SONNY VARDEMAN'S STORY
By Thomas Takao
Just before getting out of the water after a late afternoon surf session, I was navigating my board between the surging rush of white water at high tide across the rocks at the Huntington Beach Cliff. I made my way pass the boulders and up the path to the parking lot.
Thinking about some of the waves that I rode and the small gravel shaped rocks that I happened to step on before reaching my car. After rinsing off and putting my wetsuit in a plastic container, I was recalling my lunch meeting with Sonny Vardeman this day.
For those who do not know Sonny, he was a surfboard shaper and glasser in the 1950’s and 60’s. He also was a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Lifeguards now retired. We arranged to meet at Greg Martz’s shop in Santa Ana. I was there a few minutes earlier looking at the finished boards at the Watersman Guild when Sonny walks in. I introduced myself and we began a friendly conversation. It was around noon and Sonny mentioned there was a café close by and to go have lunch.
So a few minutes later we sat ourselves at a table that was located near the counter of the cafe. The sound of dishes being placed behind the counter could be heard. Besides surfboard building and being a lifeguard, Sonny at one time was considering going into the surf clothing business. He came close to taking off on that wave, but circumstances beyond his control altered his outlook and desire to go there.
The waitress poured us some coffee and would be back to take our orders. I asked about Hermosa Beach and Sonny started by saying 1937. That was the year his parent moved to Hermosa Beach and where he was born. His childhood days were spent playing around with friends and walking to the beach which was couple streets down from his house.
The Hermosa Beach Pier was the center of activity in Hermosa Beach and Sonny would go there to check out a book or two from the library which was at the south side of the entrance to the Pier. Many a day Sonny and his friends would be on the Pier and watch the surfers with their big surfboards riding the waves next to the Pier. Sonny started surfing in 1948 on a plywood hollow surfboard called a kook box, that was built by Al Holland.
During 1950 at the age of 13 Sonny was in a surf club called the Hermosa Seals Surf Club. Their surfboards of choice then were balsa surfboards shaped by Dale Velzy. The member were Charley Davis, Mike Bright, John Rhind, Bill Bryson, Chip Post, Steve Voorhees, Jeff White, Sonny Vardeman, and Jimmer Lindsay.
The club became well known within the community and the Daily Breeze Newspaper decided to do a story on them. The reporter / photographers whose identity has been forgotten over the years got the boys to line up on the North side of the pier and took their picture. After their picture was taken the club members became celebrities at their school. Summers came and went and it wasn’t long before Sonny was a freshman at Mira Costa High School.
There were many well-known surfers and board builder that went to Mira Costa High School and Sonny and Mike Bright were one of them. During Easter break in the early 1950’s Sonny and Mike along with “Ole Ming” went on a surf trip. Ole Ming was older and the one who did the driving on the trip. They went to Trestles and caught it at a perfect 8 ft. with it being sunny and glassy all day.
“You had to sneak by the Marines in those days” said Sonny adding it was sometime more fun than surfing. They were out in the water all day, except for having a lunch break when the marines were gone. They sat on a big old trunk of a Sycamore tree that got dislodged from it’s roots and happened to be placed at the creek’s end and the beach’s beginning. Mike and Sonny forgot to bring a lunch on this trip, but Ole Ming knew better and pulled from his backpack a couple cans of pork and beans and made the day.
After lunch they went back out for an afternoon session. By way of a path along San Mateo Creek they would return back to the car which was located in the bushes along Pacific Coast Highway. Driving through San Clemente, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, and the other beach cities they would return to Hermosa Beach some couple of hours later.
The waitress came with our sandwiches as Sonny continued on with his story. We talked about the early beginnings of surfwear, T-shirts, floral shirts and trunks in particular. Sonny remembered John Bernard who was a couple of years younger than himself who also went to Mira Costa High School. His father was the manager of the JC Penney’s store on Pier Ave and Hermosa Ave in Hermosa Beach. John was the stock boy who folded the T-shirts and helped out wherever needed.
Sonny and many of his other friends would go there and buy their T-shirts, dress shirts and pants. Occasionally he would see John there and at school and asked what was new. As fashion would have it the crew neck T shirt with its slight heavier weight were more appealing compared to the looser collar and lighter weight T-shirts that were available. The Penney crew neck T-shirt were very popular and the number one choice among the surfers in the South Bay.
There was this guy named Richard Meyers, Sonny recalled who started silk screening T-shirts for local surf shops. By placing their logos on the back and a smaller one in the front, the shop owners were all for it. He would make T-shirts for Hap and Velzy, then later for Weber, Sonny and others surfboard builders. His main source of crew neck T-shirts were from the Penney’s store where John worked. How insignificant it seemed back then, but the beginning of surf shop T-shirts can be traced back to those days of the mid 1950’s.
Meanwhile, Sonny took his first trip to the Islands in October of 1955. Dave Rocklin who was a lifeguard in Santa Monica got Sonny and the bunch of other guys a package deal from an airline out of Burbank Airport. When they took their boards to the airport the ground crews didn’t know what to do with their surfboards. So Sonny and a couple of other guys got into the cargo bay of the prop passenger plane and loaded their boards by staggering the boards by placing the fin of one board with the nose of the other and utilizing the space better.
Sonny would go with Steve Voorhees, Bing Copeland, Mike Bright, Rick Stoner and George Kepo'o. George would stay with his family while Sonny and the others would rent a place out by Makaha Point. They would surf Makaha that fall and winter and make trips out to the North Shore. While living at Makaha the guys chipped in and bought a 1937 Plymouth sedan.
Mike Bright, Bing Copeland, John McFarlane and Sonny
One day they drove around Kaena Point to get to the North Shore by following the tank tracks in the dirt road that went along the side of the mountain. They reached Kaena Point where they stopped for a surf check, they stood and watched the big surf breaking.
Someone mentioned going out. The others looked at each other and the whitewater smashing on the rocks below them. Mike said, if you lose your board once, all that’s left is a whole lot of balsa tooth picks. It wasn’t long before everyone was back in the 37’ Plymouth and making their way around the Point. Not knowing the road conditions further up ahead, they continued on the way. Before fully realizing their predicament, one side of the road became a cliff as the road became narrower.
At one point making a turn around a corner, one of the wheels hung over the side of the cliff while making the turn. Steve Voorhees kept his eye on the road while Mike looked down at the rocks which was 40 to 50 feet below them. Nervously they all shifted their weight to the mountainside as the Plymouth slowly rounded the corner.
The dirt road turned in asphalt as they made their way to the North Shore and passing Dillingham airstrip, Mokuliea and Waialua. Around the traffic circle and into the town of Haleiwa. Whenever they drove over a puddle of water, on purpose or not, the hole in the rear floorboard acted like a blowhole and the muddy water would splash the guys inside.
L-R Rick Stoner, Mike Bright, Bing Copeland and Sonny Vardeman on roof
Passing all the spots that one day would become popular; they arrived at Sunset Beach in one piece. To capture the achievement of getting there a picture was taken and then they all went surfing. On the returned trip, they took the long way home through Wahiawa down Kamehameha Hwy to Farrington Hwy. They would stop frequently at every gas station along the way to re-supply the car with reused motor oil. In 1956 Steve Voorhees and Sonny joined the Navy at Pearl Harbor. Sonny was on a light cruiser that was home ported in Long Beach. Bing Copeland and Rick Stoner went into the Coast Guard.
Mike Birght would move into town, where he would train with Tommy Zahn and Joe Quigg in building his stamina for paddle boarding. In 1958 Sonny would return to Hermosa Beach and in his parent’s two-car garage Sonny started glassing some surfboards. Bing and Rick who had just returned from New Zealand, got together with Sonny and Mike and started shaping some boards and had Mike and Sonny do the glassing.
“It was a bad scene, we had sawhorses lined up and down the alley and my dad was getting mad as hell” said Sonny taking a sip from his coffee. “He finally kicked us out saying “You guys are running a commercial enterprise down here. If you're going to be in business, find yourselves a shop." Looking around I wave to the waitress and she comes over and refills our cups of coffee.
Sonny continued saying “This is how Bing and Rick's shop on the Strand evolved and how they became partners. The board building was a side business for Sonny, Rick and Bing at first. Sonny and Rick had jobs being lifeguards for the County and Bing with the Postal Service.
Another friend of Sonny is Greg Noll, in 1956 while they were away in the service. Greg had opened a shop on Pacific Coast Highway in Manhattan Beach. After a year or so he moved his shop to Hermosa Beach on Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway. Greg would go on to become known as one of the world’s best big wave riders of the 1960’s.
But before then Greg was making surf films. In one of those films made in 1959 Sonny and Rick Stoner were in it. They had bought a 1940 Ford with a small trailer for the trip across the border. Before going down to Mexico, they had talked about it and agreed to meet up. The plans were made and they would meet with Greg and Beverly at Mazatlan. From there they would travel down to San Blas. With $300.00 to pay for expenses, they spent the next 3 months traveling around in search of surf in Mexico.
They took the mainland route to Mazatlan. One of the surf spots that they surfed named Cannon's Point for the cannon located at the point. Rennie Yater and a couple of his friends were there. Gary Severs and Bing Copeland were also out.
Bing who had returned with Rick Stoner earlier in the year from New Zealand would meet up with his friends there. Some of the filming was done by Beverly, when Greg was in the water. In one part of the movie they were in a hillside stream toasting the moment. With refreshment in hand, Sonny and the others were cooling off from the hot noonday sun. “Back then it was truly a grind looking for surf. Sometime we would go for days without finding surf” said Sonny. All of Greg’s movies were called ‘Search for Surf’. They would explore the different beaches along the way to San Blas.
Giving them names, one such location was Peechichini Point. In the film Sonny is in front of Rick whose arms are pointing upwards. In another sequence Greg is in front of Sonny. Two good friends climbing and dropping on the same wave, making remarks to each other that only they could hear. As the sun sets to the West, the scene slowly fades from that day.
They were in their early 20’s and a new day awaited them all. None of them would have thought a whole new decade would bring surfing to a new level. They would be part of the “Surf Rush” that swept across the both coast of the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Peru, and the other countries of South America, South Africa and Europe.
Back from their trip Sonny and Mike Bright started a glassing shop called Surf Fiberglass. They did glassing for most of the surfboard makers, including Greg, Dewey Weber, Bing and Rick and Hap Jacobs. They were one of the first to commercially glass surfboards and by doing so, had to learn and create short cuts to meet the demand.
Redondo Beach Breakwall- Winter 1959
featured in first edition of Surfer Magazine and John Severson's film "Surfari."
During the winter of 1959 the Redondo Breakwater was breaking with the face of the waves in the 12 to 15 feet neighborhood. John Severson was shooting some film for his movie Surf Safari. Sonny was out that day with Tom Sweeny, Billy Kercanson and a couple of other guys. They would walk along the break wall path to the bend in the Breakwater. Once there they would wait for a lull in the waves. Then make their way down the boulders quickly towards a designated rock that they would jump from and into the water.
Everyone would paddle fast before the next set of waves started popping up on the horizon. Once out, they would sit at the takeoff spot waiting for the right wave to takeoff on. On this day you had to catch the right one, because if you made the drop the waves were mostly a wall. Then going in on a prone position or swimming, the process of paddling back out was the same. Walking back up to the Breakwall and doing the paddleout merry go round.
Sonny and the other were caught on film by John and became part of the movie. After the surf session Sonny went back up the hill to the Surf Fiberglass shop. The shop was located near Prospect Ave and 180th St. John Severson would show his film in pack school auditoriums in the South Bay and for some lucky locals at Blackie August’s garage in Seal Beach for a quarter.
In the early 1960’s, Sonny and Mike would close the glassing company. Mike would go on and work for Bing and Rick, while Sonny got married and moved to Orange County. He would start his own surfboard and surf shop called Vardeman Surfboards. The first shop was located in Whittier, where Bing had a second shop. Sonny bought the shop from Bing.
Team riders Tom Lenardo, Herbie Flescher and Jackie Baxter
But Sonny wouldn’t stay long at that location. He would move down to Huntington Beach
In 1962 Sonny opened his new shop in Huntington Beach, which was located near 3rd St. on Pacific Coast Highway across from the Pier. Sonny sold surfboards by Bing, Dewey Weber and his own. Sonny remembers “Those boards had layers of 10 oz. cloth top and bottom and that the wooden fin must have weighed 6 to 8 pounds by themselves”.
“There was this one guy who had a woodshop and was making all kinds of wooden fins for everyone. You have to consider just one of his accounts was making 300 boards a week. That was a lot of fins! ” said Sonny while taking a sip from his coffee.
In general Sonny mentioned “There was a lot of money lost in the surfboard industry back then during the early 1960’s. Mostly due to the labor-intensive nature of board building, competition, mismanagement, and the surf team craze. There was a competition frenzy, surfboard makers advertising their surfboards and surf teams.
The surf magazines were increasing their revenues as each shop tried to out do the other. This time period was the birth of the surf industry. The East Coast busted wide open with Hobie, Weber and others doing promotions, which cause the phones to ring off the hook for many of the South Bay surfboard builders. Vardeman Surfboards had a few accounts on the East Coast and one of them was Al’s Surf Shop of Virginia Beach. Al Snebling was the owner and was ordering Vardeman Surfboards besides East Side Surfboards and other manufacturers.
Sonny was doing some of the shaping, but Bruce Jones and Randy Lewis were shaping for him while Greg Martz was doing the glassing. They were sending boards over to the East Coast, not as many as the other guys but 20 to 30 a week was considered a few. Some of them were the newer V-bottoms designs that were popular on the West Coast. One of the East Coast team riders for Vardeman Surfboards was Jimbo Brothers who was getting his boards at Al Surf shop.
Allen White 1980's
Another hot young surfer who would become a well-known shaper on the East Coast was Allen White. Allen traded in his 8’6” Hobie Surfboard that he had since 1963 for an East Side surfboard shaped by Bill Frieson and glassed by Ronnie Mellott. While waiting for his board to be done, Al let Allen use a Vardeman Surfboard that use to belong to Jimbo Brothers.
Allen was stoked using the board and never forgot Al’s good gesture. Allen would surf the Vardeman Surfboard at Virginia Beach Pier and impress a few locals on it. After getting his East Side board Allen would take second place in the Junior division at the Hatteras Surf & Baha Festival in 1968.
The East Coast shops started making their own and the orders for new boards dropped out for the West Coast builders. Meanwhile Sonny was going through a divorce and decided to work full time as a LA County Lifeguard.
Sonny explained how lifeguarding came about, going back some years when the people of the inland areas of Los Angeles were flocking to the beach in large numbers. With that increase there were more people drowning.
In 1936 the Mayor of Hermosa Beach went up to Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor and said we can’t handle your crowds and we want you to take the responsibility for them. The County Board said that they would do so.
With that agreement, the Los Angeles County Lifeguard was formed. The lifeguards in the beach cities of Los Angeles County now had more personnel, equipment and vehicles. Through the years boats were added and each boat was named Bay Watch and the beach city where they were located.
Speaking of the Bay Watch the television series, Sonny said it was through a business minded lifeguard that the show came about. There was a lifeguard with a Hollywood connection; Greg Bonehand had a sister who was married to a guy named Schuwatz who was related to Grant Tinker the movie producer. Tinker’s studio had produced Gilligan’s Island and was looking for some new ideas for a series. Greg’s sister mention that she would like to create a Lifeguard show and to make a long story short, they bought the idea and made a deal with LA County and paid for the use of the beach.
Sonny was the technical supervisor during the first two years of the series and oversaw the procedures and protocol that the actors were conveying. The studios did have an artistic license that added to the scene, that wasn’t part of the County’s usual lifeguard procedures. It was a very successful series that lasted for 9 years. In 1969 Sonny opened a surf shop on Hermosa Avenue in between 1st and 2nd St.. His salesman was Jeff Fischer who was one of the top surfers in the South Bay.
In the back of Sonny mind he wanted to make Hawaiian style MD corduroy shorts with pockets and he told Jeff of his idea. Jeff said his sister sews and Sonny asked Jeff to have his sister stop by. Pam stopped by and Sonny could tell she was the person for the job, so he hired her. They set up shop and it got busy, so busy that Sonny had to hire another girl. By this time Sonny was going up to the Mart in downtown LA and buying bolts of corduroy and miscellaneous items like buttons, zippers, and threads. Things were going quite well until Pam and her husband Tom Eberly decided to move to Hawaii. Sonny couldn’t find someone to replace Pam, so the garment section of the shop closed.
That fall Sonny had saved some money and went up to Dive an Surf and purchased a lot of wetsuits for the Christmas season. Wetsuits were selling like hotcakes and he was looking forward to selling them. While skiing during the Holiday Season Sonny got a phone call and was told that someone or persons broke into the shop by way of the ventilation shaft on the roof. They stole all the wetsuits in the shop. This was too much for Sonny, experiencing a gut wrenching lost just before Chirstmas, he closed the shop.
It would be 10 years after before he would start making boards in his garage again. It was the mid 1980’s and a longboard revival was under way. Greg Martz of Watersman Guild calls Sonny and says “Hey man get down here and shape some boards, the old boards are happening again.” Sonny did just that and started making Vardeman Surfboards again.
Sonny would retired from the LA County Lifeguards in 1993. He was still shaping a few boards in the early years of the 2000’s and taking it easy and doing some traveling to different locations in search of surf. Sonny was one nicest guys you will ever want to meet and a good friend to those who know him.