The Gillis. There’s nothing like it in beach volleyball. And now after 50 years …
Playa del Rey, California, is often overlooked in the discussion of beach volleyball history, but it shouldn’t be. Granted, PdR is located just north of the nexus of Redondo/Hermosa/Manhattan, the powerhouse South Bay beaches that just roll off the tongue, and just south of the “West Side story,” the Palisades, Santa Monica, Venice and Marina del Rey hot spots.
And yet, this small enclave of 16,230 residents has definitely carved its niche into the lore of the sport. The main beach in Playa, Dockweiler, has been a CBVA staple for over 50 years. The iconic Gene Popko, always ran a tight tournament there, and come to think of it, may, in fact, have run more beach tournaments than any person on the face of the planet. An 11-year-old Karch Kiraly competed there with his father Laz. They are among the greats who were shaped by their experiences in PdR.
Just south of Dockweiler is a small stretch of beach just down from tiny Gillis Street, which 50 years ago pioneered the concept of combining sports and entertainment long before the letters ESPN became part of the global vernacular. In the intervening years since then, gaining entrance to the invitation only “Gillis Tournament” has been known to be a highly coveted treasure, the golden ticket equivalent in the volleyball world.
But, all good things must come to an end, or at least that is how the adage goes. This year’s tournament, this weekend at Toes Beach off Culver Boulevard, and spitting distance from the legendary “Shack” restaurant, will be the 50th and last one (more on that in a bit).
The humble origins of the Gillis date to 1971 and a “fetish” that the co-originators Dave and Steve Cressman had.
“My brother and I were always fans of homemade trunks,” Dave said. “We were new to volleyball and all of our friends were new to it. Just a small group of us playing on a metal court that the county had put in at Gillis Beach. And we wanted to have a volleyball tournament and the players had to wear homemade trunks.”
Understand this was an era when volley wear was non-existent. There was no such thing as Quiksilver, Off Shore, Sideout, Mossimo or other brands that were soon to take the sport by storm.
So, the 17-year-old Cressman and his 15-year-old brother Dave, by virtue of being the popular kids in class, were able to attract 17 teams that first year. It became an overnight smashing success. The tournament doubled in size each year over the next decade and the Cressman’s had to keep adding courts.
This Saturday and Sunday there will be 20 active courts with eight teams of two-, four- and six-man teams on each one. But there is a catch: Entrance is limited to players who have participated before, or can coax one of the Cressmans into giving them a berth into the event.
Those clever seamstresses from 1971 were also creative in other aspects.
One of the earlier tourneys featured partners Pat Turley and Dik Johnson, who came in a 1932 Cadillac as the comedian duo of Laurel and Hardy, wearing the “old time” swimsuits of the 1920s. A few years later, the same guys one-upped themselves.
“My favorite from those guys is that they went to the Hollywood Studios before one tournament, and picked up two police cars,” Dave Cressman said. “Six of them came as police officers, and then they approached the microphone and said they were shutting the tournament down to a chorus of boos.
Early that morning they had set up a wooden jail cell on the beach, which they disguised by covering it with tarps. ‘We are going to break this up and put the Cressman brothers in jail.’ Then the ‘police officers’ pulled back the tarps, to reveal a wooden jail cell. And inside the makeshift cell, the band Tom Thumb played ‘Jailhouse Rock’ serenading a number of people who were actually in the cell wearing the (old school) black and white jail uniform.”
It was these kinds of stunts and the outrageous costumes that put the Gillis tourney on the map.
“Once people came to the Gillis Tournament, they never stopped coming,” Dave Cressman said.
Quirkiness and fun are the name of the Gillis game.
Consider the “rules” of play. It’s back to the future. Large court, sideout scoring to 15, and of course the old Spalding 18-patch balls.
“Staying in touch with our roots,” Cressman explained.
But it doesn’t stop there.
In the Open division, a CBVA-rated player must partner with an unrated or novice. If a team is dominating in the early rounds, then they have to drink Cold Duck in the semifinals and finals as an “equalizer.”
If your costume is deemed to be of high “fashion,” you automatically get advanced to the second day of the tournament.
Despite, or maybe because of these challenges, it is still possible to get some kind of continuity at the top. The late Robert Chavez, for instance, downed plenty of Cold Duck on his way to a record nine Gillis “G” ratings, a designation given to the winner of the men’s open division. Chavez’s wife and son have kept his legacy going and have attended every Gillis since his unfortunate passing in 2008.
While the tournament has always been more of a “peoples” competition, there have been some luminaries who have cut their teeth at the Gillis.
For instance, the legendary Butch May played and brought his family with young teenage daughter Misty. The greatest athlete to ever come out of Playa del Rey, Tim Hovland, competed when he was a teen. He comes back every year with his daughter in tow to support the event. Another fine former Trojan, Steve Rottman, who became a long-time partner of Chavez in the 1980s on the AVP Tour, played with Hovland one year. Mark Williams was also an AVP stud and has seven Gillis “G” ratings.
For that matter, the Gillis may be the only competitive sporting event of its kind that features multi-generational teams. For instance, the six-man competition has been dominated for years by three generations of the Lennon family, who are legendary for not only volleyball but for their singing pedigree. The Lennon Sisters were one of the most popular groups of the 1950s and ’60s, and members of the family sing the national anthem every year to kick things off.
“Adding six-man teams allowed families to play together and gave more opportunities for people to compete. We did not want anyone sitting if they wanted to play,” Cressman said.
“We started with just the open division for 10 years. Then we created a bracket called the ‘Hoffy,’ which was named after Paul Hoffman, so that people of his caliber (less than world class, one might say) could play. Then we added father/son brackets, centurions (partners’ combined ages have to be 100 or over), six-man ‘good’ teams, six-man ‘fun’ teams.” There are now eight total divisions to choose from.
Amazingly, there have been two players besides Steve and Dave Cressman who have competed all 50 years, Denny Smith, who does double duty as the “staff” photographer, and Alan Vallarine (really 49 ½, since he was a Sunday-only participant one year). And over that half century 20,000 teams in total have participated making it Playa del Rey’s biggest event every year.
“We are proud of what it has done for the community,” Cressman said. “The amount of revenue generated to local restaurants and bars is something we cherish.”
So why stop now?
Well, part of it is that the 67-year-old Dave Cressman happened to be one of the first that has been called “remote workers.” For the last 28 years, the advertising and promotions executive has lived in Colorado.
“This is a full-time job for me a month out. It’s a ton of work for my brother and I. We try to rope in our family members (to help). We (create and) sell a lot of collectibles.”
But when it comes to handing off the baton, Dave and his brother want no part of it.
“Plenty of people have come and said we will take it over,” Cressman said. “I don’t trust anyone to jump in with the legacy of the Gillis at stake. We are very protective of the very unique manner in what we do, and how we promoted beach volleyball in an amazingly fun and entertaining way.
“People know the Gillis tournament all over the world. And, by the way it has been quite a ride.”
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