Lifestyle: The Tommy Bernstein Chronicles. Life in the surf lane

Lifestyle: Mr. Tommy Bernstein has had the chops in so many endeavors, I thought it would be great to let everyone know what he has done. This is another installment of the wide, wide world of Tommy.


Keep smoking

SURFING USA PART 2 Just out of the army and working the evening shift at CBS Radio’s script department gave me lots of extra time to surf. I quickly moved out of my parents duplex into a garage, turned guest house, in Santa Monica Canyon, vacated by another Malibu surfer and airline pilot who got transferred. I had made friends with the infamous Miki Dora, and he would come and wake me up early when the surf was up. He claimed a seagull would drop seaweed on his doorstep to let him know. Actually, he was reading the weather reports and spotting the low pressure areas that the cause the ocean swells that turn into surf. Tropical storms off the coast of Mexico cause a south swell, favoring south facing beaches like Malibu in the summer and winter storms in the north, off Alaska, create a west swell favoring Rincon Point, The Ventura Overhead, County Line and other west facing beaches. Miki was a very conflicted person. There are several books written about him, all available on Amazon. I’ve read a couple, but here’s my view. Born Miklos Dora III in Hungary, he grew up in Hollywood, and still lived there with an aunt who was a music teacher. When I first met him he went by the last name of his step father, Gard Chapin, who introduced Miki to surfing as a member of the original San Onofre Surf Club. HIs real father, Miklos Dora II, a citizen of Hungary, was an importer of fine wines. Miki dropped the Chapin name and went to work for his father selling those wines to some of the finer restaurants in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. One of the Maitre D’s at a famous Beverly Hills restaurant, La Scalla, also became friendly with Miki and took up surfing. In fact, he was the one driving us to the Ventura Overhead when Nikita Krushchev’s train came by. I had no trouble getting a table at the very popular Las Scalla. The Miki I knew was always refined, charming and well mannered. He visited my home, before I moved to Santa Monica, at work, and was a guest at my parents Beach Club on Sundays when there was no surf. It was there that I introduced him to the Producer of the movie “Gidget”, who’s cabana was next to the one my parents shared with a friend. Miki was the surf double for the lead actor, James Darren.- with or without my introduction. He also did stunt work in several other surf and beach related movies. Some of Miki’s escapades are legendary. Early on, before I knew Miki, Warren Miller, who later became famous for his Ski movies, was one of a group of photographers who patrolled the beaches with 16mm cameras in the 50’s and early 60’s, shooting the local surfing scene when the waves were good. They would edit and screen their movies in the beach cities at small venues and high school gyms, charging around a dollar to get in. The films were shown by 16mm projectors on portable screens and narrated live by the producer. They were very popular among the surf crowd and the live narrations were always a lot of fun. Miki was of course a favorite of the photographers, but he had some kind of a beef with Miller and forbid him to film him. Warren did anyway and when his next movie came out, Miki showed up in an overcoat (he wore one frequently in those days) with a big milk bottle filled with moths hidden under it. When the lights went off and the projector lit up, Miki released the moths who immediately converged on the projector’s light stream. Probably one of the most famous incidents took place in Hawaii. Once a year, the luxury, steam ship Lurline sailed from Honolulu to the Big Island on it’s way back to San Francisco. Miki and some other California surfers decided to stow away, get off in Hilo and fly back to Honolulu. In those days, a Lurline sailing was a big deal. Lots of onboard parties so it was easy to get aboard. Miki got caught. Don’t know about the others, but they made an example of Miki. There is the iconic photo that ran on the front page of the leading Honolulu newspaper showing Miki getting off the plane, under arrest, hiding behind his overcoat. Miki was banned from visiting Hawaii and became known locally as “The Stowaway” The books about him also cover a lot of things that happened, mostly negative, after we parted company when I got married. He was invited to the wedding, but didn’t come and I never saw him again. On the run from the FBI for credit card fraud, he lived out of the country for many years, mostly in Biarritz, France where he could surf. He contracted Pancreatic Cancer and died at his fathers home in Montecito in 2002.

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