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In this tale, the artist shares how SURF OHIO began as a pigment of his imagination, was born of a blizzard, spawned a cult-like following, rode a tidal wave of popularity, nearly wiped out, and now celebrates its 40th anniversary!

I appreciate your interest in SURF OHIO and allowing me to share a part of my creative history; much of it gleaned from personal archives squirrelled away decades ago.

I have always had a vivid imagination, an abundance of creative intuition, and an appreciation for coastal environments for as long as I can remember.  A beautiful sunset is without a doubt the most savored part of the day, even better if that day was spent on the beach.

My creative obsession with surf likely has much to do with family vacations to the West Coast when I was very young.  Perhaps specifically due to one of those trips where a fine family friend (and my godfather), Howard Slusher, then an LA-based attorney, invited us to attend the 1969 premier of a surf movie he had a hand in,The Fantastic Plastic Machine.  I was 11.  (Many years later, Howard explained he previously had a hand in the creation ofEndless Summer, as well)

I definitely remember our move from my hometown of Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, to Wilmette, Illinois, north of Chicago (Go Bears!). There, in the early 1960s, I spent kindergarten through second grade.  With two older brothers then in middle and high school, I had plenty of exposure to the music of the day, usually from the 45 rpm records stacked on their phonograph. When a group of four mop-headed oddballs from the UK took the US music scene by storm, I must admit I was not bitten by the bug – The Beatles, meh.  I was already a Beach Boys and Jan & Dean fan. So the music definitely had an influence, one that only grew as my brothers’ cast-off vinyl collection became mine, while they moved on to the more psychedelic rock era of music.

Those days were truly a musical endless summer for me, all the way into my high school days as a budding artist, journalist, and entrepreneur.  I was already American Graffiti-ized when we moved back to Columbus in 1966. By the time that George Lucas classic was released in 1973 – the start of my sophomore year of high school – and with Happy Days soon following, I was already retro. So it was in high school, in Columbus, Ohio, where the SURF OHIO story truly begins.

Tubular Envy

While a student and artist at Columbus Whetstone High School in the mid-1970s, I became especially enamored with imagery and music related to what is often referred to as the “California Myth” – hotrods, surfing, sunsets, palm trees and the like.  My teachers might say I was obsessed with them, were it not also for the airplanes I also loved to depict. Tropical images were iconic to me, especially surfing, and served to inspire the themes for many an art project. I was captivated by painting the natural beauty, colors, and action of the ancient sport.

I envied my unknown peers on the West Coast and Hawaii – beach boys and surfer girls.  Being able to create this artwork seemed to meld our disparate worlds, at least their world as I imagined it through the surfing and hotrod magazines stacked on my bedroom floor.  I painted with acrylics, creating dozens of canvas boards depicting sunsets or moonlit beaches, or surfers in the tube, using a rudimentary artist’s airbrush to add highlights to the ocean scenes.

During my senior year I learned to screenprint t-shirts thanks to a neighbor, most often using my parents’ garage for a print shop.  I relished the freedom to conjure up an idea, create a design on a blank piece of paper, and command the ability to soon after reproduce it in quantities of colorful, wearable “canvasses.”  The fact that others would then pay me for my creations and proudly wear them was a bonus. I took shirt orders from groups such as our high school marching band and the scuba diving club, the latter of which I joined upon earning my certification when I was 15.

The Concert That Created The Wave

After graduating in the summer of 1976, I designed t-shirts to sell to my friends in advance of a Beach Boys concert at Ohio State University.  The band’s name, concert date and palm tree-theme I whipped up for the front design was suitable enough (yes, I soon realized it was illegal!), but I felt the back of the tees should also sport something unique and appropriately relevant.

Playing off of the surfing contest t-shirts I admired in my surf magazines (I’m guessing I was the only Ohio subscriber to SURFER and SURFING magazines at that time), and a satirical piece of surfing-related fiction I had written in my high school paper, a couple of concepts were born. One spawned a design saying simply “Surf Olentangy” and featured a posterized bikini girl with flowing hair holding a surfboard. The other proclaimed the “1976 Olentangy Masters Surfing Classic – Columbus, Ohio.”  I got a kick out of spoofing the cool surfing contest shirts advertised in my surfing magazines, so I went with the latter design for the back of the shirts.

I grew up in a house that literally overlooked the Olentangy River.  It also happens that Whetstone High was just across the Olentangy from our house, so the river played a large part in my childhood adventures.  Meandering southward, the river flows by the Ohio State campus enroute to its termination at the confluence with the Scioto River in downtown Columbus.  The classic, tubular breaking wave I created for this design was of course a far cry from the shallow, silt laden, carp-filled Olentangy.

Due to the limitations of my elementary screening process, all these early designs were first sketched and then inked in crisp black-and-white, then screened using my preferred choice of navy blue, air-dry ink, hand printed onto whatever pastel color t-shirts I could buy on sale at K-mart.  Why navy? Because a quart of this specialized ink was expensive, and navy seemed to suffice for just about every project I worked on. Sort of like the Henry Ford of t-shirts – you could have any color ink you wanted, so long as it was navy.

Everyone seeing this Beach Boys concert shirt seemed to enjoy the local reference to surfing the Olentangy.  The design looked very official – purposefully, not at all cartoonish – and I was pleased to find that most people, the ones that “got it,” appreciated the visual nod to satire rather than an animated, goofy approach.

Cult Fiction

Fast forward to late winter of 1977.  I am a sophomore graphic design major at Ohio University in Athens, commissioned by the owner of a popular shirt shop known as The Underwear to design and print t-shirts for various campus groups and events as well as to produce my own concepts for retail sales.  The year before, I had created a modest hit of a shirt that simply stated “DISCO SUCKS.” Were it not for the life of its own it took on, it would have had a loyal but relatively modest number of fans. But after the shirts became the focal point of a cultural conflict that shut down a campus radio station, prompted death threats to the artist (me), nearly caused a riot, and became an ongoing subject in the local editorial pages, it was a best-seller for us.  But I digress…

After OU students returned from the holiday and New Year’s break of 1978, the Midwest was hit with a fierce, now legendary blizzard.  Underwear store owner Jerry “Ski” Szubski wanted to know what new design I had in mind for the approaching spring. By then there had been a plethora of “I Survived the Great Blizzard of ‘78”-based shirts flooding Midwest t-shirt shops.

With a nod toward zigging instead of zagging, I offered that a lampoon of surfing in the Midwest might provide a better theme, a diversion from the winter’s post-blizzard doldrums.  My proposal was that I’d take my 1976 Olentangy Masters Surfing Classic artwork and modify it to read “1978 Hocking River Masters.” The Hocking is Athens’ own meandering, muddy and often overflowing river that flanked the campus.  Where the date of Beach Boys’ 1976 concert had originally appeared, I would instead use the March dates of the final weekend of the upcoming spring break.

Ski liked the general idea.  It certainly conjured up a happier image than the blizzard and dreary winter we had just endured.  I really liked the fact that my idea and my art would make people smile. We concurred that the Masters design was great for the back, but we needed a suitable companion design for the front.  I kicked around a few images, including one of a surfer in silhouette, cannibalized from a multi-color posterart project I was creating in a serigraphy class. It would look pretty good on the left chest of the shirt, but it needed a slogan or catch-phrase to appropriately tie it all together.  Remembering the “Surf Olentangy” bikini girl art not used for the ’76 Beach Boys concert shirts, SURF OHIO came to me as a logical slogan to pair with the surfer dude. It was short and sweet, to the point, and offered some simple yet bold graphic options. As a graphic design major with a few marketing and communications classes under my belt, the brand value of a strong, memorable name and clean logo design was well familiar to me.  Plus, it seemed funny as hell.

I grabbed a sheet of PresType, the dry transfer lettering most often used to set type fonts back in the day, laid it out on paper in Eurostile Bold Extended, and paired it with my surfer dude.  Simple as it seems, that’s how SURF OHIO was born. Other than the federal trademark in 1987 that replaced my original 1978 copyright mark, the logo remains virtually unchanged to this day, afro and all.

However, back then, though Ski liked the concept well enough, it was going to have to prove itself first before he felt comfortable fronting me any of his blank t-shirt stock to print on.  Thus, I bought the first five dozen tees after having my art converted onto acetate film positives, to be burned into silkscreens by my supplier in Columbus. I printed up the 60 tees that weekend at home, in mom and dad’s basement, which they were well accustomed to having converted into my printing shop. Uptown they went, into Ski’s shop.  With just an initial trickle of sales to speak of, I made up some handbills to promote the shirt, or more accurately, to promote the Hocking River Masters Surfing Classic and took every opportunity to post them around campus and uptown Athens, mostly stapling them to telephone poles, an age-old campus marketing tradition.

As finals week rapidly approached, I was beginning to get nervous, so I decided to also invest in a small display ad in theOhio University Post, the campus paper.  Enlisting a friend to help me model the shirts and another to shoot it, all I could afford was to place the ad once, in the very last issue to be published before finals week, the Post’s final issue of the winter quarter.  My photographer, a photojournalism major from New Jersey named Mac Wright, insisted the shoot be outdoors to make it look natural. Thus we posed some of the pics on the solidly frozen Hocking River, still snow covered from the blizzard.  It was a good news/bad news concept. Good news was that Mac was brilliant – in black-and-white, the snow actually appeared to be sand in the final shots. Bad news was that my friend caught pneumonia and pretty much never spoke to me again, despite the free t-shirt.

It turns out posting all those yellow and black posters in late winter’s icy blast was not for naught. Just before I placed the ad, the posters attracted the attention of a Post reporter who tracked me down through The Underwear.  Apparently, word on the street of a surfing contest in Athens had created quite a buzz. Though the headline of the resulting article at first seemed a bit harsh – “Surfin Classic a Hoax to Sell T-shirts” – it did not matter. The interview with me and Ski was actually quite favorable, and resulted in a crush of customers at The Underwear.  It didn’t hurt that the article just happened to run in the same issue as did my ad, nor that seemingly 75% of the student population of about 12,000 was headed to Florida for the break.

Thus, the very weekend classes let out, students literally queued up to purchase a SURF OHIO t-shirt on their way out of town. They lined up through the small basement shop and up its steps. With just 24 hours remaining before I too headed out up Route 33 for home in Columbus, Ski commissioned me to rush another 10 dozen SURF OHIOs through.  Through some creative bartering with my dorm’s Resident Advisor that evening (my currency being beverages and a free t-shirt, as I recall), he tossed me the keys to a vacated room in Gamertsfelder Hall. There, I popped a box fan into the window facing outward, ran clothesline back and forth across the ceiling, fired up my radio and, using the two desks as my worktables, hand-screened tees until about three in the morning.  I didn’t need the beverages, not with the fumes I was inhaling (as in mineral spirits, by the way).

With the navy ink barely dry enough to fold the shirts, and my ride home idling in wait up on Union Street, I dropped off the newly minted SURF OHIOs to Ski, picked up my cash, and fought my way back up the steps through a line of about 30 waiting customers snaking down into the shop.  I well recall the enthusiasm – theirs and mine. Though it was not quite exactly an “overnight” success, it was quite sudden. I was now that “Surf Ohio guy”, and would remain so for a long, long time, though I had no idea for just how long, at that moment.

The Dumbest T-Shirt Design Ever

The success of SURF OHIO was such that I henceforth annually created a completely brand new design for the back of the shirt – using the same “Masters Classic” verbiage but with a whole new surfing scene.  It was fun to have people inquire when the new shirts would be out, what will they look like, etc. As I said, I kept the SURF OHIO dude printed on the left front, the logo unchanged.

After completing my sophomore year at OU, I opted out of school and moved home to Columbus to pursue my career in graphic design.  You see, at 20, I clearly knew it all and was fully prepared to prove it. However, this plan was detoured for a brief bit of reality as I explored other career worlds – working as a shipping clerk for a book binding company and pumping gas at a Gold Circle Department Store during the winter, for example.  Should the announcement, “Liquid cleanup in aisle four” come over the P.A., and you cringe, you can relate.

For the next several years, I continued to print SURF OHIOs, either in my garage or at my place of employment, which soon, thankfully, included a couple of established graphics companies I briefly found employment with.  I did the Hocking River Masters for Ski, where a cult following of sorts had quickly evolved, and printed a batch of Olentangy Masters tees for my hometown customers, mostly friends. I did place a classified ad for SURF OHIOs in Rolling Stone, selling a few by mail-order, but the costs outweighed the returns.

One of my early and notable jobs was with the legendary heat transfer company, Roach Studios, based in Columbus.  When I was hired on as a “plate cutter” in their art department, the lowliest entry-level graphics position there was, I still felt I had found heaven and the company that I would work my way up through until I someday ran it.  Three weeks later, I was unceremoniously released due to a “leveling off of business and downturn in art department work.” It was not until my following employment soon after, with a smaller, nearby graphics company, that one of my new bosses shared the real reason I was let go – I had actually been fired.  Apparently my enthusiastic curiosity had been perceived by my superiors at Roach as an effort to absorb as much insider knowledge before striking out on my own as their competitor. Apparently this policy of keeping only the underachievers aboard had unintended consequences – within a few years Roach went belly up.

I do recall fondly my visits to the Roach office of the legendary hot rod artist, Ed “Newt” Newton, during my break times.  It was hard to fathom that there, right down the hall from my drawing board, sat the guru of all the famous Roach hotrod designs.  Sitting across from his private studio desk, surrounded by shelf upon shelf of old car magazines, I’d press on how he came up with all my favorite heat transfer designs, such as “ ’57 Chevy – Evil, Wicked, Mean & Nasty” with gnarly guy sticking up through the car’s roof, flaming exhausts and all.  I had done my share of hotrod art in school, and in fact had recently created and sold shirts on my own at the Indy 500, starting in 1978, not long after creating SURF OHIO. I had high hopes that perhaps I’d become a protégé of Newt’s while working my up through the ranks at Roach. It was quite an energizing place to be at the time, 1979, for this wide-eyed budding t-shirt artist.  But it was not to be.

To this day, one of my all-time favorite Roach heat transfers is the two buzzards sitting on a cliff overlooking a hot desert valley.  One says to the other, “Patience my ass – I’m going to kill something.” I can’t recall if it’s one of Newt’s creations or not, but I bet I’ve used that phrase a thousand times through my various endeavors.  

While working as a creative and production director in 1981 for a follow-on iteration of my post-Roach employer, I took advantage of the multi-color screening equipment that enabled me to design that year’s Masters t-shirt back in vibrant four-color artwork for the first time.  With multi-color, split-fountain (blended) ink technique, SURF OHIOs were now on a par with just about any authentic surfwear I had seen in the surfing magazines. It was an inspirational shot in my creative arm, and I was never again to return to the simple one-color creations of the garage and dorm-room printing days.

I also never returned to work for that company soon after my boss exclaimed that SURF OHIO was just about the “dumbest t-shirt idea ever.”  Her prescience and wit cut like jello. I had, in fact, designed and printed this first run of full-color SURF OHIOs whilst being left to manage the establishment over her two-week vacation – to Oahu.

Her dim view of my marketing savvy was the prime factor of why I soon told my boss “aloha” in late 1981 and how, in January 1982, I was able to open my own shop.  It was a modest little screen-printing facility in an abandoned and hastily converted Shell Carwash in northwest Columbus, purchased by my silent partners. The pair were owners of my favorite club, The Spinnaker, just down the street.  As I launched this new venture at the age of 23, the irony of having my very own gas pumps right outside my office window, inoperable as they were, did not escape me.

Though I wanted to name the companyNomad Graphics (and even designed a logo), in homage to my professional career path over the previous four years, they wisely convinced me to name it Kaplan Graphics, Inc.  My partners’ valid concern was that, at my age, prospective corporate clients I would call upon might take me more seriously if the company bore my name, or at least figure “Mr. Kaplan’s son” himself was calling on them.

Now I was not only able but required to assertively market SURF OHIOs through retail channels along with many other of my topical, irreverent sartorial creations.  My marketing was hugely aided by the publicity generated by the SURF OHIO’s ever-growing popularity among, of course, college students, but also now families who had discovered the fun of wearing them on their vacations.  With the launch of Kaplan Graphics in the spring of 1982, I was on a roll with plenty of media interest and staging some clever publicity stunts, such as a fashion show of my new retail line, Kaplan Kollectables, with SURF OHIO as its flagship design.

In addition to a lot of great publicity, courtesy of many fine friends I made in the local media (several radio and TV stations were corporate clients), I also scored a coup for my upstart company by landing a major retail chain account for the entire Kollectables’ line – Gold Circle Department Stores.  SURF OHIO led sales throughout the line, not bad for the dumbest t-shirt design ever seen. My exclusively licensed “White Castle – A Legend in a Bun” design ran second, aided by a clever cross-promotion where you could take the purchase receipt, wear the t-shirt into a White Castle, and get two free burgers.  Cross-promoting is an accepted marketing ploy now, but ours was an innovative concept back then.

The Olentangy/Columbus and Hocking River/Athens Masters versions were of course annual staples, but it was not long before I started adding other locales and even doing some customized SURF OHIOs for corporations.  As I was fond of telling my friends in the fine arts profession, I hadn’t sold out – I had bought in. It was particularly gratifying, and good for sales, when Columbus Monthly Magazine readers voted SURF OHIO the Best T-shirt in their annual “Best Of” issue, mentioning that the Beach Boys never leave town without one.

In 1984, my high school friend and some-time investor in my previous dorm-room printing endeavors, Steve Miller, joined Kaplan Graphics as co-owner, after we bought out my original partners.  With SURF OHIOs now also in youth-sized tees and in many local retailers, what had become known as a cult favorite among students now found a loyal and multi-generational following. Between The Underwear in Athens and a couple of dozen large and small retailers carrying the shirts in Columbus, especially those on Ohio State’s famed High Street, SURF OHIO was cranking.

A couple of things were happening in the marketplace that certainly helped SURF OHIO along.  First, across the country, the surf culture was creeping into the mainstream, and retailers were taking notice. Locally, my promotional efforts were paying off.  I had been able to get SURF OHIOs to some recognizable personalities in just a few years, and now it seemed others, such as the Ohio Film Commission, were happy to help the cause.

The lobby of Kaplan Graphics reflected the efforts to get SURF OHIOs to appreciative celebs. Our “wall of fame” soon included photos of Michael J. Fox, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ron Howard, and other stars, proudly sporting their SURF OHIO garb.  Most of these were the result of movies they made in Ohio, or TV series with plots based in the state, with several even using SURF OHIOs as wardrobe, such asLight Of Day andFamily Ties.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was a pioneer in what is commonly known today as “product placement.”  It’s big business now, but back then it was my chutzpah, naïveté, and a t-shirt concept that everyone loved. The placements cost me the t-shirts they were printed on.  I couldn’t buy such exposure even if I had the money. Best of all were the occasions when they’d show up by surprise, such as when James Cameron turned up one morning on the Today Show and soon after in other media outlets, during the filming ofTerminator 2, wearing a SURF OHIO tee.

And thanks to a relationship with the Beach Boys facilitated by a friendship struck with their Columbus-born keyboard player, Sterling Smith, in 1978, I had several photos of Dennis Wilson, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston all wearing SURF OHIOs onstage at various Midwest concert appearances on a nearly annual basis.  For a kid that grew up on their music, it was quite a thrill on the many occasions I was a backstage guest (it still is, by the way). It was admittedly very heady to see members of the band and fans in the audience wearing SURF OHIO shirts and hats.

Certainly some of my best “promoters” were members of several very popular Columbus bands that adopted SURF OHIO as part of their favored wardrobe.  Coincidentally, one of these groups, McGuffey Lane, had its start in Athens, though long before I came through there. The Lane’s John Schwab and the rest of those guys were great SURF OHIO apostles and can tell some hilarious tales of duping fans with wildly fantastic stories of their Ohio surfing conquests.  It’s amazing what “true story” SURF OHIO yarns you can amass, especially in a bar, provided you can keep a straight face when responding to an inquisitive audience.

Another great promoter was my little brother, Kenn, and the string of bands in which he performed as keyboardist and later, also as lead singer.  One such rock group, MONEY, even produced one of their own albums under the SURF OHIO RECORDS label, by permission, of course. This was before CDs, mind you.

SURF OHIO loyalists were proud to boast of having collected a shirt or two from every year, the well worn ones being “retired” so as to not wear them out entirely.  We were deluged with tales of those sporting them to faraway and exotic lands, and some not-so-faraway, with often hilarious accounts of Daytona/Malibu/Barbados/Costa Rica/etc. locals that, perhaps to this day, believe there is a wave-making machine on the Olentangy used once a year to create gnarly sets worthy of the famous Surfing Classic.

SURF OHIO Bash – The Beach Is Where You Make It

There was an offshoot of SURF OHIO that bears mentioning.  As surfwear of the authentic sort evolved into a national fashion craze in the mid-1980s, I began to sense the need to ratchet up our promotional effort in central Ohio. Coincidentally about the same time in 1985, the owner of The Jean Scene Stores, Hank Feinberg, came to me to discuss further methods of boosting sales of SURF OHIOs through his nine-store chain.  Mentioning an idea I had been mulling upon – an outdoor SURF OHIO beach party to kickoff the summer season, Hank quickly offered that, with the right media partners of his, and a suitable venue of my choosing, I could count Jean Scene stores in. He’d even tag his existing radio spots to promote it as part of a larger package of promotional support, including in-store promotions.

Taking the idea to friends running the number one Columbus rock station, QFM96 (another Kaplan Graphics client and a Jean Scene advertiser), the pieces came together rapidly.  Though being rejected by my first choice of venues, a little wave pool/amusement park next to the Columbus Zoo, we were embraced by Club 51, a rustic bar featuring live music on the coast of Buckeye Lake, located east of Columbus.  Club 51 had a small indoor stage but, better yet, a large outdoor deck overlooking its own docks and fenced-in lawn area. Thus patrons could arrive by either boat or car, and party inside or out, weather permitting – a very nice set-up for about 300 people.  Steve and I were well familiar with the place, his family having a cabin on the lake that we had frequented for years for weekends of jet-skiing, waterskiing and other summer shenanigans with our friends.

As the pieces came together, I hired my brother’s band, Fusion, for the live entertainment.  These young rockers were barely out of high school but already had built a respectable club following.  Plus, they worked cheap. QFM96 had no trouble bringing on the Coors distributor, which also pledged to tag their extensive inventory of radio spots.  That meant the last 10 seconds or so of their radio ads would have the deep-voiced announcer saying something like, “Don’t miss the first annual SURF OHIO Bash, June 2nd at Club 51 on Buckeye Lake.”  Combined with the Jean Scene’s tags, in-store posters, the station’s own 30-second promotional announcements, and the live show hosts talking it up, it was a standard yet pretty effective campaign.

At its peak that first year, the place must have had about 700 patrons, over twice the club’s legal capacity.  People were parking cars in the middle of neighborhood yards and, on the lakeside, the slips were claimed by 11 o’clock in the morning.  By afternoon, boat upon boat was being rafted together, in some cases owners simply dropping anchor and swimming in. Remember that great scene in Caddyshack, when Rodney Dangerfield is blasting along in his big boat?  Imagine that, come to life, with wonderful chaos ensuing, and fun was had by all. Except for an officer of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in his lone, little patrol boat.

The second annual SURF OHIO Bash returned to Club 51.  This time, it seemed we had more of everything. More boaters, more music, more people, more rent-a-cops, more contests, and more fun and, yes, way more ODNR officers and boats.  Another local rock band, The Bellows, played on the deck, and from the shore we held a Winger Contest. Kaplan Graphics had introduced this fantastically simple new product to the Midwest the year before.  Wingers were an advanced version of the waterballoon launchers we once fabricated at OU, a giant slingshot made of surgical tubing attached to a cloth/vinyl pouch. They hurled a grapefruit sized waterballoon about a hundred yards at about two hundred miles per hour.

Steve and I first saw them at a trade show and immediately offered Wingers through Kaplan Graphics.  For the Bash, we had teams of three competing, with divisions for media as well as for the fans. Steve was out on the lake in his ski boat holding up a plywood target that, as I recall, was supposed to be Momar Khadafi.  The team with the most hits, on either Khadafi or Steve, won. The whole thing was quite hilarious, even as the teams got serious.

On the parking lot side, a new sponsor, Ritzy’s Ice Cream Parlors, was holding an even more absurd contest, as I look back on it now.  A willing contestant was holding an empty ice cream cone, while standing in the middle of a big plastic tarp. Above him loomed a cherry picker, from which a Ritzy’s rep would drop a scoop of ice cream.  Yes, the object was to catch the scoop in the cone to win. We couldn’t get any sillier, or dangerous, unless we were dropping frozen turkeys from a helicopter.

There were several solid reasons for moving the event in the third year.  I’ll claim the Coors Distributor as the primary motivating factor – with the overwhelming success of the Bash, they really preferred it be moved closer to the center of their Columbus market area.  Further, quite honestly, it had become apparent that Club 51 was making all the money at the expense of SURF OHIO’s reputation and the hard work of our Bash partners. They were reluctant to share, so we felt the time had come to move on, and up.

I had the perfect place in mind. It was the very one that had rejected my proposal to be the original site of the Bash – Wyandot Lake Amusement Park.  It had a wave pool, outdoor concert stage, poured beer, and shared a huge parking lot with its neighbor, the popular Columbus Zoo. In one of the two, the animals were in cages.  The Zoo’s director was a longtime friend and Kaplan Graphics supporter, “Jungle” Jack Hanna, for whom I had designed shirts commemorating Jack’s first appearance on David Letterman. He had been booked on the show by a friend of mine from OU days, Laurie Lennard (who later became famous for producingAn Inconvenient Truth and flipping off Hummer drivers from her Prius while zipping about Santa Monica).

By this time, with legend of the Bash success firmly established, park management welcomed me with open arms and offered their formidable promotional horsepower. I was encouraged to add a few new attractions.  A “best tan” contest held at the first two Bashes had provided an epiphany. I needed to be more branding-proactive, so it became the Miss SURF OHIO Bikini Contest. Mind you, this was 1987. Thank heavens America had not shackled itself in political correctness yet.

Without the option of staging the popular Winger contest, which was understandably a safety issue at the landlocked, crowded park, Steve and I fortunately stumbled upon something else very fun and relevant – a mechanical surfboard.  I think I first saw it on network TV news. California’s, a club up in Windsor, Ontario – literally in an old roadhouse – had built this contraption on much the same technology as the mechanical bull ofUrban Cowboy fame.  Steve and I made a weekend road trip up there to check it out and I booked it for our 1987 Bash at Wyandot Lake.  It was an immediate hit with Bash-goers and media alike, and for 1988 we got smart and customized the board with SURF OHIO and our co-sponsor’s logos.

Eventually, due to liability concerns by park management, we ceased booking the mechanical board.  Nobody had gotten hurt on it, but that seemed only a matter of time. As if on cue, in 1989, I became aware of the very first computer-driven surfboard, and soon after booking it and its creator/operator for the Bash, I purchased a pre-production, prototype unit (It runs off a Commodore 64.  I still have both!). It was a lot of fun and a great attraction as I packaged it also as a SURF OHIO promotion, bookable through Kaplan Graphics for clubs and events around Ohio. I’d run indoor surfing contests, holding several through the winter season on a weekly basis at such clubs as Shooters in the Flats (Cleveland) and the Newport Music Hall and Victory’s in Columbus.  Wow, to look it now, when compared to contemporary games, the graphics remind me more of Pong than Wii. But back then, hopping on the yellow surfboard, dropping in on a pixilated curl and dodging jerky shark shapes while the music thumped and friends spritzed the rider with a beverage was big fun for a lot of people.

America Catches The SURF OHIO Wave

As I mentioned, throughout this stretch of the 1980s, “surf” as fashion was catching on nationally, and SURF OHIO rode the wave. At what was later seen as the peak, in 1987, Kaplan Graphics was producing versions of SURF’s for 22 Ohio locales and 15 other states/cities, such as SURF CHICAGO, EL PASO, SEATTLE, ATLANTA and NEW YORK.  SURF’s were sold in retailers both small and large, the latter including such chains as Nordstrom and Lazarus Stores. We had our setbacks, or so we thought at the time, like when the sportswear buyer at Bloomingdales declined to pick up the SURF NEW YORK line in 1988. “Surf New York? Why would anybody buy a Surf New York shirt? You can’t surf in New York!”  Umm, Duh?

We also had to devote considerable time and resources to fighting counterfeiters of the SURF OHIO brand, an investment we quickly learned was part of “the cost of doing business” as a viable, growing intellectual property.  Fortunately, we had one of the best law firms in the eastern U.S. for this right there in Columbus. Our lawyers made it very clear that a key factor in protecting intellectual property rights is to assertively ferret out violators the instant bogus product is found, and commence issuing cease-and-desist notices immediately.  Some violators might not, in actual numbers, be doing significant financial damage, but you cannot afford anyone the opportunity to create confusion in the marketplace or erosion of hard-won brand equity in the mind of the consumer.

One such case was a single heat-transfer store in Columbus’ Eastland Mall that had created SURF OHIO iron-ons of their own design.  Another such action we took stands out due particularly to the circumstances involved. A couple of years after SURF OHIO was federally trademarked, we were attending a massive annual trade show for the surf industry in Orlando, Florida.  We were exploring potential brand extensions, accessories and licensing opportunities for SURF OHIO, having just commenced work on custom-fabricated logo surf jams for sale through Jean Scene stores. As you can imagine, we were suitably garbed in SURF OHIO wear.  We ran into some young guys in the aisle and were stunned to see their IDs as representing Surf Ohio, as in Surf Ohio Skates, a Dayton skateboard shop. As we introduced ourselves in the aisle of the bustling show floor, there was much shifting of eyes and feet as they nervously acknowledged us.

Frankly, my initial reaction was enthusiasm at the prospect that SURF OHIO had gained a foothold with the burgeoning skate crowd, boding well for a brand extension into that arena.  But soon after, it became evident we were going to have to serve notice – they would have to change their name immediately. The clincher was when an order of SURF OHIO surfboard keychains we had ordered from a new vendor arrived.  When I opened the box, it turned out the contents was not our eagerly anticipated order, but rather a bunch of skateboard keychains adorned with Surf Ohio Skates’ logo. The supplier, a Chinese operation based in California, had inadvertently shipped it to us,the SURF OHIO guys, in Columbus, not Dayton.  Clearly, confusion had been caused in the marketplace, so the skate shop soon received the dreaded but very legitimate cease-and-desist letter from our attorney.  To their credit, the shop complied as requested, changing their name within the time specified and avoiding any further legal action on our part.

(Though I felt bad for the young guys, all this could have been avoided had they simply done a trademark search before naming their company, designing a logo, fabricating signage, ordering stationery, running a Yellow Pages ad – you get the idea.  Missing this standard new business start-up step, and ignoring it later, no doubt ended up costing them significantly. Years later, after I moved to Dayton in 1995, I paid a visit to the shop and pitched the owner/founder on adding SURF OHIO product to his offerings.  He in fact was one of the young guys I met at the trade show six or seven years before. He was cordial and complimented me on the great concept and new design, but said he could not help but hold a grudge and that his shops would never, ever carry SURF OHIO as a result.  I expressed my regrets, thanked him for his time and his candor, and left. To him, it may have been a matter of principle, but if so, it meant he simply never came to grips with a lesson learned, the hard way, to begin with. In my book, he cost himself – twice.)

Our loyal customers were not just local, but also folks who had moved away from Ohio or had relatives who had done so.  Many often stated that a purchase was meant as a gift sent from home or a fun joke on a recipient thatdid live in a surfable locale.  We had more than a few loyal customers who would annually outfit their entire family in the latest edition shirts and hats for their spring or summer vacations.  Columbus Mayor Buck Rinehart was one such fan. Frankly, I should have thought to more assertively encourage and reward the practice at the time. Some fans were kind enough to send photos of them wearing SURF OHIO garb at some exciting if not also exotic destinations.  I later made sure I would take such pictures on my own sojourns.

Another similar group of regular customers were local Parrotheads, the loyal fans of Jimmy Buffett and his outdoor concerts.  I always eagerly anticipated a Buffett tour stop in nearby Cincinnati, Indianapolis or the like, as it meant a spike in SURF OHIO sales.  Sometimes a group of as many as a dozen Parrotheads would purchase t-shirts for their concert “uniform,” if one dare call it that. Sadly, I never was able to get SURF OHIO to Buffett himself (though he recently was seen wearing a SURF AUSTIN hat).

Like any good wave does, it must crash before the next one comes along.  And that first crash for the SURF OHIO wave happened abruptly in 1989, with the Campeau buyout of bankrupt Federated Department Stores.  Unfortunately for Kaplan Graphics, we had thousands of shirts ready to ship to Federated’s Lazarus stores throughout the Midwest when we got the shocking news that all purchase orders had been voided by the new Campeau regime.  Their buyers were starting from scratch. We were nearly screwed out of business. Worse yet, by this time sales growth was such that we had contracted out SURF OHIO printing to some of our larger regional competitors equipped with automated presses, and now we owed them for their work. A whole lot of product was sitting on our dock with nowhere to go.

It was a hard, yet typical set of lessons to learn for a small business.  The silver lining? We re-focused on our core retailers to sell the next generation SURF OHIOs, the smaller chains and specialty shops whose owners were very often also the head buyer, manager, and shelf stocker.  But it took about three years to sell down that dated inventory. In brief, be careful what you wish for, and don’t keep filling one basket with all of your eggs.

Unfortunately there was some trouble brewing with the SURF OHIO Bash, too, but not of our making and certainly rather strange.  Over the three years of Bash’s we had produced at Wyandot Lake, the event had grown in scale and quality. With the help of some like-minded creative, visionary park management, sponsors and media reps, our concerts matched the popularity of the Miss SURF OHIO bikini contests and the crowds grew.  For instance, in the early spring of 1988, an Indiana rocker named Henry Lee Summer popped onto the national charts with his, “I Want A Girl That Walks Like That.” It was the perfect summer song, no pun intended. By sheer luck as much as genius, we booked Summer right away for the Bash for about $7,000.  Just after the contract was signed, the song shot to Number One on the charts, and his appearance fees right along with it. But the Bash had him for $7K. At this time, my brother Kenn was with the band MONEY and they were the perfect opener for Summer.

In 1990 we had central Ohio’s top classic rock radio station as our sponsor, thus it made great sense and fun to book Head East and Foghat.  Again, the crowds came and the music rocked. I know it was certainly one of my favorites of all the SURF OHIO concerts up to that date. Who among us has not played air guitar to “Fool for the City”?

Then, having staged three straight years of great Bash’s at Wyandot Lake, there was a sudden change in the park’s management.  In a nutshell, new management from the park’s home office in Sandusky, Ohio, insisted on three key points in order to continue hosting the Bash.  With a straight face, a guy in a tailored suit posed these points to me as much needed improvements: 1. Our radio sponsor had to be the number one station in the market, (at that time, a top-40/Pop Music format station); 2. The station’s promo director, not me, would thus select the live music act for the stage, and; 3. In their nod to the scourge of political correctness infecting the nation, I was to add a Mr. SURF OHIO Contest as a companion contest to Miss SURF OHIO.

Unfortunately for SURF OHIO, there was no other suitable venue for me to leverage against them.  The 1990 SURF OHIO Bash was a success to the audience – if you happened to be a 12-year-old-girl fan of the pop station, there to hear the awful track band they hired.  It was a disaster for SURF OHIO and our loyal sponsors. These teenieboppers weren’t about to enroll in community college, buy a car, shop for fashion swimwear, or knock back a cold one.  I can only hope that the teenyboppers’ chaperone moms enjoyed the oil slicked, steroid laden body builders prancing around in their Speedos for the Mr. SURF OHIO contest. Nobody else there that I knew did so.

After conferring with my main sponsors soon after, I decided to fold it up rather than battle the management or, as my main sponsor, Columbus State Community College suggested, attempt to re-bootl the event in a parking lot at the State Fairgrounds.  At that point Wyandot Lake was unwilling to negotiate the gate, insisting on keeping 100% of the Bash take – a final straw. It was Club 51 all over again, but with 10 times at stake. I was raising the sponsorship dollars, which paid for the bulk of expenses including the live acts, producing  the merchandise, and coordinating the PR and promotion.

The park was bringing in tens of thousands of dollars more than usual at the gate, all of it on the back of SURF OHIO, its brand equity, and many old and new fans.  In particular, this aspect of the stalemate mitigated the otherwise heartbreaking decision to pull the plug. There would be no Seventh Annual SURF OHIO Bash. For years afterward, it seemed the number one question I heard when out and about was, “Hey, you doin’ another Bash this summer?”

15 Years Of Surf Ohio

The good news was that SURF OHIO t-shirts were still popular with an ever-growing group of fans and buyers of the t-shirts themselves, some of whom had moved on from Ohio to other parts of the country.  As we approached the 15th anniversary of SURF OHIO in 1993, we became aware of more and more enthusiasts boasting of having every shirt since the first one, or close to it.  In fact, two of these fans, Steve and Susan Salsbury of Aurora, Illinois, were photographed with their collection of SURF OHIOs by the Associated Press for a wonderful feature story that ran in the Columbus Dispatch in January 1993.

It was around this time, however, that my creativity developed wanderlust, or something like that.  At age 34, I had been designing t-shirt graphics and pulling a squeegee for the last 18 years. I was ready for a change and driven by a new challenge.  This is not atypical of creative types. I should have seen it coming a few years earlier, in 1990, when I was suddenly moved to start painting again – something I had not done since being stuck home with the flu in 1980.

To inspire this evening hobby, I returned to my childhood love of airplanes and World War II aviation history.  I quickly developed a fascination with the nose-art that adorned these aircraft, especially the images inspired by the Varga and Petty pin-up girls of that 1940s era.  Ironically, my first canvasses were not canvas at all, but rather the leather flight jackets on which the artists of Air Corps units used to re-create the nose-art for the brave crews of these combat aircraft.  Guess I could not shake the wearable graphics business or entrepreneurism, even in my leisure pursuits. In addition to the nose-art, I soon began illustrating aircraft and replicating insignia on these jackets, which for me opened up a whole new market in commissions from the owners of restored, vintage bombers and fighters flown in air shows all over the country.

When coupled with my photography and writing, I quickly found my new hobby was a whole new business opportunity – one I could easily pursue from the comfort of my apartment art studio.  Thus Warbird Aviation Art, as this endeavor was officially known, came to be. After brief negotiations with Steve, in 1994 I sold him my share of Kaplan Graphics, Inc., save for one thing – the trademark and copyrights to SURF OHIO.  While attending the Dayton Air Show that summer I was introduced to Jennifer Janssens by her uncle, Leo Janssens, a former Air Force test pilot who then was running the Aviation Safety Institute in Columbus. Fact is, it was a setup by Uncle Leo, despite what he now claims.  I moved to Dayton the next year and Jennifer and I were married in October 1995.

Over the next couple of years I continued to work with Steve on SURF OHIO, with 1996 marking the last year of creating a new design as the demands of fulfilling Warbird Aviation Art commissions, writing for Flight Journal magazine and traveling extensively to exhibit at and cover air shows and events across the country took precedence. I simply could not stop to create the new SURF OHIO artwork.  That did not change when, in 1998, my career took yet another unique turn, and I was hired onto the staff of the National Aviation Hall of Fame (NAHF) as its development director.

My tenure at the NAHF could be a book in itself.  With a demanding fulltime career that included plenty of travel, Surf Ohio was definitely on the proverbial back-curner.   But around 2007, I realized that the 30th anniversary would be in 2008.   I thought that might be an appropriate milestone occasion for which to create a new shirt.  After finding that www.surfohio.com was available, I grabbed it. And then I knew that might an appropriate occasion.

And just to fuel my fire, it was about that time that a young kid from the Columbus suburb of Bexley reached out to me, inquiring about Surf Ohio.  Working out of his parents basement, Ryan Vesler was operating an online t-shirt store called Homage. With his vision to promote vintage, retro t-shirts, Ryan seemed delighted to learn that I, the old Surf Ohio guy, was still alive!  Serioiusly, his interest in licensing Surf Ohio, specifically to reproduce and market my old t-shirt designs, provided me with a big boost of confidence that the brand still mattered. It certainly underscored to me that a whole new generation of fans embraced Surf Ohio, including and especially the older designs, to my surprise.  Later, when Homage deftly expanded into the bricks-and-mortar retail world, its licensed, exclusively produced Surf Ohio merchandise (expanded to include items like skate decks, Frisbees, and knit socks) became a top-seller, for years second only to the licensed Ohio State University products offered in the original store locations.  I credit Homage for also introducing Surf Ohio to contemporary artists like The Black Keys, Guided By Voices and Walk the Moon, among others.

Not surprisingly, that new generation included my own two oldest boys, twins Alex and Zach Traxler, then 20 years old.  Now 30, and both parents themselves, Alex owns Griffen Hollow Studios, which fabricates many unique, custom Surf Ohio-branded items for retail sale and partner/licensees.  After ditching a stifling career in IT back in 2011, Zach founded his own t-shirt and printing company in Columbus, Traxler Custom Printing, where Surf Ohio shirts and many accessories are printed today. That includes those you’ll find featured on this site.   

I truly appreciate that you’ve taken the time to let me share the Surf Ohio story.  And it brings us much delight to now present our colorful, new edition of “the dumbest t-shirt idea, ever” – Surf Ohio, now celebrating 40 years of fun, sun, and smiles for all.

From Surf Ohio, Mahalo for your support.  Enjoy!

Ron Kaplan

April 2018