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1930s: Pete Peterson 3

Lifeguarding, Shaping and Hollywood


In 1934, Pete became one of the first surfers to be photographed riding MalibuTom Blake and Sam Reid had been the first ones to surf it in 1926.[1]  From that point on, surfers had gradually gravitated to it, despite the access problem.  Even by 1934, entry onto the Adamson Ranch and Malibu Point was still restricted.  It was Willie Grigsby, a surfing pal of Pete’s already for a decade and a fellow lifeguard, who arranged to get in.  Grigsby formed the “Pacific Coast Paddle and Surfboard Association” and talked the owner – Mrs. Adamson – into giving the club keys to the gate into Malibu.  In the rotogravure section of the Los Angeles Times for September 16, 1934, there’s a shot of 21 year-old Pete Peterson trimming across a clean Malibu wall.  Dropping in on the same wave were Gardner Lippencott and Bill Dillehunt.[2]

Another photographic moment was captured in the July 30, 1939 Houston Chronicle gravure section.  There is a picture of Pete demonstrating a paddleboard rescue.  On his board is his Scottish Terrier Huey crouched on the board’s nose, playing the role of the victim.[3]

Surfwriter C.R. Stecyk wrote glowingly of Pete and how he imagined it must have been for Pete on a lifeguard “training exercise” circa November 21, 1939:

“The Palama Kai, a mahogany masterpiece of a boat, and the flagship of the Santa Monica Guards, motors north along the coast.  The occasion for this journey is what was euphemistically referred to as a ‘training exercise.’  On board, Preston ‘Pete’ Peterson and cohorts scan the horizon scoping out a massive west swell.  Malibu and Dume have size, but the tides aren’t quite right.  Pete is anxious to try out his newly built racing paddleboard, so he convinces his associates to drop him off at the far end of Anacapa Island.  Alone, Pete paddles/rides the massive open ocean bumps all the way back to Santa Monica Pier, a distance of over 30 miles.  The next day back at the point, Peterson tells the boys, ‘Yesterday I figured out how to railroad.’  Pete describes gliding on the crest of open ocean swells at high speeds for extreme distances.  They surf and later motor the Palama Kai up to the teaming lobster beds north of County Line to capture dinner.  Santa Monica Guards trained hard and played harder.”[4]

Don James shot some pictures of another S.M. guard boat, the Zarak, in 1939, and much later described the day: “One and a half hours off Point Dume.  Doctor Howard, Bill O’Connor, Frank Donahue, and some other Santa Monica guards on their way to Catalina Island… Such forays were occasionally disguised as official training missions for the city municipal lifeguard force.  During this particular exercise we fortified our esprit de corps at the Avalon Casino Ballroom.”[5]

“The quiet and reserved Peterson was also a first-rate craftsman,” wrote Matt Warshaw in his Encyclopedia of Surfing. “He designed and built a popular line of surfboards and paddleboards for Pacific System Homes in the late ‘30s, working mainly with balsa and redwood, and also made and sold boards out of his home for $35 (or $45 with a five-coat spar varnish finish).”[6]

He used others’ designs, as well.  One time, “Pete Peterson had a naval architect design a paddleboard for him,” recalled one of surfing’s great surfboard shapers and characters Dale Velzy.  “He glued up a giant block of balsa wood to make it from and he had it lofted by a marine engineer,” Velzy told, using the shipwright’s term for laying out on paper the exact three-dimensional measurements of a vessel.  “Tulie Clark had one of those boards.  LeRoy Grannis shaped his own boards and so did Lorrin Harrison.  They were both good paddlers.  The guys who were winning the races were mostly on custom-made balsa boards, and everybody copied that one Pete Peterson had made.”[7]

“He was a neat freak,” recalled Don James, “who never used any wax on the surface of his board for traction because he felt it violated the pristine look he so admired.”[8]

“This was unheard of,” continued James, “for everyone used wax.  Some were so obsessed with obtaining a non-slip surface that they even put sand in their varnish.  Peterson’s decks were very slick, but he learned how to place his weight very deliberately and somehow wouldn’t slip off.  Through this strange affectation, Pete developed the most precise wave positioning around.  I guess it was all about his sense of order.”[9]

Matt Warshaw pointed out that as good a craftsman as Pete was, “… his reputation…was built on his rescue work as much as his surfing and paddleboard accomplishments.  Peterson invented a galvanized rescue flotation device, resembling a small buoy, which evolved into the modern rubber rescue tube…”[10]

Despite his great output and accomplishments, Pete was “The kinda guy who kept any personal things to himself,” remembered Dale Velzy.  “He didn’t put other people down, no matter what he might have thought about them.”[11]

Pete also got to be known for his work in the film industry.  Beginning in the 1930s and continuing throughout his life, Pete played numerous bit and second-unit parts in a variety of films that required someone skilled at handling small water craft or “fighting” sharks or crocodiles or even just wearing a monster costume – all of which Pete did and more.  As he grew older, he also had roles to play in films and shorts, but his role in Hollywood, by then, was more as an advisor than as an actor.

“My father could hold his breath a long, long time,” recalled Pete’s daughter Lisa of his Hollywood career early on, “so he often got parts where he played a ‘floater’ – a dead man.”[12]

“That ability to adapt, adopt, improvise, and make believable” is a reputation Pete maintained right up to the end of his life, asserted Craig Lockwood.  A list of most of the movies, shorts and documentaries Pete had roles in, include:


·         Unsung Heroes (documentary, date unknown);
·         All Aboard (Mentone/Universal, musical short, 1937);
·         Wake of the Red Witch (Republic, 1948);
·         Fair Wind to Java (Republic, 1953);
·         Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Twentieth Century Fox, 1960);
·         Poseidon Adventure (Twentieth Century Fox, 1972);
·         Towering Inferno (Fox/Warner, 1973);
·         99 and 44/100% Dead (Twentieth Century Fox, 1974);
·         Jaws (Universal, 1973-74);
·         Lucky Lady (Twentieth Century Fox, 1975);
·         Airport77 (Universal, 1977);
·         Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (Twentieth Century Fox, 1979).[13]


Other work included the Oscar-winning Pete Smith Specialties (MGM) that ran in the late 1940s and early 1950s as shorts in theatres; fillers for the main movie.  Notable stunts during this period included putting an elephant on water skis and jumping the Santa Monica Harbor breakwater on water skis.[14]

“Pete may have earned an additional credit for being the first tow-in surfer,” suggested Craig Lockwood, “using a ski boat to tow him into waves at Palos Verdes Cove on a unique ski-shaped board.”[15]  Les Williams remembered this stunt and even witnessed some of the preparation for it, including Pete steam-bending a 24-inch-wide piece of plywood to simulate the look of a water ski.  “Its nose curved up, (so) from the side it looked like a water ski.  With a low camera angle, it looked exactly like a side shot of a water ski, but was in essence a short board that had been towed into the break.”[16]

Pete also worked on the immensely popular television series of the 1950s that stared Lloyd Bridges: Sea Hunt.[17]



[1] Lynch, Gault-Williams, et al., 2001.  See also Gault-Williams, 2007.
[2] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 51 and 53.  Gardner spelt “Gardener.”
[3] Lockwood, Craig, 2005-2006, p. 58.
[4] Stecyk, C.R.  “November 21, 1939,” Surfer magazine, Volume 33, Number 12, December 1992, p. 41.
[5] James, Don.  Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 134.  Don James written caption to image on p. 83.
[6] Warshaw, Matt.  The Encyclopedia of Surfing, ©2003, p. 459.
[7] Holmes, Paul.  Dale Velzy is Hawk, © 2006 by Paul Holmes, printed by the Croul Family Foundation, Corona del Mar, California, pp. 128-129.  Dale Velzy quoted.
[8] Warshaw, 2003, p. 459.  Don James quoted from San Onofre to Point Dume.
[9] James, Don.  Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942, ©1996, p. 129.  Don James written caption to image on p. 61.
[10] Warshaw, 2003, p. 459.
[11] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 46.  Dale Velzy quoted.
[12] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 56.  Pete’s daughter Lisa quoted.
[13] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 56.
[14] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 56.
[15] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 56 & 64.
[16] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 66.  Les Williams quoted.
[17] Lockwood, 2005-2006, p. 56 & 64.

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