Wallace A. Wyss/Special to The Malibu Times
Most surfers look at a comrade riding a 5-foot wave and say “good wave.”
Jefferson Wagner looks and wonders what changes he needs to make to his latest surfboard design in order to allow a surfer to take a ride on that same wave better.
Wagner has gone by the moniker “Zuma Jay” since high school days when he would drive his VW bus over the hill from Agoura to the glistening curlers of the Malibu coast. Now he lives in a 4,300 sq. foot Scott Hailley-built house overlooking that same stretch of coast.
Born in Palm Springs in the 50s, back when air conditioning was a luxury, he appreciates the cool breezes of Malibu. He moved to Hidden Hills in 1960 with his parents and became an outstanding athlete in track, in the mile, the 2-mile and cross country, winning a varsity letter in each sport.
Wagner followed his high school career with a four year pre-law course at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, far from the nearest beach. He returned to Southern California and settled in Malibu after graduation, intent on law school.
He never became a lawyer. Instead he decided to start a business, deciding that law school would have to wait.
It’s still waiting.
Wagner had discovered that he could make a product that was in high demand: surfboards. On a shoestring, he set up a surf shop and began making boards while saving money by living in the back of his shop.
“In 1967, I came into the sport when wooden boards were dying out and foam boards were becoming popular, so my business became shaping quality foam boards.”
Eventually having a board by Zuma Jay was “the in thing” among surfers, like driving a woodie wagon, or wearing flip-flops. In ’78 he moved from his first shop, which had been nothing more than a tin hut at “Free Zuma,” to the location in mid-Malibu on Pacific Coast Highway that he has occupied to this day. He continued to innovate in the sport. One of the big revolutions in surfboard design was the switch from one fin to three fins.
“I find the three fins make a better ‘pivot spot,’ says Zuma Jay, the theory being that the three fins dig in better and allow the surfer to turn sharper.
He was already a board maker when the whole trend of painting pictures on boards with an airbrush came along.
“That’s gone away now,” he laments.
He still saves some of his early boards, the ones with unique materials such as a concourse balsa wood model so beautifully finished that it is one of only two he keeps at his hilltop house.
Ironically, Zuma Jay sells surfboards not only to cognoscenti, but to a few people who don’t surf but want to display them as a souvenir of Malibu.
“It costs $135 to ship one to Paris by air,” he says.
He knows the prices for shipping to several other world capitals, as it happens often enough. Surf shops around the world carry his boards, especially in Japan, where there dwells a pocket of Zuma Jay enthusiasts.
Does Zuma Jay still surf himself?
“My girlfriend and I hit the surf or boogie board every day if we can,” says Wagner. “My daughter, Ava, 8, is also a surfer and is into kayaking as well.”
In all his years of surfing, Zuma Jay has only had one injury. No–not being hit by a board. No–he never crashed into the rocks. It was a run-in with a cute little sea otter that he remembers.
“The sea otters were using our surfboards as handy platforms to break open shells,” he says. “I kept shooing one away and he got nasty and bit me in the gluteus maximus.”
Zuma Jay credits his daily surfing with the fact that he still weighs the same as when he started college.
“Surfing is as good an exercise as any other,” he says.
He does have one other sport, though–pick-up basketball. You can often find him over at the “Firestone Fieldhouse” trying to sink a J-hook from half-court to show the college lads how the “old-timers” do it.
He hasn’t had time to travel to surf in recent years, but waxes eloquent about his earlier days, when he and his buddies would take the old VW bus down the Baja coast to their secret beaches. Now, 30 years later, he can reveal their names–places like “Nine Palms,” “Shipwrecks” and “Zippers.”
“Everybody’s discovered them now,” he says with a chuckle.
He also surfed around the Pacific, including Fiji and Hawaii–both “dream” locations for a one-time “Val” surfer (“Val” is a surfer from the valley).
Unlike other surfboard makers, he hasn’t been tempted to go into clothing with a full line.
“I stock shirts and shorts with my logo,” he says, “and that’s about it. I run a ‘purist’ shop for real surfers.”
In fact, he once had two stores, but sold the other to concentrate on the one in Malibu, where he makes his home. Ironically, a British surf shop was so taken with the cachet of his name that they have licensed the use of the name “Zuma Jay” for their shop.
Today, Zuma Jay has a dozen employees in his shop, some from Malibu High and others are Pepperdiners.
With his hilltop home, with its de rigeur pool and tennis courts, overlooking the Pacific, it appears Zuma Jay has made it, but he still reports in at the shop seven days a week, and has taken only one vacation in the last seven years.
“I don’t really make money with the shop,” he says, “it breaks even.”
Zuma Jay has made his money from posing as model for a controversial product banned in many indoor establishments.
“Marlboro,” he says, “I was a Marlboro man for five years. That job bought that house.”
Asked about the contrasting figure of an environmentally conscious surfer and smoking, he smiles, and suddenly you see that familiar smile once reflected from a thousand billboards.
“If I didn’t do it, somebody else would have,” he says.
He has always been a non-smoker.
To help with living cost, Zuma Jay has another sideline of work.
“I’ve got a second job,” he says, pulling out a resume with a few film credits, more than 200 at last count.
A good many of the credits are as a stunt man–falling, jumping through windows, karate (he is a black belt) or driving in a way judged too daring for the principals. If that weren’t enough, there’s a job within a job in Hollywood–Zuma Jay is known as a man who can make things go bang.
“I’m a licensed pyrotechnic expert,” he says, describing the difference between a “Hollywood” explosion and a real one. The “Hollywood” one, he explains, is flashier, with lots of yellow and red for the camera.
Zuma Jay is sort of a celebrity in Malibu, though many who visit his surf shop don’t know his real name. His girlfriend, Candace Brown, a video editor who edits videos for rock groups and film-makers, laments that, whenever they get a chance to go out for a quiet dinner, he is inevitably recognized by local surfers who approach and want to talk surf.
“But it’s not all bad,” says Zuma Jay. “I’ve also gotten acting jobs from people I bumped into here and there in Malibu.”
Ironically, he doesn’t always recognize celebs himself. Brown tells the story of the time a New Jersey native came into the shop, explained that he was an east coast surfer, and asked about what kind of board was good for him. Zuma Jay took half an hour to discuss the man’s surfing style and board requirements and when the time came to buy, and the customer’s credit card hit the counter, Zuma Jay found out that he was talking to a world famous rock musician Bruce Springsteen.
“And I’m the guy who won a Grammy for ‘the best special effects’ in a rock video,” he jokes.