Malibu Surf Culture
By decade’s end and the beginning of the 1960s, the surf culture that developed at Malibu would become popularized in Gidget, the 1957 book and, then, the 1959 movie. Yet, by the time Frederick Kohner started writing about some of it, the lifestyle at Malibu was already well established. In the minds of many who were there, the real glory days for Malibu was during the mid-1950s, before its popularization at the end of the decade.
“A new breed of American beach boys developed,” is the way Nat Young put it, “a sort of later equivalent of the Hawaiian beach boys who had become professional surfers in the years before World War II. The new breed spent their time lifeguarding, surfing and just having fun; music, parties, waves, boards, girlfriends.
They began wearing brightly colored baggie trunks and, in winter, wetsuits developed from Navy frogmen’s outfits. There was little smog in those days, huge kelp beds just off the Californian coast kept the waves glassy much of the time, and surfers found they could surf all year round. It wasn’t long before surfing had developed from sport to culture to — cult.”
The epicenter of American surf culture had clearly shifted from San Onofre to Malibu.
Mickey Dora was born in Budapest in 1934, when Malibu was just a toddler. His parents moved to Los Angeles and divorced. When his mother married Gard Chapin, the boy’s fate was sealed — Chapin was a legendary surfer who saw nothing wrong with Mickey ditching school when the surf was up.
The wall at Malibu
Mickey Dora became the first king of Malibu, James Dean on a surfboard. He was dark and movie-star handsome, he had a dangerous, surly presence, and when he got out on the water, he surfed like no one else — he was so accomplished he could look laid-back. Cool? Mickey Dora defined it. His nickname: Da Cat.
A pure moment is just that — a moment. Mickey Dora had the waves to himself, and the girls, and the attention. On land, he was complicated: witty but tortured. On the water, he could work everything out, live in the Now, be an artist.
And then, in the early ’50s, his world collapsed. It started with the invention of fiberglass-and-foam surfboards, a welcome replacement for the thick, heavy wood planks that had kept all but the hardiest athletes out of the winter. Now girls would surf as easily as guys. That meant summer fun. Soon there was quite a scene going on at Malibu.
The surf boom was just starting when Mickey Dora turned against it. He could see the future — music, movies, beaches crowded with amateurs — and it sucked. But he was trapped. Bred-in-the-bone surfers do not do well in offices. His greatest vocational asset was his talent as a surfer.
And so, when Hollywood called, he couldn’t say no — he was a “surf stuntman” on the “Gidget” movies. Later, he taught Sally Field how to look like she was hanging ten.
He liked Field; he loathed the film crews that polluted his beach: “I knew every one of the chubby flaccid pretenders. I did everything I could to screw them over and sabotage their methods.” Eventually, his hatred for Hollywood overwhelmed his need for cash: “Once I was sick as a dog from a rancorous case of dysentery I’d picked in Mexico. On camera they’re filming this sad-sack party scene with some Philly cheesecake crooner up in the spotlight, and I’m in the background puking. The director calls out, ‘Hey, dark kid in the back, I like what you’re doing. That’s a marvelous look. Save it for the next scene.’ I know I was kaput then.”
He knew everyone: Henry Miller, Sharon Tate, Charlie Manson, Baron Rothschild, the Stones, Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen. And, because he went everywhere, he started to see new opportunities. For a while, he bought luxury cars from the 1930s at bargain prices, cleaned them up, and sold them for a profit. Sometimes for total profit — in this authorized biography, he hints that some were stolen. If so, these weren’t his only felonies. He was a scammer and a sociopath, and though he would later call himself a poet, his greatest writing may have been in the genre of bad checks. (For legit money, he did endorse a line of “Da Cat” surfboards. Typically, in the ad, two boards are lashed together to make a cross, and Dora is tied to them as if crucified.)
Mickey Dora moved to Europe in 1968, hustling his way through a pleasant exile with the help of altered credit cards and false passports. By the ’80s, he had pushed a credit-card spree to the point of fraud and was imprisoned. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2002.