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Easter Surf Festival to honor surfing legend Gary Propper

Human and dog surfing events at Lori Wilson Park

Gary Propper was among the legends of the '60s from Cocoa Beach. (Photo: Florida Surf Museum)

Gary Propper always drew a crowd to the beach whenever he was on a surfboard. This weekend will be no exception.

More than 1,000 people are likely to attend his memorial paddle-out during the Easter Surf Festival at Lori Wilson Park in Cocoa Beach, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

The 72-year-old East Coast Hall of Fame surfer, well known for acquiring the film rights to the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" trilogy of movies, died in his sleep March 14.

"We'll be celebrating his life, and spreading his ashes," said contest director Craig Harriman. "This is a tribute. This is what he (would have) wanted. He didn't want a funeral, he wanted to celebrate with his surfers. Those are his people."

The 72-year-old East Coast Hall of Fame surfer, well known for acquiring the film rights to the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" trilogy of movies, died in his sleep March 14.

"We'll be celebrating his life, and spreading his ashes," said contest director Craig Harriman. "This is a tribute. This is what he (would have) wanted. He didn't want a funeral, he wanted to celebrate with his surfers. Those are his people."

The two-day surfing festival, now in its 55th year, begins at 7:30 a.m. Saturday at Cocoa Beach's Lori Wilson Park and includes a full slate of surfing Saturday, a $5,000 two-day  tiki carving contest, a party at the Hilton on Saturday night, autograph signing by  legendary surfer Mimi Munro, the ever-popular dog surfing contest on Sunday, and a concert by Indialantic artist Beebs and Her Moneymakers late Sunday.

"Our event page has almost 1,000 people," Harriman said. "I have no idea what to expect. I know my phone has endless messages. The weather is going to be perfect for a paddle-out."

Harriman helped co-organize the Easter Surf Festival two years ago in about a two-week span when the traditional event nearly came to a halt. Now, he's back this year.

"It's a 55-year tradition; we couldn't let it go, especially in our Cocoa Beach community," Harriman said. "We don't have necessarily the best waves this time of year, but it's mostly a community event and we are a surf community."

For the record, the 55-year event is rivaled only by the 58-year-old Bells Beach Pro, which, coincidentally, is taking place this week in Australia, and the East Coast Surfing Championships, which will mark its 56th straight year in late August in Virginia Beach.

"Just to be mentioned up there ... the minute we lose that day, we lose all that, and me being here, part of this community ... I don't want to lose that."

Special events, what to know

  • Dogs on the beach: The dog surfing event, called "Surfing Unleashed," begins as early as 9 a.m. Sunday and is slated for most of the morning. A special dog walk takes place on A1A at 8 a.m. to kick it off with the Brevard Humane Society. There are 10 dogs in the field so far, and your dog can take surf lessons during the day.
     
  • Find the eggs: An Easter egg hunt will be hosted by the City of Cocoa Beach on Sunday at Freedom 7 Elementary off Ramp Road from 9-noon.
     
  • Carve 'em up: A two-day Tiki Carver Invitational takes place at the Lori Wilson Park playground featuring 20 carvers from around the state competing for $5,000. Those tikis will later be auctioned off to the audience Sunday.
     
  • Musical acts: A free concert takes place by well-known artist Beebs and her Moneymakers as they close out their Higher Vibes Tour with actor Peter Dante, who has appeared in several films with Adam Sandler. Local band Bill Yerkes and the Surf Chasers will play at the Hilton on Saturday night at the "Surf Stomp" awards.
     
  • Oh, and there's surfing: There are men, women and open divisions - which won't be "traditional" surf contests. In the open divisions, surfers are allowed to use any type of board. "That's how Gary wanted it, to base it on style and artistry, like when he started,"  Harriman said. A foil board contest takes place at 8 a.m. Saturday. There is also a menehune "free-for-all." To enter, click on thebeachsideresident.com for an entry form.
     
  • Parking fee: If you plan to park at Lori Wilson's two lots, there is a $20 daily charge that goes to the Cocoa Beach Kiwanis Club. There will be food trucks and vendors.

Great memories of Propper

Eddie Pitts of Neptune Beach, near Jacksonville, fondly recalls Propper as an icon.

"He was 9 or 10 years older than me, and I remember him coming to the Jacksonville Beach Pier as part of a traveling tour with Dick Catri," Pitts said. "I mean, he was an icon, a hero to everybody. We were like 10 or 12 years old, barely getting past the shorebreak, and here was Gary Propper out there, bigger than life."

Pitts, who at 64 has "so many aches and pains," operates the popular 911 Surf Report in the Jacksonville Beach area. He used to surf in Brevard with his Claude Codgen board.

"It's a shame we're all getting so old; I mean, look at who we've lost lately," said Pitts, reflecting on the recent losses of Catri, Mike Tabeling, Joe Twombly, Pat O'Hare, Bud Gardner (whose paddle-out is Saturday, April 27 at 10 a.m. at Howard E. Futch Memorial Park at Paradise Beach) and Yancy Spencer, just to name a few.

"Yancy was maybe one of the best Gulf Coasters around," he said. " I thought he was in great shape. At 60, he rode a wave in - not a pound overweight - walked up on the beach, felt some pressure in his chest, called 911 and died. If i die coming in out of the surf, I guess I'll be happy, but we hate to lose these guys, you know?"

Harriman said Propper had given him a list of all those names and actually wanted to recognize those in the surf industry at the Easter Surf Festival. 

"Coming from Hollywood and with his celebrity status, you don't see people like that all the time," Harriman said. "He truly loved what he did; it was his life."

Harriman pointed out that Propper's ties to Cocoa Beach stretch as far back as when he was a kid from the Bronx, working for Ron Jon owner Ron DiMenna's father in New Jersey at the original Ron Jon Surf Shop. 

"He taught him how to sell surfboards," Harriman said.

Propper, who became the first Florida surfer to win the East Coast Championships in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1966, struck a deal with Hobie Alter for the first East Coast model surfboard, with the Gary Propper signature logo and the Hobie logo.

That board went on to become the world’s best-selling signature model, reportedly accounting for 50 percent of the 6,000 boards Hobie Surfboards made that year. And Propper became the highest-paid (and possibly the first) professional surfer of his era.

Later in life, Propper's passion turned to art. 

"Thousands and thousands of pieces he has made," Harriman said, and some of those will be presented soon at a gallery in New York, while others will be on display this weekend at Lori Wilson Park.

Anyone with special memories of "GP" can relate their stories at a special booth set up this weekend for a documentary, to be called "The Propper Confessions." 

For someone who has lived in Maui, California and Las Vegas, Propper returned to his roots in Cocoa Beach recently, opting not to live in a fancy beach condo, but in a small studio apartment in the heart of downtown.

"That's why this weekend is so important," Harriman said. "It wasn't about influences and how your popularity would become your value. No one was more real. It was all about surfing to him. Being with his people. That's what this weekend is about."