two young, athletic guys who tried all kinds of adventures would come to the beach to become surfers. They see this old guy out there riding the waves making it look fairly easy, so they talk to him about surfing when he comes out of the water, but all the time thinking if this old guy can do it anyone can. Of course, they give it a try, flounder around with little success, and find that maybe it does take a bit of practice. So they get together with the pro and the old guy on the beach for a little instruction, and then we all go out for a couple of more sessions. It is ironic that the stunt pay per hour for this little movie job was more than the monthly salary when I began as a beach lifeguard.
The waves are still good at Secos, as it is now called, but the crowds are a problem there as with most popular beaches. The campground supplies a steady flow of surfers along with those who travel out from the cities to spend the day on this beautiful stretch of beach. A good many bypass Leo for County Line or Staircase to the north, or to Zeros on the south, but crowds exist there too. I guess what I am trying to say is “you should have been here yesterday”!
In my case that means about seventy years ago, when all you had to do was climb through a barb-wire fence and avoid being trampled by cows and horses.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 28 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
BEAUTY AND THE BEACH
They were part pageant, part celebration, and part festival. All the local girls wanted to be in the bathing beauty contests. It was a fun thing to do and there would be hundreds of entries in each contest. Unlike today, bathing attire provided more coverage in those days, and there was an aura of innocence prevailing over these events in the 1920’s, 30’s and into the 40’s. All the beach towns put on beauty contests and thousands of spectators would gather to encourage and cheer on their favorites, their daughters, their sisters and their girl friends. There was a Miss Santa Monica, Miss Ocean Park, Miss Venice, Hermosa, Redondo, Long Beach, and up and down the coast. The contests were usually held during the summer months out on the piers, on the beach, along the boardwalk, or even in the plunges. I certainly witnessed many of these events. It was just part of being a kid growing up on the beach, a part of life like the Venice Mardi Gras, the parades, the beach parties, and the pageants of one kind or another.
Venice beauty contest, 1920’s, when Cal was a kid. photo source: http://www.lapl.org
History tells us that choosing queens for May Day and other festivities was an ancient custom in Europe, but probably the first beauty contest ever held in America was put on by the P.T.Barnum Circus in 1854. When it was discovered that only women of questionable reputation were entering, the event was discontinued. The first bathing beauty contest held out on a beach or pier anywhere was the first one at Venice Beach in 1912. It was sponsored by the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper and it became an annual event. It became so popular in the 1920’s the pier couldn’t handle the crowd so it was moved onto the beach north of the pier in front of the Venice Salt Water Plunge. Thousands crowded the sand to watch. The contestants often arrived in open limousines in a parade down the boardwalk. I’m sure I must have seen my first contest at this location sometime in the late 1920’s. The winners were selected solely on the basis of physical appearance and personality, no talent or intelligence was tested.
photo source: http://www.lapl.org
Venice even held an annual male beauty contest on the pier starting in 1926. It was all in fun, but there was $500.00 in prizes for most handsome, most athletic, and most comic. All sorts of guys entered, from local boys, to early body builders, to Hollywood types. Venice was also selected to hold the first Miss California contest. It was held in 1932 in the Venice Ballroom on the pier, and continued from then until World War II interrupted the event in 1941. It was often held during the annual Mardi Gras pageant in August. Venice was the hub of beach beauty contests in those days; they were the most famous and drew the largest crowds, although there were contests from San Diego all the way north to Santa Cruz and probably beyond. Atlantic City, famous for beauty pageants, didn’t hold its first until 1921.
Finalists, Casino Gardens, Ocean Park. photo source: http://www.smpl.org
Today I can’t think of any bathing beauty contest anywhere that is held on a pier, or on the beach or along a boardwalk. They are a thing of the past like the beach clubs, bath houses, plunges, and the amusement piers themselves. What contests that are still held are in huge indoor auditoriums or ballrooms, like Miss America in Atlantic City. They are well organized and don’t seem like much fun. A true and authentic bathing beauty contest has to be held outdoors in the sunshine, with the sound of the ocean close by, and with feet firmly planted in the sand, or on the planks of a pier or boardwalk. Anything else is in a different category. Oh well, those were the days.
Cathy in a two piece white. Stylist Mag, 1947. MILADY of CA Mag, 1948.
I was acquainted with many of the contestants who entered the pageants through the years, everyone was. They were just local girls from my high school, or girls I knew growing up on the beach, or girls I knew from some of the beaches I worked as a lifeguard. Navy Street Beach, alongside the Ocean Park Pier where I worked as a lifeguard, had its share of attractive young ladies. Cathy was one of these, with her long dark hair, perfect tan, and striking appearance. Her outgoing personality drew everyone to her, she had a great many friends. But Cathy was certainly not interested in bathing beauty contests. Then one day the news came that there was going to be an all encompassing pageant. Before this, each of the beach towns had its own individual contest, but now there was to be a “Miss Bay Cities” to decide an overall beauty winner. Cathy was not interested. After much urging and convincing on the part of her friends, and I was one, she decided to enter just for fun. The contest was held at the Ocean Park Pier near the famous Casino Gardens Ballroom where all the big name bands played. It was a beautiful, warm sunny day in the summer of 1946, and a huge crowd assembled. I for one was not going to miss it. The winner of this contest would be eligible for the Miss California Contest, and who knows, Miss America. As I looked over the gathering of contestants I recognized several who had been in the other beach contests, some had done very well. Two or three that I saw had been first place contest winners, and now they were after this one. Cathy was 18, and wearing a two piece white that showed off that flawless tan and long dark hair over her shoulders. The elimination rounds began and one by one contestants were dismissed. Then they were down to twenty, and then ten. Cathy was there. Again, one by one and they were down to five. It seemed to take the judges forever to make these decisions. I knew it would take me no time at all. Now it was three, and Cathy was there. Third place was finally announced, then second. And when first place was announced, with great fanfare, it seemed she was everyone’s favorite, for a deafening roar and cheer came up from the crowd. Cathy was Miss Bay Cities.
We married two months later.
Submitted By Cal Porter on April 09 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
DANCING AT THE BLUE EGYPTIANOnce, many years ago, there was a whole lot of dancing going on, and it was all on the beach side of the boardwalk. Dance halls, pavilions and ballrooms were plentiful along the waterfront, some built right on the sand and others out on the piers. But like the beach clubs, bath houses and salt water plunges where are they today? I wasn’t a regular customer of these establishments but I dropped in frequently enough to see what was going on and to listen to the name bands that played there. Even as kids we could edge our way in and stand in the shadows to listen in person to the strains of Artie Shaw and “Begin the Beguine” or Tommy Dorsey’s “Stardust”. These beach ballrooms were always packed, especially on weekends. I remember them all. There were other dance venues, of course, The Palomar, The Coconut Grove, The Palladium, but they were all inland, downtown, and everyone liked to come to the seashore. Many would come for the day, sunning and swimming at the beach while the sun was shining, and then stay for the dark to come, and dance into the night.
La Monica and pier - photo source: http://www.lapl.org/
The Santa Monica Pier
The La Monica Ballroom was on the south side toward the end of the pier. It was gigantic and ornate with its ten Byzantine turrets soaring into the sky like something out of Arabian Nights. It claimed to be the largest ballroom in the world, with room for ten thousand people and accommodating twenty-five hundred dancing couples on the floor at any one time. It opened in 1924, and soon after, the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra was playing there, followed later by Earl Hines, Ben Pollack, Jimmy Dorsey and other top bands of the day. In its later years, the mid 1940’s, Spade Cooley, The King of Western Swing, took over and broadcast his radio and later television show from there. I was there often, and poked my head in occasionally to take a look and hear the music during the 30’s and 40’s, but I was there mainly because during the 1930’s one corner of the huge building was used as the first Santa Monica Lifeguard Headquarters. The other corner of the building brought me there, too, because as kids that was where we jumped off the pier for a cooling swim.
The Crystal Pier Beach
The Rendezvous Ballroom was built right on the sand just down the beach a short distance from the La Monica, and just north of the Crystal Pier. It didn’t draw as many name bands as some of the others but it did have its share of movie stars in attendance, Charlie Chaplin for one. They would spill out of their dinner hangout, Nat Goodwin’s, and see what was going on at the Rendezvous. Nat was a former actor, and his place on the end of the pier was quite famous with its own music and entertainment. Later, in the early 1940’s, gay night clubs opened across the boardwalk from the ballroom increasing attendance at the Rendezvous.
The Ocean Park Pier
There were more dance halls in this area than anywhere else. The Casino Gardens, the first one south of the Rendezvous, always drew the big name bands. It was built on the beach side of the board walk and extended out onto the Ocean Park Pier. It stood next to the outdoor bandstand where I one time accompanied Eden Abez, who was dressed in his sandals and wrap around sheet outfit, to listen to his music played by The Ocean Park Band. He was the composer of Nature Boy which was made into one of the top number one hits of all time by Nat “King” Cole. As a teenager I could go to the Casino and hear the bands of Artie Shaw, Harry James, Charlie Barnet, Glen Gray, Louis Prima, Orrin Tucker and his vocalist, “Wee” Bonnie Baker (“Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh”; which was on the top of the charts for fourteen weeks). Tommy Dorsey and brother Jimmy played there, and often joined up for a “battle of the bands”. For a while Tommy Dorsey owned The Casino Gardens along with investors Jimmy Dorsey and Harry James. Movie stars such as Judy Garland, Lucy and Desi, and Mickey Rooney were there. This was the place! My unlikely claim to fame at The Casino Gardens was that I was thrown out of the place one night. A group of my teenage friends and I entered the hall on this particular night with an acquaintance that we just happened to bump into outside the ballroom. He was a Venice street fighter and was quite famous for his many successful encounters along the waterfront, not exactly my best friend. Sure enough, we hadn’t been inside very long before he started to tangle with a rough looking guy that apparently rubbed him the wrong way, it didn’t take much. A couple of bouncers were called upon to break it up, they knew who he was, and he challenged them to step outside where he’d take on both of them at once, giving them the first shot. They wanted no part of him. The manager arrived with a couple of more bouncers and we were all escorted outside, whereupon, with a threat of legal action, the manager announced in a loud voice that from this day forward Joe and his gang were banished from The Casino for ever. What? Who me? Joe’s Gang? I had had one fight in my life, and I lost. In the first grade Andrew Renwick took me apart. This was at Nightingale Elementary just down the beach. But Barbara, the girl we both liked, took my side in the matter. Anyway, sometime later on I got back in The Casino Gardens. I guess they forgot how tough I was.
Egyptian Ballroom. photo source: http://www.smpl.org/
The Egyptian Ballroom was way out toward the end of the pier next to the Chute the Chutes boat ride, another spot where we kids would jump off for a long swim to the beach. I don’t remember a lot about The Egyptian or who played there, I was a young kid when that hall was there. But I do remember the beautiful blue interior with visions of Cleopatra and the god of the Nile painted on the walls. The interior was actually a replica of the temple of Rameses II, king of Egypt. Then there was another dance hall on the beach side of the boardwalk across from The Ocean Park Plunge, the name I don’t recall. The Fraser Dance Pavilion was also out toward the end of the pier when it was once called Fraser’s Million Dollar Pier. There were others through the years.
The Lick Pier
From my lifeguard tower alongside the pier in the early 40’s I could hear the music coming from The Lick Pier Ballroom. Afternoon dances were often held in the summer months. When I was very young it was called The Bon Ton, in its last years it was named The Aragon. The big name bands that played The Casino Gardens, the Dorsey’s, Artie Shaw and all, often played Lick Pier. For a time my older brother worked the ballroom as a ticket taker and sometime bouncer at the entrance, so my friends and I had no trouble slipping in to check the action in the evening. Early on The Bon Ton was larger with a separation in the middle, and two bands could play at the same time. During World War II swing shift dances were held that started after midnight and went on until dawn. In its later life as The Aragon, Lawrence Welk and his “Champagne Music” held forth, with his television show broadcast from the pier.
Venice Ballroom - photo source: http://www.smpl.org/
The Venice Pier
The Venice Pier never had the number of dance halls that Ocean Park had, there was just the one, The Venice Ballroom, but maybe others early on that I don’t remember. The site of the ballroom is better known for a performance put on there by the world’s most famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt in 1906. The story goes that she was scheduled to play in Los Angeles at that time but a conservative group there deemed her show to be, “immoral and unfit to play downtown”. The founder of Venice, Abbott Kinney, immediately invited her to Venice instead, where not only did she perform, but went fishing at the end of the pier to the delight of the many spectators and the fifty news reporters sent to cover her. She caught a bass. Later on The Venice Ballroom came in for some renown when it conducted the “dance till you drop” marathons during the depression years.
Sunset pier & Ballroom - photo source: http://www.smpl.org/
The Sunset Ballroom
The final ballroom along this stretch of beach, and I can think of none farther south in the bay, was on The Sunset Pier and was aptly called The Sunset Ballroom. The pier was built the year I was born, 1924. I always saw the dance hall as I passed by on the pier but remember little about who played there. There was a bandstand and concerts out at the end of the pier. The Sunset was not one of the more spectacular halls, and it was demolished and long gone when I used the end of this pier for years as a diving or jumping off place to surf or bodysurf the fine waves that formed there.
The Last Dancer
And where are all these dance halls today? Gone. All gone. Not one left. All the piers and all the ballrooms and all the dance pavilions demolished long ago, vanished without a trace. Only the Santa Monica Pier remains, but without its dance hall. So we’re closed! Out of business! There will be no more dancing on the beach!
Well, at least I can now stop worrying about ever incurring a second ejection from The Casino Gardens for rowdy behavior.
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 30 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
A RACE THROUGH THE CLOUDSIntro
The fun houses, the bamboo slides, the chute the chutes, and the bumper cars were all well and good and a lot of fun, but an amusement pier without a roller coaster was not a true amusement pier at all. At least that’s the way we kids thought. The roller coasters were the real attractions and the main reason for going out on the piers, along with our passion for jumping and diving off the piers for a swim. All the other enticements were merely side shows, supporting actors for the king of them all, the roller coaster. Just the names alone bring back the memories and excitement: The Blue Streak Racer, The Whirling Dipper, The Dragon Gorge, The Race Through the Clouds, The Toboggan Railroad. All the amusement piers in the north bay from Venice to Santa Monica had roller coasters, some more than one at a time. A lot of them were before my time but I knew many of them well. The southern end of Santa Monica Bay was a different story; its piers were for fishing, not amusements, only Redondo Beach had a roller coaster, and that was a long time ago.
The entrance to The Race Through The Clouds. Photo source: http://www.smpl.org
The roller coaster is largely considered an American idea, and this is partly true, but it was really not invented here. In the 1600’s the Russians came up with an ice covered, lumber ramp that you could skid down in a box for an eighty foot drop, but the French were the ones who invented the first wheeled roller coaster in 1817. Later it was also their idea for wheels that were locked to the rails, certainly a must when you don’t want to leave the tracks while going fast and around curves, and it is still with us to this day. “The Father of the American Roller Coaster” was La Marcus Thompson, who as a kid got the bug after he took a fast ride on a rail cart full of coal straight down a hill from a mine to the railroad below. He constructed his first roller coaster at Coney Island in 1884 with a maximum speed of six miles an hour from a forty-five foot tower. The car had to be manually towed to the top of the tower. Within four years he had built fifty more in the United States, and his idea started the opening of amusement parks worldwide. Not much changed in the basic idea or the construction of the coaster until 1955 when Disney built The Matterhorn, the first all-steel roller coaster; the rest is history.
The Giant Dipper. Photo source: http://www.smpl.org
When I was young all roller coasters were made of wood. This made for a rattling, jerky, noisy ride that added to the thrill of it all. It always felt like the car was going to fall apart or jump off the track throwing you onto the beach or into the ocean below. The whole wooden framework of the ride itself would sway as the coaster careened around the curves. My first ride on a roller coaster was on The Giant Dipper which was on the south side of the Venice Pier overlooking the beach and ocean between the Venice and Sunset Piers. This is the beach where we hung out and did most of our swimming and surfing. The famous Ship Café was on the pier just beyond the coaster. The Giant Dipper was part of the scene at our beach hangout, we could always see it and we could always hear it, it was part of our world, and we boys often rode our very own coaster. I guess it was sometime in our teens when it finally dawned on us that the roller coaster could be even more fun if you had a girl along for the ride. The Dipper was built the year I was born, and it lasted right up to the time I got married and moved on to other beaches in 1946. When I left, the ride was torn down and gone forever. Some years before its demolition, a local character who always had a pipe in his mouth and had a red dog named “Red Dog”, would often search the dark wooden tunnel that the coaster would enter for a brief scary time after its initial straight-down plunge. After closing time, with his flashlight and red dog, he would look for the coins that frequently fell out of pockets and onto the tracks below as the car rocked back and forth in the pitch dark. But on one night of misjudgment he entered the tunnel before the last ride was over; he was known for doing a bit of drinking. No one saw him enter the tunnel and no one on the car could see him when the coaster hit him, and there in the darkness it was instantly over for the man with the pipe and dog. But not for his friend. I would see him around the waterfront for some time after, then I lost track of Red Dog.
The Blue Streak Racer roller coaster, Santa Monica Pier 1923. Photo source: Public domain
The Venice Pier had many other roller coasters through the years; the first one in 1910 had mountain scenery surrounding it. There were at least five more in various locations, one built right over the breakwater at the end of the pier. In Santa Monica the first one was built on the hillside overlooking the pier in 1887. It was a short ride and only went a few miles per hour for the guests of the old Arcadia Hotel. When I was a kid, the Whirlwind Dipper was on the pier, replacing the Blue Streak Racer that was there before it. Today on the pier there only remains a new and shiny kids’ roller coaster. The Ocean Park Pier had the most, at least nine during its history, some brought down by fires and other calamities. The first one was built alongside the pier in 1904; it was only thirty feet high. There were several others before I was born. Then when I was a kid, the first Ocean Park Giant Dipper was there, and then a second Giant Dipper was built in 1924 that lasted until 1931. I saw it but I don’t think I ever rode in it at my tender age, it was gone by the time I was seven, but then, maybe. But now we come to The High Boy, alias The Sea Serpent. I have to say, even though the Venice Pier Giant Dipper was my first, and my home coaster, my favorite has to be The High Boy, but I can explain. My older friend, Fuzzy, ran The High Boy. Not only was he in charge of the roller coaster, he was also invaluable during my stint as a teenage lifeguard on the very busy beach alongside the pier where he hung out during the daytime hours. Fuzzy could always be counted on to step in and settle fights, arguments, rumbles of various kinds, and the exploits of drunks who came down off the pier. He knew everybody there, was one tough guy, and I never saw anyone get the better of him. Now back to the roller coaster. Fuzzy would take the tickets, put the passengers in the cars and tell them where to sit, and then pull the big lever that released the brake allowing the car to take hold of the pulley and ascend the first seventy-five foot hill. Of course, one time the car, with me in it, made its way half way up the hill when it lost its grip on the cog wheels and coasted backwards at a pretty good rate of speed back to where we started. Scary, but not to worry, we made it on our next try. Today it would have been taken out of service for one long repair time. Anyway, since Fuzzy was my buddy, and I rode often and free, and he was in charge of the seating arrangements, I somehow found myself frequently seated with one or two attractive girls who didn’t seem to have escorts. I will forever be indebted to my friend Fuzzy for his concern and kind attention to this matter.
High Boy. Photo source: http://www.smpl.org
So where are all the beach roller coasters today? Gone, of course, all gone, along with the piers, bath houses, plunges and beach clubs. The only ones on the beach anywhere now that I know of, and both far away from Santa Monica Bay, are the 85 year old Santa Cruz Coaster up north and the equally old San Diego coaster that was named a national landmark and reopened after many years of inactivity. I have ridden on both of these. Then there is the gentle, kids’ coaster on the Santa Monica Pier, the only amusement pier left. But then I suppose these old rides would be considered pretty tame today compared with the modern, inland roller coasters at places like Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm where the coasters reach heights of 456 feet and travel upside down while attaining speeds of 128 miles per hour. I would have to be paid a good bit of money to board one of these speedsters today, but I can tell you there was nothing quite like the experience of riding in the old rickety, creaky, rumbling, wooden roller coasters with the cool salt air in your face, and seeing all the people on the beach or pier below you having fun and hollering and waving up to you. And, oh yes, having a girl along was not too bad either.
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 23 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
GROWING UP ON THE BEACH
Growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s as a beach kid was in many ways far different than it is today. For one thing I don’t remember kids or grownups being so safety conscious and careful back then about everything a kid was doing or was allowed to try. You saw something that you wanted to do, maybe a little dangerous, and you went for it. There are so many rules and regulations and dos and don’ts now that didn’t exist back then, but I know that most of them are necessary in today’s times.
Brother Ray, Cal and Brother Leland
The ocean piers come to mind as one example. When I was a kid there were dozens of piers up and down the coast of Santa Monica Bay; today there are very few left. I don’t ever remember meeting a pier that I didn’t jump off of. The higher the better. I thought that was why they were there. There were no signs every ten feet that read, “No jumping or diving off the pier, city ordinance number so and so; don’t run, or climb on the rail, don’t even lean on it you might fall in the ocean”. You’ve seen them. But pier jumping was great fun back then. Starting with the Santa Monica Pier, out towards the end on the south side beyond the old La Monica Ballroom, there was a wooden landing just above the water with a ladder below it extending into the ocean. After you hit the water you could climb up the ladder to the landing and sit in the sun. This was an open invitation for kids to jump off the pier, and we did. And if spectators decided to throw us a few coins for our exploits, so much the better. The next pier down the beach was the Crystal Pier. Once on the end of it stood the famous Nat Goodwin’s Café where the movie stars hung out. On one of the only courts on the beach in those days we would get so hot playing volleyball, on the wind free south side of the pier, that running out to the end and jumping off, followed by an easy swim to the beach, was a must. Next was the Ocean Park Pier. It was a very long pier, and no place to jump off until the very end where the “Chute the Chutes”, a downhill, thrill ride, boat concession stood. There was no way back onto the pier so we only jumped there if we wanted a long swim, and that was often a shortcut right through the pilings. The Lick Pier stood next to the Ocean Park Pier, and it was short and a good jumping pier. We jumped off the end where the Bon Ton Ballroom stood, and we usually could a catch a wave or two on our swim to shore. Down the beach about a mile south was the Venice Pier. You didn’t jump off the very end of the Venice Pier or you might end up on the rocky breakwater that was constructed there for the protection of the pier. The pier is now gone like all the rest of them, but the breakwater is still there almost a hundred years after it was built. We would jump off the south side at the pier’s end, and that’s where you could always count on the tourists to throw nickels and dimes for us to dive for.
The Sunset Pier. Photo source: http://www.westland.net/venicehistory/articles/sunsetpier.htm
The Sunset Pier was not far from the Venice Pier and was my favorite. The end of the pier was protected by a high glass windbreak that shielded the bandstand and the spectators at concerts long ago. We could sit or lie in the hot sun behind the glass wall and watch for an especially choice set of large waves to approach, and then climb the railing and jump or dive into the ocean below and bodysurf the chosen wave all the way to the beach. We would then run back out to the end of the pier and do it all over again. The lifeguard headquarters was nearby but I don’t remember anyone ever hollering to us, “hey you kids, get off the pier, you can’t do that, it’s dangerous”. Well I guess it was a bit dangerous since a fellow Venice High School pal misjudged the water depth at low tide one time and broke his neck. I’m happy to report that after a long rehab he was ok. But this stuff was a bit risky, especially if you climbed the flagpole at the pier’s end to get the maximum height for your plunge into the sea. The Del Rey Pier down the beach was hard to jump off due to the numerous fishing lines dangling into the water everywhere. But if you did succeed you could swim towards shore and into the channel that ran under the road trestle and into the Del Rey Lagoon where you could climb out onto the hot sand, with the handy Lagoon Hamburger Stand nearby. With an incoming tide it was an easy swim into the lagoon, but with an outgoing tide it was an impossible flowing river, and you would find yourself fighting the current looking for someplace to beach yourself in calmer waters. There were several more piers on the south end of Santa Monica Bay that I visited, and did jump off a few, but they were less frequented since they were harder for me to reach as a kid.
Del Rey Lagoon
More long ago stuff
We swam in places that are definite no-nos today, and they should be. Lagoons would form along the beaches from the run-off water from the hills and towns, especially after storms, and they still do. There was always a good one at Santa Monica Canyon, and another where Pico Boulevard reaches the sea, and there were many others scattered along the shoreline. They were very inviting for a kid to take a dip, and we did. I guess we weren’t very smart but nobody said not to. Today signs are posted at these sites reading, “Warning, danger, peligro, don’t go near the water, polluted, bacteria; drownings have occurred”, all true of course but it was a lot of fun. Then there was Ballona Creek at Playa Del Rey that carried all the debris and garbage and runoff from the City of Los Angeles on its way to the ocean. It was one of our playgrounds. We swam in it, and we surfed in it where it exited into the Pacific. For a workout or just for a fun swim we would go all the way to Lincoln Boulevard and swim with an ebbing tide all the way back to the beach, a distance of over a mile. Then there were the good waves in the ocean in front of the old problem-plagued, El Segundo sewage treatment plant. We just had to surf those waves. This was long before the modern facility was built that is there today and does a pretty good job of purifying the outflow. Who knows what was in the water at that time; but then again, maybe we do know. We also fished off the pier there and had some tasty halibut dinners as a result. Another place where we would swim was the murky, green waters of the Venice Canals with their slimy mud bottom. And we would jump off the bridges there. The Chase Hotel on the beach in Santa Monica had been closed down for some time. We knew there was a fine 25 yard swimming pool in the basement that hadn’t been drained. We also knew how to sneak into the boarded-up establishment and have ourselves a nice swim in the freezing, dark water. We didn’t think about what else might have been swimming around in that stagnant water. We just didn’t seem to worry about stuff like they do now. For instance, we would hike the canyons and creeks that ran down from the hills of Palisades, Topanga and Malibu to the beach. We not only swam in the creek water, we drank the water. I remember one time, after a long thirst quenching drink of water from Santa Ynez Creek that runs into the hills above Sunset Boulevard, and then seeing cattle standing in the creek upstream from us, I remarked to my hiking buddy that the water must be pretty good, all the cows are drinking it.
Brothers Ray and Leland, Cal
No floatation equipment is allowed in the ocean these days except for approved surfboards and bellyboards, and only at certain times and at certain places. As kids we took anything that would float in the water. We built wooden boats, surfboards and rafts and we were always in the water with them. It’s true our boats would sometimes sink from under us when we were far from shore, and my brothers and I bear the scars from being gouged by the crudely constructed wooden rafts and boards while trying to launch them through the waves or beach them later. But what adventure it was to see how far out toward the horizon we could go on one of these contraptions and scare my mother. We also would build fires on the beach and announce to our parents that we were going to cook dinner and sleep on the beach, and that was ok by them. You can’t do that today. We would later go off on surfing jaunts for days at a time and no one was too worried about it. When I was a young teenager my friends and I would jump on our bikes with sleeping bags and some food and ride off to the mountains to go camping alone for a few days. In fact, I remember my parents used to drop my brothers and me off at Big Bear Lake to camp for a week or so by ourselves in the summer. I was only ten or eleven; they were a few years older. We would hitchhike around the lake to find good swimming spots, and we would always get a ride, but those were very different times.
There was no such thing as sun block when I was a kid. We would be on the beach or in the water all day. We would burn and we would peal but mostly we just toughened up. Our lips would be sore, cracked, and chapped, but it didn’t seem to be a problem until much later when kissing a girl became important. An old salt told me once back then that something called tincture of benzoin rubbed on the lips would give protection, but there was just one little problem, it stained your mouth a dirty brown color and you appeared to be chewing tobacco and drooling. Then someone came up with the idea of rubbing white zinc oxide all over your face so you looked like a clown. So with those two choices we used nothing.
Lastly, when I was a kid, I don’t think I ever knew there was such a thing as fish and game regulations which told how much sea life you could take, and where and when you could do it. Lobsters and abalone were plentiful and almost no one else was diving for them back then. But it was brought home to me one day when a warden stopped me and looked in my bag of out of season abalone. He was very understanding, and after a pleasant conversation encouraged me to think some day of becoming a fish and game warden because of my love for all things salt water.
I became a lifeguard.
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 14 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE WRECK OF THE CLARAThe Beginning
The first thing I wanted to do was change the name. What kind of a name is that for a rough and rugged fishing boat? How about Tiger Shark or Sea Wolf? And who was this Clara anyway? Nobody knew. But whoever she was that was the name painted on the bow and it stayed there. The Clara was a square tailed, thirty-footer, with controls in the cabin as well as controls outside above, and she was powered by a Kermath Seadog engine. She wasn’t much to look at. We bought her from Mr. Walters, a lifelong fisherman, who now worked off his Monterey boat and no longer needed The Clara. This was the early 1940’s, and my brother Lee and I didn’t have the $1500.00 to pay for it. Which brings in my father and his friend Oscar who loved to fish. Oscar said he would be our boat mechanic, but it turned out that he got seasick just standing on the pier. They each threw in $500.00, and Lee and I $250.00 each. We would pay off their investment from the tremendous profits we were sure to realize from this venture. Now the problem was how to work this boat caper into our busy schedules? I was just seventeen and into my first year of college at UCLA. Lee was also taking classes, and besides that we were both working as Los Angeles City Beach Lifeguards. But we knew we had to go for it ever since we saw The Clara sitting in dry dock with a for sale sign on it, and if it had something to do with saltwater we were going to do it.
Mr. Walters took us under his wing and tried to teach us commercial fishing before we were to launch our own boat. We worked with him, and fished on days that we were free, and then also fished with him at night under his Monterey’s bright lights. The night fishing for mackerel almost cured me of my quest to be a fisherman. Mackerel fishing involves repeatedly reaching into a deep barrel of chum, which is made up of aged, smelly, rotten fish innards, and throwing this stuff into the ocean to get the mackerel excited enough to come to the surface to enable you to brail them up with a dip net and dump them onto the deck of the boat. And all this while the boat is rocking violently back and forth. It took many nights for my stomach to settle down and agree to this form of torture.
Mr. Walter’s son, Ernie, who was a fix anything guy, had worked on The Clara to make sure everything was ready for its launching. With our new commercial fishing licenses in our hands, the boat was lowered by hoist from the end of the Santa Monica Pier down into the water, and Lee and I boarded her to motor out to our mooring. Lee took the helm and found that there was one little problem. When he turned the wheel to go to starboard The Clara went to port, and when he turned to go to port the boat went to starboard. Ernie had hooked the cables up backwards. We grazed a few pier pilings and nudged a few boats enroute to our mooring but we finally made it. Ernie had watched the “Wrong Way Clara” from the pier and immediately rowed his dingy out to go to work and correct his embarrassing mistake.
The Santa Monica small boat harbor was crowded with fishing boats and pleasure boats in those days. The single row of rocks running parallel to shore that formed the breakwater didn’t seem to afford a great deal of safety. If the wind, surf and currents were strait onshore it was one thing, but if all the elements were coming in on an angle from the north or south the water could be on the rough side. But with 1500 pounds of weight on the ocean floor for our mooring our small boat should be ok. After all, there were huge yachts secured there for months at a time. My only complaint at that time was what the breakwater had done to our surfing and bodysurfing spot along the north side of the pier, it had eliminated the waves.
There is very little now, but commercial fishing was heavy in the area in those days. And now here we were, commercial fishermen, that is when we could work it into our schedules, and we had our share of adventures. One of which was the day we were engulfed in a zero visibility, heavy, wet fog with only a primitive compass to guide us, and a compass which worked efficiently only occasionally, at most. We always relied on sight to see where we were. Before we knew it we were caught inside the surf line off the beach at Playa del Rey, but we weren’t really aware of it until the sound and sight of a good sized, breaking wave loomed in front of us. Quickly swinging the bow seaward and with full power we bucked through the first wave only to be greeted by two or three more. We then somehow managed to hang on and plow straight through these waves until we were in deeper water. We should have ended up on the beach but we were lucky this time. Finding our way back to the harbor in the fog was a long ten miles. On this occasion we had been after valuable shark livers but not knowing what we were doing, all we caught were a couple of sand sharks and threw them back in. There were many rugged characters who plied the waters off Santa Monica. One particular salt caught my attention and often lived up to his name, Shark Dawson. Why couldn’t my mother think of a name like that? John Bromfield was one of us too, until he was discovered by Hollywood and went on to star in many a swashbuckler in the 40’s and 50’s opposite all the leading ladies of the day. Off the coast of Malibu we would setline for halibut and other good eating fish, and we dropped long lines into the deep trench off of Point Dume for rock cod. On these longer trips we would throw out an anchor and sleep overnight in the two little bunks below deck. There were no homes along this stretch of Malibu coastline then, where now it is crowded with mansions. We would often be overboard for a swim or to bodysurf the fine unsurfed waves that were found along this stretch; and we often wished we had brought along a couple of surfboards, but they were the old heavy ten to twelve footers and took up a lot of deck space reserved for an overflow catch. We also used The Clara for placing lobster traps in the water off Palos Verdes, and we dived for abalone from the boat. However, we found that we could still dive and gather more of these delicacies from the shoreline, in our old way, than using traps and the boat. The most fun was trolling for barracuda, and they brought in the most money for us. With four to six outrigger lines played out, and two to four more lines from the deck, hitting a heavy school of fish kept you very busy, especially when every line hooked up with a fish at the same time. Pulling the lines and fish into the boat and then throwing the lines back in the water for more fish was work, the boat could fill up in no time. In those days there would be many dozens of boats in the area going in circles and in all directions when you hit a huge school of barracuda. There were many near collisions, and everyone knew to watch out for “The Swede” on a one man boat who never looked or paid any attention to where his boat was going. Almost everyone else was on two man boats and could exert a little more caution to avoid head-ons and broadside encounters. All the fish we caught, whether for human consumption or dog and cat food, were sold to “Curly” of the Santa Monica Seafood Company right there on the Santa Monica Pier just beyond the La Monica Ballroom; very convenient. Sometimes we made a few bucks, sometimes with lost equipment we didn’t even break even. Good thing we had those lifeguard jobs.
One of the heaviest storms in years happened one night. It was always a time for the fishermen and the pleasure boat owners to worry about the safety of their crafts when these storms hit the poorly protected harbor. Almost always a boat or two would separate from their mooring lines and end up on the beach if not intercepted by the patrol boat first. This night was one of the worst as the storm raged. The phone rang early the next morning. It was from the Harbor Patrol Office on the pier informing us that The Clara was not on its mooring, along with many others. We hurried to the harbor and saw our mooring buoy bobbing out beyond the pier with no Clara attached. It was strangely calm that morning, not a breath of wind was stirring. We searched the beach north of the pier where dozens of boats had ended up on the sand. This was the worst that we had ever seen. The lucky ones could be salvaged and towed back to their anchorage, others were battered and beyond recovery. Our boat was not there. We headed south of the pier and viewed many more, but where was The Clara? We were now a mile south, almost to the Crystal Pier, when we spied something that looked like wreckage on the beach the other side of the pier. What we saw was almost unrecognizable, just chunks of wood, pieces of material, and splinters already sinking and disappearing under the sand. And then we saw it, farther down the beach, a large piece of a boat’s gunwale protruding from the sand, and thereupon, in bold red letters, “The Clara”. With all she had been through with us, in the two years we knew her from 1942 to 1944, she deserved better, but our boat had the misfortune of breaking free of its mooring in the fierce wind out of the north, and taking a course directly to and through the Crystal Pier. The force of the storm, the huge waves and the pilings finished her off. We salvaged nothing. The Sea Dog engine itself was barely visible as it sank away. Every vestige of The Clara was disappearing into the sands of time.
The Later Years
The Santa Monica Harbor is no more, closed to boating for many years. It was deemed incapable of protecting boats of any size. What’s left of the breakwater is barely visible today except at low tide. All boating is now concentrated in the protective waters of Marina del Rey or farther south at the Redondo Harbor. The fishing industry is a mere shell of what it once was in Santa Monica Bay. The beach where the Crystal Pier once stood has widened and deepened considerably over the years where The Clara went down. However, her remains, I know, are still there, far below. Some day after a fierce storm and huge waves hit the area perhaps the sand will be eroded away enough to expose the wreckage of The Clara once more. I’d like to see her again.
Submitted By Cal Porter on March 05 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE BEACH CLUBS
There are very few left today. Like the plunges and the bathhouses, beach clubs are a thing of the past along the oceanfront. When I was growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s there were a great many along the Santa Monica Beach. Unlike the bathhouses and plunges where anyone could make use of the locker rooms, pools and rentals a beach club required a membership. Many of them catered to the well-to-do or the famous; it was expensive to be a member. Some of them had indoor pools, all had restaurants.
Starting from the northern end of Santa Monica Bay, the Bel Air Bay Beach Club is one that is still in operation today. It was built in 1927 on the beach close to where Sunset Boulevard meets the ocean. As kids in the 1930’s and 40’s we couldn’t use the club, but we used the waves formed by the club’s wooden piers as a surfing spot. Down the beach at Santa Monica Canyon there were two clubs, The Santa Monica Swimming Club and The Beach Club, built side by side. This was in 1924, and these clubs are given credit for being the first to introduce beach volleyball to the California Coast, and probably first to the United States. Duke Kahanamoku, the famous Olympic swimmer and surfer, worked at The Beach Club in the 20’s as athletic director. He had played sand volleyball at Waikiki as far back as 1915 and was instrumental in its start at the club. Only members could play there but in later years if we just happened to drop by we were invited to join the game. The Beach Club is still there today. The Swimming Club was torn down in 1955 and is now part of the public beach. Tom Blake, one of the most influential innovators in the history of surfing and the first to surf Malibu, was a lifeguard there. The next club going south actually came about later and was called the Sand and Sea Beach Club. In 1928 William Randolph Hearst bought five acres of beach from Will Rogers and built a 118 room house for actress Marian Davies on the spot. She sold it in 1945 and eventually the State made it into a private beach club. Most of her house had been torn down but the beautiful marble pool remained. This stretch of the beach was called The Gold Coast where the homes of Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Norma Shearer, Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, and later Peter Lawford and Conrad Hilton stood nearby the Hearst mansion.
The Santa Monica Athletic Beach Club was just down the sand, built in 1922 and demolished in the 50’s. Buster Crabbe, Olympic swimmer and later Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the movies spent time there. He was a fine volleyball player. The Sorrento Beach Club founded in 1927 burned down in 1935. The Jonathan Beach Club is still there on the beach where the incline road comes down the palisade from Wilshire Boulevard. It has a nice indoor pool, and when I was a kid swimming there an inspirational photo for surfers hung on the wall. It was a shot of a surfer on a double overhead plus wave which was thought to be the largest wave ever ridden at that time. Later we found out that the surfer had artificially been superimposed into the photo. Today, compared to the 60 and 70 foot waves being ridden, this wave that we were in such awe of would look small and ordinary.
Then there were the Breakers Beach Club, the Edgewater, and the Miramar, all built in the 20’s. I swam a lot in the Miramar pool, I knew the manager. The grandest looking club of them all was The Deauville Beach Club, appearing on the sand near the Santa Monica Pier like a huge French chateau or castle. My family belonged to this one, I don’t know why since we lived on the beach just a few miles south. It had a beautiful indoor pool where I learned how to swim or else, after being introduced to its waters at the age of two or three months. And it was a nice place to have an outdoor lunch or dinner. The sandy beach in front of the club was enclosed by a wall of glass, unique to the area. At high tide the ocean would roll right up to the glass. This all changed with the completion of the small boat breakwater in front of the club in 1934. This caused a sand build-up and a widening of the beach. The last club was the Del Mar Beach Club, beyond here it was the domain of bathhouses and plunges. This was where Pico Boulevard meets the sea, and it had the largest membership of them all. Since my older brother was a lifeguard there I could swim in the indoor Olympic size pool. It has now been completely remodeled and is called The Casa del Mar with room rates starting at more than $500.00 per night.
Of the dozen or more beach clubs mentioned above, clustered together on only two or three miles of beach, only three remain. They gradually became outdated, unneeded and unwanted, gone the way of those other relics of the past, the plunges and the bathhouses.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Feb. 16 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
REMEMBERING STATE BEACHThe well-used, old phone booth, that stood on the sand for many years alongside the white stucco lifeguard building, was an important part of life at Santa Monica Canyon State Beach. Santa Monica Canyon was part of Will Rogers State Beach that continued north for a couple of miles. It was on the boundary line between the cities of Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. The beach was staffed by Los Angeles County Lifeguards, and in June of 1946 I was assigned there for my first day as a county guard, after having worked many years for the Los Angeles City Lifeguards and the Venice Plunge. I couldn’t have asked for a better assignment. In charge of the beach was sixty-one year old George McManus who had worked as a lifeguard since 1909, joining the county crew at The Canyon when it was first established in the early 1930’s. George had seen many changes along the beach since he guarded in the old Venice Saltwater Plunge just after the turn of the century and doubled as a gondolier, poling the tourists through the many canals of Venice, California.
Will Rogers Beach, Lifeguard headquarters at the Lighthouse in the background. Photo 1947.
Now back to that phone booth. The Canyon Beach was frequented by numerous members of the entertainment business, many of whom were extras, stunt men, and bit players. Since cell phones wouldn’t be around for another forty or fifty years the number in the phone booth was given to many an agent and studio in order to reach the person or persons needed to stand in a crowd, jump off a bridge or speak a few lines. It was well known that the beach was where they could be found. When the bell rang a mad dash for the booth ensued; some lucky guy or gal would be getting a job. If the first to the booth was not that person, the name would be shouted out across the beach for the one asked for. Besides this group of movie folks there were many that didn’t need to rush for the phone. These were the established players in this game. Joel McCrea, one of the top leading men in Hollywood, would be playing volleyball. Noel Neal, who starred as Lois Lane in all the early Superman movies, was on the court. Richard Jaeckel, a big star in films, was there. Lila Finn, a top stunt woman; Fred Zendar, MGM stunt director; Frederick Schroeder, the number one tennis player in the world, were there. World renowned author, Christopher Isherwood, who penned Caberet and I Am a Camera, was there, but not on the volleyball court. There were many others.
I had played volleyball for many years at other beaches, but the volleyball played at The Canyon was the best anywhere. All the top players congregated there. I got to play with most of them, and I played daily with Nate and Sam Shargo who were dubbed “Kings of the Beach” through the 1930’s and early 40’s. They were hard to beat and both lifeguarded there. Our six man lifeguard team won the Santa Monica Bay championship that year. There was just the one court at The Canyon until we erected a second as interest in volleyball increased. Today there are dozens of courts up and down the beach. Volleyball was part of our workout. We would arrive early before work to play, and then follow it with our ocean workout, swimming, paddling and rowing. The beach was much narrower then than now. A short distance off shore lay a rocky reef bottom. In the clear water lobster and fish for dinner were easy to come by. Now today with the wider beach the sand has completely covered the reef and the great diving is over. Bodysurfing and board surfing were excellent at the Canyon Beach in those days, caused somewhat by the reef that lay below, but now with the wide beach conditions have changed a great deal. Nate Shargo and I were the call car guards at The Canyon, with our sturdy 1933 Ford emergency vehicle always ready to go. We had some interesting times at full speed with the red lights and siren going and other cars on the highway passing us by. But we had a great crew of lifeguards working there in the 40’s, and probably the first and only Chinese lifeguard, Bob Lee, and the first African American lifeguard, John Tabor. Many were to follow.
Nate Shargo and Cal - Call Car Crew with 1933 Ford. Photo 1946.
The Santa Monica Swimming Club, a beach club that stood just to the south of our beach is gone now. The lighthouse, restaurant, and bath house that lay to the north of us have all been torn down; and in 1949 the City of Los Angeles decided to take over managing the beach. The county lifeguards all moved on to other areas. I went on to Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo. Then in summer of 1949 I requested and was assigned to Zuma Beach, Malibu, where I stayed more or less for the next thirty years.
But that’s another story.
Submitted By Cal Porter on Jan. 20 , 2009
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE SAND GAME
Ray Porter, Model A, Cal Porter, Santa Monica Canyon State Beach, 1947
When the Outrigger Canoe Club strung up a net between the surfboard lockers and the boat shed on the Waikiki sands, beach volleyball was born. The first game took place in 1915. Duke Kahanamoku, the famous surfer and Olympic swimmer was in that game. Hardcourt, indoor volleyball, however, had been played since 1895 after it was invented by a YMCA sports director in Massachusetts. Soon this indoor game was being played by other YMCA’s as well as many schools across the country, with a requirement of six players to a side. It would be twenty years before the game went outside.
I never saw a volleyball court on the sands where I grew up as a kid on the beach in the 1920’s and early ‘30’s. This might have been because what few courts there were in those days were mostly within the boundaries of the private beach clubs along the Southern California Coast. There was no court at the beach club near where I lived in Playa del Rey. The games first played on the sand always consisted of six or more players on a side. Then along about 1930 the first doubles match was organized and played much like the game as it is played today. I started playing both six man and doubles in the later 1930’s. There were few public courts at the time. The one where I played was on the beach next to the Ocean Park Pier. Then occasionally we would head north to play on the one court near Muscle Beach at the Santa Monica Pier. Another single court was at Sorrento Beach, but the court where all the best players played was at State Beach at Santa Monica Canyon. Those were almost the only courts except for the ones at the beach clubs. At the end of each year the best doubles team was given the title of “Kings of the Beach”. All through the 1930’s that team was the Shargo Brothers, Nate and Sam. They seldom lost a game. They were also lifeguards at State Beach, and lucky for me I was assigned to work the beach there in 1946. For several years part of my morning daily workout was to play doubles volleyball with Nate and Sam and with many other great players that gathered there. There were a few tournaments now and then which drew a handful of spectators with the winners awarded a small trophy or ribbon of some kind. In 1948 The Southern California Lifeguard, six man, beach volleyball tournament was held at State Beach. The winning team was made up of three sets of brothers, the Shargo brothers, the Underwoods, and the Porter brothers (my brother Ray and I). We were all lifeguards from that stretch of beach.
Today all of the Southern California beaches seem to have volleyball courts lined up by the dozens. Beach volleyball, like many other sports, has become big business with a lot of money at stake. It is on television weekly and draws huge live crowds to the games. There are major contest at many local beach towns, Hermosa, Manhattan, Santa Barbara, Huntington, as well as sites all over the world. No longer is a beach required, sand courts can be constructed anywhere, even in the middle of a big city. And the winners no longer play for fun and a small trophy, hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake.
Nate and Sam, old friends, you were born too soon
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 27 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
When I was a kid all of Malibu, California was owned by one family, all 27 miles and 17,000 acres of it. Frederick Rindge, a wealthy New Englander, seeking an ideal country home, purchased the entire rancho for ten dollars an acre in 1891. The former owner, Mathew Keller, had paid about ten cents an acre in 1857 for this Spanish land grant known as Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit. This private domain was fiercely guarded by the Rindges. I was only a child when we occasionally drove up the coast highway in the 1920’s to stop and have lunch at the Las Flores Inn on the site of the present Duke’s Restaurant, which was the southern boundary of the Rindge Rancho. This inn had been built in 1916, and unless you had business with the ranch you went no farther. You couldn’t go farther. Beyond the inn you were met with a high barbwire fence and beyond that were the armed, cowboy riders who strictly enforced the no trespassing law of the Rindges. For years the Southern Pacific Railroad and the State Highway Department had been battling for a right of way through the property, but the owners fought to keep the land pastoral for cattle raising and grain growing. Southern Pacific was thwarted when the Rindges built their own private railway the entire length of Malibu, knowing the law would not allow a second railway. The battle to keep the state highway out was more difficult. It began in 1907, and legal proceedings went on for twenty-two years. Pacific Coast Highway was not opened to the public until 1929. So access to all Southern California beaches was limited. The last Spanish land grant that had remained private in California was now opened with a public road.
It’s true that some people managed to get on the ranch before 1929. Due to dwindling finances after many years of court battles, the Rindges, in 1926, started leasing land in what is now called Malibu Colony to wealthy Hollywood stars, writers and directors where they built beach cottages. The leases went for thirty dollars a month; the average cost of a house was 2,600 dollars. A short time later some of the ranch was subdivided and a few lots along the coast were sold for financial reasons. These owners were allowed access to their properties through the guarded gate and onto a dirt road along the coast. Others sometimes either sneaked in at low tide or came through the mountains and canyons avoiding the cowboys. The first surfers to ever ride the pristine waves of Malibu Point were two Santa Monica Swimming Club lifeguards. In 1926, Tom Blake and Sam Reid drove their Essex automobile to the private property gate and could go no farther. Not to be denied the perfect waves they had heard about, they pulled their redwood boards from the car, avoided the guards, and paddled the one mile north to this never before surfed point break.
Since 1542, when Juan Cabrillo moored his ship near Malibu Lagoon to obtain fresh water, many changes have occurred in Malibu. The Chumash Indians that he met, and who lived here for 4000 years, are mostly gone, but the coastline he saw is pretty much the same except for the houses crowding the hills and beaches. Where he anchored and came ashore, and saw vacant waters, he would now see hundreds of surfers riding the waves along the point. And Mathew Keller and Frederick Rindge would never have dreamed that the land they purchased for ten cents and ten dollars an acre would be assessed today in the billions. And those early homeowners who spent two to three thousand dollars for their beach houses would be amazed at the prices today where houses in the Malibu Colony rent for more than 100,000 dollars a month, and a house up the beach is listed for sale at $75,000,000. And the Malibu waves that those two lone surfers first experienced in 1926 have long been considered the best on the California Coast and some of the best in the world.
Small day, First Point, Malibu 1948. Note the surfboards in the foreground.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 18 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
Where did they go? Once they were everywhere along the Southern California Coast. They weren’t known as swimming pools in those days, they were called heated salt water plunges. I don’t know where that term originated. The dictionary defines a plunge as a place for diving, or a pool behind a waterfall, or a deep place in the water. At any rate, salt water plunges were very popular for most of the first half of the 1900’s. Most Southern California beach towns of some size had a plunge, as well as many bath houses. In either of these establishments you could rent a scratchy wool bathing suit and take a swim, or just lie around the beach, or sit beside the indoor pool. Many people didn’t own their own swimming suits. It was convenient to go to the beach on the big red streetcar and rent a bathing suit and a towel, and also a locker room to undress in and leave your clothes. After a day at the plunge or on the beach you had a shower, dried off, dressed and went home with no wet mess to take care of. When I was a kid in the late 20’s and 30’s there were more bath houses along the beach than I can count. There were also a great many plunges to choose from. A couple of these were gone by my day but the rest were here. The first salt water plunge in the area was the Santa Monica Bath House Plunge built in 1877. It was located about where Santa Monica Boulevard ends at the beach. To get there the beachgoer took the famous “99 steps” from the palisades down to the beach. There was no Pacific Coast Highway. The next one, built in 1893, was the North Beach Bath House Plunge, just north of the present Santa Monica Pier. Then there was the very ornate Ocean Park Bath House Plunge built in 1905 to resemble something out of The Arabian Nights. It was a spectacular building and I remember it well. Down the beach in Venice there were two plunges. Just a block off the beach was the Venice Bath House Plunge, 1904. The building later became the first Venice High School. My hangout was the Venice Plunge, built out on the beach in 1907. I swam there for my high school team and was a lifeguard there. We felt that no other team could beat us in our hot saltwater, home pool. Of course, when we traveled to other high schools with their little, cold freshwater tanks it could sometimes be a different story. Further south down the beach there was the Hermosa Surf and Sand Beach Club Plunge, and in Redondo Beach, the Redondo Plunge, built in 1907. This is where the Hawaiian, George Freeth, worked as a lifeguard and performed as the first surfer in the United States. It was also said that Freeth was the first paid professional lifeguard in the U.S. The plunges mentioned above are just those along Santa Monica Bay. Traveling South down the coast, there were salt water plunges at the following Southern California beaches, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Oceanside, Del Mar, San Diego, and the last one that was built in Coronado.
So how many salt water plunges are left today? None. Not one. And how many bath houses? Not a one that I know of. Going to the beach today and renting a bathing suit and towel would seem like a crazy idea. The plunges, that were so popular in the early to middle 1900’s, lost favor among beachgoers. Why pay money to swim in a pool on the beach when you could just swim in the ocean, and everyone drove their cars to the beach now and didn’t need dressing rooms. Besides, by mid-century these buildings were getting old and needed so many repairs it would be too costly to be profitable any longer. They were gradually all closed and boarded up to wait for the wrecking crew, and eventually be converted to parking lots or high rises. It was a sad day for me when they closed the Venice Plunge for good in the early 1940’s. After it had been closed for a couple of weeks, my friend and I decided to take one last swim for old time’s sake. He was a U.S, Hall of Fame, Olympic swimmer and water polo player who had been swimming there for almost 40 years. We gently forced open a locked side door that we had used for years and entered with our water goggles in hand. The water was cold and murky when we dived in, but we were confidant that if we swam along the bottom of the plunge we could pick up lots of loose change lost by swimmers in the past. When we left the plunge that morning we felt happy that we were the very last swimmers who would ever swim in the old Venice Plunge that we had loved for so long.
Besides that we each made about 75 cents that day.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 12 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
YESTERDAYS SWIM SUITS
They were called bathing suits when we wore them as kids in the 1920’s. They were made of wool, usually black but sometimes a dull grey and they were very scratchy. They were full length starting at the knees and going up and over the shoulders covering the chest and back. When these suits were wet they became heavy and created quite a hindrance to swimming with any degree of speed. For a kid it made just keeping your head above water somewhat of an effort. The lifeguards, competitive swimmers and the few surfers around in those days all wore these same uncomfortable, cumbersome suits. If you wanted to look manly or rugged it was okay to unbutton the left shoulder strap and let it hang down at your side exposing one muscular shoulder to view. I have many old photos of my brothers and me doing just that.
The women’s suits, as I remember them when a small boy, were anything but flattering with just too much material and unnecessary embellishments. Toward the end of the 1920’s, however, many women took the daring step of starting to wear the new one piece wool suits. They still covered the body rather well and were very similar to the men’s suits of the time but sometimes more colorful. Along the Southern California beaches there were frequent bathing beauty contests that we witnessed as kids. Almost every beach town had them. There was a Miss Santa Monica, Miss Ocean Park, Miss Long Beach and so on. I thought the best one was the Miss Venice Beach contest because a lot of events went along with it, pageants, parades, Mardi gras, and swimming and strength competitions. Venice was thought of by many as the most fun, most exciting, and most beautiful beach on the Southern California Coast in those days. This contest would draw the biggest crowds, thousands of spectators would attend. Hundreds of bathing beauties would enter a single event, and there were contests for children and babies. Probably the first beauty contest ever held out on a beach anywhere was the first one in Venice in 1912. It became an annual event. It is said that the first beauty contest in history was put on by the P. T. Barnum Circus in 1854, but when it was discovered that only women of questionable reputation were entering the event was discontinued.
In the 1930’s cotton replaced wool as bathing suit material, what a relief for us. Why didn’t they think of this sooner? Also the days of the full body suit for men ended and the swim trunks era began, another great relief even though some of the first ones came with belts. Women’s suits made of cotton were lighter in weight and more functional, and began to more resemble the swim suits of today. As the years went by men’s suits became shorter and women’s briefer.
Now it is 2008 and beach town bathing beauty contests are no more. Oh there are contests today but they are held in vast auditoriums and on lavish stages, and they bear names like Miss World, Miss Galaxy, and Miss Everything. It’s just not the same. The local girls that you knew on the beach are not in these contests. Women’s bathing attire seems to grow more scanty as the years go by, but the men’s suits have gone the other way. The last pair of trunks I bought reached my knees. Any shorter and you are out of style, old fashioned, or wearing some brief trunks that you purchased years ago. I wonder if any of those old 1920’s men’s full length bathing suits are still around, just maybe they’ll be back.
Cal Porter in a wool bathing suit, 1927.
Submitted By Cal Porter on July 07 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE PIERS OF SANTA MONICA BAY
Where did all the piers go? When I was a kid there were dozens of piers along Santa Monica Bay. Some were for fishing, some for amusement, some for shipping, and some just for walking on. When I was growing up in the 1920’s and 30’s I could count somewhere close to 20 piers from Malibu to Palos Verdes. Many burned down through the years, many were storm damaged, and many were rebuilt and rebuilt many times. But many were abandoned or torn down and disappeared.
Starting far north in Malibu near Point Dume the first one you come to is the Paradise Cove Pier (this is a bit later, however, being built in 1945). Then comes the Malibu Pier built by the Rindge family for their own use in 1905, and turned over for public use in 1934. Heading closer to Santa Monica, who many consider one of the best Southern California beaches, there were the small, rickety, wooden piers at the Bel Air Bay Club, which were of little use except for creating some nice waves we used for surfing. The next pier was the Long Wharf, near Santa Monica Canyon, built in 1893 to be the new Los Angeles Harbor before San Pedro was selected. It was the longest wooden pier in the world. All I saw of it were the remaining pilings that harbored lots of tasty lobsters for us young divers to gather up. Santa Monica had many piers come and go, always rebuilt. When I was a kid there were the two piers, Looff’s and Santa Monica, both always tourist favorites. Down the beach less than a half mile was the Crystal Pier which had a restaurant and bath house. In the early 1940’s my and my brother’s 30 foot fishing boat, moored beyond the Looff’s Pier, broke loose during a fierce storm, with about 25 other boats, and ended up in pieces on the beach after going through the pilings of the Crystal Pier. Another short distance from there were the Ocean Park Pier and the Lick Pier, and in Venice, the Venice Pier and Sunset Pier. In Playa del Rey there was a fishing pier just past what is now the marina, and further south the Hyperian Pier. Then in the south bay there were a series of piers, the Manhattan, Hermosa, and two Redondo Piers, which are all there today. Just south of Redondo were the piling remains of an old, wooden shipping pier providing the best lobster diving I’ve ever had, with dozens of them clustered around the growth of each old piling. Last was Haggerty’s an old pier at the start of Palos Verdes. If you know the coastline you know which of these old piers remain today, only about seven or eight.
Of course my favorites when I was a kid were the amusement piers, the Ocean Park Pier and the Venice Pier, with their many games, rides, cafes and roller coasters. It helped, too, if you met a young lady and you happened to know the operators of the roller coasters, as I did, and you could ride over and over again without paying. During the daytime we earned a bit of change by diving for coins that the tourists threw to us into the then crystal clear waters off the end of the Venice Pier. My other favorite was the Sunset Pier which was within swimming distance of the Venice Pier. We would sit in the hot sun at the end of the pier by the bandstand and wait for a good set of waves to appear, then climb the railing and take the long jump or dive into the ocean in time to catch a choice breaker and bodysurf to shore. We also board surfed alongside the Sunset Pier, and for a time during the ‘30’s, an area was roped off solely for board surfing, probably the earliest designated surfing area.
Most of these piers are no more, and in particular my three favorites that I still reminisce about often. There are still some decent waves in the area, but different without the piers creating sandbars and channels and peaky waves. And just as sad, where are the bamboo slides and roller coasters where you could take your girl for a ride and hold on tight? Alas, only a memory.
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 29 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
THE SAND DUNES OF PLAYA DEL REY
Something had to be done with all that sand. The dunes ran from the Playa del Rey town limits all the way to El Segundo and Manhattan Beach to the south. Los Angeles wanted to build a much- needed, modern, wastewater treatment plant on the site, and the sand dunes were in the way. The solution that was proposed satisfied most everyone except those of us who loved the beach the way it was. The plan was to construct a huge pipeline and sluice all that sand out onto the beach from Playa del Rey to Santa Monica, creating the super wide Southern California beaches. And they did it.
When I lived there in the 1920’s and 1930’s and on into the 40’s the beach was very narrow. Oftentimes at very high tides, the ocean waves would reach the rock wall built to protect the Pacific Electric Big Red Car Railway, and, much to the delight of the passengers, splash and spray the streetcar’s windows. The beach at that time ran out into shallow water for some distance, making it possible to walk out a good ways and still be in waist to shoulder deep water. The ocean waves broke far out creating sandbars and channels causing the kind of waves to form that resulted in excellent board surfing and bodysurfing. All that is gone now. The ocean floor drops away quickly and the waves break close to shore. The beach is so wide that some say you need a canteen of water to make it from your parked car over the hot sand to the water’s edge. The lifeguard building way back on the bluff that I worked in as a young lifeguard has been abandoned long ago in favor of one built far out on the sand closer to the swimming activity. The beach club with its fine swimming pool, where I worked out in my youth, with the ocean lapping against the pool wall, is no more. It has been replaced with condominiums, apartments and homes, with no danger of the ocean ever encroaching on them that far inland on the wide beach. And the old red streetcars have long ago been abandoned in favor of buses and automobiles.
I lived on that beach when there were times you wouldn’t find another footprint for miles in the sand, when the ocean spray splashed the streetcar’s windows, before lifeguards were assigned there to protect the swimmers, and where the waves were perfect for a young surfer.
But then again, the wider beach today, with its vast parking lots and ample room, can accommodate thousands of people from the inland towns escaping to the seashore. There is a camping and RV area for vacationers. There are fire rings where hamburgers and hotdogs can be barbecued, and marshmallows can be toasted. And probably most important, where the sand dunes once were so high they reached for the sky, a modern treatment facility stands, built to keep the ocean clean and safe for millions of swimmers. And that’s not bad.
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 21 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
To the Beach on the Big Red Streetcar
When you think of transportation in Los Angeles today you immediately think of cars, freeways and crowds. But if you wanted to go to the beach in the 1920’s and 1930’s when I was a kid, chances are you traveled there on the Big Red Pacific Electric Streetcars. Henry Huntington built one rail line from Los Angeles to the beach at Venice and on up the coast to Ocean Park and Santa Monica. Another line went through Culver City to the beach at Playa del Rey and on to the beach towns of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo. Huntington’s main purpose in building these lines was to introduce prospective buyers to real estate that he owned all along these routes. He devised various incentives to lure people to the beach towns. In 1907 he brought George Freeth from Hawaii to Redondo Beach where he had extensive land holdings. Freeth, a Hawaiian, was billed as “The Man Who Could Walk On Water”. He gave demonstrations of riding the waves on a surfboard and became the first surfer in the United States. Thousands of people came to see Freeth perform, and, subsequently, to purchase beach lots from Huntington.
I frequently rode these cars when I was a kid, mostly the many miles to and from school, since there was no school of any kind along the beach at Playa del Rey where I lived in the 20’s and 30’s. The rail line ran right along the waterfront with a great ocean view. We would catch the big red car in the morning that took us from home to the center of our little town. We would then transfer to a connecting shortline, affectionately dubbed, “The Dinky”, for its diminutive size. When we reached Venice we transferred to another big red car that took us the few remaining miles to school. The Dinky was a Pacific Electric red car but was subjected to many pranks due to its dinky size. It only took a small group of rowdy boys to easily pick up the rear end of the car and derail it. Another trick was to place various objects along the tracks for the Dinky to collide with, anything that held water comes to mind. And then you could always just pull the emergency cord bringing the car to a sudden stop, and watch the motorman in his efforts to find the guilty party. It was a very slow moving car so nothing really serious ever occurred. The motorman was an elderly gentleman who had once operated the big red cars but was transferred to the Dinky to ride out his remaining years. Needless to say, these constant pranks greatly hastened his retirement.
And now the Pacific Electric Railway, which caused no environmental damage of any kind, is no more. It ceased to exist over 50 years ago, giving way to congestion, freeways, smog and countless automobiles. And Hawaiian George Freeth, the first and only surfer in the United States, has been succeeded by a few dozen surfers when I was a small kid, to the millions of surfers of today, and the huge, worldwide surfing business generated by them
Submitted By Cal Porter on June 17 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
It’s not that “then” was better than “now” in Malibu, but there was a time, in the 1940’s, when few people lived here, traffic was nonexistent, and life was simpler. Malibu has always been and always will be a wondrous and special place. With its mountains reaching right down to the sea and its white, sandy beaches stretching for miles along the coast there are few places more beautiful.
When I first moved to Malibu, and life was simpler, you could often walk across the highway in the middle of the day and never see a car in either direction. You could surf at Malibu Surfrider Beach almost alone, and Zuma Beach was empty. There were no Malibu Canyon and Kanan Dume Roads through the Santa Monica Mountains bringing hordes of beach goers to the shores of Malibu. You went to the tiny post office across from what is now Duke’s Restaurant to pick up your mail, or were lucky enough to be serviced by Malibu’s one postman. On Pacific Coast Highway you could drive the 50 miles from Santa Monica to the City of Oxnard without ever slowing down or making a stop, no signals every few blocks. For groceries or clothing you would visit The Trading Post at the corner of Trancas Canyon. There wasn’t the first class hotel or the quaint motels along the beach that we have today to spend the night or a vacation.
Today Malibu is a destination of countless fine restaurants, trendy clothing boutiques, theaters, markets and shops of all kinds. The once empty hills and beaches are covered with beautiful homes.
After living in Malibu, then and now, for over 60 years I’ve enjoyed both. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
Submitted By Cal Porter on May 30 , 2008
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved
I Am Born
Submitted By Cal Porter on Sept. 29 , 2011
© Cal Porter 2013, all rights reserved