By Mike Purpus
Every Tuesday night when I was 12 years old Don Craig, Sparky Hudson and I would run down the street after dinner to go through Leroy Grannis’ trash cans. We separated the surf photos Leroy had thrown away from the rest of the trash and ran down the hill to Don’s house to fight over them. Along with surf movie posters, we covered our bedroom walls with photos, never knowing who was in them. We traded the ones we didn’t want for Hostess Snowballs and Twinkies to other surfers who went to Pier Avenue Junior High School. Leroy told me a decade later he knew about our little raids, but never stopped us because we always cleaned up afterwards.
I always thought Leroy Grannis was first a surf photographer and then a surfer, not knowing his doctor recommended he take up photography to relieve his stress-related ulcers. I don’t think his doctor foresaw Leroy paddling out at 20-foot Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and Makaha, pulling his camera out from its from waterproof box top shoot surfers flying down the face, and then putting the camera back in the box while scrambling to safety in the channel.
Leroy would swim out at Pipeline, fighting currents that could easily sweep you him out to sea, to shoot straight into the tube. He wouldn’t budge, sometimes forcing surfers to pearl their boards and dive over him.
His other form of stress relief was shooting from a hang glider over Yosemite National Park. Leroy won countless photo awards with his surfing and hang gliding photography, which graced the pages of every surfing magazine, and also Time, Life, National Geographic and most recently, Smithsonian a few years ago.
You never knew where Leroy was going to be shooting. He would just show up wherever the waves were the best and take shots of whoever was ripping. If the conditions weren’t good for photos Leroy surfed. His style was exactly like the little surfing figurine on top of all the surf trophies.
In the ‘60s Leroy rode and took water shots from his big, blue Greg Noll surfboard. In the ‘70s Leroy’s short board was a clear Weber Ski. He rode both boards the same. The stone faced, hawk-like figure was a man of few words. When he spoke it was gruff and low-key. We never knew where he was coming from, but we hung on his every word because he knew more than we ever would about surfing. He always wore a floppy hat tied under his chin, looking like an old Aussie codger in the outback. His close friends call him “Granny.” The rest of us called him Leroy.
You could count on Leroy to be on every surf club trip and at every surf club contest. He was easy to spot setting up down the beach to capture the action. All the surfboard manufacturers and surf clubs wanted Leroy to surf for them. I was a member of the Jacobs Surf Team when I was 15 years old and Leroy was the first call Hap Jacobs made when planning an ad, surf team contest or surf team trip. I was in the Windansea Surf Club at the same time. Club president Thor Svenson offered to pay Leroy to join the club, but he graciously declined. Leroy was with us on every club trip, anyway, including the ‘63 trip to Todos Santos Island, 10 miles off of Ensenada. We chartered a fishing boat. It was the first time the island was surfed and my friends and I thought we’d died and gone to heaven. The waves looked like the opening to “Hawaii Five-O.” Leroy captured every tube ride from the water.
Lewis “Hoppy” Swarts was Leroy’s best friend. They could have been brothers. Even in the water their trophy style surfing was obviously from the same mold. Leroy and Hoppy grew up attending school and surfing together in the early ‘30s. They learned to surf on 120-pound redwood paddleboards in front of Hermosa’s Biltmore Hotel. Hoppy was recognized as the best, most fair minded judge at every surf contest. In 1961, he co-founded and became president of The United States Surfing Association. His father named him Hoppy because he was reading a Hopalong Cassidy book in the hospital at the time of his son’s birth.
Leroy, Hoppy and “Big John” Kerwin were the first to greet you at every contest in the 1960s. Hoppy was head judge, John and Leroy were the beach coordinators, in charge of checking you in, making sure you were wearing the right colored jersey and relieving judges when they needed a bathroom break or something to eat. It cost $10 to be a United States Surfing Association member. Contest entry fees were $5, so I knew they were working all day for a free lunch. Hoppy set up the USSA up to bring forth a positive image for surfers. At a time when surfers were considered beach bums, the USSA motto was “Give society a winner, a champion, no matter what the sport.”
I got to know Leroy through these contests and was totally stoked when he asked me, my friends Don Craig and Kent Layton to be in our first Surfing Magazine ad in ’64, modeling Lunada Bay Wetsuits. Leroy was friends with the guy who owned The International House of Pancakes on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach. The guy decided to make wetsuits as a sideline. We didn’t get any money but were more than happy to get our picture in Surfing, making us big men on the Mira Costa campus. Plus we got free short John wetsuits.
Every pro surfer has a good surf photographer behind him. I was blessed to have a great photographer and a good friend in Leroy. My parents treated him a member of our family. Leroy and his gracious wife Katy lived a block down the street on Monterey Boulevard and had dinner with my parents twice a month before playing bridge. My dad was the physical Therapist for the Redondo Beach Medical Clinic and Leroy was one of his favorite patients. My father refused to charge Leroy, so my dad’s office walls were covered with surfing photos of me. It looked just like my bedroom.
I was 14 years old when I made my first trip to Hawaii in ‘64 with Windansea Surf Club. To pay for the trip, I sold raffle tickets for a color TV for a dollar a piece. Then 10-hour flight on a propeller-powered cargo plane, 10 days at the Waianae Baptist Camp, an old army barracks, and two meals a day at the Stroll Inn coffee shop cost $150. The club was limited to surfing the local beach break at Pokai Bay until Thor Swenson got his hands on an old army troop truck. All 30 of us would pile in the back with our surfboards to check out various surf spots while the locals screamed obscenities and flipped us the bird for bringing such a huge crowd. Leroy stayed on the North Shore but drove two hours every other day to take surfing pictures of us at Makaha and see how we were doing. We only got to go to the North Shore once. It was during a Kona Storm, which meant pouring rain with onshore winds. Leroy felt sorry for us and went to find a Hawaiian friend. He came back with his friend and we followed him past the North Shore to a peak breaking in the middle of the ocean in front of the Crouching Lion restaurant. The name of the spot was Hauula.
It was a perfect peak breaking way out and it was the only spot where the wind was blowing offshore. Nobody else was out until the Dewey Weber Competition Team, which was following us, showed up at the locals’ secret spot. The waves looked about 6-feet from the beach, but when we reached the line-up it was well over 10 feet. It was too far out for Leroy to shoot from the beach and the rain spoiled it for water shots, but he had a good time watching all of us surf. It was the highlight of my first trip to Hawaii. Leroy was an adopted Hawaiian. Everyone in Hawaii, from Duke Kahanamoku on down liked Leroy and considered him family.
The following year Kent Layton and I wanted a big wave surfing photo more than anything. We tried to talk Hap Jacobs into making us big wave guns for that year’s Windansea trip to Hawaii. Hap just laughed, “I’m not making two new big wave guns for a couple of 15-year-olds going on a 10-day trip to Hawaii.”
He pointed to a rack in the back of the factory that had about a dozen dusty old big wave guns. Kent picked out a white one that wasn’t dinged up and I grabbed a 10-foot-5 brown one that looked new. It had five stringers and was really narrow with a deep concave in the bottom of the tail. Everybody was laughing as we walked out of the shop. I didn’t known I had picked out an experimental gun they called the “Kamikaze” because it was almost impossible to turn. The boards weighed close to fifty pounds and I thought my arm was going to drop off after our experimental test run on a big day at Cottons, before we went to Hawaii. We paddled two miles to get to the break but had to walk back.
A week after we arrived at the Waianae Baptist Camp, Makaha the surf got huge with only a handful of big wave older surfers riding the point. Kent and I made the mile long paddle out to the line-up. But, it was too big and scary so we decided to paddle over to the section the locals called The Bowl. When Makaha gets over 10 feet the wave forms a long wall that wraps around the point until it gets to a big peak on the end. That’s The Bowl. The Bowl is about four feet bigger than the wall you took off on and usually breaks right before you get to it, crushing you underneath an avalanche of white water and pinning you to the bottom for an eternity. The locals race along the top of the wall, building up speed, then drop down with The Bowl to get around the section.
Kent and I were getting our thrills taking off on The Bowl’s shoulder, making the steep drops and edging closer to the curl on every wave. Each set had five waves and was bigger than the set before it. Leroy appeared out of nowhere. We saw him sitting right in the impact zone with his camera. Kent and I took off on two, gnarly monster set waves. Afterwards, Leroy paddled over and told us to get out of the water before we got hurt. He said he wouldn’t take any more photos until we were on the beach. We were young and stupid, but not stupid enough to risk drowning if we wouldn’t get a photo of the wave.
The following weekend Leroy showed up at the Makaha International Surfing Championships with a box of slides with Kent and my big wave shots. We couldn’t wait to show the photos to the guys who laughed us out the door at Jacobs. Leroy sold several of the photos that year to a company that made posters for college book stores. I was only a junior at Mira Costa High School, but because of Leroy my Makaha poster was hanging on the wall of the El Camino Junior College Book Store.
In 1969 Leroy introduced me to Nancy Katin who will always be remembered as “The First Lady of Surfing.” She owned Kanvas by Katin Surf wear in Surfside. Nancy wanted Dru Harrison and me to model her trunks in her Surfing Magazine full page ads. Dru was my rival, the perfect yang to my ying. We were both short but Dru was a few inches shorter with dark skin, being part American Indian, while I’m German-Irish and as white as can be. I was a radical surfer with not much style while Dru was a smooth stylish surfer. Dru smoked pot while I was a border line alcoholic. We would surf the Hermosa Pier but didn’t get along. We hung out with different crowds. But Leroy and Nancy liked us both and thought our differences added character to the ads.
A few days after we shot the Katin ad, Sea Suit Wetsuits in Costa Mesa called wanting Dru and I to model in their ads. It wasn’t long before Frank Petrillo called wanting me to surf with Dru on the Petrillo Surfboard team. Thanks to Leroy, within two months I had three new contracts. Dru and I owned three pages of every Surfer and Surfing magazine standing next to each other like we were buddies. Nancy decided to put Jericho Poppler between me and Dru to spice things up. Jericho was the second ranked female in the world and a lively Long Beach surfer who danced ballet on the side. She was a cute, freckle faced, regular foot with a hot, tight body and a big sense of humor. She made the Kanvas by Katin ads really pop.
Leroy surfed in all the big contests up and down the coast, regularly winning or placing in the 35 year old and over division. In the first Dewey Weber Longboard Surfing Championships he paddled for an outside set and ended up taking off between the pilings, underneath the Manhattan Beach Pier. He won his division, but his wife Katy fainted on the beach.
When ever there was an ad shoot Leroy would pick me up in his big green GMC pick-up truck with a camper shell on the back, where I was forced to listen to the big band sounds of Benny Goodman, Count Baise, and Gene Krupa. Most of the time it was just me and Leroy. The few times that Leroy’s son John came along he fell asleep before we hit the freeway. Leroy is a quiet man in a group of friends and a silent man when driving, so I would constantly ask him to tell me surf stories about the old days.
He would tell me stories about surfing with Hoppy, Doc Ball, “Tulie” Clark and the rest of the Palos Verdes Surf Club back in the late ‘30s when they used to call the Cove a three-stopper because their surfboards weighed close or over a 100 pounds and you had to stop three times to rest on the way down and four times on the way up. He told me they called Cove Little Waikiki because of the easy rolling waves on a west swell with the hot offshore Santa Anna winds. But I liked the stories of the big north swells flying down gnarly waves at Ski Jump. Leroy would tell me that in the winter, it was usually raining and the Cove would close out all the way across the bay. So they would brave huge, freezing white water, with no wetsuits, to reach the big rights breaking off the rock way outside called Ski Jump.
In 1970, I started staying on Hawaii’s North Shore for a month or two every winter. The best surfers from around the world migrate every November through December to the same stretch of beach between Haleiwa and Velzyland. It’s like “March of the Penguins” or the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. The huge northwest swells roll in from the Aleutian Islands across the deep Pacific, gaining speed and power before crashing down on the shallow Hawaiian reefs. It’s where all the pubescent surfers go to prove their manhood.
Leroy Grannis spent every winter at Log Cabins, right in the middle of all the best surf spots on the North Shore. Log Cabins is a shallow reef surf spot. It’s called Log Cabins because there’s house on the beach that looks just like a log cabin made for the TV western “Bonanza.” It’s a radical tube where you can actually see parts of the reef sticking out of the water as you fly out of the tube. The reason we liked surfing there was because it reminded us of the South Bay beach breaks, on their best day, and Leroy lived there. Leroy’s son John and our friends were the only surfers riding there through the ‘70s. Leroy captured our finest moments from the beach and in the water. A lot of them wound up in ads and in the pages of the surf magazines. This February’s cover of Surfer Magazine features the South Bay’s Alex Gray in the tube at Log Cabins.
In Hawaii, the top photographers chase around the top surfers to get their photos printed in the surfing magazines. They find out where they are going to surf and follow them down to the edge of the water. In the ‘60s and ‘70s all the top surfers looked for Leroy. The other photographers also respected and liked Leroy because he was cordial to all of them.
They’d always greet him with, “Hey Leroy, what’s your F-stop?” B