"MYSTERY OF THE SURF SPHINX"
By Paul Young 9/9/1999
LONG BEACH PRESS-TELEGRAM
LONG BEACH, CA.
Legend has it there once was a sphinx who cast a spell over the sea, bringing in the surf with force and perfection. For nearly 50 years, the plaster icon sat atop a home in Seal Beach, where it pulled breaking monsters from the ocean and made men fall in love with that rolling abyss of power and beauty.
If you listen closely, legend says, the whisper of the sea will spin tales of waves and parties and friendships. That sphinx house became ground zero for surfing in Orange County, says Tim Dorsey, former chief of the Seal Beach lifeguards and a surfer who grew up near the house at 1303 Seal Way.
If you wanted to know about surfing or get a little history about surfing, youd go to that house, he says. It s interesting because everybody had this idea that it was South County or Huntington Beach, but it really all started in Seal Beach. During the 40s and 50s, there were beach boys who rode the waves out in front of the house almost every day. They liked the way the churning sea surged around them and the way it felt to slip across the face of a peeling wave. They rode pillows sewn together and filled with air, later discovering balsa surfboards and the art of stand-up surfing.
One night, as the beach boys intoxicated themselves with green death, they decided to do something to make the waves bigger and better. They would capture a sphinx --- a mythical figure with the body of a lion and the head and breasts of a woman as their personal surf god. They would place it on the roof of the home of surf guru Blackie August to bring the life-empowering waves.
Surf legend Jack Haley, now 59 and dying of cancer (has past away), recalls that their quest began around 2 a.m. He says that a group of surfers headed to a hotel on Ocean Boulevard at Alamitos Avenue in Long Beach to bring the wave-creating idol to Seal Beach. (Others say it came from Santa Monica or Venice. The mystery lives on.)
According to Haley, the sphinx sat overlooking the ocean from its perch on the Villa Riviera Hotel, where it watched perfect waves break near where the Queen Mary now rests. When the surfers arrived, the guard was sleeping. They sneaked on their hands and knees to the stairwell and made their way to the top. When they got to the roof, says Haley, these surfers climbed onto the ledge where the magical sphinx was sitting. Using brute force and about 10 men, they lifted the heavy structure from its place, carried it down the stairs, past the sleeping guard, and into their car.
Skeptics may note that the Villas figures looming gargoyles are of concrete, not plaster, and are medieval in design. But why spoil a good story? By 4 a.m., says Haley, the surfers were back in Seal Beach, building scaffolding and putting up ladders to load the sphinx onto the roof. Later that day, Lloyd Murray, one of the first surfers in Seal Beach, came down to the beach to help consecrate the sphinx.
I remember standing out there with a bed sheet over me, praying to the Kahuna, he says. There were a bunch of us out there, and we got some green death, or whatever we were drinking, and we poured wine on a surfboard and we were going to light it on fire and get four virgins to take it out, but we couldnt find four virgins. So we got a couple of little girls to take it down for us. Later that day, waves came. And there the sphinx stayed for nearly 50 years.
NIGHTS OF WINE
Surfers everywhere were drawn by its power. They wanted to feel the surge of magic, lining up with the sphinx to get the perfect, peaky waves that broke there. Every night in Blackies garage would be Bruce Brown, who made the surfing movie, The Endless Summer and his fellow surfers and filmmaker, John Severson. After surfing 13th Street all day, surfers would pay 25 cents to see their films. They would hang out and drink wine and eat Pat Augusts unbelievably tasty food and listen to Blackies stories. The next day, theyd do it all over again.
I surfed so much and I was so skinny that they sent a note home from school to ask if I was eating enough, says surf legend Robert August, who grew up in the house. His mother was insulted after all those great meals shed cooked for him. People were free to surf as much as they wanted, when they wanted. And Pat and Blackie August encouraged it, always ready with a peanut butter sandwich or a hot drink.
When they worked as lifeguards, there was no tower at 13th Street and theyd have to sit on the beach with a can and a blanket and be cold, Haley says. Pat would come out with a sandwich and give it to you. Or shed invite you into her home to go to the bathroom. What people they were--- they just had generosity. Full aloha spirit, just 100 percent.
We had no Disneyland, says Dorsey. We didnt have any cars. Our playground was the ocean. Blackie introduced us to that playground. Surfers didnt fight over waves back then. They shared bonfires and wine to stay warm after surfing in winter and always pulled over on the side of the road if they saw another surfer driving in the opposite direction.
Tim Dorsey Robert August
They also threw outrageous parties. Like the one where they feasted on El Supremo, which some say was the biggest lobster to walk the face of the earth. One night, a group of surfers got into the sport fishing building at the end of Seal Beach Pier, dove into El Supremos tank, grabbed him and brought him over to the sphinx house.
Haley came knocking on the door dripping wet, with this thing flipping all around, August recalls. So Blackie and Pat got up and cooked it for everybody in the middle of the night. El Supremo was so large, however, that his meat wasnt very tasty, August says. It was too tough. There was also a barbecue every summer, where the Grenache rose flowed like a river and the best surfer of the year painted the sphinxs nipples red. There was a red can of paint and a small brush in the garage just for that party. The tradition lasted some 15 years.
When the neighbors got offended, Blackie bought the sphinx a training bra. To maintain it, he would climb onto the roof and restucco the sphinxs green body with care, so as not to displease it. It is said that when he sold the house, the house would be purchased but the sphinx couldnt be taken down, Haley says. Even though it was crumbling and weathered, the sphinx had to stay. But as it deteriorated, so did the spirit of surfing.
CROWDS AND PARKING
The lifeguards situation was almost military, August says. There were way too many rules, and you were in horrible fear of the parking people. Crowds began to form. People began to fight over waves. And surfing was turned into a major industry. Eventually, the freedom and youth of those days passed into a mystic past, like the sphinx. No more lighting fires on the beach to warm up, or sleeping in the sand, or drinking wine until sunrise. When the house was torn down, the sphinx was thrown into a dumpster. A passerby picked it up and supposedly brought it back to Long Beach where its said to sit in a garage somewhere. Times had changed.
"I miss the freedom" says Haley. There are too many restrictions now. We grew up in the best of times, and I miss the fact of the freedom of going out and the fact that everybody was pals.
Jack Haley a surfer, lifeguard, surfboard builder, and restaurant owner of Captain Jack's, and won the 1959 US Surfing Championship in Huntington Beach, CA