Hey All,

“Rolling With Frank,” a 2006 Surfer’s Journal essay by Dorian Paskowitz, introduces us to a long-forgotten Los Angeles surfer named Frank Donahue, and we’re in rogue territory right away as Paskowitz describes a midnight poker game in San Pedro with Donahue and a group of longshoremen. The twist is that each player has a pitcher of beer, everyone has to drink following each hand, and whoever gets up to relieve himself is out of the game. It comes down to Frank and a “fierce-looking black man,” who at last bellows “I gotta go!” and runs off to the head. Donahue stands up in a hurry and tells Dorian they have to leave, too. Dorian sees that his friend is soaking, crotch to ankle, in urine. “My God, Frank, you’ve just been sitting there pissing in your pants.” Donahue, in reply, just scoops up the money and again says, “Time to go.”

The story is sort of funny, but more just odd and kind of desperate. Paskowitz recalled it as “screwy.” After describing a recent and slightly awkward chance meeting with his old friend at San Onofre, Dorian ends his Surfer’s Journal piece by saying, “Frank Donahue is a versatile man”—which makes me think Paskowitz didn’t really know what to make of him, apart from the fact that he (Frank) was colorful and Dorian loved hanging out with guys like that.

Encyclopedia of Surfing

There’s more to the Frank Donahue story, all of which adds color while bringing him more in focus. He sailed to Honolulu in 1939 as a stowaway and found work delivering the Star-Bulletin to Honolulu’s red-light district. A Navy frogman during the war, Donahue was disciplined after pranking a visiting admiral by putting blasting caps on the donofficer’s launch and setting them off as it departed. In the 1950s, Donahue was a lobster poacher in Mexico, a Hollywood shark-wrangler, and a badly ripped-off screenwriter. You oldsters out there might recall a TV show from the late ’50s and early ’60s called Sea Hunt, about a retired Navy scuba diver who saves kids from flooded caves, disarms underwater nukes, fights killer whales, etc. Turns out the Sea Hunt producers stole not just the idea for the show but many of the episode outlines from a treatment Donahue and two friends had created a few years earlier, and a 1963 court decision to that effect put something like $100,000 in Frank’s pocket.

Encyclopedia of Surfing

What did Frank do with the money? I’m not sure if he went straight into drug smuggling, but the next time his name made headlines, in 1970, it was for a massive three-ton dockside pot bust in Long Beach involving a boat that Donahue owned. From the Oakland Tribune:

Authorities said the marijuana was recovered as it was being unloaded from the 58-foot salvage vessel Roughneck onto two camper buses. The arrests of the eight suspects, all booked on suspicion of smuggling or conspiracy to smuggle, climaxed a nine-month investigation by U.S. customs officials, state narcotics agents, and Los Angeles police. A US customs spokesman said four of the suspects jumped from the vessel into the harbor and three of them were later picked up. The fourth, Frank Donahue, a diver and owner of the salvage ship, was still at large.

And that’s it for Donahue as a newsmaker. No follow-up that I can find. No idea if or when he was captured. When Donahue died in 2007, at age 88, a long and affectionate obit in the San Diego Union noted that he had lived a “life full of adventure [and] accomplishments,” didn’t so much as mention the drug bust, and quotes Carlsbad mayor Bud Lewis as saying Donahue was “quite an interesting individual,” which brings us back to that meaningless say-something-while-saying-nothing place Dorian Paskowitz left us at with his “versatile man” comment.

Encyclopedia of Surfing

The older I get, the less impressed I am by the rogues and the hustlers. More Edwards, less Dora, in other words. A nephew is mentioned in Donahue’s SD Union obit, but no wife or children, and a contemporary photo that ran in Paskowitz’ article shows Frank in what looks like a strip-mall bar, going for a smile but ending up with something between scowl and grimace. See above. It’s a hard picture. Rogue at your own risk.

And yet . . .

Here we have Frank Donahue and first-gen surf photographer Don James, guesting in a 1955 episode of You Asked For It, ABC’s wildly popular viewer-request show where you could see a sword-swallower or knife-thrower or a man wrestling a python. Dohanue and James were in the studio to talk with host Art Baker about James’ recent surf footage showing the big waves at Makaha Beach. James looks every bit like the popular young USC-schooled “dentist to the stars” that he was in the 1950s (surf photography at that time was a hobby, not a profession), with pleated pants and a neatly tucked-in button-down shirt. Donahue’s striped polo shirt is rumpled and aggressively untucked.

We start off fine, as James shows us the three kinds of cameras he uses to film surfing. Then we come to the main event, the Makaha footage, pieced together in-house by the You Asked For It editors—and it is an absolute dog’s dinner. Four surfers rush into a waveless ocean, then cut to somebody riding left on a huge Point Surf screamer (the film is flopped), then another surfer going right on a shoulder-high day, except this is supposed to be the same wave as the huge left, then a board-mounted close-up action shot of a surfer’s feet, and I’ll stop here, just watch the clip, it’s a hoot.

Encyclopedia of Surfing
Encyclopedia of Surfing
Encyclopedia of Surfing
Encyclopedia of Surfing

Back in the studio, host Art Baker turns to his two guests and winds things up. “I want to tell you, that was great, believe me. Don James and Frank Donahue, I want to thank you very much for answering that request in a swell way—believe me.”

Frank doesn’t miss a beat. In fact, this is obviously scripted: “It’s a little rough, Art, but the big waves really made it worthwhile.” Then he adds, “Believe me,” and grins, and it might be coincidence that he is echoing Baker but it might be that he freestyled a casual but smartass last word, just to tweak the squares, and here I am 100% with Frank. I’ve watched the clip three times, and that end bit only gets funnier with repeat viewings.

Thanks, everybody, and see you next week. Stay rogue.


PS: Original California surf queen Mary Ann Hawkins appeared on You Asked For Itand held her breath underwater for two minutes and 15 seconds. That clip has not yet not posted, but here is the nine-times-married actress-socialite Zsa Zsa Gabor playing ping-pong in diamonds and heels. The Hungarian-born Gabor, who lived 99 mink-lined years, would have killed in this day and age. After being arrested in 1987 for slapping the police officer who pulled her over and found an open vodka bottle in the passenger seat of her Rolls Corniche, Gabor argued in court that she was the victim of “Gestapo tactics,” and carried right on after serving a 72-hour prison sentence, telling reporters “You cannot drive a Rolls-Royce in Beverly Hills anymore, because they have it in for you.”

[Photo grid, clockwise from top left: screengrab from You Asked For It; Frank Donahue at Makaha in the 1950s; vintage Navy UDT patch; Zsa Zsa Gabor in the 1980s; Makaha surfer from You Asked For It; Lloyd Bridges in Sea Hunt. Frank Donahue, left, 1939. Shark-bite headline and photo from 1954. Frank Donahue in 2006, photo by Tom Adler. Screengrabs from You Asked For It.]