A Whale of a Tempe Tale: One Version of Big Surf’s Origin - Part Two
By Aaron Gilbreath
When my family moved down the street from Big Surf in my fifth grade year, I became a regular, spending countless warm days swimming and body-surfing there. Naturally I relished the small role he’d played in “creating it.”
Supposedly, Dexter asked my dad to help with the engineering and merchandising because he thought my dad would know what to do. Like his father before him, my dad worked in both residential and commercial construction and land development, so he knew how to do a lot. During their workdays at Del Webb in the ’60s, Dexter and my Dad also just hit it off.
“From time to time we’d talk about doing things together,” Dad told me, “and inventing things and what have you.” With four kids, my father needed to generate a lot of income, and Dexter’s side-project seemed promising. Unbeknownst to Dad, Dexter and his wife Valerie had been asking friends for financial backing. They estimated it would cost $800,000 to build the wave pool. But if Dexter had asked other people before my father to go halfsies with him, he never mentioned it. “He was secretive,” Dad told me, “didn’t know enough about patenting or how to go about it. He didn’t know the engineering principles, but he knew me!”
When Dexter’s commercial wave pool was finally constructed, enormous custom-built pumps would put the water back into the tank using huge Caterpillar motors, then the pistons would make another wave. To make another wave in the backyard prototype, Dad and Dexter had to scoop the water from the tank and refill the reservoir by hand.
As a fellow inventor and general nut, Dad liked the nutty, wild, frontier adventurousness of Dexter’s idea. Nuts find each other. What Frank Lloyd Wright said of southern California could happen in Arizona, too: “Tip the world over on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” That was Dexter’s whole business model: tip the country on its side so all of California’s loose things rolled inland, where he could market them to the world through surfing.
First, my dad found an engineering firm downtown on Washington Street in an old warehouse, named Sergent, Hauskins & Beckwith Engineering Firm. “It’s very easy to locate engineering firms,” Dad told me, “ones with mechanical engineering ability, who work with pumps and things of that sort. Large hydro projects.” That firm helped them make a quarter replica of that prototype.
Next Dad scouted locations. “I needed a large piece of cheap dirt located away from a moneyed area, because, let’s face it, cotton farmers don’t know shit about surfing. Here was Scottsdale, Tempe, college town, and East Phoenix, all around. It was just the perfect location, and here it was, a rock pile on the river bottom. Who’d want that? I do!”
The 20-acre plot was located at 1500 N. McClintock Drive, atop the flat floodplain of the Salt River. The Salt was one of the Southwest’s biggest rivers. Because of dams upstream, it no longer flowed into Phoenix, let alone supported lush cottonwood forests and beaver dams in town, but this particular plot sat on the river’s historic floodplain, facing the cotton farms on the Pima Indian Reservation to the east. On the west, it abutted a dry creek bed—what we desert people call a wash. Known as Indian Bend Wash, Dad knew the area well.
Back when his family moved to Phoenix in 1955, the wash was ranch land. As a kid, Dad saw cattle roaming it, eating native mesquite beans right off the trees, and he remembered how the wash would fill with turbulent brown floodwater when desert monsoon storms raged each summer, wreaking havoc on residential neighborhoods and cutting off cross-town traffic before bridges were built across it. By the time Dad was scouting here in 1966, the ranch ran all the way north to what became the high-end Fashion Square Mall—the mall my parents went to every weekend during Dad’s final decades of life. Locals eventually convinced the Army Corps of Engineers and City of Scottsdale to turn the Wash into the 11-mile long, grassy park that doubled as a flood control project, which was named the Indian Bend Wash Scottsdale Greenbelt Floodway. Locals just call it the Greenbelt. It was genius. Rather than creating a cement-lined, industrial eyesore like the Army Corps of Engineers did with the Los Angeles River, this project reduced flood dangers while providing citizens with a series of beautiful parks filled with playgrounds, sports fields, bike paths, and lakes filled with geese and ducks. The desert was still cheap. It made sense that Dad would look for large, vacant, undervalued parcels before the Greenbelt was greened. “I had a friend Bill Alexander, who has a commercial real estate agent, so I got a call to him: ‘Give me the facts on that, I think I want to make an offer to buy this.’ So we did. We got an option on it.”
“Phil said, ‘Well, we’re on our way.’ So he made some little ol’ cheap film,” Dad told me, “video wasn’t around in those days—the kind of cheap film you would use in the late-40s to film your family at the beach. He made three copies of that, and he sent one to Catalina Swimsuits, sent one Clairol, one to…” He couldn’t remember the third company, but they had the engineering firm and the option to buy the vacant land to sweeten the package on the approach to Clairol. “All their ads at that time were beach bunnies and blonde hair and bathing suits and all that.” Only one of those companies wrote back. “A month or so later he got a phone call from one of those three people. They said, ‘Hey, we got your tape here, and we’re about crazy enough to get in bed with you. We want you to come out to our main office to talk to you.’ Dexter said, ‘Well, that would be nice, but I don’t have the money to be getting a plane ticket and all that.’ They said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll send you some money.’ Three days later here comes a certified check for $10,000. So he bought his ticket, and he spent three days there, and he went through the big main fancy office in Chicago, I believe it was, talking to everybody, and three days later they sent him on an airplane and sent him home. He didn’t know if he’d made any progress or impressed anybody or what, but here came another envelope with another $10,000 check and an option to tie up the idea with them—details to be worked out later.”
According to my dad, that’s how it got going. “He ended up selling the idea for $800,000,” Dad said, “and then got $200,000 a year to stay on as management, consulting, for another five years. That gave him his million dollars. He patented it under the name of Tahiti Phil, and the reason for that was his dream was, he would always go to Tahiti and be laying on the beach in his skinny old body in the sand and the sun with this great big huge drink with an umbrella stickin’ out of it.”
As an article I found described, “Clairol wanted to reach the water park’s unique demographic, from kids and teens to young adults and families.” Trevor Hancock, a 60-year old Big Surf surfer, told the reporter: “I think Clairol just wanted to capture that spirit of the ’60s, man. Even if it was just for a few weeks.”
After Dexter got his million dollar offer, Dad told him, “Look, I don’t even know how to swim. I don’t like water. But I like helping you, so I’m not holding you to your promise for half ownership. I want you to go with it, be happy, and make a million dollars.” And that’s exactly what Valerie and Phil Dexter did.
Big Surf’s construction commenced in 1967 on Dad’s plot of land. The centerpiece, the Waikiki Beach Wave Pool, originally held 3.8 million gallons of water and pumped out a three- to-five-foot, ridable wave every few minutes. That little toilet bowl of a reservoir that Dad saw was now a four-story-high, 160-foot-wide storage tank that released water through a custom-built system of fifteen underwater gates, lifted by underwater hydraulics, and got pumped back into the tank by Caterpillar motors. Dexter’s seemingly harebrained idea opened on October 24, 1969. It was supposed to open in September, but certain design problems needed fixing. The forceful waves tore off the bottom of the wave pool, so they drained it twice and covered it with concrete.
To generate interest, they held a press conference. Dexter addressed the crowd. World surfing champion Fred Hemmings Jr. rode the wave while balancing a 20-year-old brunette on his board. Kids turned out, many from nearby Arizona State University. Reporters snapped photos that ran in newspapers across the country. No articles included my dad’s name. He got no money from it, but he got a good story to tell his entire life, which he relished. So taken at face value, in a stroke of pure right-place-at-the-right-time luck, my dad, who never graduated from college and never learned how to swim, had nearly cofounded Big Surf, the world’s first artificial surfable wave.
“If Tahiti Phil failed,” Dad said that day on the phone, “I could be the Washington Street Prince or something.”
I said, “You’d be Salt River Saul.”
Dad laughed. “That’s more like it.”
Getting him to laugh was one of the greatest joys of my life. It was a family game: try to be the wittiest, fastest, most original wit, to both humor him and surprise him with something fresh, just as his brothers always did to each other at family gatherings. I’d never encountered such a contagiously joyous laugh as his, until I heard my daughter laughed at age two. Dad’s laugh is what so many of my childhood friends tell me they think of most when they remember him, and my daughter’s joy brings my dad right back to life.
“Salt River Saul,” he said, singing it back to me the way Bob Wills used to sing ‘Ah ha!’ on his country records. “I like it.”
So believe what you want about this version of Big Surf’s origin story.
I guess what I was supposed to take from this—besides the entertaining narrative and historical origins of an Arizona landmark—is that Dad could’ve been a millionaire. Instead, he chose to be principled. “Dumbest thing I ever did in my life,” he liked to say at the end of his tellings. He was kidding. He did a lot dumber things, like not getting my parents’ vacation home insured before it flooded. He would have loved to have made a million dollars back then. Instead, he used humor and stories to manage the disappointment and reframe it as some kind of win. We Gilbreaths are masters at softening the sting with humor. Dad always claimed he never mourned the money he could have made had he accepted Dexter’s offer, because the wave pool wasn’t his idea to capitalize on. It was Phil’s. “He did that hard part. I only assisted the guy who invented the idea,” Dad told me, “for nothing, free of charge.” Instead of a person who missed a million-dollar opportunity, that version of events presented Dad as a humble guy who let an opportunity go, just like he was a guy who lived by his principles and treated strangers like family.
Anyway, Dad believed he would have just been a liability to Dexter, so he continued his work at Pete King, and Dexter quit soon after landing the Clairol deal. “So I got a great deal of satisfaction from that,” Dad said, “then he just went and stayed in Tahiti. I don’t know whatever happened to him. I didn’t even bother looking him up.”
What happened was this: When Big Surf finally opened, attendance was light. As one longtime employee told a reporter in 2016, “I don’t think anyone even knew they were open that first season, except Dave,” joked Trevor Hancock, 60, a Tempe resident who’d surfed at the water park since 1970 and remained lifelong friends with [surfer Dave] Manning.” Weeks behind schedule, Big Surf opened after summer had ended. Phoenix is still warm in October, but who needed a surfing beach around Halloween? The market also changed.
Dexter’s original vision put surfing as the centerpiece, but they launched in 1969, and the surfing craze soon settled. “After a disappointing summer season in 1970, Clairol sold the park to El Paso-based Inland Oceans LLC, which still owns it. Inland Oceans managed the park until 1988, when Family Recreation Enterprises took over until 1992.” After a few years in operation, surfing alone proved insufficient to pay the bills, so the park expanded its offerings to include concerts and bumper boats and slides during the 1970s and 80s. By the time I became a regular in the late 1980s and early-90s, it eventually eliminated surfing for swimming and rafting—even removed all that beach sand eventually, which got legendarily hot. By then, the TowneHouse Hotel that Dad helped build in San Francisco with Del Webb had long since become some sort of upscale retirement community, then one of the most loathed apartment buildings in San Francisco. A dirtbag landlord ran it. Locals considered the building an eye sore, and they tore it down to build something else. “That’s how it works,” Dad told me. “You only build them for a thirty-year life.” Dad’s hotel exists only on vintage postcards and the brochures that nostalgists and San Francisco historians share online, but Big Surf has endured and received the recognition it deserves.
In 2012, Phil Dexter was inducted into the World Waterpark Association Hall of Fame. Dexter was living in Columbia, Connecticut, a town of a few thousand people about a 40-minute drive from a rather unsurfable stretch of cold Atlantic Ocean on Long Island Sound. That same year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers named Big Surf’s Waikiki Beach Wave Pool a Historical Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Because the wave pool still used the original 1969 machinery, it was included on list alongside Henry Ford’s Model T. and Walt Disney’s Monorail, making Big Surf the 252nd artifact in ASME’s History and Heritage program, and the third in Arizona. John Hauskins’ original machinery was still producing the park’s famous waves when I write this in 2020, but the park got torn down in 2022. Dexter died in 2014 at the age of 87.
When my dad died at age 81 in 2020, I spent the summer digging through the many journals that I kept about him and our family, and I started making calls and checking facts in his stories. In magazine-writing terms, I was fact-checking my father. With so many relatives dead, I couldn’t check many details by asking for corroboration, but credibility was an important enough issue that I had to try to corroborate something. I started with research.
During the three years since Dad told me about Big Surf, I pulled some Time, Life, and Sports Illustrated articles about Big Surf’s launch, to see if Dad’s facts lined up with published accounts. Of course there was no way to corroborate the details of Dad’s visit to Dexter’s backyard. Both witnesses were dead. No articles mentioned Dad’s name or anyone else Dexter consulted. They did mention Dexter’s wife, who was Phil’s main collaborator, which Dad did not mention. It turns out, Phil Dexter didn’t get his Big Surf idea in Phoenix as my father claimed. Published articles say that he got it while working in southern California before Del Webb transferred him to Phoenix. If he had his epiphany while lying on his couch on watching ABC’s Worldwide Cavalcade of Sports, that couch seems to have been in California. Either Dad remembered the story wrong, or he’d adjusted it for a better telling. But whatever.
Phil Dexter’s legacy was clear. As Rick Root, president of the World Waterpark Association, told AZ Central: “Waterparks today have the wave pool as their centerpiece attraction, so I believe that Phil has had a significant impact not only here in the U.S. but around the world.” And Dexter changed Arizona. “Surfing is so big now that kids in Ohio wear Hang 10 shirts,” surfer Dave Manning told one journalist. Manning has been surfing Big Surf since its opening season. “But here in Arizona, thanks to Phil, we got to live and breathe a real surf culture. I tell you, the waves were artificial, but the scene was real.”
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.