Hawaii Calls

Rabbit Kekai, Makaha
Waikiki Surf Club, early '50s
Northwest Airlines ad, 1956
Gary Cooper, Waikiki, 1952. Photo: Clarence Maki
Tarzan Smith, right, Waikiki

Malibu was a great surf break, but it was never the ultimate surfers’ destination. It wasn’t tropical, or exotic, or gut-testing. In short, it wasn’t Hawaii. Every surfer worthy of the name, Malibu diehards included, spent a lot of time either reliving or planning their big trip to the Islands.

So did a lot of other people, especially Americans. Politically and economically, Hawaii was now closer than ever to the Mainland. This relationship between the two was deepened immeasurably by the experience of World War II; Oahu remained America’s single-most militarized region, and thus the country’s greatest recipient of Pentagon largesse. Hawaiian sugar plantations shipped most of their nearly one-million tons of raw product a year to the mainland. Statehood had been in the cards for decades, and President Eisenhower signed the Hawaiian statehood bill in March of 1959, two months after doing the same for Alaska.

Tourism went through the roof. Commercial air travel between the West Coast and Honolulu had been outrageously expensive (a Pan Am Flying Clipper roundtrip ticket in 1940 would cost $9,000 in 2017 dollars), but it was now making a long, slow descent to affordability, and the beaches at Waikiki were filling up with vacationing white-collar workers and their families on ten-day package deals. The number of people visiting Honolulu increased ten-fold between 1947 and 1959, from 25,000 to nearly 250,000. Commercial beachfront development was Hawaii’s greatest boom industry, and gift shops clustered like pilot fish around the new multi-story resort hotels, pushing a mountain of surfer-motif items: miniature koa wood boards, copper-plated “Hawaiian Surfrider” statuettes, souvenir demitasse spoon sets with bas relief surfers on the handles. Diamond Head-framed “Aloha Hawaii” surfers were stamped or screened onto ashtrays, pennants, lighters, keychains, serving trays, and every other imaginable trinket.

Middle-class tourism brought forth a second generation of Waikiki beachboys, and a good portion of this new crew—stuck working the downmarket side of the beach where tipping wasn’t a noblesse oblige show of form—were ready to hustle. Leading a wide-eyed tourist to the water at Canoes with a buck-an-hour hollow board rental, the beachboy might surreptitiously pull the cork plug from the board’s nose, wait ten or fifteen minutes until the waterlogged board was dragged back up the beach, then charge the embarrassed visitor an extra two bits for losing the plug. If the out-of-towner owned his own equipment, a more predatory beachboy might wait for the board to wash in, snatch it off the beach, and have it up on sawhorses, partially reshaped, by the time the mark walked over to ask if anyone had seen his board float by.

These kinds of scams were a constant source of irritation to a lot of Waikiki boosters, including ukulele-strumming TV personality Arthur Godfrey. Godfrey was a frequent visitor to Hawaii, and had once flown old-school beachboy Chick Daniels all the way to New York to sing and play guitar on his show, Arthur Godfrey and his Friends. “Waikiki’s become a Coney Island with palm trees,” Godfrey complained to a newspaper reporter. “All you get on the beach are insults and insubordination.”

Rules were passed, and beachboys were supposed to be licensed and certified, but the ongoing tourist boom just amplified the hustle. By the 1960s, the Waikiki beach scene had devolved into a free-for-all. When seventy-seven-year-old Duke Kahanamoku, spiritual head of the beachboys since the 1920s, died of a heart attack in the parking lot of the Waikiki Yacht Club in 1968, beachboy culture itself was unofficially laid to rest.

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West Coast surfing champ Pete Peterson sailed to Hawaii for a long visit before World War II. So did Orange County surfers Whitey Harrison and Tarzan Smith. Tom Blake spent the better part of three decades living in Waikiki, starting in the mid-1920s. Honolulu was the first port of call for 17-year-old Merchant Marine Dale Velzy during the war, and he returned in 1951 to briefly open a small boardmaking operation. Joe Quigg, Tommy Zahn, and Matt Kivlin all came over in the late 1940s, and Mickey Dora’s 1954 Hawaiian holiday came to a premature end when he was arrested as a stowaway on a Honolulu-to-Hilo cruise ship, briefly jailed in Honolulu, fined $150, and sent home.

After World War II, more and more California surfers set out for Hawaii, usually arriving on a one-way ticket with nothing more than a duffel bag and a board. At the time, it was a given that a visiting surfer would stay in Waikiki, and that the trip would last for months, not weeks. The idea was to find cheap digs (a small rental house if there were three or four guys chipping in; otherwise a room, a flat, even just a garage), buy an old car, eat a lot of rice and canned beans to stretch the travel budget as far as possible, and then either head home broke or find temporary work of some kind in Honolulu. Pioneering big-wave surfer Walter Hoffman of Los Angeles shared a basement room two blocks off the beach with another surfer for $25 a month in the summer of 1951; by making and selling one surfboard a week for $90 they covered their monthly nut and had enough left over for a movie or two, and the occasional dinner out.

Relations between visiting and resident surfers were complicated, often strained, and occasionally violent. This tension went as far back as 1929, when Tom Blake used his new hollow “cigar board”—so fast compared to the solid boards in use at the time that it was cheating, according to the Hawaiians—to badly defeat the best local paddlers in flat-water races. Tarzan Smith from Los Angeles regularly scrapped with the local toughs, and one especially violent beating put him in the hospital for more than a week. Matt Kivlin was punched out on his first visit, as was Tommy Zahn, who nonetheless made another dozen or so trips to Hawaii. “It took me five or six years before I was finally accepted,” Zahn recalled. “And when it finally happened, I said to myself, ‘Was it even worth it?’”

Fights and flare-ups were usually triggered by something specific. Tarzan Smith, for example, a semi-thug to begin with, moved in on the beachboys’ prized oceanfront turf by renting boards and giving surf lessons to tourists. But there was also a riptide of cultural and class differences separating the two groups, beginning with the fact that the Hawaiians (a misnomer to some degree, as islanders had long been mixing with resident haoles, Filipinos, Chinese, and Japanese) were a dark-skinned underclass majority in their own home. Even the most easygoing, apolitical beachboy could see that the people on top—starting with Hawaii’s US-appointed governor and the vast island-wide network of oligarchical Big Five executives—were white and connected directly to the Mainland by birth, family, or education. Just like the visiting California surfers. Anti-white anger was unevenly distributed across the Islands, and usually kept in check. But it could ignite quickly, especially in places where the demarcation between tourists and residents wasn’t especially clear—a crowded lineup, say, or late Friday night at the corner bar. Acts of violence often seemed both spontaneous and predictable. “Once in while,” as a Hawaiian surfer wrote, “when I get a few good blasts of beer going, and some haole acts up—well, I just bust him a good one, and I feel a little better.”

Nevertheless, détente between local and Mainland surfers was the rule, and for every brown-on-white brawl there was an offsetting example of respect and affection. Rabbit Kekai, Waikiki’s hottest young surfer, got along well with nearly all the visiting Californians, traded boards with them, and led everyone into the lineup on big days at Publics and Castle Break. Hawaii locals George Downing, Wally Froiseth, and Russ Takaki crashed in a lot of guestrooms during their 1949 California surfari, and struck up friendships that in some cases lasted more than fifty years.

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The Waikiki Surf Club anchored the Hawaii surf scene for nearly a decade after the war. Founded in 1947 by a Long Beach-raised haole transplant named John Lind, the club was located about three hundred yards on the Diamond Head side of the Royal Hawaiian, and was attached to a popular beachfront restaurant-bar called Waikiki Tavern. The homely basement-level club wasn’t loaded with amenities, but it did have a row of board lockers, a shower, an aging termite-filled outrigger canoe, and a young Chinese-Hawaiian attendant to run errands, sweep the floors, and take out the garbage.

Unlike the venerable Outrigger Canoe Club, which had long since transformed itself from a hardcore surfers’ group to a brunch-serving society organization, the Waikiki Surf Club was casual in the extreme, with cheap dues, and damp trunks hung everywhere. It was a mixed-race organization, open to visiting surfers as well as residents. Over five hundred members signed up by the end of the Waikiki Surf Club’s first year. Lind and the other founding members would later organize surfing events and canoe races, but the club served primarily as a lounge area and meeting place. Proximity to the Waikiki Tavern was a main attraction; cash-strapped visiting surfers would often hand over a few coins to friends dining on the Tavern’s $1.25 all-you-can-eat buffet, loiter around outside, and wait for food to be passed over the verandah wall. (The buffet was also used by visiting surfers as a training ground for their occasional assaults on M’s Ranch House, home to the ultimate steak challenge: polish off a four-and-a-half pound sirloin with all the trimmings in an hour or less, and the meal was free. Pull up a few bites short, and it was a budget-busting $9.95. All but a half-dozen surfers failed. Winners and losers alike were often carried out doubled-over in pain. Big-wave powerhouse Buzzy Trent, in 1954, devoured his portion in a record-breaking twenty minutes and walked out smiling.)

The hottest surfing in Waikiki took place at Queen’s, a snappy little wave in front of the Waikiki Surf Club. In his late twenties just after the war (and a dedicated surfer since the age of five), Rabbit Kekai was the break’s nimble-footed ace. Atop his slender redwood hot curl board, Kekai trimmed high across the clean Waikiki peelers like Napoleon surveying the infantry, heels touching and hands cupped together at waist level, biceps flexed, back straight, hips forward, head slightly cocked—the very model of midcentury Hawaiian surfing style. Kekai sometimes hired on as a longshoreman, but for the most part he worked as a beachboy. Not long after the war, using a $100 stake earned in a craps game, he bought a fleet of brightly-painted hollow boards and propped them up around a beachfront banyan tree next to a  “Surfboards for Rent” sign. Friendly and talkative, Kekai was a favorite surf instructor among visiting Hollywood celebrities in the '50s, and he launched Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper, among others, into their first waves. Cooper so enjoyed Kekai’s company that he invited him out to an upscale night on the town; when Kekai admitted that he didn’t own a suit, Cooper found him a tailor and paid to have one made.

A few years later, when Paramount hired Kekai to work on Blue Hawaii, he got into a shouting match with Elvis Presley. “I could’ve handled him, no problem,” Kekai once said with a shrug. “But instead I went to the director and told him, Hey, I’m outta here.” And it was back down to Queen’s for an afternoon surf and an easy sawbuck or two on board rentals.

Rabbit Kekai rode Queen's like Napoleon surveying the infantry: heels touching, hands cupped together at waist level, back straight, hips forward, head slightly cocked—the very model of mid-century Hawaiian surfing style.