The Gillis. There is nothing like it in beach volleyball. And now after 50 years…
Playa del Rey, California is often overlooked in discussions of beach volleyball history, but it shouldn’t be. Granted, PdR is located just north of the Redondo/Hermosa/Manhattan nexus, South Bay Beaches sticking out of the tongue, and just south of “West Side History,” the Palisades, Santa Monica, Venice, and Marina del Rey hotspots.
And yet, this small enclave of 16,230 inhabitants has definitely carved out its place in the tradition of sport. Playa’s main beach, Dockweiler, has been a CBVA staple for over 50 years. The iconic Gene Popko, has always run a close tournament there, and come to think of it, may, in fact, have run more beach tournaments than anyone on the planet. Karch Kiraly, 11, competed there with his father Laz. They are among the greats who have been shaped by their experiences in PdR.
Just south of Dockweiler is a small stretch of beach just down tiny Gillis Street, which 50 years ago pioneered the concept of combining sport and entertainment long before the letters ESPN became part of the language global vernacular. In the years since, access to the invitation-only “Gillis Tournament” has been known to be a coveted treasure, the equivalent of the golden ticket in the volleyball world.
But, all good things must come to an end, or so the saying goes. This year’s tournament, this weekend at Toes Beach off Culver Boulevard, and a stone’s throw from the legendary ‘Shack’ restaurant, will be the 50e and the last (more on that in a moment).
The humble origins of the Gillis date back to 1971 and a “fetish” that co-creators Dave and Steve Cressman had.
“My brother and I have always been fans of homemade trunks,” Dave said. “We were new to volleyball and all of our friends were new. Just a small group of us playing on a metal court the county had set up at Gillis Beach. And we wanted to organize a volleyball tournament and the players had to wear homemade jerseys.
Understand that this was a time when fly wear was non-existent. There was no brand like Quiksilver, Off Shore, Sideout, Mossimo or other brands that were soon to take the sport by storm.
So Cressman, 17, and his brother Dave, 15, being the most popular kids in the class, were able to attract 17 teams that first year. It became a resounding success overnight. The tournament doubled in size each year over the next decade, and the Cressmans had to keep adding courts.
This Saturday and Sunday there will be 20 active courts with eight teams of two, four and six players on each of them. But there’s a catch: entry is limited to players who have already participated or who can persuade one of the Cressmans to give them a spot in the event.
These clever seamstresses of 1971 were also creative in other aspects.
One of the previous tournaments featured partners Pat Turley and Dik Johnson, who came in a 1932 Cadillac as the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy, wearing the “old fashioned” 1920s swimsuits. A few years later, the same guys outdid themselves.
“My favorite of these guys is that they went to Hollywood studios before a tournament and picked up two police cars,” Dave Cressman said. “Six of them came as policemen and then they approached the microphone and said they were closing the tournament 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’re going to break this and put the Cressman brothers in jail.” Then the “police officers” removed the tarps, to reveal a wooden prison 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 prison uniform .
It’s those kinds of stunts and outrageous costumes that put the Gillis Tournament on the map.
“Once people came to the Gillis tournament, they never stopped coming,” said Dave Cressman.
Eccentricity and fun are the name of the Gillis game.
Consider the “rules” of the game. It’s back to the future. Big pitch, sideout scoring at 15, and of course the old Spalding balls at 18 patches.
“Keeping in touch with our roots,” Cressman explained.
But it does not stop there.
In the Open Division, a CBVA-rated player must partner with an unrated or Novice player. If a team dominates in the first rounds, they must drink Cold Duck in the semi-finals and in the final as an “equaliser”.
If your costume is deemed to be high fashion, you are automatically advanced to day two of the tournament.
Despite, or perhaps because of these challenges, it is still possible to achieve some kind of continuity at the top. The late Robert Chavez, for example, took down 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 carried on his legacy and have attended every Gillis since his unfortunate passing in 2008.
Although the tournament has always been more of a “people” competition, there have been luminaries who cut their teeth at the Gillis.
For example, the legendary Butch May played and brought his family along with his young teenage daughter Misty. The greatest athlete to ever come out of Playa del Rey, Tim Hovland, competed when he was a teenager. He returns every year accompanied by his daughter to support the event. Another excellent former Trojan, Steve Rottman, who became a longtime partner of Chavez in the 1980s on the AVP circuit, played with Hovland for a year. Mark Williams was also an AVP stallion and has seven Gillis ‘G’ ratings.
In fact, the Gillis is perhaps the only competitive sporting event of its kind that features multi-generational teams. For example, the six-man competition has been dominated for years by three generations of the Lennon family, who are legendary not only for volleyball but also for their singing pedigree. The Lennon Sisters were one of the most popular bands of the 1950s and 1960s, and family members sing the national anthem every year to kick things off.
“Adding six-man teams allowed families to play together and gave people more opportunities to compete. We didn’t want anybody sitting down if they wanted to play,” Cressman said.
“We started with only the division open for 10 years. Then we created a stand called the ‘Hoffy’, named after Paul Hoffman, so people of his caliber (less than world class, you might say) could play. Next, we added father/son groups, centurions (combined age of partners must be 100 or older), “good” teams of six, and “fun” teams of six. There are now eight divisions in total to choose from.
Surprisingly, there have been two players besides Steve and Dave Cressman who have competed all 50s, Denny Smith, who doubles as the ‘staff’ photographer, and Alan Vallarine (really 49 ½, since he was a participant only on Sunday one year). And over that half-century, a total of 20,000 teams have participated, making it Playa del Rey’s biggest event each year.
“We are proud of what he has done for the community,” Cressman said. “The amount of revenue generated by local restaurants and bars is something we cherish.”
So why stop now?
Well, part of that is because 67-year-old Dave Cressman was one of the first to be called a “remote worker.” For the past 28 years, the director of advertising and promotions has lived in Colorado.
“It’s a full-time job for me in a month. It’s a ton of work for my brother and I. We try to enlist our family members (to help us). We (create and) sell lots of collectibles.
But when it comes to passing the baton, Dave and his brother don’t want to be part of it.
“A lot of people came in and said we would take over,” Cressman said. “I don’t trust anyone to interfere with the Gillis legacy at stake. We are very protective of the very unique way of what we do and the way we have promoted beach volleyball in an incredibly fun way. and entertaining.
“People know the Gillis tournament all over the world. And, by the way, it was quite a ride.
PLEASE JOIN THE TEAM!
There is no paywall on VolleyballMag.com. Help kKeep volleyball journalism free by becoming a supporting member of VolleyballMag.com: https://volleyballmag.com/sustaining-membership/
Or make a contribution via Venmo @VolleyballMag