by Mark McDermott
One day in 1949, 13-year-old Bing Copeland was bodysurfing just down from his family’s house, which was at 9th and Highland, when he happened to look up towards the Manhattan Beach pier and behold something he’d never seen before. Men were standing atop boards, riding waves.
“Oh my god, look at that,” Copeland thought to himself.
He took a wander up the Manhattan Beach pier, so he could get a better look at what was going on. As he stood along the pier railing, his buddy Greg Noll, who worked as a bait boy selling to the fishermen on the pier, walked up and just stood beside him. The two boys just gaped at what was going on in the water below.
“Dale Velzy and some of the older guys, they were riding redwood balsa boards,” Copeland said. “Hundred-pound boards, and paddleboards. There were no modern surfboards then.”
Velzy was a well-known character who had acquired the nickname “Hawk” due to his knack for spotting coins in the sand. He was a gregarious, charismatic local waterman about seven years older than Copeland. Some days after the boys had witnessed him surfing, Velzy was working as a lifeguard at the station on the pier when he saw Copeland and Noll.
“Hey,” Velzy said. “I got a board down there on the beach if you boys want to try it.”
“So we went down there and there was this redwood balsa thing, just straight, you know, no rocker at all. It weighed heavy — I mean, we had to drag it through the sand together.”
They took turns paddling out, and at first, it seemed impossible. Copeland kept “pearling,” meaning the nose of the board was ducking under the water, plunging its alleged rider.
“Finally, I remember the first time I didn’t pearl and I stood up and kind of rode it straight off into the beach,” Copeland said “I went, ‘Oh man, this is for me. This is my sport from now on.’ That’s sort of how it started.”
That year, Velzy and his buddies formed the Manhattan Beach Surf Club underneath the pier, and Velzy started making boards there. At some point, however, city officials told him to stop, because the board shavings were scattering all over the beach, and so he walked up the beach and rented a little one-room shop. He called it Velzy Surfboards, and it would become known as the world’s very first surf shop.
But at exactly what point in time that surf shop opened has become a hotly debated topic of late. The South Bay Boardriders Club and resident Jacquelyn May have proposed a plaque at a location near where Velzy’s shop was once located, outside the present-day Strand House restaurant, and in March gained approval from the Manhattan Beach City Council.
The language of the proposed plaque reads, “Dale ‘Hawk’ Velzy opened the world’s first known surf shop on this site in 1950.’”
At the March 7 meeting, Gary McAulay, the former president of the Manhattan Beach Historical Society, questioned the accuracy of the claim.
“In the biography of Dale Velzy, titled Hawk, he said that he told the city inspector who visited his workshop that he was just shaping boards for some friends,” McAulay said. “So when did his workshop become the world’s first retail surf shop? Where’s the business license? Where’s the retail tax ID? Is there any documentation about exactly when this occurred? Velzy was drafted into the army in late 1950 and was gone for at least a year and a half. The first photo of the shop was taken in 1952. I’m all for celebrating history but we have some legends in town, such as Ercoles’ opening date, that just won’t die…We have Velzy’s claim and the legend that has grown up around it. I think it might be disputed. So please take care of exactly what we cast in bronze for another of Manhattan Beach’s historical plaques.”
Councilperson Steve Napolitano likened the matter to the competition among California cities claiming to be the first “surf city.”
“There are friendly rivalries in the surf world, I think, between Santa Cruz and Huntington [who] argue over which one is Surf City,” Napolitano said.
“It’s Hermosa,” interjected City Attorney Quinn Barrow.
“See?” Napolitano said. “And for that reason, I invite a friendly rivalry. Another city wants to claim that, bring it on. Let them show that history is on their side. I’m not afraid to put it out there and say ‘Hey, we’re going to claim the first until someone can prove otherwise,’ because it’s just a friendly thing. No one is hurt or negatively impacted by this.”
The plaque was unanimously approved that night, but on May 2, when a final rendering of the plaque was on the council’s consent calendar, the item was pulled. McAulay had done some research and submitted a letter that more substantively questioned the claim that Velzy’s surf shop was the world’s first.
“An old City business license register was found. Velzy does not appear in it,” McAulay wrote. “But, it shows that on Dec. 7, 1949, one James Sinicrope paid for his business license at 117 MB Blvd., where he owned a shoe repair store called Jimmie’s Shoeatorium. In other words, the shoe repair store that Velzy claimed to replace later was occupying the address in 1950. Velzy, age 22, was residing with his mother on Loma Drive in Hermosa Beach (US Census April 6 1950). He shaped boards in his mother’s garage, according to Holmes in Dale Velzy is Hawk. Less than five months later, in late August of 1950, Velzy received a draft notice. He was inducted into the Army and served briefly, having fallen off a truck, injuring his back. He was recovering in the hospital when his unit was deployed overseas. (Holmes). Velzy received a medical discharge sometime in 1951.”
“But,” McAulay wrote, “scratch 1950.”
He further argued that other commercial surfboard manufacturers were also in existence by this time which took orders out of their workshops.
“Nobody has come forward with any proof that, in Manhattan Beach, Velzy operated anything more than a workshop to make boards for friends and surfers that came to him,” McAulay wrote. “This was not a ‘surf shop’ as is commonly understood. Nobody has shown proof that Velzy ever licensed, advertised, or operated his MB workshop as a legitimate retail surf shop, or that he had a state resale number, as he claimed.”
McAulay said that the proof required would include a business license, photos, or advertisements of the story, as well as a verifiable date.
“Without some documenting proof, Velzy’s claim is empty bragging, a legend of conflicting stories relying on emotion and popular appeal,” he wrote. “It is an unsubstantiated myth. Whether such a debate is just harmless fun, a friendly rivalry, or not, this should not be cast in bronze and placed on the public right-of-way with the City’s endorsement. It is not history.”
The council agreed to pause. Napolitano asked City staff to further investigate the matter. “We have time to work through this issue,” he said.
Copeland, who now lives in Idaho, plans to attend the June 6 Council meeting, at which the matter will be revisited. He agrees that memories can be hazy, but he is very clear that Velzy’s surf shop was opened open by either 1950 or 1951. He said he knows this because he spent a lot of time in that shop during either his freshman or sophomore year of high school.
“I was there,” Copeland said. “I hung around that shop. I was his helper. He was kind of my mentor. You know, he acted like a second father to me. He would tell me stuff my real dad wouldn’t tell me about girls. And he was just a super guy and I just loved hanging around after school and on weekends. I even slept in the shop a couple of times, if you can believe that, in that tiny little building.”
Copeland, in fact, recalled almost getting arrested when he went to the shop to sleep one night.
“Velzy would let me crawl up the window on the Ocean Drive side, the alley side, and I could crawl through and sleep on the little bunk bed and then get up early and I’d be right there at the beach to get the waves, if the waves were any good,” Copeland said. “I was crawling into the shop one night at about 9:30 and a policeman pulls up. And I said, ‘Well, Velzy lets me do it’.
The policeman called the station, where someone called Velzy. Copeland could hear the whole conversation on the policeman’s radio. He was horrified when Velzy seemed to pause.
“He was going, ‘Well…..’ He was thinking, ‘Should I make him sleep in a jail cell all night?’ But finally, he said, ‘Aw, it’s alright. Let him go.’”
Paul Holmes, Velzy’s biographer, went through McAulay’s arguments point by point. He said that the fact there was a license for a shoe store in late ‘49 doesn’t mean there wasn’t a surf shop by that following summer, and argued that McAulay is misrepresenting Velzy’s short military career.
“He says Velzy at that time, in 1950, was residing with his mother on Loma Drive because the US Census says so,” Holmes said. “Well, that’s questionable. He was of no fixed abode at that time. He was sleeping on the beach, he was sleeping with his girlfriends, who knows? His mother’s house was where he went to pick up his mail, that’s for sure. That’s how later, in August or September that year, he went to pick up his mail and his mother said, ‘Hey, there’s a letter from Uncle Sam. Looks like you are being drafted.’ And so he was. But again, that doesn’t prove anything. You know,if he went off in the winter or the late fall of 1950, was inducted into the Army, and he was only there for a few months — that would have been in the winter months when there were no surfboards to be made.”
Copeland remembers Velzy was surprised he’d been drafted since he’d served in the Merchant Marine and thought that gave him an exemption. He also remembers that Velzy wasn’t gone long.
“He was gone for a couple of months, and then he injured himself falling off a truck or something and was in the hospital when his troop went over to the Korean War,” Copeland said. “And then there were guys coming back that were injured, too many to fit in the hospital, so they told him to get out. He got an honorable discharge and was back at the beach after several months.”
Copeland said that while he’s a bit uncertain about the exact year, he is absolutely certain that the very latest the surf shop was open was in 1951, which places it well ahead of any other surf shop. And he takes great issue at McAulay questioning if Velzy’s was truly a surf shop.
“It was the very first shop a guy could walk in and buy retail or order a surfboard,” he said. “McAulay said, ‘Well, he didn’t have a cash register or sell surf clothing like a real surf shop.’ This was the first surf shop; it didn’t have that stuff. He had nothing. He had his tools and he kept his money in his back pocket. It was real basic, but really a lot of fun and total education for me. And it’s the reason I ended up going into the surf business.”
Copeland is, of course, a legend in his own right. He founded Bing Surfboards in 1959, and his boards became among the most popular and iconic as surfing exploded into popularity in the 1960s.
Matt Warshaw, the author of The History of Surfing and The Encyclopedia of Surfing, said that it’s difficult for people to fathom today how tiny the surf business was in 1950. He noted that newspaper accounts in 1955, when Velzy’s shop had relocated to Venice, indicated he was making about 500 boards a year by then. He estimates that number was probably no more than 200 in 1950 and 1951.
“The point is that by doing 500 boards, Velzy was the absolute Macintosh Apple of doing stuff like that,” Warshaw said. “I didn’t look deep enough to find what [McAulay] is looking for, but gosh, the fact that Dale Velzy claimed Manhattan Beach as his home, that fact that the Manhattan Beach Surf Club had been under the Manhattan pier, the fact that he had a shop on that corner — I mean, I don’t get how you don’t run with it….It’s not a surf shop the way we think of surf shops. It’s just board-making, but it’s enough. It’s more than enough.”
Tom Horton, president of the South Bay Boardriders Club, submitted a letter to the council amplifying this same point.
“Since Velzy’s shop was the first ever, there was no ‘commonly understood’ surf shop in 1950,” Horton wrote. “Surf shops evolved over time as any original business model does. He pioneered an industry that is now $10 billion strong. Gary wants to see proof of advertisements, boards on display, a counter, signage on the storefront, to fit his idea of what a surf shop should look like. Who is Gary to determine what the first surf shop should have looked like in 1950? Why would a 22-year-old young Velzy, who was just ordered to stop shaping boards under the Manhattan Beach Pier, invest resources in advertising, signage, and extra boards on display when he had no need to, and probably had little resources to do it even if he wanted? Surfers sought him out through word of mouth, the best form of advertisement. Velzy mentored Bing Copeland, Hap Jacobs, Greg Noll, and others who went on to build their own surfboard shaping businesses and opened their own successful surf shops.”
The Boardriders Club have also enlisted the support of the California Surf Museum.
“History is history. First is first. The location of Velzy Surfboards is surf history in spades,” wrote Jane Schmauss, a historian at the Surf Museum. “The California Surf Museum wholly supports that a plaque signifying this special landmark be placed on the original site.”
The Boardriders intend to settle the matter once and for all at next Tuesday’s council meeting. They had hoped to have the plaque installed in time for the Catalina Classic paddleboard race, which ends at the Manhattan Beach pier in August. Along with Copeland, two other contemporaries of Velzy will testify, Roy Bream and Chip Post.
“We are going to go,” Copeland said, “and hit them with everything we’ve got.” ER