Already months behind schedule and nearly half a million dollars over budget, the sneak peek of the new Big Surf in Tempe seemed to go picture-perfect as press photographers captured images of the attractive young co-eds in bikinis and swim trunks, surfing in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.
Against the backdrop of a towering “lava rock” wall overflowing with thundering waterfalls, the college kids from nearby Arizona State University were joined by world surfing champion Fred Hemmings Jr., who was photographed grinning from ear-to-ear while effortlessly balancing a 20-year-old brunette on his surfboard.
The palm trees were planted and the trucks had filled the beach with 23,000 tons of sandy gravel. Surely it was only a matter of days before the world’s first inland ocean opened to the general public.
Or at least it would be, if Phil Dexter and his team of engineers could figure out how to prevent the force of the waves from ripping up the vinyl floor of Big Surf’s signature attraction. Summer was almost over, and Dexter’s dream of the world’s first “surfable” wave pool was, yet again, going down the drain, all 2.5 million gallons of it.
That was September 1969, three months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and just a few weeks after Woodstock. Surfing was all the rage, but water parks were unknown anywhere, not to mention in the Sonoran Desert.
One constant in 47 years
Fast forward nearly one-half century. Now preparing to open for its 47th season on May 7, Big Surf has changed a lot since the late 1960s, but one thing remains constant.
“Our signature attraction is still WaikikiBeach, which remains the third largest wave pool in America,” says Big Surf event coordinator, Joe Shannon.
“It takes about a week and a half to fill that attraction alone. Then, at the end of the season, the water is filtered and sent back to the city of Tempe for treatment and to be recycled back into the city’s water supply.”
Speaking of recycling, “We still use Phil Dexter’s original equipment every day,” says maintenance supervisor Rhett Peña of Mesa.
“The wave equipment is pretty much all original. The same Caterpillar motors still run the water pumps, and the original hydraulics operate the underwater gates. Of course, it was all custom built, so when we do have to replace something, we have a metal shop in town that custom fabricates it for us.”
Rhett says he’s so nostalgic about the equipment he works on because he grew up with it, literally. His father, Bob Peña, now the general manger, started at Big Surf 30 years ago, turning wrenches on the same equipment that Rhett maintains now.
“Big Surf is like a big family, so it does make me proud to have my son working there now,” Bob Peña says.
The Peñas and their long tenure have nothing on Dave Manning, though, who’s known as the godfather of the iconic park’s surfing scene.
“I remember surfing in my wetsuit that first season, it was so cold by the time we finally opened,” says Manning, 62, of Tempe. “At least it was cold for us Arizonans with our thin desert blood.”
Six weeks after those pictures of suntanned ASU students surfing in the desert were splashed across newspapers nationwide, the lagoon had been drained—twice—and the flooring was redone in concrete. And on October 24, 1969, Big Surf finally opened to the public.
“I don’t think anyone even knew they were open that first season, except Dave,” jokes Trevor Hancock, 60, a Tempe resident who’s been surfing at the water park since 1970 and remains lifelong friends with Manning. “I think Clairol just wanted to capture that spirit of the ‘60s, man. Even if it was just for a few weeks.”
Hair-care company’s surprising involvement
So why would a famed hair-coloring company based in Manhattan be interested in building a surf park in the middle of the Arizona desert?
“Clairol wanted to reach the water park’s unique demographic, from kids and teens to young adults and families,” Joe Shannon says. Plus, Clairol was already catering to the sun-bleached surfer look with a series of popular ad campaigns featuring a fresh-faced Cheryl Tiegs playing in the surf and promoting its “California Girl” line. Men were even encouraged to get in on the surfing mania and instantly “look like you spent a month in the sun” with countless ads featuring tanned, bleached-blond youths on a surfboard.
But why would Phil Dexter even think to approach Clairol founders, Joan and Lawrence Gelb? Clairol was already known for its wacky marketing stunts, sponsoring the “first of its kind” Clairol Color Carousel at the 1964 New York World’s Fair featuring one-way mirrors that allowed women to “try on” different hair colors, according the company’s corporate website. “Lawrence Gelb was never afraid to take a chance,” the company writes.
The secret to the water park
How did Tempe end up being home to the world’s first surf center and inland ocean, a shimmering 2.5-acre lagoon powered by a magical mystery machine that stamped out perfect five-foot rip curls every couple of minutes? It’s all thanks to the aforementioned Phil Dexter who, after a visit to the California coast in 1965, was inspired to build “a piston-free hydraulic wave-generation system” that produces, “a real translatory spilling breaker type wave.”
In plain English, Dexter’s artificial ocean works by pumping water into a massive 160-foot-wide, four-story-high storage tank overlooking the lagoon (formerly hidden behind a faux-rock wall and waterfall, it’s now painted with a massive mural). Like clockwork, the water is released by lifting 15 underwater gates, and gravity takes over, sending it whooshing down and out to create a tidal wave in the lagoon below. Most important, by adding a small ridge or baffle to the bottom of the lagoon, Dexter could create perfect barrel roll waves time after time.
At least he could inside a plywood model built in his backyard. Raising money from friends, Dexter rented out a bankrupt billiards bar on East Van Buren Street in Phoenix, where he sweated out the summer of 1967 perfecting a 40-foot version, replete with a scale-model Polynesian village. After securing his patent, Dexter’s wife, Valerie, told a reporter in 1969, “We wrote every big deal operator we could think of, Howard Hughes even. Then finally Clairol called back and said, ‘We’re crazy, too. Come to New York on Thursday.’”
New sponsors, new focus
The partnership didn’t last. Phil Dexter and his original investors bailed in early 1971, and Clairol sold Big Surf at the end of its second season to a family out of El Paso that still owns the property to this day. By the 1980s, Big Surf responded to new competition in the form of Mesa’s Golfland-Sunsplash and Phoenix’s Water Safari Waterpark (now Wet ‘n’ Wild Phoenix) by adding ever more water slides and other family-friendly options, even removing the scalding hot sand.
“What they discovered right away was they couldn’t just survive off surfers, they needed families and the general public and people eating and drinking,” Manning says. “Surfing was Phil’s original focus, but over time it morphed into a surfing and water amusement park, and then just a water park for few decades when they banned surfing altogether.”
The water park even went through a stretch in ‘70s and ‘80s when it hosted concerts from national touring acts, such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon Tour in 1972, not to mention the Beach Boys, Elton John and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“Back then, there weren’t that many large-scale concert venues around,” Big Surf’s Joe Shannon says. “So when the national headliners came to town, it made sense to host them here with our large grounds and experience with big crowds.”
Like the surfing, the concerts faded away in the 1990s and 2000s, when the company behind Golfland-Sunsplash operated Big Surf on behalf of the owners. “When Big Surf’s ownership took back the day-to-day operations in 2010, they decided to restore both concerts and dedicated surfing hours,” Shannon says.
Phil Dexter’s somehow-still-working machinery was recognized as a historic landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 2013, joining modern marvels such as the Disneyland Monorail and Henry Ford’s Model T.
Spawning a desert surfing culture
Another thing that has stood the test of time at Big Surf is its impact on the Valley’s surfing culture. Especially as new generations continue to discover the joy of surfing in the desert.
“I hadn’t been surfing in decades when I heard Big Surf was bringing it back five years ago,” says now-surfing regular Don Bowen of Scottsdale. He grew up surfing as a U.S. Navy brat, but had to learn all over again now that he’s middle aged.
“We always say, it’s nothing like surfing in the ocean, but it’s as close as you’re gonna get in the desert. It’s the methadone compared to the ocean’s heroin, which may not the healthiest analogy, but it really does hook you. It’s the monkey you’re happy to have on your back,” Bowen says. “Plus, it’s great to see people bringing their kids now. It’s generational.”
That same unscratched itch also reunited Manning and Hancock back at Big Surf, decades after their 1970s heyday as daily desert surfers.
“Surfing is not a sport, it’s a sickness,” Manning says. So naturally he was also lured back to Big Surf to check out the new surfing scene.
“I’m standing there with my friend and he says, ‘Do you know this old guy with the surfboard staring at you?’ And it was Trev! I didn’t even recognize him even though he’d been at my wedding. I told him, ‘You sneak, you should have called me.’ But that’s the surfer’s way, the less people the better.”
Today Manning and Hancock are once again surfing staples at their old stomping grounds, riding together, or alongside their now-adult children. They reminisce about being teenagers, fighting fiercely over the best waves one minute, and the next defending each other like brothers whenever outsiders, or worse, California kids tried to muscle in on “our” surf.
“After all those years of having to trek to Southern California, getting in fights or getting our car tires flattened just because we had Arizona plates,” Manning says, “when California surfers came out here with their attitude, we’d give them a bit of their own medicine. There were definitely a few scrapes on the water or out in the parking lot.”
Growing a regional sport
“Back in the 1970s, surfing was a regional sport,” Hancock says. “If you didn’t live within 100 miles of waves, you didn’t even know about surfing. Now it’s permeated the culture with its own styles, fashion, vocabulary. But there’s still no substitute for a homegrown surf scene. And that’s what Phil created with Big Surf.”
“Big Surf will always have a special place in our hearts because it transformed our culture,” Manning says. “Surfing is so big now that kids in Ohio wear Hang 10 shirts. But here in Arizona, thanks to Phil, we got to live and breathe a real surf culture. I tell you, the waves were artificial, but the scene was real.”
Today, these 60-somethings are content to surf as much as possible, even teaching lessons on weekends to the next generation of Valley surfers.
“It’s still a great place to learn to surf,” Manning says. “After Phil died [in 2014], Big Surf had his surviving family fly out, and while they were here I got to teach his granddaughter how to surf. She picked it up in an hour, and it was such an honor to teach her to surf at the place Phil built.”