‘Trials by Water and Fire’

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The Santa Monica Paddleboard Club. Photo courtesy of Powell Press Service. 1936-02-19.

by Pablo Capra

Part of a series on overlooked Malibu history

For this article, I’ve combined two stories involving the ocean, and one about a fire, that would have been too short on their own, but are too fun to be left out.

The first story is about an early surfing rivalry.

In the 1930s, surfers won their trophies in paddleboard races. Lifeguard Preston “Pete” Peterson (1913-1983), of Santa Monica’s Del Mar Surfing Club, rose to the top after winning the Pacific Coast Paddleboard Championships and paddling in the first Catalina Island crossing in 1932. 

On June 28, 1936, “paddle artists” and “water-dogs” competed in the first Catalina race, a relay won by new stars the Palos Verdes Surfing Club and their unorthodox knee paddling. 

The Del Mar Club didn’t participate, but Peterson reasserted his dominance on July 19, 1936, in a West Coast Paddleboard Association race from Topanga Beach to the Venice Amusement Pier. Swimsuit model Virginia Roide started the race, organized by Harvey Walters, Venice’s publicity director, who used clickbait tactics to get “Venice in everything everywhere.”

“He has conceived many ‘stunts’ such as beauty parades, pet parades, and use of freak bathing apparatus, all conducted for the pictures that may be obtained from them.”

(Evening Vanguard, April 6, 1934)

Peterson and teammate Lorrin “Whitey” Harrison (1913-1993), later a pioneer of Oahu’s North Shore, outpaced about 15 “husky natators” to win. Third and fourth went to the PV Club’s 18-year-old sensation Calvin “Tulie” Clark (1917-2010) and teammate Jim Reynolds. On the pier, Peterson was awarded a paddleboard donated by the Thomas Rogers company of Tom Blake, a key figure in bringing surfing from Hawaii and the first person to surf the Malibu Point. A performance by the Los Angeles Society of Magicians and a dance contest followed.

Peterson dominated again in the Pacific Coast Paddleboard Championships in Santa Monica on Sept. 12, 1936, but Clark and Reynolds were close behind, and Clark stole the show.

“Highlight of the meet, however, was provided by Cal Clark, Palos Verdes Surfing club, in an unscheduled free-boarding exhibition. Clark was towed standing up on his paddleboard, completely around the breakwater….”

(Santa Monica Outlook, Sept. 14, 1936)

On May 24, 1937, Clark and teammate Lewis “Hoppy” Swarts (1916-1988), later the first president of the United States Surfing Association, showed what they were capable of in a WCPA race from Topanga Beach to the Santa Monica Pier, beating 30 competitors … but Peterson was absent. Trophies were awarded at the nearby Deauville Beach Club by Major Frank Povah (1878-1948), an English veteran and formerly Thomas Edison’s chief test engineer. Major Povah’s sons Derek and Trevor belonged to the Santa Monica Paddleboard Club. His daughter Eileen created The Malibu Times with her husband Reeves Templeman in 1946.

The Del Mar Club struck back on June 27, 1937, beating the PV Club in the Catalina race.

But inevitably, on July 31, 1937, in a 1-mile race at the Pacific Coast Paddleboard Championships in Hermosa Beach, Clark beat Peterson, becoming the first person to do so. And then he did it two more times: in the 1-mile race and in the 2 1/2-mile relay at the Venice Aquatic Carnival on June 19, 1938. 

Peterson regained his throne on July 10, 1938, after winning the Pacific Coast Paddleboard Championships at San Onofre Beach, and supposedly never lost again, even though he competed until 1966.

Clark continued surfing into his 80s. He became a millionaire real estate developer, surprising friends like dentist John “Doc” Ball (1907-2001), the PV Club’s cofounder, who remembered:

“He was one of the guys … not poverty-stricken, but very down, financially, in his early days. Everybody used to get after me about him: ‘What are you doing—a doctor!—messing around with those bums?’”

(Malcolm Gault-Williams interview, Jan. 10, 1998)

My second story is about an aerial attack in the Santa Monica Bay.

On Nov. 7, 1938, a silver plane dropped “about 15 objects, believed to have been dummy bombs,” within 200 yards of the Scandia and another fishing boat, two miles off Topanga Beach. The plane was flying at about 2,000 feet, too high to read its markings. 

“We were scared stiff. The splashes went as high as a house,” a fisherman reported.

A couple months earlier, on Sept. 23, 1938, the Navy had dropped dummy bombs over Los Angeles Harbor during its parade of 424 battle planes. However, the Navy, the Army, and the Coast Guard all denied responsibility for the recent attack (and blamed each other). And the incredibly named Captain G. W. Boombs of the National Guard said, “We have no bombers or bombs.” 

The Scandia’s owner, Dick Hernage (1891-1952), was not on his boat when the bombs fell, but he had seen many other strange things during his 30 years of fishing in the bay. On Friday the 13th, April 1917, a giant octopus tried to sink his boat off the Malibu Point.

“As fast as a grasping tentacle was loosened by being lopped from the trunk, another writhed up to take its place, while the men’s efforts to disengage the launch from the clutches of the monster were much hampered by its grasp of their arms and bodies.”

(Santa Monica Outlook, April 14, 1917)

My final story is about a rescue from the Trippet Ranch Fire that broke out on Nov. 23, 1938. Driven by Santa Ana Winds, the fire destroyed 350 buildings between Las Flores and Mandeville canyons, and was the largest in LA County history. It remains the fifth most destructive fire behind 2018’s Woolsey fire.

The roads were full of Thanksgiving travelers who suddenly found their way blocked, like Rose, the mother of 15-year-old violinist Grisha Goluboff (1923-2002). Becoming frantic, Rose ran around the roadblock, to the Topanga Beach cabin where the famous child prodigy and his manager, Isidore Nobel (1893-1958), had been living since June. Grisha was practicing cadenzas in his underwear, oblivious to the smoke outside the cabin. Rose quickly evacuated him without taking his clothes or his three violins, which the fire spared.

One of his violins was a Stradivarius, gifted by Henry Ford, of the Ford Motor Co., after Adolf Hitler seized the Jewish boy’s Guarnerius in 1933 because it had belonged to a German nobleman. Sadly, Ford, also an anti-Semite, had been pressured into making his gift by the patriotic outrage, and would later take back his violin too.

Another of Grisha’s violins had been gifted by the UK’s Prince Arthur, the son of Queen Victoria.

Born in San Francisco, Grisha played his first concert at the age of 7 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Albert Einstein called him an “unexplained miracle.” After he died, his sister Gladys reflected on what made him special.

“It was amazing that so young a child showed so much self-discipline and passion for music …. He was simply what he was and accepted that role in life and practicing was not a ‘chore,’ it was his fulfillment .… He was a truly ‘pure’ spirit, never said anything negative about anyone. Sometimes I thought he was too good a person to be on this planet with the rest of us.”

(Dennis M. Weidner interview, 2002)

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Pablo Capra is the Archivist for the Topanga Historical Society and author of Topanga Beach: A History (2020). More at topangahistoricalsociety.org.