Pro surfing’s #1 feel-good moment of 1985 was Tom Curren winning his first world title—never mind that the achievement led to a pig’s breakfast of a tribute section in Amazing Surf Stories where the silken visuals of Tom’s wave-riding are laid without mercy or care atop a two-bit Casio-made anthem titled “Top Cat,” with Curren lauded as “pride of the USA” by a singer with a British accent, which in turn leads to an on-screen Curren interview with the cringe coming at us in layers and flavors, like an expensive unpronounceable burgundy.
It is a very strange three minutes. Experience it here.
And for the record, we already had a song called “Top Cat,” and it was—still is—great.
The #2 feel-good pro surfing moment of 1985, and this one comes with no qualifiers, was shaggy-haired rookie Brad Gerlach winning the Stubbies Pro at Oceanside. Brad surfed like Tom Curren on a half-hit of trucker speed plugged into a fuzz pedal. It was unexpected and tremendous and I wrote about it a few years back in the Sunday Joint:
Brad was 19, and it was his first world tour contest. He came flying out of the Trials, beat ’84 Stubbies winner Shaun Tomson in Round One, and just kept going. I was on the beach for finals day and remember thinking Brad was going to crack at some point. But no, he just kept winning and next thing we knew he was matched in a best-two-out-of-three final against reigning world champ Tom Carroll.
Brad dusted Tom in two straight.
I think Brad was having an out-of-body experience. Zero nerves. Pure aggression and focus and flow. I don’t think he found that level of comfort and dominance again, to be honest, even when he finished runner-up to Damien Hardman for the ’91 world title. But he positively glowed that afternoon at Oceanside against Tom Carroll, and it was amazing to behold.
Here is a new still-warm clip of Gerlach and it doesn’t illustrate what I’m describing above. I have the footage from the Oceanside contest, but it is gray and grainy and the surf is poor. That’s fine, though, because hard-rocking performance and excitement and showmanship, as it turned out, was not Gerlach’s real gift. No, he surprised us. Brad eventually became, and remains, a master of technique, a flow ideal, a close-your-eyes-exhale-and-let-the-arrow-fly surfer, even when that meant hammering out a 275-degree cutback at speed.
Brad doesn’t flow like Curren. Nobody does. But if he got into pro surfing for the chicks, according to the video above, when he left pro surfing in 1992 . . . he was still in for the chicks, but there was much shapeshifting over the next two-plus decades and somehow he ended up as a trim and calm and impeccably grizzled surfing sensei.
A sensei with a hustle, through. Brad’s surf-meets-tai-chi Wave Ki program, to my eye, is splashing around the shallow end of the pay-to-play fitness pool dominated by Peloton and YogaGlo. But so what? His interest in getting us to surf better is genuine, or close enough, and 25 years ago I’d be hitting Brad up for a free $259 annual Wave Ki membership. Full credit to Gerlach, too, for keeping his sense of humor as sharp and toned as his wave-riding.
Furthermore, Gerr comes by his hustle and showmanship honestly, and to make the point I turn now, with great pleasure, to Józeph Gerlach, AKA Jumpin’ Joe, Brad’s furry-chested Hungarian father who, as a teenage platform diver, came up just short of a medal in the 1956 Olympics, at which point he defected to America—a nation that spread itself out before this grinning young refugee like a continent-sized fairground. Diving made Joe a star at the University of Michigan but didn’t pay the bills, so he turned to stunt performing, and eventually worked up an act where he jumped 100 feet from a crane or balcony or hot-air balloon, swanned out, turned, and landed on a thick mattress-sized foam cushion. He called it the “Sponge Plunge.” $4,000 per jump, or maybe a cut of the gate; terms negotiable. On one occasion Joe’s lower body missed the sponge and he broke both legs. Once he missed with his upper half and broke almost every bone in his face. But Gerlach was well-trained and calculating; more of a showman than an adrenaline junkie.
PR legend Charlie Brotman wrote about Jumpin’ Joe for a 1980 Washington Post article:
I was attempting to hype interest and increase ticket sales to the World of Wheels Custom Car Show at the D.C. Armory in 1975. Sales were slow. No big-name cars or personalities to key on. We needed a hook! I contacted stuntman “Jumping” Joe Gerlach and convinced him to make his most dangerous leap at a special press preview the day before the show opened. We contacted the news media and advised them that Jumping Joe had gone completely bananas—that he was going to make the most difficult and death-defying jump ever attempted.
It went off beautifully. He jumped. The audience screamed. He landed on his back. For 20 seconds he didn’t move. Everybody thought he was dead. And then, in his finest hour of showmanship, he jumped up with arms extended in victory.
TV loved it. Photographers had a heyday. Columnists couldn’t wait to talk to him. Even Walter Cronkite bit—he sent a crew down to cover the jump. The stunt went national. The show sold more tickets and attracted more people on the strength of the publicity than any auto show ever staged at the Armory.
Joe Gerlach performed on the Tonight Show and Ed Sullivan and was booked at Circus Circus in Las Vegas. He opened for Evel Knievel. He married a gorgeous professional water skier and fathered Brad, who matched the old man, stunt-wise, by riding a 68-foot wave in 2005, on his way to winning that year’s XXL Big Wave Award.
Brad has always been hungry for attention, but I don’t think he ever craved performing on a big stage, for a big audience, as much as Joe.
Joe, meanwhile, was graceful and athletic, but not like his son, and along with the rest of us he watched with deep appreciation as Brad pushed to his feet and began riding, all rhythm and flow—go back and watch his opening ride in the clip above—more Gene Kelly than Evel Knievel.
Thanks for reading, and see you next week!
PS: What I always forget about Brad, possibly because it’s difficult to take your eyes off his smash-nosed but utterly winning face, is what an absolute specimen he was. Ripped head to toe. Tested in 1989 by the Australian Sports Fitness Institute, Brad clocked in the organization’s best-ever muscle-to-body-fat score. To which Joe, judging by the photo you see here, presumably grinned and said “Hold my Tokaji Szamorondni.”
PPS: The Jumpin’ Joe Gerlach “sponge plunge” had brushes with glamour but was more often a down-market job—just like pro surfing. Joe performed twice on the Sunday bill during the 1976 Michigan State Fair, in between a back-to-school fashion show, demonstrations on quilting, flower arranging, egg decorating, a “slender consciousness belly dancing” event, and special guest appearances by Ronald McDonald and Jimmie “JJ” Walker.
PPPS: Was just about to hit “send” on this one, but Joe Gerlach keeps giving. In 1977 he was a featured daredevil on “Evel Knievel’s Death Defiers” CBS special, in which Knievel was set to jump a pool filled with “13 man-eating sharks.” Other acts included Karl Wallenda tight-rope walking 750′ between two hotels (watch here, with commentary by Telly Savalas who, at one point, seemingly bored with Wallenda’s slow pace, growls “Let’s go, Karl”), and something called the Russian Death Chair. Two hours before show time, Knievel did a final practice run, crashed, broke his right arm and had to cancel his performance. This was not long after Knievel’s Snake River debacle and right before he landed in prison for beating his former press agent with a bat, and that was pretty much it for Evel’s career. Joe Gerlach himself did fine, landing his jump cleanly, but the “Death Defiers” show itself was, according to the Washington Post, “the most ill-conceived, tasteless and poorly executed network special in history.”
[Photo grid, clockwise from top left: Jumpin’ Joe Gerlach; Brad Gerlach, photo by Sonny Miller; Top Cat; Evel Knievel; Brad portrait by Pete Taras; Tom Curren framegrab from Amazing Surf Stories. Gerlach surf pic by Martin Tullemans. Stubbies 1985 pic by Robert Beck. Gerlach cutback by Art Brewer. Brad’s Wave Ki practice. Joe hits the Sponge. Brad’s 2005 XXL Big Wave Award winner. Joe Gerlach diving in 1960 for University of Michigan. Brad Gerlach surf photo by Brian Bielmann. “Death Defiers” poster. Joe Gerlach in jumping gear.]