Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, July 19, 2001

Randy Rarick with a pile of vintage surfboards to be auctioned at the International Hawaii Surf Auction Saturday.

Randy Rarick

amasses a collection of surfing memorabilia that shows how surf style sparked an endless romance.
By Scott Vogel – svogel@starbulletin.com

Going, going, gone

Old timers will tell you that surfing changed for the better, or the worse, but anyway forever, in 1959. And as is the case with so many cultural events, Gidget was somehow involved.

“The movie ‘Gidget’ was the beginning of the whole ‘beach blanket bingo’ phase of the early to mid-’60s that just exploded the surfing lifestyle to the masses,” said Randy Rarick, his voice a mixture of praise and regret, while leading us on a tour of his Sunset Beach home this week. Rarick is producing and coordinating Saturday’s Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction, which features vintage surfboards, memorabilia and other knick-knacks from the sport’s golden age.

“Get happy! Get with it! Have yourself a Hawaiian holiday with Gidget!” begs a movie poster from the franchise’s 1961 sequel “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” with Deborah Walley, one of the items on the auction block. (Walley died of esophageal cancer in May.) It was a simpler time, of course, what with Gidget riding her boyfriend Moondoggie’s shoulders and breathlessly maintaining that “You just can’t imagine the thrill of shooting the curl — it positively surpasses every living emotion I’ve ever had!” Within months of the first movie’s release, formerly pristine waves were teeming with surfers both accomplished and amateur, and a craze was born.

What was being sold to the public was a mentality that flew in the face of hidebound, conformist ’50s America, and one of the most fascinating things about the collection Rarick has assembled is the evolution of the idea of a surf lifestyle. You see it in the Moana Hotel unisex bathing costume from the ’20s. You see it in the small black lava sculpture of a surfer with the words “Makaha 1946” etched on the bottom, and in the famous 1957 photograph taken on the first day the waves of Waimea were ever surfed, a few tiny figures lost in an awesome oceanic backdrop. You see it in the transfixed gaze of a Hawaiian maiden staring out at you from a ’60s United Airlines poster, and in the Oscar-like statuette presented to Jimmy Blears when he won the 1972 Duke Kahanamoku Classic. You see it in the posters for such forgotten films as “Stormy Riders” and “Tubular Swells.”But the inescapable conclusion here is that something has been irretrievably lost even as something else has been gained. The bohemianism of surfing’s youth — the generosity and simplicity of the early days — came to an abrupt end when Hollywood discovered the sport. In its place we got surf contest promoters, corporate sponsorship and a circuit in which surfers can earn a hundred grand a year or more. This is nothing new, of course. In a way, the history of the 20th century is the story of commonplace, apparently harmless activities being turned into big-money, competitive events.Still, surfing is different, if only because its continuing popularity depends on its roots in rebellion and the myth of the Endless Summer. It’s the lifestyle’s seductiveness that makes surfing collectibles valuable, and why Saturday’s objects are being bid on by collectors from as far away as Japan and Brazil (thanks to the Web site, www.hawaiisurfauction.com, which accepts electronic bids). A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association Junior Guard program.

“You get these executive guys who will drop $10,000 to put a surfboard on the wall in their office, especially the old wood boards, which are considered art now,” said Rarick as we entered his garage, the vintage boards’ not-so-illustrious temporary home. “It involves vicariously being able to capture a little bit of the lifestyle even though you may not have ever surfed. It’s amazing what people will pay for some of this stuff. And yet, to them, it’s worth it. I mean, I see people pay tons of money for abstract art all the time, and I have to just shake my head and say, ‘oooo-kkk.’ ”

But, of course, these planks of redwood and balsa, and later fiberglass and polyurethane, are abstract art, albeit art with rather restrictive connotations. And like the memorabilia, the surfboards, the dazzling centerpieces of the auction, ought to be of interest to collectors and armchair historians of Hawaiiana alike.

The public is invited to view the boards tomorrow evening and early Saturday, a collection that includes a redwood monster from 1895 found during the razing of a house on Sunset Beach, as well as a mottled, termite-damaged board from the ’20s that nevertheless inspired Rarick’s admiration as he ran his hand over its weathered surface.

“It’s a solid piece of cedar that was brought over from the mainland and shaped by hand on the beach in Waikiki in 1925,” he said. Auspicious beginnings led to ignoble ends as the board sat under a tree in Manoa Valley for 70 years before making its way to the auction block.

“Then in the 1930s they began to laminate the redwood,” he continued, pulling out an unrestored 11-foot beauty that’s expected to fetch $5,000 to $7,000 during Saturday’s sale. Another board from the period, a combination of redwood and balsa, is in near-mint condition and should go for twice that amount, especially given the ominous logo burned into its surface — a swastika.”It’s from the early ’30s before Hitler came to power,” said Rarick of this relatively lightweight board made by Pacific System Homes, a California construction company. “They already had the materials and tools, and it was during the Depression; so to keep people working they made surfboards.” And if you’re wondering, they discontinued
the swastika after the Fuhrer’s rise, bringing to an abrupt close the brief era of Third Reich surfing.

“Then came the introduction of foam in the ’50s, and that changed the whole nature of the sport,” he said, moving onto some more recognizable boards. “Foam was easier to shape, it was lighter, it was more pliable, and the lightness brought it to the masses.” It sounds like a description of Gidget, who worked in tandem with polyurethane to democratize the sport forever. And there’s one more ally responsible for surfing’s popularity whom we dare not forget to mention, Duke Kahanamoku, whose last board, a 1967 number, will be auctioned off, still sporting its original wax. (“It’s probably the ugliest board,” said Rarick, “but because it’s Duke’s it’s totally unrestored.”)But true collectors won’t mind. In fact, the more weather-beaten a board is, the more it evokes a bygone era and with it an ancient, nearly-extinct state of mind. “They’re trying to buy and absorb a life by acquiring this stuff,” said Rarick as he gazed at the multicolored boards surrounding him on all sides. “They didn’t ride the big waves and didn’t get a chance to surf in Hawaii, but by buying a little piece of history, they can own a little piece of the lifestyle. That’s really what’s going on.”

Going once…

Hawaiian Islands Vintage Surf Auction:

When: 4 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday (silent auction); 7 to 10 p.m. (main auction). A public preview will held 4 to 9 p.m. tomorrow and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Neal Blaisdell Center Galleria, Pikake Room, 777 Ward Ave.
Cost: Admission is free, but bidders will be required to purchase a bidding number
Call: 941-9754 or visit www.hawaiisurfauction.com