James Arness, "Marshal Matt Dillon" of Gunsmoke and a surfer...
1923 - 2011
James Arness died this month at the age of 88 of natural causes. Baby Boomers grew-up with James Arness as the Marshal of Dodge City in the long running hit TV series "Gunsmoke". What a lot of us didn't know was that James Arness was also an avid surfer. Some surfers recall him paddling out at Haggerty's; many more surfers recall him surfing at San Onofre and one of those surfers is Barbara Bond. Barbara Bond took the time to write and share her recollections of "Big Jim" on "mydesert.com". With much mahalo to Barbara Bond and mydesert.com; we have reprinted her recollections below...
Written by Barbara Bond
June 07, 2011
James Arness died last week at the age of 88, a huge movie and television star. But I have memories of “Big Jim” that date back to 1947 and 1948 before he became famous. He would have been 24 or 25 years old then.
“Big Jim” (as we knew him) was a surfer. When I was about 13-14, my mother and stepfather used to take my sister and I to San Onofre State Beach on the weekends. Several soldiers who had been stationed in Hawaii during World War II had returned to Southern California. They learned to surf on their tour and when they came back, they brought their long boards with them.
They began to congregate on the beach in San Onofre, surfing the big waves. We were allowed to surf there during the day, but at night we couldn't sleep there. So, after dark, and after burning rubber tires and eating hobo stew or barbecue, we drove to the Trestles, a campground nearby, where we all slept in our cars, on the ground or in old Helms Bakery trucks converted to surf wagons. When the trains went by, the sound was deafening, as we were practically on the tracks.
There was “Burrhead,” “Hammerhead,” “Big Jim,” Richard Jaeckel, “Donovan” and others.
Because I was small, I was often asked to “ride tandem” through the big waves with one of the guys. The waves broke very far out from shore and were dangerous at times. Mom sat on the beach hiding her eyes, as often we were washed ashore for quarter of a mile under water without being seen.
Once, legendary surfer Duke Kahanamoku came to the beach. This was a huge honor for the surfers. It was party time and there was roast pig, lots of ukulele music, big bonfires, lots of booze and hula dancing by the surfers. What a riot watching surfers hula! I got to ride in the outrigger canoe the Hawaiians brought over. It was so fast on the big waves and a huge thrill for me.
Big Jim was a part of all this at the time and I often wondered what he remembered about those days. He wasn't a very good surfer, often staggering up out of the water, dragging his board with holes in it or big chunks missing where he'd hit the rocks.
We all knew that he and Richard Jaeckel were in the movies. Jaeckel, who died in 1997, played Lee Marvin's second-in-command in “The Dirty Dozen.”
Later, when Arness made it big and I saw him on screen, I wondered how long he surfed there and what he remembered of that time. Most of those veterans are probably gone by now, but they remain a great part of my girlhood. I had crushes on some of them. I loved hanging around the guys and they used to tell me, “Scram, but come back when you're 18.”
Longtime Hermosa Beach resident LeRoy Grannis died Feb. 3. Grannis was a legendary surf photographer.
For surfers in the 1960s, being approached by LeRoy Grannis was nearly as thrilling as catching a wave.
Grannis became famous for snapping his legendary surfing photos at precisely the right moment. And when he captured that perfect split second of time, he created portraits that were more than just a man riding a board. His photographs showcased a surf culture that few outside the coast new about.
His photographs represented a person’s achievement, the beauty and power of the ocean, the thrill of surfing and a glimpse of beach life.
On Feb. 3, surfing lost one of its pioneers. Grannis died of natural causes in a Torrance nursing home, but his memory will continue to live on through the images he brought to life. He was 93.
Grannis enjoyed decades of playing with his two biggest passions, surfing and photography.
“When he wasn’t surfing, he was taking photographs,” said his son, John Grannis.
Grannis was born on a kitchen table Aug. 12, 1917, in Hermosa Beach, just blocks from the Pacific Ocean. He was the typical beach boy growing up in the waves and spending time with family and friends. But he always seemed to be involved with surfing, John said. He graduated from Redondo Union High School and was also a stellar tennis player, but his love for surfing was greater. It was because of surfing that he met his wife, Katie. They met at the Hermosa Beach pier and the two married in 1939.
They had four children and built a house in Hermosa Beach. Grannis spent 31 years working for Pacific Bell Telephone as a manager.
Lifelong friend Richard Meine and Grannis were members of the Palos Verdes Surf Club, and Meine said they spent the majority of their days surfing.
“He was very enthused and good,” said the 93-year-old Meine, categorizing Grannis as a great guy who he’ll now miss trading surf stories with as they’d do every Tuesday during lunch.
But despite his love for riding waves, his doctor encouraged him to find another calming hobby that would allow him to escape from his stressful job.
His surfing buddy, John “Doc” Ball, was into photography and introduced Grannis to the camera in 1959. Through its lens, Grannis found a new world, a way to share with others the images that kept him coming back to the beach every day.
Those who surfed loved his work, those who never tried quickly did and people who didn’t know what they were missing soon found out what it meant to be a surfer without even getting their feet wet.
“He liked doing it for people,” John said.
He collected so many shots that it would take days to admire them all, from surfers riding the face of a monster wave in Oahu, to a thrill seeker being shot out of a water tube. His favorite is of Dewey Weber mastering the art of wave riding off 22nd Street in Hermosa Beach.
Grannis became extremely creative in his methods to get the perfect shot, John said. Most of his photographs came from shore in the beginning, but he soon started paddling out for various angles and even strapped a plywood box to his longboard to protect his camera. His son said he twice fought off 30-foot waves in Hawaii that ended with white water pushing him into the beach.
He said as a surfer, it was tough for him to be on the beach when the best waves were coming in, but he needed to in order to capture the moment.
“It takes a lot of willpower when the waves are perfect,” John said. “He knew what to anticipate and what was going to happen. The rush and excitement of riding the waves and photographing, he just loved capturing those moments and keeping that moment forever.”
His first photo was published by Reef Magazine in 1960, according to John. Grannis immediately turned his hobby into creating International Surf Magazine, now known as Surf Magazine. And it didn’t take long before he started to get recognized for his innovative work. He was inducted into the San Diego Surfer’s Hall of Fame in 1966 for his photography and about 20 years later for his surfing, according to John. He received first prize for Life Magazine’s action sports photo in the late 1960s. He continued to surf through the decades and won first place at the Hermosa Beach Surf Festival in the senior division in 1972 and took first place in the Dewey Weber Longboard Classic in 1983 and 1984. He started hang gliding and windsurfing magazines, was honored with the Eddie Aikau/Quiksilver Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993, won the SIMA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1999 and the Hermosa Beach Surfers Walk of Fame in 2003, according to John.Grannis, who was the grand marshal for Hermosa Beach’s centennial celebration in 2007, will be deeply missed, said Mayor Peter Tucker.
“He was a true artist, a great pioneer in sports photography,” Tucker said. “He brought surfing to life to people all around the world.”
Hermosa Beach is in its seventh year of preparing to create a bronze statue that honors Grannis’ work. The statue is of Grannis’ iconic Weber image [below] and is currently being created. The sculputure will be an impressing 10 feet and be located on the lawn at the Community Center Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. City Manager Steve Burrell said its completion date is set for July.
“That picture alone put Hermosa on the map,” Tucker said of the Weber photo. “That picture alone helped us. People would say, ‘That’s Hermosa? I’ve got to check that out.’”
His son said Grannis knew all about it, as he’d provide monthly updates on the project’s status. He said the entire family feels blessed knowing they’ll soon get to witness Grannis being honored.
John said this week has been very difficult for the family, now that both his parents are gone. Katie Grannis died from natural causes in 2008. But John said knowing how much his father meant to people makes him proud to be his son, and he’s certain Grannis’ legendary status will continue to reign long past his grandchildren’s days.
“LeRoy means ‘king’ in French,” John said. “There is surfing royalty, and my dad was one of the kings.”
Grannis is survived by his sons John and Frank, daughters Nancy and Kit, six grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. A private memorial service is being held for the family, and a public paddle-out will take place off the Palos Verdes coast in June.
In the early '90's; I had a bonding experience with another surfer just a little older than me, his name was Andy.
We had worked together for years; but it wasn't until I saw old news clippings 'hanging on his office wall that I realized he had been a champion tandem surfer back in the '60's.
As we shared our love for surfing; Andy eventually invited me up to his home by PV Cove to show me his old board. He un-earthed it from a corner of his garage; 'blew the dust off and explained it was a "Gordie Assassin".
Andy told me it was a revolutionary board in it's day because while most tandems were 12 to 13 feet; this board was only 10 feet long.
Steve Boehne; owner of Infinity Surf in San Clemente; had custom built a limited number of these Gordie boards that were short, wide and thick with the idea they would still provide the necessary "float" but be much more maneuverable than the longer boards.
The board worked for Andy; the news clippings with pictures of him in a blazer and tie with a tandem surfing partner on his arm receiving trophies at surf contests were testament to that.
I was shocked and honored when Andy offered to me that I could "store" the board for him if I like as he hadn't got it wet for years.
I took it home, cleaned it, ‘fixed little dings and pondered all the places it had been, the waves it had ridden and the people who rode upon it.
The first sunny day that came I put wax on the deck and headed out in the water. I loved it.
I surfed the board for over 5 years. Everywhere it went people asked: "what is that"? Some folks who claimed to be experts on old boards told me how rare the board was and asked permission to take pictures of it.
It became apparent the board was probably of some value and I returned it to my friend. He un-ceremoniously laid it on the garage floor again; that was 5 years ago.
Recently, I have had the urge to ride the Gordie again; perhaps trying to stand-up paddle with it. I left a message at my friend’s home but did not receive a reply.
I called again and left another message that I would be "glad to store the board again" if he still had it.
I received a phone message back from his wife in the evening. She said she had asked Andy about me borrowing the board again and he said that I could.
She said she actually thought it would make him feel good to know the board was being enjoyed.
What she said next hit me like an outside wave: "I don't know if you know; but Andy was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's syndrome, last year".
I was devastated; I had already lost one friend to ALS and know what a cruel neuro-muscular disease it is that only ends in death.
The following day I was digesting the news. It was then while thinking "what can I do" that I recalled my friend’s wife telling me "it would make him happy to know someone was enjoying the board".
I went up to Andy’s the next day. I visited with Andy in his front room where he was seated in a recliner; surrounded by medical supplies; but enjoying an awesome view of Torrance Beach and the entire coastline.
We talked about his disease but mostly talked about surfing. He told me about surfing “Killer Dana” before there was a breakwater. He said he was on a new board and had ridden a 20 foot wave all the way from the outside when he fell going through “Bone Yard” on the inside.
He said he didn’t want to lose the new board to the rocks so he hung-on going up-side-down across the sea urchin covered rock reef. When he landed on the beach, the board was untouched but he had to be rushed to the hospital to get ‘stitched-up and the spines removed.
He leaned forward and pulled up his shirt showing me his back: “see, I still have the scars”!
Andy told me he couldn’t swallow anymore so he had a “g” tube in his stomach to feed him. He said: “come back for lunch sometime; I’ll buy a pizza, I can’t eat but I’d like to watch you eat one”.
That’s something a surfer would do.
I got the family e-address and promised to send them pictures and story about where the board was going.
The next day the board was in the water at Torrance Beach and the Riviera Wave Riders were taking turns riding it and taking pictures.
We sent the images and story to Andy’s family that night; we dubbed our project of documenting the boards travels as “Gordie’s Adventures”.
Yesterday; we took the board out on a hot, Santa Ana conditions afternoon for a long paddle up the beach to Redondo Pier and back.
When we got back in; we learned that while we were out enjoying Gordie; Andy had passed away…
Andy is gone; but “Gordie” will live on ‘gliding the waves and we know that Andy will be watching and smiling.
We love you Andy, aloha brother…
A Riviera Wave Rider bringing Gordie in from a surf session. 10'X28"X4"; 45 lbs.
June 15, 2009 Update -
On June 3, 2009; the Riviera Wave Riders took "Gordie" home. We enjoyed the board and in the spirit of Aloha felt it was time to pass it on to be enjoyed by others.
After checking in with Andy's family; we took the board to Dana Point and returned the Gordie Assassin to the man who built it, Steve Boehne, owner of Infinity Surfboards.
Steve told us he built this board for himself in 1966 when he was about 20 years old and working for Gordie. Steve said he rode the board tandem with his wife Barrie from 1966 until 1969 at which time he sold it to Andy.
Steve and his wife Barrie were happy to see the old board; their son who was looking for one of these boards was even happier. How cool must it be to have a board that your dad built and rode with your mom before you were even born?
We say, way cool...
The Gordie Assassin; back in the hands of the man who created it and the couple who rode it tandem over 40 years ago...