"Back Story"

by Steve Pezman
Photo by Fred Pompermayer

Topanga: Chumash for “where the mountains meet the sea”

A point break a few miles south of Malibu, Topanga works the other half of the year. Not good enough often enough to be a destination for long road trips, it can be hard to drive by it on the way to somewhere else when it’s working. There used to be a colony of rustic, weathered cottages lining the beach shoulder-to-shoulder from the creek outlet at the top of the point, toward Chart House Point at the south end. The closely bunched cottages constituted a wall that you had to be invited beyond, or sneak through, if you weren’t connected. If surfers were out they’d be residents or the friends of residents and occasionally you would note it being empty though good.

At its best, entire sections zipper, one after the other, demanding an unending speed trim. The rare wave made far down the beach from a point takeoff is notable, as usually it outpaces you eventually. Southerly and northwest swells miss or are blocked but on wests it is a stellar gem. The one downer: the rocky bottom is too sharp to put your foot onto, so instead, sans board, you do stomach-sucked-in skimming.

By the ’60s, the circa 1930s and 1940s cottages had become mostly rentals for fringe dwellers, dropouts, intellectuals, film industry hopefuls, a few UCLA students, and eccentric beach families. My friend Bob Beadle lived there in 1964 and 1965 while attending UCLA and I would drop by to surf on the way borne from a night job over the hills in the Valley. Hailing from the coast south of L.A. and normally one of those drive-by guys, I soon realized the wave’s potential. I also discovered that, in character with the surroundings, Bob’s roommates and neighbors constituted an outlandish mix, who were all surfing their way through an improvised stage of life.

There was ex-Marine turned writer/magazine founder-to-be, Bill Cleary, who along with erudite Professor David Stern (UCLA), was collaborating on the Surf Guide to Southern California, the first-ever surf guidebook. Stern later donated his extensive research for another scholarly, definitive, but never-published book entitled Notes for a Book on Surfing, 1963, to the Surfing Heritage Foundation. (He had become a rabbi by then, living on a kibbutz in Israel with his family.) Following the book project, Cleary teamed up with one-time lifeguard gone Makaha Skateboards impresario Larry Stevenson to found the brief but brilliant Surf Guide Magazine, introducing Playboy-style interviews and (in my opinion) what was, at that time, the most avanti cover in surf mag history.

The early issues were brainstormed at Topanga and some articles assigned to roomies (i.e. “Mexican Malibu” by George Van Noy). Eventually a satire-laced Surf Guide column by fellow resident Bob Feigel provided Surfer founder Severson with enough fuel to pressure Surf Guide into submission.

Neighbor Larry Krause became a recognizable figure when filmed walking past Grant Rohloff’s camera with board underarm wearing a swastika-emblazoned Nazi helmet (mind-you, just ten years after WWII). Grant, the only active surf filmmaker north of L.A. at the time, was also a Topanga guy. The Fitzpatricks resided in an actual family home on cottage row, with dad providing a vestige of oversight to the lot of them, including his precocious, skate-brat/surfer son Jimmy. Surf Punks guitarist Steve Dragon hung out. His brother Daryl and gal friend Toni would soon become recording celebrities, known as Captain and Tennille. This was, as you were often reminded, a Hollywood beach. Even Dora used his assumed entry privileges into everywhere, via Cleary at Topanga, to reap the waves there.

By the later ’60s, Topanga, like other beach towns, had turned a bit more radical. A life focused around surfing became a passive way to thumb your nose at all the surrounding conventions. Generations turned over at the beach too. The 50s, then the 60s and 70s cycled through their own casts, memberships filtered by the nature of the place. Then suddenly, it was over. The cottage leases were nulled by the State, the structures bulldozed, the beach opened to general public use, and a parking lot was installed. Topanga was restored to a scarred version of its former self: a canyon-stream outlet, a sandy crescent sweep, washed by waves that peeled right. But now you paid to park.


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