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  • Writer's pictureArizona Contractor & Community

A Whale of a Tempe Tale: One Version of Big Surf’s Origin - Part One

By Aaron Gilbreath

Before my dad died at age 81 in 2020 — before age eroded his legendary memory — he told me the full version of a story he’d told my whole life, about his brush with fame and fortune.

In 1966, a 40-year-old engineer and construction manager named Phil Dexter came into Dad’s office during their lunch break and said, “Hey, I want you to come over to the house. I’ve got something I wanna show you.” They’d worked together at the famous Del E. Webb Construction Company in Phoenix, Arizona, and they’d both transferred to Phoenix’s Pete King Construction.

Joe Gilbreath

After work, Dexter led Dad into a private section of his backyard that was paved with Spanish tile and partitioned with a white curtain and a bamboo matt. He’d built a prototype there of what Dad soon realized was a beach. It wasn’t just any beach. It was a model of a beach that produced a single artificial wave and that, in 1969, would officially become Big Surf, the US’s first artificial wave pool. Originally designed exclusively for inland surfing, Big Surf is the park that introduced the term ‘wave pool’ into the lexicon and that, once its patent expired after 18 years, spawned a booming, worldwide water park industry, including entire companies whose sole focus is building water parks. Even if you never body-surfed Big Surf’s giant wave before the park got torn down, or even visited Phoenix, you might have seen Big Surf at the beginning of the 1987 surf movie North Shore. And you’ve surely seen the way it shaped the design of water parks everywhere from Illinois to Bangkok to Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, whose six-foot high wave pulses through North America’s largest wave pool. Big Surf’s prototype was very unassuming.

“It was a little, thin, channel type thing,” Dad recalled on the phone to me one hot August afternoon. “It was shaped like a trough.” Running 30 to 40 feet long and maybe 12 inches wide, Dad remembered the trough sat slightly off the ground on sawhorses. On one end it had a reservoir full of water that reminded him of a toilet tank. On the other end, sheet metal fanned out from the 12-inch-tall Plexiglass walls, opening onto a sandy replica beach complete with miniature palm trees. Dad remembered this as Dexter’s second prototype. His first, cruder one was made, as AZ Central later described, of “plywood and held together using bailing wire and discarded socks.”

Granted, on the summer day of this phone call, I’d caught Dad during a wakeful phase. He’d had a series of strokes the previous summer, and I knew our time was ending. While my infant daughter slept in her room, I leaned against the wooden fence in my sunny backyard, beside one of my sprawling tomato bushes, and I used a phrase on Dad that my daughter would one day use on me: “Tell me a story.” So many people remember my father, Joe Gilbreath, as the funniest, warmest person at any gathering.

He had the most contagious laugh. He had the most jokes, the quickest wit, a story for every situation, and as country people say, he never knew a stranger. He won you over, no matter your differences in age, class, or culture. I miss him constantly. When I requested the Big Surf story, ancient details spilled out of him, not in waves but in one rushing torrent, released through the submerged gates of memory like those that produced the surge at Big Surf, so I grabbed my digital recorder and let him speak. I’d been recording Dad’s stories on tape and in notebooks for 12 years because he had so many that I needed a way to retain them. This 51-year-old moment with Phil Dexter remained clear in Dad’s mind.

“Because water is eight pounds per gallon,” Dad said, “that gives you the force, the inertia, to move that water out at the speed and height that you want it. Phil probably played around with the dimensions a lot to get the result he wanted, during his early experimentation.” Of course he had. As an amateur inventor himself, Dad knew that all functioning prototypes are the result of countless hours, often years, of refinement and labor. As a storyteller, Dad also knew the best narratives were shaped during years of retelling. I couldn’t tell which parts of this Big Surf story were true and which he’d mis-remembered or adulterated over the years, but I listened closely, because I knew this would be the last time I heard it.

Dad said Dexter had him stand at the sandy end of the trough, behind the protective Plexiglas panel, and watch. When Dexter pulled a wooden handle, a big perfectly formed wave rushed from the reservoir, surged through the long tank, and broke on the shore in front of my dad, who was eye-level with the water. Dexter explained that he wanted to create a life-size version of this reproduction ocean right there in the Arizona desert so millions of landlocked sun-worshippers could take up surfing.

At that time, surfing was the most popular sport in America. Beginning in 1959 with the bubblegum surf film Gidget, a full-on surf craze had swept the United States thanks to Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello’s early ’60s beach party movies. Dexter planned to capitalize on this lucrative coastal fixation.

Originally Big Surf wasn’t what we now call a water park, with slides and other aquatic attractions. It was an artificial beach made from 23,000 tons of sand, imported palms, and faux Polynesian huts, designed specifically for surfing. Dad seemed to recall that Dexter got the idea while lying on his couch on Sundays watching ABC’s Worldwide Cavalcade of Sports. If people could surf in winter in Virginia, Dexter thought, why not here in Phoenix all year long? Or anywhere? “The rest of country probably watched California surfers with envy,” Dad recalled, “and thought, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that.’ So that just did it for him. They could have a surfing beach anywhere they wanted one.”

Supposedly, Dexter told my dad, “I don’t know anything about merchandising or what to do next. If you’ll come in with me, I’ll give you half of this idea. And we’ll go with it.”

It was just the kind of crazy idea that made sense to my 28-year-old father.

Built with seductive introductions, tense momentous middles, humor and details, Dad consistently wrapped up his stories with surprising endings that rewarded listeners for hanging in there. He was a master of oratory that was part of rural American oral tradition. Born in Boswell, Oklahoma in 1938, Joe Thomas Gilbreath was a lapsed Baptist turned atheist who grew up in the kind of small farming town where people kept their own smokehouses and canned what they grew. He called it one of those “blink-and-you-miss-it towns.” In the country where we Gilbreaths came from, people gathered on porches, at cookouts and bars to entertain each other long before they had TVs, and to pass along news. Dad remembered the first TV he ever saw. It was displayed in a shop window in Florence, Arizona. People would park on the street to stand around and watch it, without sound, since it was behind glass.

Thanks to our storytelling family, my life—my whole sense of history, entertainment, and identity—is composed as much by narratives as information. Some of my fondest memories are of Dad and his four brothers sitting around various living rooms and dinner tables during holidays, laughing and sharing tales. Some families watch sports. Some golf together. Storytelling was our sport. Each of my dad’s brothers crafted their stories so finely as to entertain and push the other brothers to craft even better, funnier, more absorbing narratives that made you laugh harder than the last one.

Because I was around Dad the most of any Gilbreath, I adopted his charming orator manner as my own, and his version of family and historical events formed the center of my worldview. He is why I tell stories for a living, and he is why I am naturally suspicious of them.

Knowing the value of preserving history is what moved me formally interview my dad about our family’s history in Arizona. After his strokes, the need to record these stories was even more pressing, and he reached that age where he enjoyed reminiscing.

Both our home libraries were filled with books about Southwestern history, Native American culture, country music, Frank Lloyd Wright, and frontier explorers like John Wesley Powell. His Big Surf story was one more fascinating piece of the Southwestern lore that we loved. He just happened to be a character in it. Maybe as he approached the end of his life, he felt a need to fit himself into those local history books somehow, to ensure that his work had amounted to something other than stories you share with people socially, and here was his youngest son, a writer, just the person to do it. I couldn’t fact-check this story to confirm all of the details. Now that my dad’s gone, I take it at face value and share it with you here with the same caveat.

To read the rest of this article, you are invited to purchase the digital issue here.

This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, May/Jun 2023 issue, Vol. 12, No. 3.

1 Comment

Sep 28, 2023

What a wonderful and charming story! Clearly the "storytelling" gene didn't skip a generation. I loved reading about the phenomenon of Big Surf; from it's early conception through the it's final chapter. Thank you for sharing and offering insight to what must have been an exceptional father!

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