When Bob Rogers was growing up on the Balboa Peninsula, the Wedge signified danger — represented by the ambulances that would wail by his house, transporting surfers who had lost their lives or suffered neck fractures after taking on the surfing spot's fierce, volatile waves.
Rogers surfed, but he never attempted the Wedge. His parents would order him to take his board a quarter-mile down the peninsula. Ironically, though, the Wedge also signified safety for Rogers, and he remembers why every time he gazes at the placid harbor entrance on the other side of the jetty.
"All that misery, all those years ago," he mused last week, standing on the sand at the peninsula's tip. "And now it's all peaceful, nice. You would never know this was the scene of a tragedy."
The tragedy in question took place 88 years ago when a 15-year-old boat operator — Rogers' first cousin once removed — died in an accident in the harbor entrance. The rocky surf overturned the boat, and the victim's father spent the next decade campaigning for the government to dredge the entrance and build stronger jetties to protect boat traffic from the waves.
Once the new jetties were in, one of them gave birth to the Wedge — a coveted and feared surfing location for decades, where waves ricochet off the rocks, meet incoming waves head-on and sometimes cause the water to contort upward like a hyperactive dancer. Meanwhile, the boats sail in and out unharmed.
The story of George Rogers Sr., who exhausted his health lobbying for a safer Balboa harbor and, in a grim coincidence, ended up dying of a heart attack on his boat at almost the same spot where George Jr. died, is hardly a forgotten piece of Newport Beach lore. A stone monument under a tree near the Wedge, erected in 1936, bears the heading "Harbor Improvement" and pays tribute to George Sr. for his efforts.
Still, the businessman's grand-nephew suspects that many who pass by the monument know little about the man it celebrates — or the son whose death ended up changing the motion of the tide itself. So when Rogers' documentary, "The Wedge: Dynasty, Tragedy, Legacy," premieres May 23 on PBS SoCaL Plus, he hopes to enlighten at least a few.
"This show is a labor of love," said Rogers, who scripted, narrated and helped to produce the half-hour film. "Doing this show makes no economic sense whatsoever. This is something that I just really wanted to do. I wanted to share the story with people. Also, so many cities have great stories about the things that shaped those cities, and so often, they don't have any way of remembering them or telling them."
'An iconic surfing spot'
With only a small crowd around the jetty on a recent Wednesday morning, Rogers paused to explain how the Wedge works. The one surfer in the water provided a visual aid.
"See, this guy's surfing the bounce wave. And when the bounce wave crosses the incoming wave," Rogers said, trailing off as
the water surged and the surfer promptly tumbled off his board, "that's the peak."
It's true that the Wedge has resulted in its share of 911 calls. But Rogers, who lives most of the time in Los Angeles and still owns his family's old house in Balboa, often wonders how many lives his great-uncle saved on the other side of the rocks when he helped change the harbor's confines.
As a child, Rogers often passed by the stone monument and heard about George Sr. and his son, but the story had little resonance for him. Later, he began to listen to relatives' accounts more closely, and when he set out in the late 1980s to write a book about his family's history, he delved into archive footage and interviewed relatives who were alive more than half a century ago.
The story, then: George Rogers Jr., the older son of a wealthy entrepreneur, was expected to inherit the successful rock-and-gravel enterprise that his father and uncles had started at the turn of the 20th century. Polio crippled him at a young age, though, and when the tide capsized his boat in the harbor entrance shortly before his 16th birthday, his condition prevented him from escaping the wreck.
At the time, the harbor entrance was considered a prime surfing spot. According to Rogers, John Wayne was among those who came to test his mettle. From that day in 1926 onward, however, George Sr. sought to destroy the trap that had taken his son. Ten years and roughly $2 million in federal aid and bond funds finally achieved that goal.
Perusing his family's collection as well as others at UCLA, the Sherman Library and Gardens and elsewhere, Rogers assembled the best collection of artifacts he could gather. He found a reel of the footage showing the harbor entrance's reopening in 1936, when the governor rode on George Sr.'s yacht; old photos and films showed people surfing in the harbor entrance in the pre-Wedge days.
Rogers even found a picture of his father in the boat that took George Jr.'s life, although his father wasn't on board the day of the accident. Another clip, showing a storm brewing over the peninsula, may not have been shot on the day itself, but it provided a visual cue for the documentary.
While Rogers' book was self-published and had little readership outside his family, he sought a wide audience for the documentary. Film is far from a hobby for him: He serves by day as founder and chief creative officer of the Burbank-based BRC Imagination Arts, which creates visitor experiences for theme parks and other locations, and he's been nominated twice for Oscars for Best Live Action Short Film.
He found a receptive audience in Ed Miskevich, the station manager of PBS SoCaL, who saw the Wedge story as having appeal well beyond the tip of Balboa.
"First of all, it's a story about an iconic surfing spot, and really, when you think about Southern California and the surfing culture that grew up in this past century, the Wedge has become an iconic location for people who are surfers," Miskevich said. "People of my generation, when the swells would come, every kid with a surfboard would say, 'I'm going to the Wedge,' and that didn't matter where you lived in Southern California. It was the place to go to go surfing."
Dredging the past
The PBS SoCaL news release claims that Rogers' documentary "at last explains the moving and personal story behind the cryptic rock monument at the Wedge, at the end of the Balboa Peninsula — long a mystery to those who pass by."
It is a mystery to some because of the lack of witnesses to the events of nearly a century ago. Rogers said one of his great-uncle's grandchildren is still alive, but because of the man's age and health, he declined to use him as a resource for the film.
To those who know the town well, however, George Rogers Sr. left an enduring legacy. Gordy Grundy, president of the Newport Beach Historical Society, wrote in an email that the revamped harbor entrance not only created a safer boating environment but also changed the city's culture.
"From a historical perspective, the jetties of the new harbor entrance were a blessing and a boon to the sport of surfing," Grundy said. "Bittersweet, the Wedge was formed and the legends began. The Newport harbor entrance offered the best surfing site in the entire world; experts and legends agree. The construction of the jetties made the perfect break vanish. Ground zero for the new sport no longer existed and surfers dispersed along the coast.
"If the jetties had never been built, what would Newport look like now? A dodgy, unsafe bay. A tourist town as the worldwide mecca for surfing. Unrecognizable, Corona del Mar would be all about parking, cheap hotels, hostels and amazing burrito joints. It would be a very cool circus, hardly like the genteel present."
As Rogers points out in "The Wedge," that present has buried a great deal of the past. In a segment toward the end, he rattles off a voice-over list of things that no longer exist: the company his great-uncle founded, the yacht George Sr. named "Memory" in tribute to his son, the waterfront home where the Rogers family lived for years.
Still, he carries all that with him. At the Wedge last week, he pointed out the spot in the harbor where — he thinks — both George Sr. and Jr. met their deaths. He noted that a concrete stretch by the jetty served as a filming location for many of the people whose footage ended up in his documentary.
Then he noted the nondescript stretch of sand between the Wedge and the stone monument, with the harbor, navigated by a slow yacht and smaller boats, extending below it.
"Right about here," he said, "is where they set up vigil."
'The Wedge: Dynasty, Tragedy, Legacy'
When: 6:30 p.m. May 23
Channel: PBS SoCaL Plus (50.2)