By Jessica Lussenhop
Robert Rittenhouse Sr., a tall and dignified 84-year-old with a neat part in his white hair, sits in the drafty warehouse offices of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Inc., reminiscing about the business’s namesake, the original 27-member club he started with his friends as teenagers in the 1930s.
“We were all kids,” he says. “[At one point], the club thought, we should buy Cowell’s Beach up there where the hotel was. We never knew anything about real estate, but we thought, gee, maybe Cowell would sell it.”
He chuckles gravely.
“We went up to San Francisco and actually had enough nerve to find Cowell’s office on Market Street. There was nobody in the office, and this guy came out and said, ‘Can I help you?’ And that’s Henry Cowell,” he continues. “He explained to us that his estate was all involved in other things and there was no way he could cut out a part of it and sell it to us.”
He smiles faintly, eyes solemn behind his glasses. “That’s one experience that shows you how much gall kids have.”
As he talks, Rittenhouse’s 26-year-old grandson Ryan is a flurry of activity in the background, busily printing and cutting out vinyl decals and answering phone calls under a sign that reads “Think Sales.” Ryan Rittenhouse owns the company named after his grandfather’s surfing club–an enterprise that has driven a wedge between old friends and landed grandfather and grandson in the middle of a heated legal battle over the Santa Cruz Surfing Club’s legacy.
On the wall, Ryan has hung up a copy of the iconic surfing club photo–rights to which he secured in 2006, along with the trademark for the “Santa Cruz Surfing Club” name–showing 11 of the original members, grinning with their enormous wooden surf boards behind them. Third from the right is Harry Mayo, one of Rittenhouse Sr.’s closest friends. Mayo is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against Ryan in December. The complaint alleges that Ryan misrepresented himself in his trademark application and took advantage of Mayo in order to receive signed contracts for the photos and the club trademark.
What began as a simple plan to protect the Santa Cruz Surfing Club name from opportunistic outsiders has erupted into a war of words between three generations of Santa Cruz surfers, all of whom believe they have the club’s best interest at heart. Though the suit has not gone to court, the damage to the 70-year-old friendships may already be irreparable.
“I’m disappointed. Just disappointed,” is all Rittenhouse Sr. will say about his oldest friends. “There may be no original surfers that see the end of this if it goes to court.”
The Boys of Summer
Harry Mayo isn’t supposed to talk about the lawsuit. He’s recuperating from open-heart surgery–a triple bypass–and is still rehabilitating. “I’m supposed to take it easy, and no stress,” he says, and then admits, “I might get upset a little bit, once in a while.”
That’s not hard to imagine. Though Mayo is 85 years old and a bit hard of hearing, he is, for lack of a better word, feisty. And it’s not as though it’s easy to forget about what’s going on with the club. His home is a veritable museum of SCSC memorabilia. He has black and white photos of himself and all the boys carefully framed and mounted on the walls throughout his home. He points to a partially obscured face in one photo. “There’s Bob Rittenhouse in the background right there.”
Mayo agrees that things with Rittenhouse Sr. have gotten strained, though both men immediately answer the same thing when asked about their favorite part of the surfing club: “camaraderie.”
In 1936, the dues were 50 cents and they could store the 90-pound boards they made in wood shop at a member’s house at Gharkey Street and Lighthouse Avenue. “We had a good time,” says Mayo. “The city was wide open. It wasn’t crowded. We could surf at Cowell’s, we could surf at the Rivermouth, we could surf at Pleasure Point.”
Mayo’s photos tell it all. The boys surfed in old sweaters until they got too cold in those pre-wetsuit days. They did handstands in the sand for the girls and posed in their Santa Cruz Surfing Club T-shirts and sweatshirts–a members-only privilege.
Those carefree days ended when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the boys were plucked up into the service one by one. Though everyone survived, their luck was mixed. Mayo was stationed with the Coast Guard and got to surf every other day. Rittenhouse Sr. couldn’t enlist because of his poor eyesight. Alex “Pinky” Pedemonte was nearly killed in a foxhole in France. When they returned, the club never gelled the way it had before. “After the war, you’re a different person,” says Rittenhouse Sr. “You don’t have any time to lay on the beach.”
The fire department got Mayo, Rittenhouse started a successful insurance company and other members scattered across the country in pursuit of work. Though war and distance broke up the club, nostalgia managed to bring them back together. The 50th reunion at the Coconut Grove in 1986, remembered quite fondly, led to the construction of the surfing statue in 1992. The original members also liked to volunteer on Fridays at the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which contains a good deal of their old memorabilia, including photos, surf boards and the old club apparel. Rittenhouse Sr. would bring his grandson along to hear the stories.
But as the years passed, the club ranks began to thin. Today, only 10 original members survive, seven still living in Santa Cruz. “We’re getting older and passing away,” says Mayo. “We want it to be remembered.”
That simple sentiment started all the trouble.
Trouble in the Lineup
Though accounts vary on what exactly happened, all the factions can agree on one thing: there was a time when everyone involved saw eye-to-eye.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Mayo when asked if things with Ryan Rittenhouse started out on friendly terms. “It was a win-win situation, a relative to one of our members and a Santa Cruzan.” But they don’t agree on much of anything else.
Ryan says the success of a Levi Strauss reproduction of the original shirt five years ago, which sold for over $100 a pop and clung to Paris Hilton’s waifish frame on a 2004 cover of Elle magazine, made him begin work in earnest on the trademark. Though club members Mayo and Bob Gillies, who died last summer, agreed to allow the Levi’s reproduction, they received a donation to the surfing museum and free T-shirts (which were far too small for the men) instead of any real compensation. Ryan saw this as part of a trend. “Businesses sold stuff with ‘Santa Cruz Surfing Club’ on it that weren’t even in this community. I didn’t know who they were,” he says. “Nothing was coming back here, nothing came back to my grandpa, nothing to Harry. They didn’t know what a trademark was, they’re too old.”
Ryan is in no uncertain terms an ambitious and business-savvy young man. In 2004, he caught wind of another surfing memorabilia collector’s interest in the trademark and decided he had to move quickly. In the application, he asserted that as a descendant of an original member he was in a perfect position to assume the trademark and rights, and on Aug. 22, 2006, the patent and trademark office agreed.
“When I got into the application process, I obviously let my grandpa know, we let Harry know, Bob Gillies, and those were the only three that cared,” says Ryan. “No one else gave a rat’s ass about the club.” About the same time the application was approved, Mayo and Ryan signed two contracts that Ryan drew up. They gave the “Santa Cruz Surfing Club” sole rights to distribute, sell and use the photos in Mayo’s home collection, and named Ryan as the full owner of any rights to “property and history attached to the Santa Cruz Surfing Club.”
The formal complaint alleges that Ryan showed up at Mayo’s door unannounced several times to confuse Mayo and bully him into signing over rights to his photos. This stings Rittenhouse Sr. in particular, as he joined Ryan on one such visit and is mentioned in the complaint. “It sounded like we banged down the door and rushed in,” he says indignantly. “You don’t go to someone’s house without calling first.”
In any case, Ryan owned the trademark and the rights to the photos peacefully, at least for a short time. He made a few T-shirts and tried selling them at a Santa Cruz Longboard Union event. After some success, he decided to pursue the venture as his full-time job.
In Ryan’s original plan, Santa Cruz Surfing Club would be the name of a commercial company that gave a certain percentage of the profits directly to a nonprofit entity known as the Santa Cruz Surfing Club Alumni, representing the original members.
But when Ryan began treating the SCSC name as a commercial entity, things began to unravel.
“I had to design an apparel company based around the original club and make it appealing to the outside,” he explains. That meant designing a catalogue of apparel with the club name, but different logos and designs, and ones that skewed to a younger audience, including splashier graphics, girls’ boyshort panties and other products that he designed himself.
Mayo says he began to feel things were spinning out of control. “[Ryan] was going great guns and he was going very fast, and I thought he was going too fast,” he says.
Mayo says the turning point for him came when he realized he’d signed away the rights to call the club and the members by their original name. “My buddy Bob Gillies called me and said, ‘I don’t think this is right, I think we should get out,’ and I agreed with him,” says Mayo. “We finally realized that we were no longer the Santa Cruz Surfing Club. Ryan was. That was the end. That was it right there.”
The feeling he’d been duped put an end to friendly relations, though Ryan says he was unaware of that until he was invited to what he thought would be an uneventful meeting in the fall of 2006. “I show up at a meeting and find out that there’s lawyers there representing Harry Mayo,” says Ryan. “That was when Dan Young basically accused me of stealing the logo. It was like, who are you?”
Get Off My Wave
The Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society is a newly minted nonprofit headed up by well-known local surfing advocates Boot McGhee, Dan Young, Kim Stoner and Pat Farley. Though recently they’ve spent most of their time securing permission to run the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum now that the cash-strapped city has pulled out, they were initially brought together by Harry Mayo as the new generation of members of the SCSC. In essence, the Preservation Society is the Santa Cruz Surfing Club–except they’re not allowed to call themselves that.
Dan Young remembers seeing a surfer catch a wave at the river mouth for the first time in the early ’60s, when he was just a kid with his parents. “It was like, ahhhhhhh,” he says, injecting his forearm with an imaginary needle. “Surfing was it. I started surfing whenever I could.”
Young belongs to Santa Cruz’s second generation of surfing. While the original members were busy building their businesses and raising their families, the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s brought a new generation to the sport. For Young and the 13 other ” new” members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club, the times couldn’t have been more different.
“It was the age of crystal meth and acid, of course,” says Boots McGhee. “I feel surfing actually saved my life.”
McGhee and Young were both instrumental at different times in the Santa Cruz chapter of the environmental group Surfrider and became involved in many different surfing-related causes, like the lighthouse museum and statue. Over time, they ran into the original members more and more.
“The older generation is the greatest generation, and I just don’t think you mess with that,” says McGhee. “They lived the life we’ve always wanted to live.”
Mayo says that as more and more original members got older and his anxiety over what was happening with the trademark increased, in 2007, he and Bob Gillies decided that the club needed some fresh blood. “We needed help,” he says. “So we recruited some of the young guys, who were happy to help and were glad to become members of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club.”
“It was such an honor,” says Kim Stoner, who is a founding member of the Longboard Union and has become a club historian for the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.
Young became a spokesman for Mayo and the original club, and the new guys put their energy into finding a way to wrestle the Santa Cruz Surfing Club name and logo back. Ryan says he was blown away by the sudden change. “Harry got put into the corner. They made him feel like he did something bad by signing the contracts,” he says. “They accused me of stealing and defrauding people.”
Ryan says that he tried to negotiate with Young, the new club members and the lawyers to preserve his original business plan with the alumni model. While the complaint acknowledges that at one point, Ryan set up an account with $500 in the SCSC Alumni fund, it denies that any money from the business was every proferred. Ryan says at one time he offered $5,000 to the alumni account to smooth things over and that he “bent over backwards” to try to negotiate with the new surfers. “We probably offered more than we should have and it was just a big F-you in my face every time,” says Ryan. “It became very clear to me this wasn’t about working with the original members.”
What Mayo and Young wanted, and what Ryan was not offering, was the trademark, not a business partnership where the original members had to call themselves “alumni.”
To Young and Mayo, not being able to call themselves the Santa Cruz Surfing Club is the biggest insult of all. “They don’t want it so they can raise money. Why can’t they use their own name? It’s their club,” says Young.
Ryan believes that Young wants to capitalize on the commercial potential of the business, and that’s why he stopped negotiating. Young says he is operating according to the original members’ wishes, and that any money will go to the nonprofit SCSC Preservation Society, not to anyone’s private bank account. And he says they’re just trying to repair the damage. “Like one thing that really stood out was, Ryan put the logo on girl’s panties. That’s not something that generation would ever think of doing, that’s really embarrassing to them,” he says. “Ryan says he’s into this to preserve the history and stuff, but he does not fundamentally understand what these guys are about.”
The two sides stopped speaking, and the lawsuit was filed on Dec. 30, 2008, on behalf of Mayo and the SCSC Preservation Society. Mayo’s lawyer, Steven Johnson, another lifetime surfer, agreed to take the case pro bono. He says that since the club name was used by Mayo and the original members commercially long before Ryan was even born, and since they are still living and operating, Ryan has no case. “He claimed to own it,” says Johnson. “For Mr. Rittenhouse to say, ‘I’m the club, you’re not, and you can’t use your own name anymore,’ that’s not right.”
The argument has already had ramifications. When the city tried to close the surfing museum, the SCSC Preservation Society argued that if it owned the trademark, it could fundraise on the museum’s behalf–and with donations from surfing community members like Jack O’Neill, the Preservation Society has in fact raised enough to keep the museum open. A book about surfing in Santa Cruz has hit a snag in confusion over whether or not the author can use Mayo’s photo collection. Ryan’s apparel company has lost business and he has garnered a lot of unwanted attention.
“I’m getting threats every day. Someone tried to break into my car,” says Ryan. “I filed the stuff for the trademark to hopefully bring this back to Santa Cruz and get it out of the hands of all these people using it for their own benefit. The same thing they’re saying I’m guilty of now.” But he says he’s invested too much time and money to back away now.
The case will likely be heard in a San Francisco court in the next year. Johnson plans to ask the judge to expedite the proceedings, in light of Mayo’s advanced age (though Mayo says, “They gave me 15 years when they opened up my heart. I said, is that all?”). Even so, Pinky Pedemonte’s Parkinson’s disease is making his life more and more difficult, Doug Thorne frets that he’s still too thin after recovering from pancreatic cancer and a couple other members have already slipped into dementia.
Mayo and Rittenhouse Sr. continue to hope that the charges of misrepresentation and elder abuse can be settled out of court, but they also agree that it’s probably “too late” for their friendship. They have strayed far away from what the club was supposed to be about in the first place: camaraderie. “Things have changed,” says Mayo. Rittenhouse Sr. has arguably already lost the most, now that he’s no longer feels he’s a welcome part of the club, though he deals with it with a charismatic calm. “I always cared for the friendship, I loved to talk about it, but when you’re 80 years old, I hope they remember me for more than the surf club.
“If it’s gone, who cares? Kids will still go surfing, whatever happens.”