Sam McManis

July 8, 2012

Discoveries: Here surf's always up (well, one day a week)

SANTA BARBARA – He may not be too stoked by the comparison, but it's meant with fondness and more than a little envy:


Sam McManis roams the region to find where you want to go

SANTA BARBARA – He may not be too stoked by the comparison, but it's meant with fondness and more than a little envy:

Jim O'Mahoney is what I'd imagine Jeff Spicoli to be, all grown up.

And, as curator of the Santa Barbara Surfing Museum, O'Mahoney would surely catch the movie reference as easily as he can catch a wave.

Spicoli, of course, is the memorable character from the '80s comedy "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." You know, the half-baked, gnarly surfer dude who sloughs off school but is smarter and more sly than he lets on.

Picture Spicoli 30 years later. That's O'Mahoney. He's 66 but looks at least a decade younger behind a cool pair of spectacles and perpetually sienna-toned skin. He still paddles out looking for breaks, but also is a savvy businessman who's found a way to parlay his lifelong love of surfing into a career as an antiques dealer and collector.

His labor of love is the surfing museum, which for 20 years has been a repository for local and international surfing lore amid the board-shaping businesses and beachwear shops along the "Funk Zone" waterfront. (He also runs a non-surf museum, dedicated to Santa Barbara oddities; more on that later.)

The free surf museum is open only one day a week – Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. – because, you know, bro, life's too short to be cooped up indoors for so long. But it's worth peeling off the wetsuit and checking out the array of surfing and surf-culture curios O'Mahoney has collected since getting his first surfboard in 1957.

O'Mahoney gave me a private midweek viewing, relishing in the telling of surfing lore. He unlocked the thick wooden doors and, with a flourish, hit the lights to reveal a panoply of boards and surf movie posters, trophies and trinkets, surf music and ukuleles, even a case of St. Christopher's medals that surfers used to give their little Gidgets when they wanted to go steady.

"Wait," O'Mahoney said, before leading me inside.

He hustled over and turned on the stereo. Hawaiian slack-key guitar riffs filled the room.

Mood established, now he was ready.

"Usually, when I'm open, I have my '62 Corvette out here with a surfboard sticking out of it," he said.

That's the only thing missing. So much surfing memorabilia is wedged into such a small space that the first sight is overwhelming, like being churned in the water after a wipeout.

Where did O'Mahoney get all this stuff?

"I saved everything," he said. "There's my first board over there. I saved every movie poster, anything surf or surf-related, I kept. I wheeled and dealed antiques, and whenever anything surf-related or, like, Hawaiian came through the door, I'd grab it."

As much as he displays here, O'Mahoney says the museum used to boast more one-of-a-kind relics. O'Mahoney donated many of his choicest objects three years ago to the Honolulu Surf Museum that his pal, musician Jimmy Buffet, started. O'Mahoney shook his head and apologized when showing off one of only 90 replicas of the 9-foot pintail board, used in the surf scene from the film "Apocalypse Now," shaped by Santa Barbara surf legend Renny Yater.

"I had the original," he said. "It went with other stuff to the museum Jimmy started in Hawaii. I had all sorts of Captain Cook stuff, too, and Duke's (Kahanamoku) ukulele. That all went back. I figured it belongs in Hawaii."

There's plenty still left. O'Mahoney showed off the ukulele Marilyn Monroe used in "Some Like It Hot," the St. Christopher's medal that Elvis Presley wore in "Jailhouse Rock," a replica of an Olo surfboard used by Hawaiian kings and a surf guitar shaped by Yater.

Some of the displays, such as the Gidget photos and old "Endless Summer" posters, are pure kitsch. But many surfers come to the museum as something of a pilgrimage. Santa Barbara doesn't hold the honorific of California's "Surf City" – that's down in Huntington Beach – but O'Mahoney says this city holds its own.

"We're close," he said. "We've got Rincon, which is a world-class break (on the Santa Barbara and Ventura County line). Kelly Slater has a house here. Tom Curran grew up here. Sean Thompson lives here, another world champ. We got plenty of valid surfers. Hell, I won the '93 West Coast Championship in Huntington Beach, the oldest West Coast contest there is."

But there's more to O'Mahoney than surfing, dude. Remember, Jeff Spicoli has grown up. O'Mahoney has collected scores of non-surfing items having to do with Santa Barbara's history.

Those are housed next door and include everything from the pith helmet Gary Cooper wore in the film "The Lives of a Bengal Lancer," to beaver-skin shoes worn by Frank Sinatra in town; from a carved bust of Juan Cabrillo to an 1862 California flag, black with a golden bear.

The greater Santa Barbara area's most famous resident, pop star Michael Jackson, gets a nod, as well. It's in the form of a fiberglass "fairy tale book" statue made by a local artist, who installed it at Neverland Ranch.

How did O'Mahoney get it?

"Jackson never paid his bills, so my friend never got paid, and he took the statue back from Neverland," O'Mahoney said. "My friends threw it away. Took it out of the Dumpster. This is golden."

He gave a wink and a smile. This stuff is just a diversion from the surfing museum.

Because, as Spicoli reflected, "Surfing's not a sport, it's a way of life. It's no hobby. It's a way of looking at that wave and saying, 'Hey bud, let's party!' "

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