INTERVIEW BY SUSAN MELANIE BERRY, TERRI CRAFT, C.R. STECYK III AND SCOTT STARR
INTRODUCTION BY TERRI CRAFT
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES O’MAHONEY, SUSAN MELANIE BERRY AND SCOTT STARR
It’s my great honor to bring you this round table discussion with one of the most interesting people on the planet. If you’ve had the pleasure of meeting “O”, consider yourself charmed. For those who haven’t, allow me to summarize… James O’Mahoney is ornery, sarcastic, incredibly intelligent, unique, witty, reserved, charming, understated, humble and respectful. He is a surfer, skateboarder, hang glider, pilot, collector, photographer, race car driver, stunt man, safari survivor, patriot, adventurer, competitor and a world class waterman. “O” is also one of the first skateboard media moguls, the keeper of the great Pete Peterson surfboard, king of the U.S.S.A., proprietor of the legendary Signal Hill, proud owner of the “Apocalypse Now” surfboard and a rebel with too many causes. He’ll tell you a story so fanciful and outrageous, that you’ll never forget the lesson contained within. He reminded me that the handing down of history and tradition is a vital and important duty and without James O’Mahoney, this issue of Juice Magazine would have never gone to press. When the world seemed to be dark with hate, and all my heroes had turned into zeroes, he gave me pure inspiration. For that, I am eternally grateful. Here’s to “O” – a true hero.
First day of surfing, how old were you?
I was like seven, maybe.
Where were you?
72nd Street in Long Beach [CA].
How did you get the board?
It was a paddleboard that we borrowed from people on the other side of the street, which was Alamitos Bay. The beginning of summer we found that we could borrow paddleboards from people when they would go up to the snack bar. We’d paddle around and after awhile we’d searched out the whole bay and decided to take the board over and get it in some surf. Finally, these people let us have their paddleboard for a couple of hours. We thought, “Cool, now is our chance.” We’d never really picked one up and carried it before. My friend Scotty was with me so it was a two-man team. We got like a block and we were like, “Oh, crap.” When we finally got to the first 50 yards of sand, we were both crying. We were kids and the thing weighed a ton. We finally got it to the water and it was like Robinson Crusoe finding land. “Yeah!” We paddled out and it was only knee-high surf. Then we aimed it, pushed it into a wave, stood up on it and we were surfing. It was like you were on the battleship and you weighed 20 pounds. It was like, “Hey! Look at me surf!” We were really stoked. We did that for like an hour and we were all beat up. Then we realized we had to take the thing back. We were almost ready to say we lost it; talk about the death march back. Even after you drain the water out, those paddleboards still weigh 50 or 60 pounds. We were stoked that we surfed but we were beat up from trying to hold onto the thing.
“The sets only have ‘x’ amount of good waves in them. It’s a selfish sport. You want to catch the wave. You’re not out there to socialize. The surf is the most important thing. That’s the tough part. You can’t just push a button and the surf starts.”
What year was that?
1952. It was cool. We were really surfing. We were standing on it all different ways. It was like being on a ride at the amusement park or something. It was perfect.
When was the first time you were in?
Do you mean in a social way? Like in the song, “I’m in the in crowd”?
Never. I wasn’t in that deal.
I knew the first time I got accepted into my beach. I lost my board and all the guys were paddling out and they said, “Did you lose something?” I said, “Yeah.” And they shot my board at me.
That’s a different deal. In the ’50s, there was no localism. If you went to Malibu, there were two locals and 700 non-locals. It wasn’t an “in” deal or an “out” deal. You were just one of fifty goons trying to catch a wave. It wasn’t like someone was saying, “Hey, man, you take this wave. You’re in.” Everyone went. Everyone was trying to catch a wave. There was no local anything…
Did you listen to surf music?
There was no surf music at the time. There was the look and the sport and everyone would come to the beach. It was all brand new.
Were there chicks that hung out at the beach?
Sure. They were the same girls that would be at Torrance Beach when we were in the sixth grade. They would sit over there and we would sit over here. We would pee in their snow cones. In the winter, the same girls would be ski bunnies.
What about the earlier surf explosion? Was “Gidget” the cause of that explosion or just an accelerant that fueled the fire?
“Gidget” didn’t cause anything. She was the subject of the book that her dad wrote and it took off. Here’s a chick that went to the beach with the guys and went surfing. It was the ultimate California dream. Next, it was, “Let’s make a movie.” Then it was ‘Beach Blanket Bumpy Wax.’ Surfing was a big deal and “Gidget” was major. It fueled all these other crappy movies and crappy music.
Did the sudden influx of surfers cause you to become a traveler?
Well, to me, a traveler was when the guy who had a car said, “Who’s got gas money?” We’d add up the money we had between us and we’d have like $6.30. We’d fill up a cooler and bring a can of soup and campfire marshmallows. If you didn’t have any dough you’d just run into a market and start eating stuff and run out. We were travelers with whoever had a car. When we were 25, it became, “Let’s go to Tahiti.” In the early ’60s, you could have a whole weekend for $5. You could sleep in the dirt, pee in a bush, and try to find a marine to buy you a couple of cans of Country Club beer. Surf all day and just pass out. It was classic.
Who were your favorite people to surf with?
Oh, my favorite person to surf with is Tom Hanks. I surf with him at Malibu and he can’t surf very well but I can paddle out and talk to him about his next movie. It’s entertaining. Beside my friends, I’d rather be in the water with just one guy. The sets only have ‘x’ amount of good waves in them. It’s a selfish sport. You want to catch the wave. You’re not out there to socialize. The surf is the most important thing. That’s the tough part. You can’t just push a button and the surf starts.
What’s your favorite spot to surf?
Mexico and Malibu. I love Malibu. It’s everyone’s favorite. I love Rincon. I love all the best spots in the world. They’re everyone else’s favorite spots, too. It’s back to the crowds. One of my highlights of surfing was Mickey Dora pushing me off at Malibu. He said, “Watch out you little creep!” And he shoved me off. That made my summer.