By Christopher Dill
Joe Quigg is a legend in the surfing world. A great board shaper and innovator, part of the first wave of American surfers who went over to Hawaii after WWII.
I had been trying to reach him for weeks. I called Vicki Flaxman Williams last Sunday. She graduated in 1948, which makes her about 75. I thought I was talking with a woman in her early twenties. A surfer is a surfer for life. Vicki is flat-out cool, hip, funny, outrageous and razor sharp. She was also probably the best female surfer in America during the late ‘40s and into the ‘50s. I’ll get to her in a moment.
Matt Kivlin, a ’47 grad, told me to call her. Matt was probably the best male surfer in America at about the same time. Another true innovator and pioneer who influenced a whole generation of wave riders, such as Greg Knoll and Mickey Dora, who would become giants in their time and go on to mythic fame. Most people don’t know about Kivlin, Quigg and Williams, but Knoll and Dora were just wannabe groms chasing after these true Samohi surfing greats who found these young upstarts amusing at times, annoying at others.
I had been trying to reach Joe for weeks. Kivlin didn’t offer his number and said that Joe was a very reserved kind of gent. A lot of these guys are. They’ve been interviewed and pestered for decades. Enough is enough. Many, like Buzzy Trent (yes, another Samohi grad) – one of “the greatest big wave riders” of all time – simply want to be left alone. Still, I have an event to put on, maybe one of the most ambitious Samohi surfing events ever: an evening of celebration and tribute to ALL Samohi surfers throughout the past six decades.
I had to talk to these men and women who started it all, who would influence surfing and popular culture throughout the last half of the 20th century, perhaps like no other group of high school students ever. These were the golden boys and girls of the golden age of surfing. A time of innocence and wonder, gone forever, but hopefully not forgotten. That is up to all of us in this storied community.
This Friday, August 26, 2005, 7:30 pm at Barnum Hall on the campus of Samohi, there will be an opportunity to build on this unique surfing community. Here’s how it began. Harrison Hine, Samohi, class of ’65, emailed me, courtesy of Rena Mckenzie of the Alumni Assocation. He has a surf film that he shot from 1960-65 on the Samohi surf team. Back then they called themselves the HOSHI Reef Riders. HOSHI stands for HOT_____(You fill in the blank. Remember, these are surfers, not Boy Scouts.) Harrison said this film had last screened at Barnum Hall in 1965 as a fundraiser for the senior class. The 40 year reunion for the class of ’65 is this same weekend, and Harrison has stayed in touch with his surfing buddies over the years. He thought we could screen his film at Barnum again as a fundraiser for the surf club.
I thought it was a cool idea and suggested we make it a double feature with my documentary on the 2003 surf team and the rebirth of competitive surfing at Samohi. The night would have a then-and-now theme; and we would have surfers from his and the current era. Then I thought…why limit it to those two decades? Why not invite ALL the Samohi surfers from as far back as possible? Why not make the evening a tribute to this unique school that arguably has contributed more to the development of surfing and surf culture than any other high school? Little did I know what I was getting myself into. I’ve made more phone calls the past few weeks than a boiler room telemarketer.
Here is some of what I learned. 50-60 years ago, Santa Monica and Malibu were the twin epicenters of surfing in the U.S. It was a tight group of beach boys and girls, and many of them were out of Samohi. Others, like board shaper Dave Sweet, didn’t graduate from Samohi but were pivotal figures in the development of surfing and the lifestyle. This lifestyle was important because it greatly influenced popular culture. Samohi alum David Rochlen, ’43, essentially created the first board shorts, Jams. That may not seem like a big deal today because there are now dozens and dozens of surf ware companies, some multi-billion dollar corporations. But back in the early ‘60s, it was near-revolutionary – putting males in long, low-riding, flowered shorts. Suddenly, going to the pool or beach was…very cool. Boring ‘50s era high-wasted swim trunks were out and hot surfing- influenced Jams were in. They helped usher in a new decade, a new mentality and it’s still with us today, like it or not. Rochlen passed away a few years ago but made his mark on popular culture as did Sean Penn ‘78.
Penn surfed and hung out with Samohi surfers such as Jeff Higgenbothem. I had a long talk with Jeff, and what is so unabashedly real about surfers is that they will totally open up to you on first contact (providing you are a surfer or at least not a poser or kook). Jeff regaled me with stories and it is rumored that he was the role model for one of surfing’s most well known icons: Jeff Spicoli, the ultimate surfing dude in Fast Times At Ridgemont High. If that is true, they didn’t get the real Jeff Spicoli down because Hig is a deep, profound, interesting, sophisticated dude. Sure, he’s a surfer and he epitomizes California cool from the late ‘70s and ‘80s in the same way his predecessors of a couple of decades back pioneered the lingo and the lifestyle of that time. Regardless of whomever it was that inspired Penn, the character sent waves throughout pop culture that would influence yet another generation.
On the other end of the spectrum is Ricky Grigg, class of ’54, esteemed scientist, author and world’s foremost authority on barrier reefs. Ricky is not very optimistic about the shape of the reefs, oceans, or the entire world at this point. However, he was excited about my proposal to start an academic class at Santa Monica High School that would teach the history of surfing, particularly as it pertains to Samohi. This class would be the first of its kind, which would be in keeping with tradition of Samohi surfing innovation. The class would focus on the impact surfing has made on popular culture through music, film and video, graphics and fashion. The multi-billion dollar business of surfing and most importantly, the science of surfing including ecology, meteorology and all ocean sciences could also be part of the curriculum. This idea inspired Ricky who initially told me he was about to sit down for a sandwich and really didn’t really have time to talk. 45 minutes later I said, “Go eat your sandwich, Ricky.”
Vicki Flaxman Williams told me to call Joe Quigg as soon as I got off the phone with her. You’ve got to reach him early, she said. Then she told me a few more gems, like the time she and her friends were hitchhiking up to Malibu and a big Cadillac convertible pulled over to give them a ride. It was Zeppo Marx. Most people don’t know that off screen he was the funniest Marx brother. That makes him one of the funniest people that ever lived. Vicki said he was hysterical and very nice. She said Peter Lawford hung out with them in Malibu, always bringing his celebrity friends. One day he showed up with a girl with chunky thighs, pasty white skin and bleached blond hair. Vicki and her friends couldn’t believe he would be seen with her on the beach. They found out a few days later it was Marilyn Monroe. Vicki said Montgomery Cliff would hang out, try to surf, but was a nice guy. She told me a story about Greg Knoll that I can’t repeat here…but I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. I hung up smiling.
At first, Joe Quigg’s voice was barely audible. He’s 80, now, and like the others, would probably prefer not to be bothered anymore for surfing stories. Yet, Joe and I talked for over two hours. He started this epic conversation telling me of this ‘dream’ he kept having, “only it’s not a dream. It actually happened but it keeps replaying in my mind like a dream. I was about six or seven years old and I was drop-line fishing off the old Santa Monica pier. You used to be able to crawl up under the pier and drop your line straight down into the water.” Joe paused for long time, though not uncomfortably long. He lives in Hawaii, along with other Samohi surfers, and is not rushed about anything like us high stress characters here on the west side. There’s just a languid silence, like that moment before a wave starts to build. Then he continued: “I was just looking down and suddenly Preston Peterson flashed by beneath me on his board. I’ll never forget that. I had never seen a surfer before. He just flashed by on his board and I scrambled up to the pier running up down the pier the whole time he was surfing, just following him.” Peterson was one of America’s first great surfers and watermen…and another Samohi grad. It would be akin to a kid in the ghetto watching Michael Jordan slam-dunk on his neighborhood court.
This ‘dream’ was Joe’s first surfing epiphany and it would determine the course of his life. Every surfer has it. You connect with this ancient mystical activity that unites humans with water in its most challenging, yet artistic form. Over the next two hours, as Joe took me on a journey through his life of surfing, I felt that the screening this Friday was more than a simple high school event. It would be a union of epiphanies, a shared heritage unique to a region, unfortunately sorely unrecognized by the very people who now inhabit it. I hope, most of all, that there will be more events like this screening, that this academic class will become a reality, just like Joe’s dream, that a thousand Samohi students will know of the inventiveness and intelligence of guys like Joe Quigg, David Rochlin, Ricky Grigg, Matt Kivlin, Vicki Flaxman Williams and many, many others whom I probably don’t even know of. Joe, like all the rest of the surfers I have talked to, no matter their age, or their era, was truly stoked about the possibility of this class. I guess that’s why we talked for two hours. I ask all of you reading this article to come support this grand, beautiful ritual we call surfing…and to support Joe’s dream. Friday, August 26, 7:30 p.m., Barnum Hall, Samo Campus. Tickets at door.