Cover Story: 50 Years of Surfer Magazine--The Good, The Bad, And The Neon

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Illustration by Ryan Sanchez
John Severson didn't really know what he was getting himself into when he introduced The Surfer to surf film-going crowds in 1961. He just wanted the extra $1.50 per copy. He didn't intend to be part of spawning and helping to expand a multibillion dollar industry. 

Maybe that's giving Severson and Surfer too much credit. But without the exposure and central voice, who knows what would have become of the then-fledgling sport. Hell, it wasn't even a sport then, mainly just a scarcely-known activity going on at a few beaches around the world. 

In this week's cover story, "Wave of the Future," we talked to Severson about those early days of surfing and the magazine. It was a time when the sport was still trying to figure itself out and despite its simple beginnings, some of surfing's most colorful characters emerged--and continued to emerge over the course of 50 years. 

We also talked to a number of other influential figures in the development and growth of Surfer and the sport. During its run (and it's still going strong), some of the top surf journalists and photographers (Jeff Devine, Ron Stoner, Art Brewer, Tom Servais, among others)--either known or unknown at the time--appeared in the pages of Surfer. Several of those writers went on to have their time atop the masthead. Almost everyone who has held the position has gone on to even greater accomplishments in or around the industry, be it as an author, artist, magazine publisher, journalist or hanger-on. Whatever the case, each had an impact on the content or direction of the magazine, and almost every one got to be a part of managing the magazine at some interesting or evolutionary point in the sports' growth. 

And stories abound. Most of which the former Surfer staffers refused to approve for print. The following was one that didn't seem to fit, considering the context, but was still one we wanted to share. As told to the Weekly by Steve Pezman, the publisher of Surfer from 1971 to 1991:

"[John Severson] was living in Cypress Shore [in San Clemente], in a house in the left, front lot, right next to what was then the Western White House. When [President Richard] Nixon was shopping the house John took photos of him and sold them to Look Magazine and they were published and it pissed Nixon off. So Nixon always had it in for John and that made John very nervous, because John had just gone from a country club conservative to a hippy liberal and his sister was dating one of the secret service guys there, and [the secret service agent] told his sister to 'Warn your brother that he better clean up his act because we know everything that he does inside that house,' and that freaked him out so much that he just bailed to Maui and left me in the publishers chair, essentially."

While our cover feature gives a sense of the time and people that defined each era in the past 50 years of surfing, the complete story can be found in Matt Warshaw's new book, "The History of Surfing," which was referenced heavily during the research of this piece. While we were limited to around 4,000 words in four weeks to cover 50 years of an international phenomenon, Warshaw got 500 pages and years of research. Trust us, his book is the place to go for the goods.
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