A Definitive History of Surfing's Culture and Heroes
By Malcolm Gault-Williams
This Chapter Updated: 21 May 2008
The Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team
Image courtesy of Fred Hemmings (Butch Van Artsdalen not pictured)
Aloha! And welcome to this chapter of LEGENDARY SURFERS. The Duke Surf Team got underway in 1965. The brainchild of Kimo McVay (Duke's manager), it consisted of some of the hottest surfers of the period -- surfers who have gone on to legendary status, since. The Duke Surf Team can be considered Duke's last real involvement in surfing before his passing in 1968. Although he was active as an honorary figure at various contests and recognition ceremonies and maintained a presence at his club in Waikiki, one of Duke's last acts as a surfer was touring with his team and racking up continued fresh memories as "The Father of Modern Surfing." Certainly, all four members of the Duke Team -- Paul Strauch, Joey Cabell, Fred Hemmings and Butch Van Artsdalen -- grew to appreciate these twilight years of Duke's and the tremendous opportunity they had to share some of those years and memories with him.
looked upon it [the ocean] as a place to bathe, a place to wash away ills,
to go through a cleansing, a baptismal if you will. When I was a
child I had bronchial problems. That was one of the reasons I was
encouraged to be around the ocean. I started out with that, and because
of its cleansing, I never have forgotten it. I still feel that way
about the ocean, and when you add surfing to that, it gives you something
No one man was as instrumental in getting
Twentieth Century surfing going than Duke Paoa
Kahanamoku. As surfers, we recognize him as the “Father of Modern
Surfing” and we use that term with some degree of affection – although
most of us never had the opportunity of meeting Duke before he passed on
Duke Kahanamoku was a renowned surfer, world champion swimmer, and an international ambassador for surfing. He arrived on the scene when surfing was near-extinct, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. By the time of his passing, surfing had grown to become a world-embraced sport practiced by millions of people across the planet. Personally for himself, he had racked up a record of accomplishment that, in many ways, remains unbeaten:
In his later life, Duke remained active and traveled throughout the United States as a “symbol of Hawaii“ and “Ambassador of Aloha.” Even close friends forgot that he suffered a serious heart attack on December 2, 1955 and that he was later treated for a cerebral blood clot and gastric ulcers, in 1962. Biographer Grady Timmons cynically wrote, “In the end, fame never brought Duke money, only ulcers.” It is possible that the emotional strain of having no career track and only a small amount of income lead to Duke’s illnesses. Certainly, physical health can be effected by financial health and Duke’s had not been good all through his life.
When his time as sheriff was up in 1961, Duke was then appointed the city’s official greeter. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported, “what he lost in his post as sheriff he quickly regained in recognition of his years of unofficial service as an ambassador of goodwill. He was made Official Greeter for the City-County.” This title was a big one, but the pay was still small. “I am barely getting along,” Duke was quoted as saying to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter that year.
In an embarrassing moment for Hawai`i, misplaced allegations about Duke’s income over the use of his name in the opening of a new restaurant and the sale of aloha shirts were made public and fostered a public debate about how he made his living. It took Duke’s friend, well-known radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey to put things in perspective:
“Hawaii should give Duke $25,000 a year and a car and require him to do nothing but appear at only the proper places,” Godfrey flatly stated. When informed that Duke earned $8,256 a year on the City-County payroll as Honolulu’s official greeter, Godfrey responded, “Well, what he’s getting is not enough. It’s a shame that he has to be a front man for a restaurant just so he can get enough money to eat.” Godfrey referred to the soon-to-be opened restaurant, “Duke Kahanamoku’s.”
“This is a disgrace,” Godfrey continued. “For all the dignity and honor that Duke has brought to Hawaii, giving him $25,000 would be just a gesture. And that wouldn’t be charity, either. Hawaii should think of the payment as an upkeep for something precious, the same as upkeeping Kapiolani Park or Waikiki Beach. You know, what really burns me up is that after he (Duke) dies, Hawaii will probably go all out in erecting a $100,000 monument. Why not honor a living monument?”
Duke read and heard the stories and lived with his anger, except in a rare public outburst when he declared that he had spent his life promoting Hawai`i “And what have I got to show for it?” he asked. “Nothing. And I’m not going to ask for anything.”
His brother Louis declared: “A lot of people took my brother for a ride. Duke was easy. Too goddamn easy.”
Others around Duke came under attack, too, like his brothers and his wife. Some say his wife Nadine stirred up resentment over his financial situation, but if so, she probably was justified to some extent. “It was tragic,” Timmons wrote, “that Duke, in the sunset of his life, was still running in place on a financial treadmill.”
Duke refused to defend himself against
any and all accusations. “It’s like telling people you’re honest,”
he explained. He finally closed his ears to the storm of censure
and went on with the restaurant venture, put together by Kimo McVay
– who also came under suspicion by those outside Duke’s circle.
“McVay was an enterprising island disc jockey,” explained Duke biographer Grady Timmons, “whose mother, Kinau, had as a child been taught by Duke to swim. One day in 1959 he was interviewing Duke when he remarked that he had seen an ad for his shirts in a national magazine.
“‘You must make a lot of money from that, Duke,’ McVay said. ‘Those shirts are sold in the best stores all over the country.’
“‘Well, Kimo, I only made ninety-seven dollars last year,’ Duke replied.
“‘How is that possible? Will you let me look into that?’
“The result,” continued Timmons, “was the creation of Duke Kahanamoku Enterprises, which was managed by McVay and financed by his mother. The three of them joined forces around 1961, about the same time the city abolished the office of sheriff and made Duke the official greeter.”
Duke’s hope was that he could both effectively supplement his income and help commercialize genuine Polynesian food, atmosphere, and entertainment. The subsequent storm over how he made his living quickly wound down for lack of fuel.
Hosting a supper club named after him was a big switch for Duke. At seventy-one he was beginning a new career. Most all of his friends his age had retired. More than one friend kidded him about it.
“‘It should be natural,’ he countered. ‘All my life I’ve been going places to meet and greet people. Now, they’ll be coming to me.’
“It worked out just that way.
Friends, fans, and autograph seekers came to the restaurant -- and Duke
One of the many promotional efforts that Duke and McVay collaborated on was the creation and fostering of the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team.
The surf team concept is well known, today, but is actually something that was only introduced into the sport after surfboards and surfwear became big business in the early 1960s. Surf teams were originally organized to demonstrate the superiority of a certain surfboard brand and also as a way for surfers to get a little piece of the financial pie. By 1965, there were dozens of such teams competing in contests in a handful of countries around the world. It was Kimo McVay who came up with the idea of a team that rode for Duke.
“McVay was everything that Duke was not,” wrote Timmons, “-- shrewd, glib, outgoing. He was also an ingenious promoter. He recast Duke as a king in white and outfitted him in all the trappings of royalty. He bought him a boat and a Rolls Royce with surfboard racks on the top. He put Duke’s name on clothes, ukuleles, skateboards, and surfboards, and to help the surfboards he formed the Duke Kahanamoku surf team, which comprised four of the world’s top surfers: Fred Hemmings, Paul Strauch, Jr., Joey Cabell, and Butch Van Artsdalen.”
Here’s how Fred Hemmings recalls his induction:
“Early in 1965, I was standing under the banyan tree at Kuhio Beach for a night surfing event. It was winter, so the swell on the south shore was not that great. The waves were junk, I wasn’t surfing. A guy walked up to me and introduced himself as Kimo McVay. He owned the Duke Kahanamoku night club in the International Market Place and wanted me to be on the Duke Surf Team that he was organizing. The Duke Surf Team was going to promote Duke surfing products. I was 19 and did not have much experience, so I asked Joey Cabell what he thought. Joey is older than I am and had been around the block a few times on business deals. Joey counseled me to take the opportunity if the pay was adequate and the business had potential for growth. Well, I ended up a charter member of the Duke Surf Team. The real compensation I would find out was the honor and pleasure of spending the twilight years of Duke’s life with him. Money could not buy the experience. The original Duke team eventually consisted of Paul Strauch, Butch Van Artsdalen, Joey Cabell, and myself. Joey was caught up in developing his restaurant [the Chart House], so usually Paul, Butch and I would end up going on the promotional trips. We always had fun.”
“Another time,” recalled Strauch,
“we were at Disneyland on the jungle boat ride. When we came up to
the part where the hippopotamus jumps out, Duke looks at this kid and says,
‘Don’t worry, I have a lot of experience with this sort of thing.’
The boat was on this track and it started going nuts when the hippo came
out. Then Duke stood up and took the tiller at the back of the boat.
He held on, jerking all over the place. I thought he was going to
break his back the way he was holding on. When the boat settled back
down, Duke’s hair was in his face and I think he had lost a button.
The guy running the ride says, ‘That was really a close one,’ and Duke
turns to the kid, and said, ‘See, I told you so.’ (laughter)”
>One of the memorable promotional tours taken by the Duke Kahanamoku Surf Team took place in April of 1966. Duke and Hawai`i surfing champions Paul Strauch, Jr. and Fred Hemmings, Jr. traveled to Houston, Texas, to be honored guests at the first Houston-Hawaii Surfing Week. The next month, Butch “Mr. Pipeline” Van Artsdalen joined them in Southern California for Broadway department stores‘ “Salute to Hawaii” promotion and tour. It was said to have been, “the biggest department store promotion ever arranged on behalf of Hawaii merchandise.”
During the Southern California tour, Duke and his team of surfing greats made a memorable visit to Malibu. They arrived in a vintage Rolls Royce with surfboards strapped onto its top. The Hollywood-style surfari got national television coverage. With a wink, Duke told the network interviewer, “My boys and I, we showed ‘em how to go surfing.”
“Here I was, a young surfer,” wrote Fred Hemmings, “traveling with the modern-day ali‘i of Hawai‘i – Duke Kahanamoku, and I shared those days with three of surfing’s most dynamic men...
“Butch, Paul and Joey…”
“He had such a joy of life, even when he was older,” Duke Team member Paul Strauch said of Duke. “I had so much fun with the guy. I would travel with him, Fred Hemmings, Butch Van Artsdalen, and Joey Cabell. We were part of the Duke Surf Team. We were ambassadors of good will. Duke would always have me sit to his side, particularly when we went out to dinner. He would wear these ‘Stevie Wonder bubble glasses’ at night, and you couldn’t see his eyes. He had developed a technique when he was much younger, when he was a hard-hat driver in Honolulu Harbor. He developed an ability to hold onto the pilings and go to sleep under water. All of his coworkers knew that, and when they didn’t see the bubbles, they’d go down and wake him up. He’d fall asleep at dinner the same way, and when somebody would ask him a question, my job was to hit him in the knee, and repeat the question to him. If he should answer yes, I’d hit him once with my knee. If he should answer no, I’d hit him twice with my knee. I’d kind of talk him through the whole thing.”
Strauch recalled a time together in Arizona:
“Oh, once we were in Las Vegas together,
and we had front row seats at The Sands to see Sammy Davis, Jr. We
were like six feet away from Sammy Davis, on stage. At the end of
the performance, Duke’s Manager, Kimo McVay, comes up and says, ‘Hey Duke,
I’ve got great news for you and the guys. We’ve all been invited
backstage.’ Duke asked, ‘Why are we going back there for?’
And Kimo replies, ‘Well, we’re going to see Sammy Davis, Jr.’ Duke
says, ‘Why? I just saw him for an hour; he was standing right in
front of me.’ (laughter)”
Coinciding the same year as the formation of the team, the first Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic, was held at Sunset Beach in December 1965 and became an instant success. It was also filmed by CBS and later nominated for an Emmy award. According to Kimo McVay, however, promotions like the classic and the surf team did not make much money. The “mother lode” was Duke Kahanamoku’s nightclub in Waikiki. Here, McVay lured Hawaiian pop singer Don Ho -- then relatively unknown -- and made him a star.
“The Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic was inaugurated in 1965,” wrote Fred Hemmings. “Actually it was the brain child of promoter Kimo McVay as an event to honor Duke. I was employed by Kimo as his administrative assistant in addition to being on the Duke Surf Team. I helped Kimo format the event. It was determined to make the contest a small prestigious competition designed for television coverage. At the time, the Makaha contest reigned supreme, with coverage on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. We did not want to compete with the Makaha contest. It was decided to stage the event at Paumalu (Sunset Beach), which at first seemed to be a logistical challenge. That is how we ended up running the first few contests from the porch of Val Valentine’s house directly in front of the peak of the Paumalu break. Kimo wisely hired Fred Van Dyke to be the contest director. Fred did a superb job of coming up with a list of 24 of the top surfers in the world to compete in the first Duke Classic. The concept of the Duke Classic was to have the very best of the best competing in a prestigious event. It was a honor just to be invited. The stage was set for the initial event to be held on the day the surf was best from December 13-17, 1965.”
Fred Hemmings listed the following as participants in the first Duke Classic, in most cases adding his own nicknames and comments:
· Robert “Endless Summer” August
“Kimo McVay had the Dodge Trophy Company of California design an Oscar-style trophy for each of the 24 competitors,” recalled Fred. “The trophy is now one of the most prestigious artifacts of surfing. Pre contest favorites included Paul Strauch, Mike Doyle, Joey Cabell, and Rusty Miller. A press reception was hosted at the Moana Surfrider Hotel. The surfers had never been treated so well. The Duke Classic was further legitimizing the sport. The famous network surf event producer Larry Lindberg covered the Duke Classic for CBS. The competition was to be aired on the CBS Sports Spectacular in April of 1966. The event was held on December 15, 1965. It was a mild day at Sunset, 8-foot-plus surf. Duke stood on the beach and watched. Seventeen year old Jeff Hakman surprised the surfing world with a victory. Jeff was still surfing in the junior division at Makaha and not considered a contender. The Honolulu Star Bulletin in reporting the results, noted that Judges Wally Froiseth and Buzzy Trent both attested to Hakman’s decisive victory.”
The results, in order, were as follows:
· Jeff Hakman
“An awards ceremony was held at the
Waikiki Shell,” Fred Hemmings wrote. “The Duke Classic in its first
year immediately became a presigious event befitting its namesake Duke
Kahanamoku. The event concentrated the level of competition and provided
the foundation for surfing’s growth as a professional sport. The
Duke Kahanamoku Surfing Classic is a legendary event in surfing history.”
Kimo McVay was often accused of profiting more than Duke from the partnership,” wrote Grady Timmons about the who issue of Duke promotion – of which the Duke Surf Team was but one part. “Some family members say that he took both the car and the boat back after Duke died. Still, Duke’s last years with McVay were among his best. He looked great, wanted for little, and was finally accorded the [financial] respect that was due him. When he was not traveling, he could usually be found down on the beach or on his boat. On Sunday evenings he held forth at his nightclub. He had the King’s table. He was the King. ‘People say I exploited him,’ McVay recalled. ‘Ha! He loved it.’”
Were there people who took advantage of Duke? “You might think so if you looked at it cynically,” offered Duke’s good friend and old-time surfer Kenneth Brown. “But you really couldn’t take advantage of him. You really couldn’t dent old Duke. I knew him when he was older. I know there were others around him who wanted him to be financially successful. But I never felt Duke had his heart in that. He was Duke. Duke was Duke. His values came from the sea. He walked through a Western world, but he was always essentially Hawaiian. And because of the simplicity and purity of that value system, money was never that important to him.”
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