Making Waves: 25 Years Later, the Surfer Is Up : Magazine Celebrates Silver Anniversary in Froth of Nostalgia

Times Staff Writer

For a magazine whose international reputation rests on its eye-catching graphic design and spectacular color photography, the first issue of pioneer surf film maker John Severson’s Surfer magazine published 25 years ago seems nostalgically quaint by today’s standards.

After all, The Surfer, as it originally was called, contained only 34 pages and had the look of a high school yearbook. (In fact, it was subtitled, “John Severson’s First Annual Surf Photo Book.”)

No Color Photos

There were only a dozen advertisers--all surfboard manufacturers. The editorial content was minimal. And the photographs, taken by Severson in Hawaii and California while he was filming his 1960 film, “Surf Fever,” were all in black and white.


But for the relatively small, loosely knit fraternity of surfers up and down the Southern California coast in 1960, the debut of Surfer--the first periodical devoted exclusively to surfing--couldn’t have made a bigger impact.

They were, in the surfing vernacular of the time, “stoked.”

Corky Carroll, who was to become a five-time U.S. surfing champion, was in fifth grade when a friend showed him the first issue of Surfer at school. Carroll was so “totally stoked” that after school he rode his bike eight miles from Surfside to Seal Beach to buy a copy. “At that time,” Carroll recalled, “we didn’t have any surfing pictures to look at.”

Mike Doyle, 1970 champion of both the Duke Kahanamoku Hawaiian Surfing Classic and the World Contest in Peru, was then a Playa del Rey 18-year-old who surfed regularly at Malibu. Doyle has ample reason to remember the first issue of Surfer: He appeared on three of its pages. “I was excited as hell to be in it,” he said. “It was really nice to see the photographs: You could see other surfers and their styles and their poses. The Surfer was like the voice of the people.”

Robert August, one of the two surfers featured in the classic 1966 surf film “The Endless Summer,” was a 15-year-old Seal Beach surfer when the magazine debuted. “For kids in that stage of surfing,” he recalled, “it was a real happening.”

Steve Pezman, who started surfing in 1957 at age 16 and took over as publisher of Surfer in 1970 after Severson sold the magazine and moved to Maui, remembers the first issue as being “a major validation and definition of what we were into.”

In fact, Pezman recalled, “I remember walking into Ole’s Surfboards on Coast Highway in Sunset Beach and seeing a little flyer that said, ‘The Surfer is Coming!’ and I promptly stole the flyer off the wall of the surf shop, which was how hungry we were for printed validation.”

That Surfer would be celebrating its 25th anniversary--the January silver anniversary issue included a reprint of the first edition--may not come as a surprise to those who lined up in front of surf shops to buy a copy of the first Surfer back in 1960.

But not everyone was as enthusiastic about the future of a magazine devoted to what was then considered a small, eccentric pastime; one Los Angeles printer told Severson, “Forget it son, you’re making a big mistake.”

And while Severson admits that even he didn’t predict surfing would become as big a cultural phenomenon as it did, he had no doubt the sport would be around a long time.

“I knew what surfing was,” said Severson, who started surfing at Doheny Park and San Onofre as a teen-ager in 1947. “People on the outside really didn’t see it. They said it would only last as long as the Hula Hoop.”

As for being the first to publish a surfing magazine, Severson--a former high school art teacher who turned his hobby of filming his friends surfing into a career in 1958--maintains, “If I hadn’t done it, somebody else would have.”

Perfect Timing

His timing couldn’t have been better, given the state of surfing in 1960--one year after the movie “Gidget” gave the nation a glimpse of the Southern California surfing life style, and one year before the formation of a musical group of Hawthorne teen-agers called the Beach Boys.

“Surfing was waking up; it was starting to boom then,” Severson, now 51, acknowledged in a telephone interview from his beachfront home in Maui. “You could see things change from year to year, and there was really a startling amount of surfers in 1960. Another thing was happening: The interest in surfing started spreading inland. ‘Gidget’ opened some eyes.”

Indeed, in 1960, Severson was not only getting larger audiences for his surf films--more than 2,000 surfers turned up at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium for a showing of “Surf Fever"--but he started receiving calls from high schools miles from the beach asking him to show his surf films during assemblies. And, he recalled, these young audiences of inlanders who had never set foot on a surfboard “went nuts.” Even those who didn’t surf began imitating the surfer look (the bleached blond hair, the “baggies” (pants), the huaraches (sandals) and the lingo (“surf’s up,” “hang ten,” “wipe out”).

Although the fever-pitch surf craze that swept Southern California in the early ‘60s subsided after a few years, the growth of the sport continued unabated.

When Surfer debuted in 1960, there were probably fewer than 25,000 surfers in the United States, according to Pezman.

‘Sport Had Grown’

“By the early ‘70s the sport had grown to 1 1/2 million in the U.S.,” he said. “Now there are 2 1/2 to 3 million surfers in the United States and another 1 1/2 million elsewhere in the world.”

Like the sport itself, Surfer magazine has changed with the times, evolving from an annual to a quarterly to a bimonthly and, in 1978, to a monthly publication with a circulation of about 89,000. (That doesn’t account for an unusually high “pass-along” readership of eight to nine people per copy sold.)

From the $3,000 it cost Severson to print the first 10,000 copies of Surfer, it now can cost up to $300,000 to publish a single issue.

The magazine, once published out of Severson’s Dana Point garage, is now a more than $3.5-million-a-year business headquartered in a spacious office complex in San Juan Capistrano. (Surfer shares office space with Powder--a skiing publication--and Sail Boarder magazines; all three sports’ life-style publications are owned by For Better Living, a publicly held holding company.)

As might be expected, an air of informality pervades the offices of Surfer, where virtually the entire staff knows which side of a surfboard to wax. (Advertising director Corky Carroll, 37, says he still surfs “whenever it’s good.”)

“It isn’t unheard of for the editor (Paul Holmes) to come to work in a wet pair of trunks with sand on his feet, and if the surf is good at lunchtime, it’s not unheard of for the editor to go out and go surfing,” Pezman said. At 43, Pezman admits he doesn’t surf as well or as often as he did 20 years ago, but he nevertheless still speaks passionately about the “Zen experience” of riding a wave.

Bible of Surfing

Looking decidely unpublisher-like in shorts, T-shirt and “flip-flops,” Pezman sat on a stylish rattan sofa in an office decorated with vintage Surfer covers on the wall and talked about the impact of the magazine that many consider the bible of surfing.

In the magazine’s early days, Pezman recalled, “we looked to see what people were doing on surfboards and everyone that had a photo in that magazine became a hero to us. We would begin to emulate their clothing, their dress and their mannerisms. And then we, in turn, being in our own school the ‘hot surfer’ or something, had a status symbol, and other people would begin to emulate how we dressed, and that was really the root of the life-style thing.”

Surfer, in depicting the latest surfer fads and fashions, has played a major role in spreading the beach life style to the rest of the nation. As Pezman said, “The ripple in the surfing market will become a ground swell in the general youth culture.

“It’s interesting,” he added. “There was an article in Los Angeles magazine a few years back that talked about the people who use Surfer magazine as a barometer to track youth culture and fashion. Andy Warhol, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein readily admitted to tracking Surfer magazine, and basically it (Surfer) is a finger on the pulse of the youth culture in California, Florida and Hawaii.”

Indeed, whereas surfboard manufacturers were the predominant advertisers in the early ‘60s, clothing manufacturers have, since the early ‘70s, accounted for two-thirds of the advertising in Surfer.

Pezman smiled at the irony.

‘Alternative Statement’

“Surfing became popular as an alternative statement to the get-a-job mentality--being secure, being productive, going to college--and then all of a sudden it becomes the image base for a billion-dollar-a-year rag business.”

Pezman noted that in the early ‘60s it was hard for the older generation--those who grew up during the Depression and who clung to the work ethic--to see surfing as a positive or productive act. Surfers, whose credo was, “Don’t take life so seriously,” were in a sense throwing off the values of their parents, according to Pezman.

“Surfers,” he said, “were really the forerunners of the peace and freedom movement.”

Severson, in fact, acknowledges that some of the early surfers were such social renegades as to be “next to animals.” And while he maintains the magazine attempted to reflect rather than direct the sport, Severson said they did try to steer surfing into “a healthy direction.”

In trying to create a better image for surfing, he explained, “we went to meetings, we dressed up and we did features on professional people who surf, to get some respectability and clout (for the magazine).” Otherwise, he said, city and county officials would start “taking beaches away"--prohibiting surfing in certain areas.

Throughout its 25-year history, Pezman observed, Surfer has mirrored the values of American youth. “Surfing is sort of like a thermometer in the mouth of youth and it reflects the values of the youth in our society,” he said.

‘Peace and Love’

In reflecting surfing, the magazine, for example, abandoned its Surfer Poll of the World’s Best Surfers in 1969 during the height of the Vietnam War when, Pezman said, “it was unfashionable to wear a uniform or be No. 1 or try to be a winner. It was more the peace and love and flow-with-it attitude.” In 1978, when it was “cool to win again,” the Surfer Poll was reinstated.

Even the act of riding a wave, Pezman observed, “was strangely reflective of the times.”

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he said, surfing was an “individualistic quasi-heroic act” with surfers riding 10-foot, 30-pound “logs” on the wave. But with the short board revolution in the late ‘60s, surfing became “a much more spontaneous act. The board moves as your mind thinks; it’s like a wet bar of soap. It was more of a do-your-own-thing kind of time. There was less style and more activity, and I still think that’s pretty much true.”

The magazine also has reflected the evolution of the professional surfer. In 1960, surfing was an unstructured pastime with no real organized competitions. Today, Pezman said, about 50 surfers are able to make a living at surfing by winning contests and endorsing products.

“In a sense,” Pezman said, “what’s happened is the older surfers are going through an identity crisis because surfing is so populated and organized and packaged that it doesn’t represent at all why you wanted to go surfing in the past.”

Still, Pezman said, “the purity of the sport always exists.

‘Prime Joy’

“The prime joy of being out on a surfboard is that it’s you going one on one with the ocean, and nothing else matters. If you never surfed you can never understand what the compelling aspect of surfing is.”

And Surfer is there to capture that special relationship. As art director Jeff Girard said, Surfer is primarily a “a picture book.”

Photo editor Jeff Devine, who deals consistently with about 75 free-lance photographers worldwide, also receives about 1,500 unsolicited color slides a week from photographers whose material, he said, ranges from “pretty good to family photo type stuff that’s pretty lousy.”

Each issue of the magazine features about 100 photographs, 80% to 90% of them in color, and readers can expect to see the best in surf photography, showing surfers doing what Pezman eloquently refers to as a “dance form on a liquid stage.”

And therein lies the continuing appeal of Surfer magazine on its silver anniversary.

“The act of riding a wave is such an intense sensory experience--it’s more intense than anything I’ve ever felt in my life,” Pezman observed. “When a surfer looks at a surf photograph, he’s mind-surfing the wave in that photograph himself. He’s getting maybe 10% to 25% of the intensity of actually riding that wave from looking at it and relating to his own experience.”

He and his colleagues at Surfer, Pezman added, “have the honor--the luxury--of running a magazine that portrays mankind interacting with the ocean. Our task is to get out of the way of that communication and let it be.”