Part costumed spectacle, part party and, oh yeah, part volleyball competition, the Gillis Invitational has become a Playa del Rey tradition, drawing beach-goers from throughout the South Bay.
The Gillis takes place on Dockweiler Beach between Imperial Highway and Grand Avenue. The party starts at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, August 12th and 13th, and lasts into the evening. Participation is free.
Equal parts volleyball competition and beach 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 kooky enough, organizers say.
In past years, teams have shown up at the Gillis ready for volleyball action as elves, werewolves, skippers and even corn dogs on a stick. There has been a circus clown troupe sporting a smiley face theme and a team of children in receding hairline costumes called “Shorty’s Kids.”
Other past teams have included “Gillis Correctional Facility,” in which members dressed in orange prison coveralls were kept under the watchful eye of bikini-wearing wardens.
Still another team was 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, including students 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 day for spectators to see the costumes. Crazy costumes do not always translate into competent volleyball players, so 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 to be permitted to remain in competition after two losses if the team’s 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 in the Gillis contest is most often a coupon for a free burger at The Shack, a nearby bar and grill frequented by Gillis-goers. To Cressman, preservation of California beach culture is an essential objective 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 enhanced by colorful and kooky costumes. The competition for best costume evolved in the early 1980s out of an earlier contest for best trunks.
Information, (800) 470-5166.