Memories of the Surfer Poll
The Academy Awards of The Surf World
The first time I broached the subject of the Surfer Poll I was about 10 months into my tenure as editor, full of ambition, determined that this was a mission of massive importance.
I’d bopped into Publisher Steve Pezman’s office, supercilious, brash, full of passion, piss, and vinegar.
“We have to bring back the Surfer Poll,” I said simply.
As he did many times before and after whenever I cluelessly insisted we must do something big, Pez emitted a high-pitched sigh.
The thing was, Pez knew what was in store and I, of course, had no idea. The concept was sound enough: the Surfer Poll was the Academy Awards of the Surf World, a gathering of the clan to honor the conquering heroes. It was certainly something worth reviving. But pulling off an epic event for the highest-ranked members of the tribe? That would be a different story.
The first six Surfer Polls from 1964 to 1969 had been black-tie affairs ala surf style (the tuxedos matched with Hawaiian shirts and a defiant Miki Dora sporting tails with floral print sneakers.) It had been the era of the giants. But a decade later, the surfing world had experienced as much transformation as at any time in its fledgling history.
It seated 350 people, packed to the gills…the amazing thing was that the entire surf world could fit in it.
The revival Surfer Poll was held in 1978 at the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach. The changing of the guard that was then in progress made the event a heady time for some and a disappointing one for others. Cosmic Children of the early ’70s like Terry Fitzgerald, Reno Abellira, Jeff Hakman, and Barry Kanaiaupuni whose era had just slipped past the deadline of Reader’s Poll consciousness, sensed themselves jilted lovers. Gerry Lopez, the icon of his era, would still make the cut.
For the ’76 Revolutionaries, those who had come of age busting down the door at Off the Wall’s Kodak Reef, their time was now.
When the final award was presented that night, Shaun Tomson’s deep tube maneuvers were judged as the dominant achievement of the Free Ride Generation. When he took the stage that night he became both the champion of the new “professional” era and its de facto ambassador. Tomson diplomatically bridged the seven-year chasm; Instead of claiming the throne, he humbly paid homage to the legends before him and remembered how he had worn the pages of each new SURFER to tatters. On those then distant shores of South Africa, Shaun would explain, info-starved surf stars had only SURFER Magazine to connect themselves to the rest of the surfing community, every new issue treated like an epistle from the Papal palace, poured over, picked apart, memorized.
In that moment, I knew we had pulled it off, brought back to life an iconic experience that the culture needed to have.
In future years we would move closer to headquarters, sequestering in the cozy confines of Sebastian’s Dinner Theater. It seated 350 people packed to the gills. Looking back on it now, the amazing thing was that the entire surf world could fit in it.
Every member of surfing’s pantheon attended and an invitation was proof of peerage and a summons of honor. Big Wednesday film director, John Milius, would enter sans entourage. Original punk rocker Johnny Rotten staggered about with Michael Tomson. President Ford’s son Jack (a straight-up guy and solid surfer) popped in, incognito and inebriated. Jerry Mathers held court beside real Academy Award winners Sally Fields and Cliff Robertson sitting by the real Gidget and the real Big Kahuna, whom they played in the movies.
The legendary moments were as big as the legends themselves. Did Simon Anderson actually pee down the side of his pant leg while giving his acceptance speech? Was an entire section of the bar missing while the bartenders were outside serving drinks? Did Michael Ho nearly miss his award being detained in the restroom? Did Art Brewer throw a drink in someone’s face when the projector bulb burned out in the middle of the event’s opening slide show of the honorees? You’d have to ask them yourself, I guess.
In later years, the Poll would evolve, adding the visual vitality of the Video Awards and moving to a giant 2,000-seat venue as the industry grew from intimate brotherhood to a world-changing cultural juggernaut.
But in those late-’70s salad days, when the world seemed upside down, when the long sweep of history was reinventing the very notion of what surfing was about, the revival of a successful Surfer Poll was like an ER patient whose still heart had just felt an unmistakable pulse.