Before Cocoa Beach Florida’s most famous surfing native son, Kelly Slater, was a twinkle in his parent’s eyes, there was another famous transplanted native son… though a much more vocal one; Mr. Gary Propper. For 50 years now this uninhibited, wildly talented, wildly brilliant, forward thinking “hotdog ambassador to the world” has called the Big H of Hobie home.
Born in the late 40’s in the not so surf capitol of the world, The Bronx, NY, it took a few logistical moves before Gary Propper would find his first surfboard under him. At the age of 13, after a family relocation to the beach breaks of Florida, Propper was introduced to his first and maybe most enduring passion, surfing. For a kid with an undeniable overload of energy and natural athletic abilities, he took to the waves like a fish takes to the water. The match was one for the ages.
By the early 60’s, Gary left the dumpy and choppy waves of Cocoa Beach for the glassy surf of Southern California. He was 17 at the time, he was looking to make his mark on surfing and, more than anything, he was looking to become famous.
He had built a following on the East Coast as much for his early success in contests as for his legendary volatile temper. His West Coast counterparts were known globally for their laid back attitude in and out of the water, so, let’s just say that Gary stood out on the sunny shores of Southern California for more than just his surfing skills. Florida surfboard builder, Dick Catri recalls, “I saw him throw a trophy into the bushes because it was for second place. Another time he, again when he got second, he just turned around right there at the presentation ceremony and gave it to some girl he’d never met.”
By 1964 he had improved greatly as an already great surfer. He came back to the East Coast and won the juniors division of The East Coast Surfing Championships. He had found his fame, and now he had a title to show it wasn’t unjustified. In this same year Gary invented a new title for himself “Professional Surfer-Athlete”. He even put it on his tax returns for that year, which I guess is how you make something unofficially official. Again, Propper was nothing short of forward thinking.
Around this same time, Hobie Alter was starting to make a plan to expand his growing surfboard sales eastward. Who better to help in that expansion than a surfer who had made himself a household name within a few years of catching his first wave? Yes, Hobie saw exactly what he needed in the brash, confident Propper. Somehow the two polar opposites created a perfect partnership.
“He was an aggressive surfer and still just a young kid, but he was good and rising to popularity really fast. We had Corky Carroll and Phil Edwards models and we wanted something for the east coast, and he was the first east coast surfer to really get noticed,” Hobie said. He was immediately put on Team Hobie and has been with us ever since.
Hobie involved Propper in every aspect of his signature board, not just design but advertising and promotion. “[Gary] and I got along great. He was always loyal and hard working,” Hobie said. Along with the Corky Carroll signature model, the 1966 Gary Propper was among the first surfboards to feature Hobie’s molded, removable polypropylene fin, and the finbox that secures it into place with a brass screw.*
When the board debuted in 1966, it went on to become the world’s best-selling signature model. Let’s say that again, shall we? It became THE WORLD’S BEST-SELLING SIGNATURE MODEL. With almost all of those massive sales numbers going to homes between Florida and Maine it is wild to think that in 1967, a year after it hit the water for the first time, the model accounted for 50 percent of the 6,000 boards Hobie Surfboards made that year! It was a huge success then and continues to be one today with sales still strong for the “sloppy surf wonder board!”
Propper competed in the Surfing World Championships in 1966, ’68 and ’70. In the early ‘70s when it was time for him to expand on his fame out of the water, he turned to the world of entertainment. Finding himself under the mentorship of the legendary Bill Graham, he became a music promoter who booked acts such as The Police, Blondie, and Devo. Later, he managed comics like Gallagher and Carrot Top. But, his greatest instance of forward thinking, was to secure the film rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book characters. Yeah, back in the 90’s, he saw the franchise as something that would endure.
Much like his surfboard model, his fame, and his confidence, Gary Propper endures, and we are proud to have endured with him for 50 years. Cheers, Mr. Propper, and congratulations on your golden anniversary. -Tracey Engelking
* Surf journalist Paul Holmes describes the Gary Propper surfboard model in his book “Hobie : Master of Water, Wind and Waves” as a noserider with a concave, teardrop pattern shaped into the bottom. Today, Hobie Surfboards offers the classic 1960s longboard in 9-foot to 9’8” lengths.