4821 Pacific Avenue

From All Night Menu Vol. 1 [2013]

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Just before Christmas, 1929, The Ohio Oil Company installed the first wildcat well in Venice, just east of the Grand Canal at Windward (then called Avenue 35). While the city of Santa Monica voted against the speculators, hardscrabble Venice was swayed by promises of instantaneous wealth. Zoning laws were altered; back yards were leased. Within two years, 340 wells crowded the Venice peninsula south of Washington Street, each hung with a sign that proudly declared its owner: ALLSTATE; EL CAMINO; BLUERIDGE. By 1931 the sliver of beach property between Ballona Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean was the fourth most productive oil field in California.

In the decades that followed, Venice Beach was sucked slowly dry. Production plummeted from 46,000 barrels a day to a couple hundred. By the 1950s, only 64 derricks remained but the sepulchral towers still overshadowed the beachside shacks of Pacific Avenue, which ran the length of the peninsula and terminated at the mouth of Ballona Creek. Once in a while, a surfer could be seen testing a new board in the cute wave that peeled across the polluted channel. The ocean air reeked of crude and one of the last remaining wells rattled the floorboards of 4821 Pacific, where Dale “The Hawk” Velzy and Harold “Hap” Jacobs opened their first store in 1954. In the era before surf magazines, youngsters would come to peruse Velzy’s prized collection of photographs from Hawaii. At night he projected the earliest surf movies by Bud Browne onto the side of the building and local kids would get so excited they’d scuttle up the derricks and ride the oil pump like a seesaw.

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“Everybody wanted to know Dale,” said Jacobs, who was originally enlisted to glass Velzy’s popular balsawood boards but ended up supervising the shop. Jacobs was tall and angular with thin blond hair. In contrast, Velzy was built like a boxer, with a rogue’s grin and tattoos collected during his days in the Merchant Marine. Like every other young surfer in Hermosa Beach in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jacobs grew up idolizing Velzy, a backslapping bon vivant whose personal code entailed craftsmanship, enjoyment, and style in all pursuits. In addition to being a masterful surfer and board designer, Velzy was a hotrodder, a horseman, a biker, and a pool shark. His ability to mingle with everyone from outlaws to bankers to schoolchildren made 4821 Pacific a social hub.

Velzy had previously established makeshift shaping operations in Malibu, Hermosa, San Diego and Hawaii, but Venice was where he pioneered the idea of shop-as-hangout. The Velzy-Jacobs collaboration existed only briefly, from 1954 to 1959, but it was ideally situated, historically and geographically. During the shop’s lifespan, Velzy’s generation of surfers—ex-G.I.’s, errant lifeguards, ersatz Hawaiians—gave way to the generation that would convert the fringe activity into a worldwide trend. 4821 Pacific was positioned midway between Hermosa, their hometown, and Malibu, the exalted theater of 1950s surfing. Velzy-Jacobs attracted the celebrities of mid-Fifties Malibu. Terry "Tubesteak" Tracey, Miki Dora, Lance Carson, and Kemp Aaberg came for Velzy's highly-maneuverable "Pig" design—ideal for making flashy turns at Malibu—and because they respected him as the progenitor of the rebel surf lifestyle.

At the same time, neophytes came to Velzy for their first boards because his was the only walk-in shop around. Before Velzy, the industry consisted of a handful of lone shapers taking orders one-by-one out of garages. Among his innovations, Velzy patented the role of parochial ringleader that would become so crucial to skate and surf society in the decades to come. If Velzy liked the way you surfed, he'd give you free boards and a t-shirt with his logo on it—the first of its kind. If he didn’t like the way you surfed, that was okay too. He’d make sure you left with the most expensive board in the shop, winking at your mom as he extended his elastic tape measure, ensuring that any board he suggested would be your perfect fit. “Dale should’ve been selling Maseratis,” said an admiring Jacobs, who once watched a doubtful customer bob in Ballona Creek with only the nose of his board poking above the surface of the inky water. “See,” shouted Velzy from the shoreline. “It’s perfect!”

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As surfing’s popularity spread, Velzy shifted his energy to a new store in San Clemente, which he established to compete with a frighteningly organized 21-year-old boardmaker from Laguna Beach named Hobie Alter. More and more of Velzy’s time was spent flying up the coast in his Mercedes Gullwing, a limited run sports car equivalent in cost to a starter home.

Though their friendship never faltered, Jacobs eventually tired of Velzy’s combustible hustle. In 1960 he left to open his own shop back in Hermosa Beach. Steve Pezman of Surfer Magazine later called the high-ceilinged Jacobs showroom the “Notre Dame Cathedral of surf shops.” The Gullwing may have helped to attract the attention of the IRS, who padlocked Velzy's chain of shops in 1960 pending payment of delinquent taxes. As the surf industry exploded in the wake of Gidget, Hobie Alter's lightweight foam boards overtook a market crowded with surf stars looking to cash in.

Among the many startups was Dewey Weber, the preeminent hotdogger of Malibu, who started producing his own line of signature boards. With Velzy financially crippled, Weber spread word of Velzy’s troubles to his landlord and shortly after appropriated the lease on 4821 Pacific for himself. In Hawk’s eyes, it was an unforgivable betrayal, emblematic of the avarice that would soon consume the surf industry. Weber became the lone exception in a life lived without enemies. When Weber died prematurely from alcoholism in 1993, Velzy refused to attend the funeral.

To dig himself out of debt, Velzy agreed to shape the foam boards that his customers now demanded, but his heart wasn’t in it. A carpenter’s son, he cherished wood. He looked on as kids who had hung out in his shops became rich overnight while he struggled to make a living as a freelance shaper. When the surfing industry grew to unseen proportions in the 1960s he left California to live as a rancher and cowhand in Arizona, which promised the freedom and independence he had once found in surfing. He grew out the handlebar mustache that would become his signature in old age. Velzy would have relished the surf boom money—he always knew what it was good for—but his cowboy soul was content to sit out the radical Sixties. Said Hawk: “It wasn't my bag of tea.”

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With Malibu overrun by inland hordes, intrepid Venice locals continued to surf the wetlands around the mouth of Ballona Creek. The locals named the little wave “Toes on the Nose.” The water was nasty but on a good day you could catch a ride all the way across the channel and up into the creek to end in the shallow water underneath the remnants of the old Pacific Avenue bridge.

The final derrick came down in 1962. The following year, a breakwater was erected in front of the entrance to Ballona Creek, killing the wave where Velzy and Jacobs once tested their boards. Plans were drawn to transform the poisoned wetlands into a pleasure harbor. And so, a peninsula once crowded by oil rigs and madcap surfers disappeared, soon to be rebranded and resold as upscale Marina del Rey. ◆