Cocoa Beach surfing legend Gary Propper dies

Propper of 'Ninja Turtles,' Carrot Top fame died Friday

By Hillard Grossman, Florida Today

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

COCOA BEACH, Fla. - Easter weekend was going to be special on the sands of Cocoa Beach this spring.

Now you can count on it being extra-special. 

Legendary surfer Gary Propper, who passed away early Friday at the age of 72 due to undisclosed health issues, was to have appeared on the beach he helped make famous in the 1960s, along with such stars as the original "Gidget" and another legend, Mimi Munro, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

"Now I believe you'll see the largest paddle-out ever on the East Coast on Easter Sunday at Lori Wilson Park," said Craig Harriman, organizer for this year's Easter Surf Festival and CEO of "The Beachside Resident" magazine of which Propper was helping produce. 

"I found him this morning, about 2 a.m. in his sleep,'' said Harriman, his voice trembling. "He had moved back here about six months ago, wanting to get back to his roots."

Before there was Kelly Slater, there was Gary Propper. 

One of the top five most influential surfers from Brevard County, Propper carved a name for himself not only as the first East Coast champion from Florida but he also was a giant in the entertainment business, securing the film rights to the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" trilogy of movies, and managing such Las Vegas comedy acts as Cocoa's Carrot Top, Gallagher and Jon Lovitz.

Harriman said Propper even directed Burt Reynolds' ventures in the years before his death. 

But it was surfing which first rose Propper to national acclaim. Born in the Bronx, N.Y., his family moved to Miami, where he took up boxing at age 9 in the same 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, where Muhammad Ali carved his legacy. 

"He was always in super good shape, and didn't back down," said Cocoa Beach attorney and surfer Jack Kirschenbaum. 

When Propper's family moved to Cocoa Beach in the '60s, the 13-year-old boxer turned to surfing. He dominated at Canaveral Pier, both in the water and reportedly against anyone who dared to steal one of his waves. 

"He was such a good surfer that when he paddled out, everybody would come in to watch," said his good friend, Bob Freeman, also an amateur boxer but one who was smart enough not to test Propper's punching skills. "He caught every wave out there; he was a terror."

A 'professional surfer'

Brash as he was, he could back it up. 

He wore a T-shirt that read "Yes I'm Gary, Yes I'm Great," recalled Kirschenbaum.

Legendary coach and surfer Dick Catri once said, “I saw him throw a trophy into the bushes because it was for second place."

John Hughes, executive director of the Florida Surf Museum in Cocoa Beach, hosted a Gary Propper exhibit in 2017, focusing not only on Propper's 50-year connection to the Hobie brand of surfing, but also his artwork.  

"We had a great turnout," Hughes said. "He was the first real surf star, not just on the East Coast, but worldwide. There were other surfers famous before him, but he was the one who turned it into a professional job. When he filled out his tax return, he would put 'professional surfer' as his job."

After becoming the first Florida surfer to win the East Coast Championships in Virginia Beach, Va., in 1966, things began to blossom. 

Catri led the Hobie Surf Team, with the likes of Propper, Munro, Joe Twombly, Freddie Grosskreutz,  Bruce Valluzzi, Claude Codgen and Mike Tabeling, just to name a few.

"Catri went to California and they worked out a deal with Hobie Alter for the first East Coast model surfboard, with the Gary Propper signature logo and the Hobie logo," Hughes said. 

When the board debuted in 1966, it 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.

Propper competed in the Surfing World Championships in 1966, ’68 and ’70, but "he primarily was a small-wave surfer. He flat-out said he didn't like big waves, which was gutsy on his part, but he had such an aggressive style, quick on his feet," Hughes said. "He could do things in small surf that others couldn't touch."

The entertainment business

In the '70s, Propper turned to the entertainment business, first with Fantasma magazine, which became Fantasma Productions (and now AEG Presents) in which he promoted  concerts from Brassy's in Cocoa Beach to Las Vegas and beyond. He booked then-little-known bands like Devo, Blondie and The Police into Florida clubs.  

"Oh my goodness," Harriman said. "He broke Rush, the band, Carrot Top, re-booted Burt Reynolds' career, Gallagher ..." 

Reportedly, after seeing an underground comic book with some Ninja Turtles, "he pitched his idea (for the films) in Hong Kong ... Jim Henson had designed those first costumes ... and, you know, that became the highest-grossing independent film of all-time. and made them a worldwide phenomenon," Hughes said. 

Balsa Bill Yerkes, 71, owner of Balsa Bill Surf Shop in Satellite Beach, surfed for Gordon & Smith Surfboards while Propper was with Hobie. 

"We go back 50 years; we would see each other on the road," Yerkes said. "But he'd never have to worry about me. I wasn't that much of a competitor."

Yerkes and his drummer from their band The Surf Chasers actually performed on the opening night of the Propper exhibit at the Florida Surf Museum.

"He called me after that, thanking me," Yerkes said. "Of all the calls I ever received, that one, I've saved it and saved it and saved it. It was so heartfelt. It meant a lot."

Propper's memories will certainly linger throughout the surfing and entertainment industry.

And, of course, with Harriman.

"We just had dinner last (Thursday) night," Harriman said. "He was even on the phone doing business deals. That's what kind of guy he was. Even at 72."

Harriman said Propper was living in the famous Wayne Coombs Mai Tiki building (above the Tiny Turtle restaurant) off Minutemen Causeway.

"He had a lot going on," Harriman said. "He was ready to make a weed company; he was part owner of Jetson Surf Technology, which makes a jet-powered surfboard to help those who may not have the ability to surf themselves; he was working with the producers of the original 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' for a follow-up called 'Magic Feathers' in Vegas."

"He was still going strong. We're all going to miss him."

Copyright 2019 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.