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Legacy Of Surfer Magazine Discussed At California Surf Fest

Legacy Of Surfer Magazine Discussed At California Surf Fest
When did surf media, like magazines and movies, come on the scene? And, what kind of impact has surf-related media had on the culture and business of surfing? We speak to Jim Kempton about this year's California Surf Festival, which will celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Surfer Magazine.

The 2nd Annual California Surf Festival will take place next weekend, November 19-22 in downtown Oceanside.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Last year's Surf Festival went so well, they decided to do it again. The California Surf Museum is presenting the second annual Surf Festival in Oceanside later this month. It's a celebration of the culture and the history of surfing with surf films, music concerts and special events. And this year, the Surf Festival is honoring Surfer Magazine's 50th Anniversary with a spotlight on the magazine's founder John Severson. Here to tell us about the second annual California Surf Festival is my guest, Jim Kempton. He is the president of the California Surf Museum, and a former editor and publisher at Surfer Magazine. Jim, welcome.

JIM KEMPTON (President, California Surf Museum): Thank you. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And we invite our listeners to call us if – Did you go to the Surf Festival last year? What did you enjoy about it? Give us a call and tell us, 1-888-895-5727. So tell us, Jim, what kinds of events do you have planned for this year’s Surf Festival?

KEMPTON: The idea is to take all of the sort of rich surf culture and bring it together so that people have a real menu to look at for enjoying the kinds of things they do. We have Jake Shimabukuro, who is a ukulele player, which of course is a rich part of the whole surfing culture and Hawaiian. And he plays everything from Eric Clapton solos to traditional Hawaiian lullabies, and so that’s a music that we have. Then we have surf films that are premiering, some that have shown but are really, really popular still in play. We have Nat Young, a world champion surfer who’s coming with his book of surfing history that he’s written for people to see. It’s a book signing and sort of a presentation. We have, of course, the surfer tribute. We have Clark Little, who’s a phenomenal photographer, recognized in galleries all over the world, but is also a surfer. His brother is a big wave famous surfer and he’s great himself, who’ll be coming. And then we have what we call the Grom Fest, which is offering kids that are under 18 a chance to make shorts and get their movies played in real theaters and get them off to a start, which has been really rewarding. It’s a new thing we’re doing this year.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of connection does the California Surf Museum have to the Surf Festival?

KEMPTON: Well, we produce it essentially. I mean, it’s the board of directors and all of our volunteers and our staff work about 40 hours a day to put this thing on. We start quite early actually and we bring all of the films together and the music and sort of make a plan for it and then we produce it and put it on. And it’s really our – one of our major fundraisers for the Surf Museum.

CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more about what I mentioned, that you’re honoring 50 years of Surfer Magazine at the Surf Festival this year. What kind of an impact has Surfer Magazine had on the sport and the culture and I guess even the business of surfing.

KEMPTON: Well, it really was, in many ways, the start of the surf culture that was authentic, at least it was its voice. I mean, you know, there’s the first line of the Bible is ‘in the beginning is the word and the word is God.’ And, you know, when – that’s sort of what Surfer is, it’s – we call it the bible of the sport and it wasn’t the very first and it certainly wasn’t the last but I think it’s, like the New York Times, kind of the magazine of record. And when you go back and look across the historical spectrum of surfing, Surfer Magazine is what you look at, and, you know, I think the editors all along have really recognized that lineage and that legacy and they strive to sort of be a part of that.

CAVANAUGH: Now as I said in the – introducing you, you were a former editor of Surf Magazine and publisher of Surfer Magazine. And I’m wondering, what was the original idea behind this magazine? Why was it needed?

KEMPTON: Well, I think no one really understood, like so many good things, just how much demand there was. John Severson had been making surf films and they had been very popular, and he thought he would make a one-off magazine called The Surfer. And he called it The Surfer because he had no intentions of doing anything else and it, of course, sold out in a matter of minutes, as they say, and he realized that he had this enormous demand on his hands and went to quarterly and then to bi-monthly and then to monthly, the magazine it is today.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to remind our listeners we are opening the phones up. If you’d like to call and tell us about your experiences with Surfer Magazine or with the First Annual California Surf Festival, give us a call, 1-888-895-5727. As you say, the Surfer Magazine has become the gold standard in terms of surfing publications. I wonder, Jim, how many people do you think actually get Surfer Magazine who don’t surf at all?

KEMPTON: Actually probably quite a few.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I think so.

KEMPTON: It’s amazing how many people enjoy it just for the photography.

CAVANAUGH: And, you know, this Surf Festival is almost like a film festival. You’re having such an emphasis on films. What kinds of films will you be featuring?

KEMPTON: We have, hopefully, something for everybody. Of course, we have “The Groms” that we’re hoping that will bring, you know, high school kids in.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, tell us what – groms, I didn’t know…

KEMPTON: Yeah, it’s a…

CAVANAUGH: …I didn’t know what groms meant, I have to admit.

KEMPTON: Well, there’s two – the American slang is gremmie but it’s been overtaken by the Australians that call them grommets. And basically they are kids…


KEMPTON: …young surfers that are usually derided in some way. But that’s just become the term for young kids that are surfing. And they actually have Grom Divisions now that, you know, for kids under 10. But – so that’s what that is about. It’s just – it really is, we just all feel, I think, you know, a sense of passing along that torch to the kids coming up because when you discover surfing it’s usually when you’re young and it’s just such a magic thing.

CAVANAUGH: And I hear that there’s sort of like a love/hate relationship in the surf community with the “Gidget” movies.

KEMPTON: Well, you know, there’s lots of people that are pre-Gidget that think that it was the beginning of the end. But for those of us who were barely old enough to walk at the time that “Gidget” came out, we all, of course, decided that we didn’t want to be, you know, a cowboy or an astronaut, we wanted to be a surfer. So it just, I guess, depends on what age you were at the time that it came and, you know, for the generation that I come from it was a real seminal event because it introduced us to surfing and it looked like so much fun. And then we tried it and it was even better.

CAVANAUGH: They were really – they really motivated a lot of people to look at surfing, though, didn’t they? The…

KEMPTON: Absolutely. They introduced it to the mass market of people who otherwise would not have – and of course that’s the rub, it popularized it and at the same time it created lots of the crowds and all that. But it also spurred enormous innovation and development with the culture as well.

CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727, and let’s go to the phones. Joining us now, it’s Vaughn in La Mesa. Good morning, Vaughn. Welcome to These Days.

VAUGHN (Caller, La Mesa): Hey, good morning. I’m calling regarding the earliest issues of Surfer Magazine where you had a cartoon that came out every time with Murphy it in. And it was some really good surf cartoons that everybody liked a lot. I just wanted to know if you still have any way to publish those or sell those in a separate publication, something like that. You remember Murphy?

KEMPTON: Of course. Those are no longer published. They’re owned by the artist that actually drew them and they are very difficult – although occasionally he will give an exhibit, well, his – he’s dead now but his wife will give an exhibit of those that if you watch carefully, you know, occasionally you will see that. And you can also go on eBay and look. They’re available occasionally to purchase. But Surfer Magazine, I’m not even sure has the rights to those at this stage but, you know, I should check on that because it’d be a great thing for them to run. I’m sure all the people like yourself would really enjoy it.


VAUGHN: Yeah, they go way back.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Vaughn. And let’s talk to Liz in Encinitas. Good morning, Liz. Welcome to These Days.

LIZ (Caller, Encinitas): Hi. Good morning. I was just at L.J. Richards’ birthday party and I thought he was on the very first cover of The Surfer and then somebody said no, it was the second. So I just wanted to clarify.

KEMPTON: Yes, it wasn’t the first. The first was Les – was, excuse me, was – now you’re going to make me forget but…


KEMPTON: …but it wasn’t him on the first one. It was Jose Angel at Waimea going backside. That was The Surfer. But it might’ve – they might’ve been claiming that as the second because the second issue was the first one that sort of was called Surfer. So they might be able to win their case that way.

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Thank you, Liz. You guys take this thing seriously, don’t you? Now tell us more about the honor that you’re going to be giving to the Surfer Magazine’s founder, John Severson. What is that going to be like? What kind of ceremony do you have planned?

KEMPTON: Well, actually we’re honoring all of the editors and publishers.


KEMPTON: John is going to give a little filmed speech. He’s on Maui actually…


KEMPTON: …and not well. But every Surfer Magazine editor and publisher has been invited and I think almost all of them who are still living are going to be there. And so it’s going to be a real once-in-a-lifetime experience for the magazine as well as, you know, the audience that has enjoyed it for so many years. And so each of the editors has picked a special cover and articles that they liked, photographs that they thought were really significant and each of those are going to be in an exhibit called “50 Years of Surfer Magazine” that we’re doing at the museum. And then also that evening, we’re doing this big honoring ceremony just, you know, with Q&A, each one of them is going to introduced and get to talk a little bit about their era at Surfer and what it meant. And so I think it’s something that people would really enjoy. It’s really the rich history of modern surfing.

CAVANAUGH: What picture are you going to choose? Have you selected one yet?

KEMPTON: Well, I picked a couple. One was called “The Magic of a Hawaiian Summer,” and that was a cover with Dane Kealoha on it. And funnily enough, still today when you look at that photograph, it is – it’s still a radical maneuver. It’s, you know, 30-some years on, it is still something that people will look at and say, wow, that’s amazing. And then I also picked one that was just a slide. We were going to do a white cover like the Beatles album…


KEMPTON: …and just have it embossed.


KEMPTON: But our art director wouldn’t go for it so he threw a slide onto the white sheet that we’d presented him and said, what about this? So it ended up being a slide actually photographed on the cover of the magazine. It won an award, a magazine award, a national magazine award, at the time. And it was one of the most memorable covers just because it’s so different. And it also happened to have been Mark Richards, who was a four-time world champion.

CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727 about the Second Annual California Surf Festival and the events that are going to take place there. Let’s go to Andrew in Ocean Beach. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to These Days.

ANDREW (Caller, Ocean Beach): Good morning. Great show, as usual.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you.

ANDREW: I just want to say I’m a 25 year wave rider, surfer, boogie boarder and everything and I was just kind of curious. At the museum there—I used to live in Oceanside—they have—and I’ve worked with Tom Morey for a good amount of years with bodyboards and different surfboard craft designs. I was just kind of curious on what his feel is with the animosity between boogie boarders or splash bodyboarders versus surfers because the last Surfer Magazine gave props to Mike Stewart who’s a great bodyboarder but then on the same hand there’s so much slander against bodyboarding. And I’ll take the comments off the air but that’s just my curiosity, where is the animosity and why. Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Thanks, Andrew.

KEMPTON: You know, I think that it’s an odd thing. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, and certainly not every surfer has it but I think that there are surfers that just feel like bodyboarders – that bodyboarding allows so many more people into the lineup and positions them in places that make it harder for surfers to have the, you know, the right of way, so to speak, and be in position to own the wave. And I think that’s where a lot of the animosity comes from and also the fact that, you know, they don’t stand up, which to surfers who struggle to, you know, stay on their feet is something that I think they resent the ease at which it seems as though bodyboarders ride. But, in fact, bodyboarding is an amazing sport on its own. I wish I knew the whole answer to that but it’s a difficult one.

CAVANAUGH: Are bodyboarders allowed at the Surf Festival?

KEMPTON: Oh, absolutely. Are you kidding?

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Jim, if you would tell us what are some of the most influential surf films that have come out over the years, and what ones are you going to be screening?

KEMPTON: Well, that’s two different things, of course.


KEMPTON: Because surf movies are…

CAVANAUGH: Do they coincide at all?

KEMPTON: Well, surf movies tend to – every period sort of has its seminal surf movie.


KEMPTON: You know, the very, very early ones like “Going Surfing” by Bud Browne, and “Big Wednesday” by John Severson. You know, those were the very, very early years. “Five Summer Stories” during the sixties, MacGillivray Freeman, were very, very influential. “Free Ride,” which was the story which has just been made into a movie called “Busting Down the Door” was about the young Australians and South Africans that came to Hawaii and broke into and sort of started the professional surfing era. And so it goes right on through to today. Of course “Endless Summer” was, you know, probably the seminal surf movie to introduce it to the rest of the world. But the surf movies that we’re showing now, one of the things is – that’s happened is that surf movies have really become an art form of their own. And we have a movie, for instance, called “Dear and Yonder” which is all about women surfers and their history and they’re, you know, part of the culture. We have “Sea of Darkness,” which is a movie about the first discoveries of surfers back in the seventies. We have a movie about one of the best surfers that ever lived in Orange County, Rob Machado – excuse me, San Diego County, Rob Machado, that is going to be premiering here at the film festival and Rob will be there. I might just add on almost all these movies, a director or producer or one of the stars will be at the theater during the showing and there to answer questions afterwards, so this is going to be really fun for anyone who goes who has an interest in a particular movie, and they’ll be able to see a real wide range from historical type films to rad – you know the “Dear and Yonder” film won Best Documentary. We also have the movie that won Surfer Magazine’s video of the year called “Still Filthy,” that Billabong produced. So there will be – there’s going to be radical action movies. There’s going to be historical context. There’s going to be women’s movies. There’s going to be biographies, essentially…


KEMPTON: …about, you know, really great surfers. So there’s a range of really fun stuff to see.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting because, as I said, the Surf Festival is almost turning into a film festival. It just sounds – you have such a wide range going on. But it’s not only a film festival because I would like you tell us just a little bit more about this incredible ukulele player called Jake Shimabukuro. He’ll be performing at the festival next Friday and what this – the sounds this man can produce with the ukulele are really pretty astounding. He was a big hit at last year’s festival, right?

KEMPTON: He was. He was a huge hit and his playing style is just almost unique, I would say, in – for an instrument. The sounds that he gets out of it sounds like an orchestra. He’s able to go from a whisper to a scream on the thing, and he plays it with so much feeling that you almost are on the edge of your seat thinking he’s going to fall off his stool, he’s so entranced with the music that he’s playing. And, you know, again, I mean, you know, he plays a song by George Harrison called “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which I think is like one of the top YouTube hits of all time. I think there’s millions and millions and millions of hits, and that’s introduced him to the world. But, you know, Eric Clapton actually played the solo of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and when you hear that, when you hear Eric Clapton being played on a ukulele at double speed, it’s pretty astonishing and it just brings the crowd to their feet. So he’s a fantastic player and somebody that no matter what, you know, whether you’re surfing or not, is someone to see.

CAVANAUGH: Jim, we’ve run out of time but I want to thank you for coming and telling us all about the Second Annual California Surf Festival. And I want to let everyone know it takes place next weekend, November 19th through the 22nd, in downtown Oceanside. For more information, you can go to These Days page at And we’re actually going out on some of that wonderful music by Jake Shimabukuro. Thanks, Jim. Thanks for being here.

KEMPTON: Thanks so much. Appreciate it.

CAVANAUGH: You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.