A volleyball tournament like no other, The Gillis celebrates 45 years in Playa del Rey

By Bonnie Eslinger
Way back in 1971, when he was just a teenager, David Cressman and his brother Steve gathered a group of guys from St. Bernard and Westchester high schools for a friendly volleyball competition at Gillis Beach in Playa del Rey.

No one could have known then that over the years the tournament would turn into an annual beach blowout drawing hundreds of spectators, costumed players and over-the-top skits.

“It was fun, so everybody wanted to do it again the next year,” Cressman said. “So we said, ‘OK, we’ll put it on again,’ and over the years it kept doubling in size.”

Seventeen two-man teams participated in the inaugural contest; last year more than 800 people competed in the family-friendly event, which marks its 45th anniversary this year.

The Gillis Beach Invitational Volleyball Tournament also outgrew its namesake location and is now held at Playa del Rey’s Dockweiler State Beach. This year’s event will be held on Saturday and Sunday, from 8 a.m. to sundown both days.

One of the reasons the event has grown over the years — besides its good-time reputation — is its ‘everyone should play’ attitude. The tournament has doubles and six-person contests, with skill-level brackets within those categories

“That’s kind of our uniqueness, that we have so many different brackets.” Cressman said. “What happened is people would lose their skill level and not want to play because they weren’t as good anymore, they couldn’t compete. So we would add brackets. We also started adding brackets as people had kids. They would say, ‘I’d like to play with my son,’ so we’d say, ‘Ok we’ll add a father-son bracket, a father-daughter bracket, a coed bracket.”

The lower skill-level bracket, “The Hoffy,” was named after one of the original tournament participants who wanted to stay in the game, Paul Hoffman.

Also getting bigger and better over the years is the time and effort tournament participants put into their costumes, some even creating theme camps on the beach and putting together skits. That tradition began with the inaugural tournament, after a group showed up with custom-made matching trunks.

“Everybody goes all out with their costumes,” Cressman said. “We have a rule that if, at the minimum, your team doesn’t come with a matching outfit, you automatically lose five points before the game even starts.”

Crazy costumes are just the start for some teams. In 1980, two regulars pulled up to the courts in a 1930s Cadillac and came out dressed as Laurel and Hardy.

“Underneath they had these old fashioned swimsuits and they played in them,” Cressman said.

That duo, Pat Turley and Dik Johnson, followed that act with Lone Ranger and Tonto costumes, arriving on horseback.

“Then they came as oil sheiks on an actual camel they rented,” Cressman said. “It was insane.”

Another two-man team regularly shows up dressed as gnomes, complete with pointy hats and suspenders.

“They come and they do skits and they’re just funny, crazy people. They’re always a highlight,” Cressman said. “They’re young guys. They’re part of the new generation.”

The tournament’s showtime, usually six to eight skits, rolls around at about 3 p.m. on Sunday, Cressman said.

“They’re just fun, crazy things that people make up,” he said. “They’re usually not practiced, but they have a lot of creativity.”

The weekend’s entertainment also includes a performance from local rock band Venice, which was founded by cousins Michael and Kipp Lennon, relatives of the former Lawrence Welk Show singers The Lennon Sisters.

“They’ve played in almost every single Gillis,” Cressman said. “It’s a huge family.”

Asked about the enduring popularity of the event, Cressman said it’s come with a price.

“The Gillis was like a high school reunion every single year,” he said. “But then it kind of got too big, with a lot of people coming and a lot of people we didn’t know. We really try to keep it as a local Playa del Rey event, for people who have had some connection to Playa del Rey or Westchester.”

Like a sunset falling over the Pacific Ocean or the early morning hours of a really good party, the Gillis might even be cruising to its end.

Cressman has lived in Colorado with his family for the last 20 years, where he runs a marketing business, and comes back each summer to put on the tournament with his brother Steve.

In recent years, they’ve considered retiring the competition.

“Oh yeah, we think about it every year, but we’d like to get to 50 years — that’s our goal,” Cressman said. “It’s basically my brother and I, and 45 years is a long time.”

“This is our legacy.”

The Gillis happens from 8 a.m. to sundown Saturday and Sunday on Dockweiler State Beach. Visit thegillis.com for more info.