Thomas Cheney inches down the sandy trail, a cane in his right fist, toward the Surf Shack at Windansea beach where, 56 years earlier, he and some of his surfer friends cemented into place the statue that became a national icon.
“I’m pretty broken,” says the 1960 La Jolla High School grad. “Lots of stuff wrong with me now, but I’m still alive. Seventy-seven? I can’t believe it.”
The statue was called Hot Curl. (In surf lingo, a curl is the breaking part of a wave.) With a pot belly, a beer in hand and just a nose protruding from a mop of long hair, it was the surfer-dude embodiment of a new generation’s rebellion. JFK was still here and the Beatles weren’t yet, but the ’60s youth movement was already showing signs of imminent unrest.
Cheney helped La Jolla illustrator Mike Dormer and his friend, Lee Teacher, build the six-foot statue in the Ocean Beach backyard of internationally renowned sculptor Donal Hord, from whom Teacher was taking lessons.
“We went to the Rose Canyon junkyard and walked around for hours collecting stuff,” Cheney recalled. “A big roll of chicken wire, a basket from a bicycle, water piping, bailing wire.”
Once the basic shape was together, Cheney said, they applied layer after layer of paper mache and then plastered the statue. At the same time, Cheney said, he was shuttling back and forth to Windansea “pounding into the rock for days with a breaker bar, making the holes for the statue.”
On April 23, 1963, the three of them slid Hot Curl into the back of Cheney’s wagon. When they got to Windansea, five or six other surfers helped them drag the statue down to its holes and Cheney cemented it in.
“And then we all ran away,” Cheney said. “Didn’t want to get caught by the policia!”Hot Curl started life as a comic-strip character Dormer drew for “The Scavenger,” the beatnik art and poetry ’zine he began self-publishing in 1959. After the statue went up, though, Hot Curl was quickly adopted as the West Coast’s official surfing mascot.
“It was about what Hot Curl represented — a free spirit, a love of the ocean,” said Terry Kraszewski, a friend of Dormer’s later in life, who currently owns the Ocean Girl Surf Boutique and runs a website (hotcurllives.com) that sells Hot Curl art prints.
“Hot Curl was just this really awesome, anything-goes kind of guy,” Kraszewski said. “Everything he did had humor in it — just like Mike — and he could create a funny situation out of something that might not be.”
Hot Curl debuted in “Surftoons” comic books and as a plastic model kit manufactured by the Model Products Corporation. By 1964, it was a movie star, appearing on T-shirts, hats and on a painting beside the stage where Little Stevie Wonder performed in “Muscle Beach Party.” (That painting now greets diners entering The Spot, 1005 Prospect St.)
Ironically, by the time that Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello movie hit screens, Hot Curl the statue was no more. In fact, it had been destroyed not once but twice by then. The first time was six days after Cheney helped install it. That’s when workers from the City, fearful that it would topple and hurt someone, smashed it to pieces and placed it in a nearby garbage receptacle.
“I was expecting something like that to happen,” Cheney said, “but not that quick.”
Dormer and Teacher — working again with Cheney’s assistance — built a second Hot Curl to code. This one weighed 400 pounds, was coated in stronger Hydrocal plaster and was mounted on a stable cement base.
“We took much heavier piping and we double-wired it,” Cheney said. “It was a pretty intense thing and in between each process, we had to call the City guy to inspect it.”
The second Hot Curl was placed on July 14, 1963. With backing from both the Windansea Association and the U.S. Surfing Association, its installation felt to Cheney less like a crime and more like a victory parade.
“A huge gathering of locals, along with national news, helped us carry down and place the new statue,” Cheney said. (City officials promised only that the statue could remain up for one year — and then, only if it were kept sightly. But that was reason enough to celebrate.)
Fate had other plans. After only a couple of weeks, San Diego Police Officer Howard C. Sauter found Hot Curl lying on the rocks, decapitated and nearly torn from its concrete base.
“I felt really depressed about it,” Cheney said. “It really shook me up. In those days, there were no lights here. Anyone could have walked down and did that.”
There was talk about rebuilding it again, but it petered out. Later, a pounding high surf took the remains of the statue out to sea, leaving — for a long time — just its concrete base with a couple of bars of rebar jutting out.
It wasn’t until April 2018 that the mystery of what happened to the second Hot Curl was apparently solved. On the website dedicated to La Jolla’s Mac Meda Destruction Company social club (macmedadestruction.com), someone commented below a story about the statue: “Believe it or not, three of my friends and I were the original ‘vandals’ who tore down Hotcurl (sp) … We were all teenagers, and were looking for whatever hi-jinx we could get into.”
The Light e-mailed the confessed vandal and received the following response: “I am not one bit contrite or regretful for what we did that night. It was great fun and I would do it again in a heartbeat. To the best of my knowledge, when (name redacted) died, he still had Hotcurl’s (sp) head on his bedroom dresser. I dearly love that image, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.”
A third Hot Curl statue was sculpted by Mac Meda members Matt and Mark Edwards for a float in the 1991 La Jolla Christmas parade — before the float was denied entry. It was then intended to go on permanent display at the La Jolla Brewery (now CAVU at 7536 Fay Ave.) but was denied entry there, too.
It went to the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum in Balboa Park for a few years before being donated by Dormer and Kraszewski to the California Surf Museum in Oceanside sometime in the late ‘90s, where it still stands today.
“People love Hot Curl because he’s such a cartoonish figure,” said California Surf Museum co-founder Jane Schmauss. “They pose for pictures with him often and kids, who don’t know anything about the statue, gravitate to the fun inherent in it. I think Hot Curl is a physical manifestation of surfers having fun, not taking themselves too seriously and being fringe animals of society.”
Cheney arrives at the site where he installed the original two Hot Curl statues. He thinks about his old friends Dormer, who died in 2012, and Teacher, who died many years earlier.
“I guess I’m the only one left,” he says as he points down at the rocky beach 15 feet below him. He explains that the statues were installed on a chunk of sandstone that plunged into the ocean long ago. It’s the same reason The Shack was later rebuilt 20 feet to the east.
“So much is different here now,” Cheney says. “Does anyone even remember Hot Curl anymore? Does anyone even care?”