All Roads Lead West

Plying his trade at the terminus of Route 66, Jim Ganzer exhibits the breadth and depth of Los Angeles surf culture.

Light / Dark

British architectural historian Reyner Banham loved Los Angeles because it was a city that broke all the rules and made “nonsense of history.” While he was enamored by the San Diego Freeway, the car culture, and the Southland’s beaches, he was most impressed by its “preferred form of the noble savage,” the surfer. As the Englishman explained in his seminal work, 1971’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, surfing was “a tough and restrictive sport. What has happened since is—as they say—history, but few episodes of seaside history since the Viking invasions can have been so colorful.” 

In 1969, Banham had gone straight to the source, courtesy of an invitation to the home of surfer-artist Jim Ganzer, who lived in a Dionysian enclave of beachfront houses situated between Pacific Palisades and Malibu. “You had the hippies, the nude beach, and even the Manson family for a while,” says Ganzer. “You didn’t surf there unless you were invited. Banham was struck by my hedonistic view of life. He said, ‘This is just one big amusement park.’”

Ganzer was born in 1945 in Chicago, where his father worked for the Pullman railroad car company. When the trains began to die and airplanes began to fly, the elder Ganzer cashed his bonus check, bought a white Pontiac convertible, and drove his family west on Route 66 until they hit the Pacific Ocean. It was September 1957. Fourteen-year-old Jim arrived in Pacific Palisades with greased-back hair, a Levi’s jacket, and horseshoe heel taps on his loafers. He would soon swap his denim jacket for a Pendleton shirt and his loafers for Jack Purcell tennis shoes.

Topanga, 1965. It was a warm summer afternoon, so I borrowed a board and caught a few in my Speedos. There was one other surfer out. I haven’t seen such a light crowd there since, well, that afternoon.

On one of his first days in the Palisades, Ganzer walked to the beach and met a group of kids his own age bodysurfing near Bel-Air Bay Club. “I knew nothing about surfing or the ocean,” he says. “There was a big south swell. I got thrown around and thought, ‘Fuck, this is really something! This is scary!’ Immediately, the ocean was a big deal to me.”

State and the Pit
1955 to 1959

Ganzer’s new hometown was then ground zero for a baby-boomer-led cultural revolution. As Banham points out in his book, the “culture of the beach was a symbolic rejection of the values of the consumer society.” British writer Christopher Isherwood, who moved to Santa Monica Canyon in 1953, called it the “western Greenwich Village,” describing it as a place where “cranky, kindly people live and tolerate each other’s mild and often charming eccentricities.” 

By the time Banham, Isherwood, or Ganzer arrived, Will Rogers State Beach, Pacific Palisades above it, and Santa Monica Canyon behind it had been home to a vibrant Southern California “waterfront culture” for almost a century. While Gene Selznick, the first “King of the Beach,” ruled the volleyball courts, generations of legendary watermen ruled the Santa Monica surf: George Freeth, Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Pete Peterson, Tom Zahn, Joe Quigg, Ricky Grigg, Peter Cole, Buzzy Trent, Mickey Muñoz, and Mike Doyle all served as Santa Monica lifeguards. 

Every morning, Ganzer and his friends would follow the smell of piss down Channel Road to the subterranean staircase and tunnel under Pacific Coast Highway that opens up to what’s known by its inhabitants as “State Beach.”

“It had something for everyone,” Ganzer says. “There was a Hollywood scene, a volleyball scene, a surfing scene, a gay scene, and nightlife in the canyon. Anything could happen down there. One day we were on the beach and spotted a ring of guys in dark suits. Next thing we know, a helicopter touches down in front of Peter Lawford’s house, and JFK jumps out. In 1964, Darryl Stolper and I were at State and the Rolling Stones showed up looking for him. Darryl had been collecting blues records since he was a little kid, and the Stones wanted to buy records from him.”

By the fall of 1958, Ganzer was surfing, his entry eased by friend Denny Aaberg, the youngest of three brothers. The oldest, Kemp, was a lifeguard at Malibu who had gained a modicum of surf stardom when a photograph of him arching across a sparkling Rincon wall became Surfer magazine’s first logo, as well as being featured in Bruce Brown’s 1958 film Slippery When Wet.

“We all looked up to Kemp,” says Ganzer. “He and Lance Carson were the two best surfers in Pacific Palisades. The walls in his room were covered with surf pictures. There was a story behind every picture and every piece of memorabilia. Going into that room was like going into a museum, and he was the docent. It really made me want to become a surfer.” 

The devolution of the Aaberg family’s trophy room, 1966.

He did, with a little help and a lesson from the middle Aaberg brother, Steve, who lived in the garage and had decorated its walls with vinyl 45 records, grass mats, and neon beer signs and arranged tuck-and-roll car seats for furniture. Ganzer told Steve that he’d tried surfing and wanted to buy a board. Steve replied, “I just happen to have one for sale,” before heading toward the back of the house. A few minutes later, he emerged with a battered balsa Velzy-Jacobs with a foam nose. “He told me, ‘Forty dollars,’” says Ganzer. “So I came back with $40 and he said, ‘Forty-five dollars!’ I got all disgruntled, but came back with another $5. Steve said, ‘I want $50!’ I said, ‘Fuck you!’ Steve laughed and said, ‘Okay,’ and sold me the board. This was the era of the ratfuck. I learned young to watch my back and stand my ground.”  

Ganzer, Denny, Robbie Dick, and Lanny Hoffman surfed State Beach as much as they could and progressed quickly. They soon had knots on their knees and crater-like open sores they called “volcanoes” on the tops of their feet, competing to see who had the most flies around their craters. They’d often surf in front of Doyle’s lifeguard tower just south of State.  

“We knew Doyle from the Aabergs’ house,” says Ganzer. “He’d let us sit in the tower, and would critique our surfing and give us pointers. He eventually got all of us on the Hansen surf team.”

 What Ganzer remembers most about this period were the parties at the Aabergs’ house, immortalized in Big Wednesday. His entrance to these gatherings, as much tribal councils as social events, began one summer night. As he approached the house, Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” floated through the balmy air. Ganzer made his way around Dewey Weber’s 1933 Ford panel truck on the lawn and bumped into a guy taking a piss.

“He had one arm around a girl, a gallon jug of Red Mountain wine in his other hand, and the girl holding his pecker,” Ganzer says. “Inside the house, these older, stylish girls were doing ‘The Slow Wicked Stroll’ to Bill Doggett’s song, ‘Honky Tonk.’ At some point in the night, the hodads, the guys with their hair slicked back into ducktails, showed up to trash the party. The surfers closed ranks and kicked their asses. The kids ran the show at the Aabergs’, and the neighbors were aghast!”

My first assignment for Surf Guide magazine, 1964. The job was to showcase the typical surf day, including taking gear down to the beach. I’m loading the boards into the back of my 1950 Ford Country Squire while Dave Stewart and Chuck Lorrimer offer zero assistance from up in the cab.

It wasn’t long until Ganzer made his way up to Malibu. Unlike Santa Monica’s athletic waterman culture, Malibu of the late 1950s was lawless and libertine, home to “dropouts” and “surf bums.”

“It was a frontier town back then,” Ganzer says. “There were no cops, except for Broderick Crawford driving around drunk in his fake police car.”

Ganzer’s first trip was made by hitchhiking up the coast. Upon arrival, he spotted a barbed-wired area filled with discarded furniture and a palm-frond hut. He paused, knowing it was “The Pit,” a place he had been warned about. 

“I tried to sneak by unnoticed, but was intercepted by a sinister guy I’d once seen tip over an armoire at a party and laugh maniacally when all the china broke,” Ganzer says. “First, the guy made me stand at attention as he rifled through my possessions and took anything of value. Then he called over one of his stooges, a guy I knew from the Palisades, and barked, ‘Hit him!’ I could tell the second guy didn’t want to do it, but he punched me in the stomach.”  

It all worked out in the end, though, as Ganzer was at Malibu the day his tormentor got his comeuppance: “He was eating a half a watermelon, and some guy he had obviously wronged walked up and punched him in the mouth right through the watermelon—dropped him.”

Ganzer and his friends began spending more and more of their time at Malibu and quickly became aquainted with locals like Ray “The Enforcer” Kunze, “Mysto” George, and Tim “The Glider” Lyon. They also got to know more-ominous characters, including Miki Dora, bank robber Eddie Lavo, Hawaiian transplant “Mokey,” and Malibu’s dignified resident hobo, “Old Joe,” who’d come to Malibu from Italy to work making tiles at Malibu Pottery and never left.  

“There were some real characters at the Point who had a very inventive attitude towards life,” says Ganzer.  

After he got a job rinsing fish guts and scales off Malibu pier, Ganzer and his friends often spent the night on the beach up by Third Point and Malibu Colony, the movie-star enclave where many of Malibu’s best surfers lived, including Johnny Fain. 

Santa Monica, 1964. This is another shot of me from the Surf Guide story, post-load-up and finally able to enjoy the editorial process. It had been only a few years since I’d come in from Chicago, and I was getting paid to go surfing. 

“He was a total hustler,” Ganzer says. “At one point he was Malibu Colony’s tennis pro. He and Miki used to play tennis. They had a love/hate relationship. Most people just accepted the fact that Miki was going to stooge you, but Johnny didn’t stand for it.  He had a sense of self-importance, and once Miki realized that, it was over.”  

During each big south swell, a who’s who would make the pilgrimage up to First Point—everyone from actor Peter Lawford to Joey Cabell, LA Times owner Otis Chandler to Bob Cooper to Paul Strauch. 

“These summer swells were a real gathering of the tribe,” Ganzer says. “Photographers LeRoy Grannis, Grant Rohloff, Bud Browne, and Don James would all have their cameras set up on the beach.”    

The tribe soon got much bigger. In the spring of 1959, Ganzer and Denny saw Gidget on opening night at the Bay Theater in Pacific Palisades. “There was a big line out front,” he says. “Cars were cruising by honking their horns, guys doing BAs out the window—it was a big scene. We went to the ticket booth and a small, cute brunette a little older than us handed us our tickets. We got out of earshot and Denny turned to me and said, ‘That’s her, that’s the real Gidget.’ And when the movie came out in 1959, forget it, everyone wanted to become a surfer.”

Upside, Downside, Inside, Outside
1960 to 1962

 The members of the North Bay Surf Club, 1962.

By 1960, Ganzer, Denny, and Robbie were members of Santa Monica’s North Bay Surf Club. “There were some remarkable guys in that club,” Ganzer says. “Tony Kronman would go on to become the dean of Yale Law School. Another member, Stuart Bailey, lived near artist and designer Ray Eames. His parents were the millers who made the wood for those beautiful chairs. Marc Neikrug’s dad, George, played the cello for the LA Philharmonic Orchestra, and Marc would go on to play with the New York Philharmonic.”

However, not all of the members of the North Bay Surf Club would go on to teach in the Ivy League or play in an orchestra. Mike LaRae, one of the best surfers in the club, was an angelic-looking regularfoot who rode a double-stringer Lyman surfboard and could stand on the nose all day long. “He was just plain bad,” Ganzer says. “His parents were full-on Nazis and supposedly owned Hermann Göring’s yacht. LaRae would hand out racist pamphlets. I thought they were ridiculous, so I brought one home to show my dad. He was so fucking pissed off.”  

Every fall, when State and the Jetty got really big, the club would drive up to Rincon. “Part of the pilgrimage to Rincon was stopping for breakfast on the way up,” says Ganzer. “Sometimes we would go to the Colonial House in Oxnard.” Known for its “Old South ambiance,” the Colonial House would come under fire from the NAACP in the late 60s for its marquee: a Black man in a chef’s outfit who stood on a platform next to Highway 1 ringing a bell and waving at passing cars. 

Jan-Michael Vincent, Topanga Beach, 1967. Jan and I met through my girlfriend at the time, Ronnie Troup, who starred with him on a TV show called The Banana Splits. He was just learning to surf, so she introduced us. He was also serving in the Army Reserve, and stopped by my house at Topanga after a meeting for a beer and a joint. 

“Steve was driving me, Denny, and LaRae up to Rincon. As we passed the Colonial House, LaRae stuck his head out the car’s window and screamed [a racial slur]. Steve slammed on the brakes and said, ‘What the fuck did you just say?’ Steve backed up all the way and stopped the car and asked, ‘Mike, do you have something to say to this gentleman?’ LaRae was so humiliated that he tried crawling under the seat. It was wonderful to see that little bastard squirm. When you got sounded by one of the older guys, you shut up and took your bitter medicine.”  

Each summer, the club made an annual trek south to San Diego, where they’d camp in a friend’s yard and surf Solana Beach, Seaside Reef, and Swami’s. The highlight of these trips, though, were the nighttime excursions across the border to Tijuana’s Zona Norte. 

“Tijuana back then was kind of like the Wild West,” Ganzer says. “Drunk Marines were staggering down the street, there were fights, and a Mexican barker stood outside the Blue Fox to invite you to ‘come inside and eat the furburger.’ One night we went to the Blue Fox and it was quiet and empty—totally dead. We heard someone playing the piano, looked up on the stage, and there was Marc Neikrug, the composer, banging out a Ray Charles song. Suddenly, people came in off the street; strippers and pimps came pouring out from these catacombs behind the club. Everyone started dancing. In a few minutes, the club was packed! It was magical, the way Neikrug breathed life into the place. The Mexican hookers mobbed him. He was lucky to get out of there with his clothes on.”

Cutting back at State Beach, 1966. Despite the surf population growing beyond belief during the 60s, the big non-secret about surfing in LA is that, outside of the points, the waves are more often than not poor in quality. The benefit is you’re forced to learn how to make it happen no matter what.

During this period, Ganzer’s status in the surfing world was elevated significantly when Carson got him on the Jacobs surf team alongside Donald Takayama, Dora, Doyle, Robert August, Strauch, Fain, Ford, Kemp, and many other greats. Soon, Jacobs hired Ganzer as a salesman to replace August, who’d left to film The Endless Summer.

“Having that diamond logo on the back of your jacket was a big deal back then,” says Ganzer. “Like Velzy, Hap was an excellent carpenter and craftsman who taught a whole generation how to shape. He always took time to show me how to do things.”

As Ganzer began to come into his own as a surfer, he drew Dora’s attention. However, it wasn’t due to Ganzer’s skill in the water. When Dora learned that Ganzer worked as a parking valet and had a line on the Hollywood parties, he began to ply him for intelligence. While the 1950s were the era of “the ratfuck”—elaborate, often mean-spirited, practical jokes—the 1960s were the era of “the caper” and “the scam.” “Surfers were looking for ways to work as little as possible to keep their days free for surfing,” Ganzer says. “Miki was the guy who influenced all the beach people on that caper mentality of ‘What can I get away with?’ I remember when To Catch a Thief came out and Miki started wearing turtlenecks. Dora definitely thought he was Cary Grant. Miki would show up at some of the parties where I was working—in a tux, wearing a Beatles wig. He would infiltrate, mingle long enough to find out where the coats and purses were, rifle through them for valuables, then make his exit.” 

Goodbye, Camelot
1963 to 1976

fter graduating from Palisades High School in 1963, Ganzer went to work for Surf Guide magazine. Bill Cleary, a former Marine from San Marino who was one of the first people to surf in France and the Canary Islands, had moved to Topanga and started the magazine with Larry Stevenson, a lifeguard, All-American swimmer, and founder of Makaha Skateboards. 

Surfer wouldn’t run Makaha’s ads, so he started Surf Guide,” says Ganzer. “It had an amazing staff: Ron Stoner, LeRoy Grannis, John Van Hamersveld, Kemp, the Calhouns, Peter Cole, Corky Carroll, Bob Cooper, Peter Dixon, Buzzy Trent, and many others. I’d worked on the high school yearbook, so I helped out with layout and design. Then they had me manage their skateboard team. Cleary was a great mentor who helped me navigate life as it was getting much more complex.”  

The first of these complexities occurred on November 22, 1963: “It was a regular Friday. I was packing boxes at the shop when the radio announced that President Kennedy, whose youthful energy I’d witnessed and admired at State Beach just a few years earlier, had been shot and killed in Dallas. As I made my way home, I noticed that a deafening silence had come over the entire town. For many of us, it wasn’t just Kennedy who had been killed. It was our innocence. It was the beginning of my disillusionment with America.”    

The next interruption in Ganzer’s idyllic life came in 1964, when his draft notice arrived and he went to his pre-induction physical exam in Los Angeles: “Fain was there wearing a ballerina’s tutu, pretending to be gay. I took speed to get my heart rate up, and then intentionally failed the hearing test. It wasn’t enough. The draft boards in LA were on to all the tricks.” Although he was drafted, a friend of Ganzer’s father was a high-ranking officer and got him transferred to the Naval Reserve.  

Fine-art checks. BROADWAY BOOGIE WOOGIE, 1983, charcoal on canvas.

This close call made Ganzer think seriously about his future. There were other signs too. By 1965, the scene at Malibu was out of control. “It was really aggro—the Vals against the coastal guys,” Ganzer says. “It went from everybody being friends to something more territorial. There was a fight every hour, on the hour. Somebody was always getting whomped and walking away with a black eye or a bloody nose. I just thought, ‘Fuck this!’”  

After his experience at Surf Guide, Ganzer decided to go to art school. Like the previous generation of Southern California surfer-artists before him—Bob Irwin, Ken Price, and Billy Al Bengston—Ganzer had been making sophisticated aesthetic decisions about automobiles and surfboards since he was a teenager. He enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute in 1965. At that time, the school’s recent alumni, including Irwin, Larry Bell, and John Altoon, were an important part of the core of Irving Blum’s now-mythic Ferus Gallery. At Chouinard, Ganzer met classmates Chuck Arnoldi, Laddie Dill, Ron Cooper, and Tom Wudl, and once again found the camaraderie that he felt had gone missing from surfing. 

Soon, Ganzer, Guy Dill, Allen Ruppersberg, and Cooper built studios at the abandoned Pacific Ocean Park (POP) amusement park and pier. Between making art, Ganzer preferred fishing for perch from the pier to surfing there.

“Miki used to surf there,” he says. “So did [Allen] Sarlo and all the Dogtown kids. But there was too much shit in the water.”

What Ganzer did like about POP were the free materials lying around. Banham visited Ganzer’s studio and, says Ganzer, “he thought that it was a metaphor for the way we lived our lives and made our art. Banham told me that I had ‘an amusement-park attitude towards art.’ I loved the process of making art. It wasn’t so much about the object as the experience. At one point I was painting balloons that would wither and die in a month. They were my version of the sand drawing.” 

An installation look at a piece from New Painting in Los Angeles at the Newport Art Museum, 1970. I came up with the idea on the big Central and South America trip and created it by dragging a burnt ember from a Malibu fire along 40 feet of wall, which gave it the texture of a wave all the way across. 

Ganzer’s ideas about surfing were redefined by Patrick McNulty’s 1966 Surfer article “Down Ocean Way,” about a now-famous trip Billy Fury, Ron Stoner, and Chouinard alum Rick Griffin took to San Blas, Mexico. Griffin’s drawings of the Indigenous Huichol people, peyote buttons, and surfing were “like an ad” to Ganzer: “Go to Mexico! Get good waves! Bring back a kilo of weed and you will be a hero in your town!” 

In 1970, Ganzer, Dick, and Cooper drove a VW bus down the Pan-American Highway from Southern California to Panama. More than a surf trip, they visited museums in Mexico City, drank tequila, and entered an entirely new world beyond the beach. While they got great waves in Mexico and Panama, it was a remote peninsula near Quepos, Costa Rica, that captured their hearts. Dick and Ganzer returned the next year, bought 14 acres and built minimalist grass shacks, and discovered a variety of breaks that they surfed by themselves.  

Ganzer drove 4,000 miles back to California to participate in a show called New Painting in Los Angeles at the Newport Art Museum. “I got on a skateboard and dragged a piece of wood from the recent Malibu fire down the 40-foot-long white wall like you would drag your hand in the face of a wave.” He also made a smaller charcoal drawing of a 90-degree arc one critic described as “directionally forceful” and “subtly topographical.” 

After his POP studio was condemned and torn down, Ganzer rode his bike down Venice’s dirty streets looking for a new studio space. Many of the buildings had fallen into disrepair and were virtually abandoned. He found a large building on Westminster Boulevard and Main Street and knocked on the door. 

“Venice in the 1970s was a very rough place,” says Ganzer. “A touch of evil was upon it. A strung-out lady opened the door. The sash of her dress was tied off around her arm; she’d just shot heroin.” She took Ganzer to a parapet on the top floor and pointed to a hole in the floor. “A 20-foot ladder went down to a 33,000-square-foot building. It was full of old Jaguars that junkies were living in.”  

The junkies rented Ganzer the garage, and he transformed it into his studio. One morning, however, an old man who turned out to be the building’s true owner showed up and informed Ganzer that he’d been paying rent to squatters. Ganzer asked the man if he’d be interested in selling the garage. The man replied, “Sharpen your pencil.”

In order to evict the junkies, the artist had to homestead the property. When Cooper arrived to check out the building for the first time, Ganzer opened the sliding door with a baseball bat in his hands. Ganzer got Cooper and Peter Alexander to pool their money, and with Cooper’s buffed-out 4×4 as a down payment, they bought the building for $60,000. 

After the artists got rid of the cars and degreased the floors, they transformed the space into three gigantic studios. Suddenly, Venice was at the forefront of American contemporary art. Irwin, Bell, and DeWain Valentine lived there for stretches, as did Bengston, pop artist Ed Ruscha, and others. Ganzer’s studio became a hive of creative activity. In addition to making art, he also rented his studio to artists like Lynda Bengalis and Bryan Hunt to work in. Ruscha shot his art film Miracle there, with Ganzer starring opposite Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas. The revenue Ganzer generated from the studio enabled him to travel to the property he owned in Costa Rica, stay for a month, surf, and make art. 

“It wasn’t just surfing,” he says. “The jungle environment was totally foreign to me. It fascinated, inspired, and energized me for decades.”    

In California, he surfed Topanga and First Point with his old friends Robbie Dick and George Trafton. Although the scene had changed, when Ganzer paddled out at Malibu for the first time in many years, he says, “I was filled with waves of well being by the connection I felt. Malibu was home.”

Mating Call
1976 to Present

During his art period, Ganzer met Susie Boykin—a beautiful, strong-willed Texan. They married in 1976. A daughter, Sandy, and son, Beaux, soon followed. With a family to support, he and his friends sold their studio to Jack Nicholson, and Ganzer, while continuing to make art, began to make tables and work in Bell’s studio. 

“I liked to do it all! I considered every part of everything I did art. But showing art, storing art, seducing patrons and gallery owners, listening to pretentious critics…” says Ganzer. “I’d much rather go surfing.”

In the late 1970s, after sliding into third base during a Malibu softball game, Ganzer noticed that the built-in belt in his baseball pants magically held them in place. Then an internal voice asked, “Why didn’t some surfer think of this?” 

Sketches for a Jimmy’z line of pants, 1984.

Ganzer had never liked the way laces and buttons felt when he was lying on his surfboard. “I’d always wanted trunks with a side Velcro closure,” he says. “I mentioned this to my art dealer’s husband, who was in the garment industry. He said, ‘Do a drawing.’ He liked the drawing and then said, ‘Get someone to make them.’” Ganzer found a seamstress in Boyle Heights, who began sewing men’s and women’s shorts out of different sample fabrics he brought her.   

The first Jimmy’z trunks were a cross, as Ganzer says, “between the shorts the British military wore in India and the really long shorts that Duke and the old Hawaiian beach boys wore to prevent rashes.” Ganzer distributed the first pairs to prominent friends in the Malibu surfing hierarchy, including J. Riddle, Trafton, Jeff Higginbotham, Skip Engblom, and Dick. Next, the Paskowitz family helped to expand the brand down to the South Bay. “It all happened very organically,” remembers Ganzer. “In the beginning, I sold them out of my station wagon in the parking lots at Topanga and Malibu. They were functional, each batch was different, and people liked them.”

Jimmy’z took a much more serious and lucrative turn in 1983, when Ganzer showed them to Sepp Donahower, whose company, Pacific Productions, was at one time one of the biggest concert promoters in America. “Sepp touched his nose and said, ‘I smell a hit.’ He really understood marketing,” Ganzer says. 

One of their first successful ads was a photo of surfer Randy Carranza taken at Los Flores beach. “Higgy was working for photographer Phillip Dixon, who shot the Guess jeans ad campaign,” says Ganzer. “Dixon had a beautiful young model pull the Velcro tab of Randy’s pants as if she was taking them off.” 

These ads first appeared on the inside cover of the Los Angeles Free Press. Soon, ads for Jimmy’z featured wild men surfing and skating—Christian Hosoi, Steve Olson, David Hackett, Vince Klyn, and others. “Jimmy’z was much more of a scene than a clothing company,” Ganzer says. “We were having fun and doing what came naturally to us.”

The brand really took off after NBC News filmed Ganzer at Surfrider Beach holding a pair of Jimmy’z. He turned to the camera, ripped open the Velcro, and said, “The mating call of the 80s.” By the end of their first weekend trade show, Ganzer and Donahower had sold $300,000 worth of merchandise. Over the next five years, Jimmy’z rose like a meteor, and their headquarters expanded from a garage to a 55,000-square-foot building in Los Angeles. Ry Cooder and Stevie Ray Vaughan modeled their clothes in ads that appeared in Rolling Stone. At a trade show in New York City, Ganzer hired a dancer from the Wayans Brothers television show In Living Color named Jennifer Lopez to dance to the music of a reggae musician he met playing on the street in Times Square. “I have always enjoyed doing unpredictable, spontaneous things,” Ganzer says. “We outraged some people and inspired others.” 

Me, my office, 2022. Messy as usual. Photo by Grant Ellis.

After a while, supply, demand, and the day-to-day pushing and shoving of the garment industry stopped being fun, and Ganzer and Donahower sold Jimmy’z to Op. “Could I have made more money and maximized my profits? Sure!” says Ganzer. “Could I have had more fun? I doubt it.”  

It was around this time, the late 90s, that Ganzer got a call from his old friend John Milius.  “John was from Beverly Hills and used to come to Malibu.  He knew a lot about history and was always pontificating,” says Ganzer. “Milius calls and says, ‘Your name is on everyone’s lips! You’re the Big Lebowski!’ There’s a couple guys that want to meet you.’ So I picked up the Coen brothers and we talked. I had an errand to run, so I left them in the parking lot of the bowling alley on Venice Boulevard. Then they met my partner, Sepp, who drank White Russians. So Lebowski wasn’t just me. The Coens used parts of our characters and made a composite.”

When asked about his life today, the 77-year-old Ganzer’s eyes twinkle as he shrugs and says with the smile of a Cheshire cat: “I never set out to become a business tycoon or the Big Lebowski. I was just living my life the only way I knew how to. Wealth and fame were much less important to me than fun and creative satisfaction. Surfing shaped the way I approached life. I remember Kemp used to tell us to ‘keep it sano.’ This meant keep it sanitary, keep your shit together, stay within the lines. That was what I meant by ‘the Dude abides.’ I might have stepped over the lines of society’s rules, but I always abided by my own natural law, my own sense of right and wrong.”