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Old-school surfers bailout the Surfing Museum

oldtimesurfersbalA lack of city funding and a copyright lawsuit won't deter the movement to save the icon

The winter sun shone down on the glittering waters of Steamer Lane with unseasonal warmth last Thursday, Jan. 8, as a group of local surfing legends gathered in front of the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum to accept a $4,000 check from famed wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill.

The group of old friends and surfing buddies receiving the donation were representatives of the recently formed Santa Cruz Surf Club Preservation Society [SCSCPS], an organization currently focused on saving the museum from closure.

Boots McGhee, local surfer, photographer and member of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club, says the Society was formed in the Fall of 2008 to allow the original members, who founded the club in 1936, to “pass the torch” to the next generation (which he categorizes as the 55- to 70-year-olds, or the “young guys.”) It wasn’t until the City of Santa Cruz, faced with a $7 million budget deficit, put the Surfing Museum on the endangered list that the Society resolved to rescue it.

“The aim of the group is to preserve the heritage of the original club, surfing in Santa Cruz and the museum,” says McGhee, who helped found the museum in the mid-1980s. “[SCSCPS] was formed before the budgetary cuts, but it was a natural evolution for us to help.”

The decision to stop funding the Surfing Museum was the result of a Dec. 9 city council vote to cut $4.2 million from the city’s budget, which also includes plans to close the Beach Flats Community Center, Natural History Museum, Harvey West Pool and more. While the futures of these community spaces remain uncertain, the venerated tribe of graying surfers wasn’t about to see the history they helped to create disappear with the tide.

“If you can’t depend on the City to do it, then you’ve got to step up and get it done,” says McGhee, who celebrated his 61st birthday the day of the O’Neill donation.

SCSCPS met with local businessman and “Possibility Advocate” Virgil Robinson in early January to pen a proposal for the City regarding the museum’s fate. Robinson had reached out to the club in December when he became aware of the looming financial concerns. “For Santa Cruz to consider the museum on the cutting board really negates the huge market opportunity Santa Cruz has in helping these guys to preserve this,” says Robinson. He was eager to use his career coaching and organizational skills to help shape SCSCPS’s hopes into a winning plan.

“We gave him the parameters of our scheme, how we’re going to do the funding and future funding, [and a breakdown of] the immediate and long-term concerns,” says McGhee. Their plan deems SCSCPS financially responsible and aims to maintain the museum as it is currently run. For example, they hope to keep all current employees, contrary to the suggestions of other plans that were presented to the council.

Robinson whipped up a Powerpoint presentation for the guys, which they presented to the City Department of Parks and Recreation on Jan. 7.  The plan was a hit. “They went ballistic! They couldn’t believe it,” claims McGhee.

The city asked the group to raise at least $10,000 (half the museum’s yearly operating budget) by Tuesday, Jan. 13 to prove the plan has legs. As of the cheerful day when O’Neill handed the group a prop check for $4,000, they were still shy about $3,500. In an interview with a television news channel after the photo op, O’Neill, sporting a fiery red O’Neill shirt and flip-flop sandals, encouraged others to help if they can. “Write checks please,” he said. “We want to keep that Surfing Museum open. It’s very important.”

Although the museum’s welfare has become the group’s chief concern, they’ve been making news for more than just their philanthropy lately. SCSCPS sued Ryan Rittenhouse on Dec. 31 for trademark infringement, claiming that he manipulated 85-year old club member Henry Mayo into signing over the Santa Cruz Surfing Club’s photo collection and logo. Rittenhouse, the grandson of an original member of the Surf Club, trademarked the logo in 2004 and has been printing it on merchandise for his clothing line, Santa Cruz Surf Apparel Co., ever since.

In a press conference on Jan. 5, Rittenhouse claimed to have worked cooperatively with Mayo and, contrary to the Society’s allegations, protected the club’s heritage. “Without me, the rights, property and logo would have been taken long ago,” he said, adding suspicions about the group’s sudden interest in running the museum. “Since when is the museum the Santa Cruz Surf Club Museum? How does suing for trademark infringement and elder abuse help raise funds for the Mark Abbott Memorial Lighthouse?”

Rittenhouse had also presented a proposal to the Santa Cruz City Council, asking that he run it as a private, for-profit business that would hire Surf Club members as volunteers. The proposal was vetoed. In his statement to the press, he called the Preservation Society “an opportunistic bunch of individuals” trying to control his business and the history of the original club.

Back at the Lane, Boots McGhee is too excited about the oversized check to worry much about the lawsuit— that, and he can’t legally talk about it.

“We aren’t worrying about the lawsuit because we have everything in place to take care of it. We are focusing on this,” he says, gesturing to the iconic brick lighthouse that houses the museum. “The only opportunism is to keep this place going.”


Donation checks to “Save the Surfing Museum” can be made payable to SCSC Preservation Society, and mailed to Wells Fargo Bank acct# 6733461542, 1975 Soquel Drive, Santa Cruz, CA, 95065.

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