Kooky costumes, canned beer and volleyball dominate the annual Gillis Invitational, a quirky two-day volleyball party tradition on Dockweiler Beach. This year’s Gillis, dubbed “Gillis the 13th” (due to the first day falling on the 13th of August), is scheduled to start at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, August 13th and 14th, on the stretch of Dockweiler Beach between Imperial Highway and Grand Avenue in Playa del Rey.
Admission is free, and the tournament lasts throughout the day. Equal parts volleyball competition and party, Gillis participants are required to wear costumes to add to the absurdity. In fact, competing volleyball teams can lose points or be disqualified if their costumes are not zany enough, organizers say.
In past years, teams have shown up to the Gillis ready for volleyball action with a smiley face theme, a team of children in receding hairline costumes called “Shorty’s Kids,” elves, werewolves, skippers, and even corn dogs on a stick.
Other past teams have included “Gillis Correctional Facility,” in which the members dressed in orange prisoner coveralls and were kept under the watchful eye of bikini wearing wardens.
Still another team dressed as frat boys, mocking the campy film Animal House.
Frat-like in its festivities, the Gillis has attracted the participation of members of local fraternities from nearby Loyola Marymount University over the years, according to Dave Cressman, who founded the Gillis in 1971 with his brother Steve.
The Cressman brothers attended both Westchester High School and St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey in the late ’60s and early ’70s and say they sometimes run into old high school buddies they have not seen in years.
In 1971, when the Gillis began, 17 teams entered competition. In recent years, more than ten times that number have entered. The tournament itself is a double elimination competition between teams ranging from two to six players. After two losses, a team is eliminated.
That’s why, traditionally, Saturday is the better costume-viewing day for spectators. Crazy costumes do not always guarantee competent volleyball players, hence the most fully decked-out teams are often eliminated early on. Also, the makeshift garb tends to fall apart once the athletes begin to play.
At the Gillis, games last to a score of 15. One regulation unique to the Gillis is that judges can rule that a team be permitted to remain in competition after two losses if their costumes are quirky enough.
Competition is divided into “fun teams” (novices), centurions (mostly adults over 40), and “serious teams” (for competitive individuals in their athletic prime).
But even the so-called “serious teams” must wear wacky costumes.
On Sunday afternoon, sport succumbs to song and dance as the teams picked by the judges for having the best costumes perform somewhat improvised song, dance, skit or comedy routines for the crowd.
Also, a Gillis King and Queen are crowned in a competition that is part beauty contest and part recognition award. Candidates are chosen for their “spirit” and their looks, says Cressman.
With the Gillis, prizes are secondary and partying is primary. The coveted top prize is a coupon for a free Shack burger, food from a nearby bar and grill frequented by Gillis-goers. To Cressman, preservation of California beach culture is an essential purpose of the event.
“Our tournament and its name keep alive the memory of what Playa del Rey was in its most beautiful days and keeps alive the memory of a lifestyle that barely exists today,” Cressman has said.
A 1974 expansion of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) wiped out many of the streets and homes in the Dockweiler Beach area, including Gillis Street, the tournament’s namesake.
Gillis Street was one block long and ended at Vista Del Mar.
The Gillis tournament was not always an ode to kooky costumes. The competition for best costume evolved in the early ’80s out of an earlier contest for best trunks.
Information, (800) 470-5166.