Volleyball bash returns to Toes Beach for the 49th outing in what will be a storied 50-year run
By Danny Karel
The epic Playa del Rey beach party and volleyball tournament known as “The Gillis” turns 49 this weekend.
Ask co-founder Dave Cressman why he and his brother Steve Cressman have decided this will be their penultimate outing in a nearly five-decade run stretching back to 1971, and his answer is perfectly sensible: “Who does anything for 50 years?”
Fair enough, but that means several thousand suntanned revelers will swarm Toes Beach this weekend for their second-to-last chance to celebrate, en masse, a grassroots take on the Southern California beach lifestyle that has become a favorite local tradition.
The Gillis is open to the public but the volleyball tournament itself remains invite-only, which is one of the ways the Cressmans have managed to keep general attendance in check. Still, Dave Cressman estimated that some 600 players, representing 120 teams, would compete in this year’s tournament across half a dozen multi-person brackets.
“Friends of friends of friends,” he quipped.
The inaugural event — a machination by Steve Cressman to impress a girl named Sue Wolgemuth — took place a mile to the south, on a strip of beach that was wiped out in 1974 to make room for a LAX runway. Seventeen teams competed, all students from St. Bernard’s and Westchester High School, with the caveat that competitors had to handcraft their own trunks.
“Everyone was sewing and it was just phenomenal,” Dave Cressman recalled.
That spirit of play proved infectious, and in the following years homemade trunks turned into costumes, which eventually led to full-blown skits — traditions which are still going strong, enshrined in Sunday afternoon’s “Showtime” tournament time-out. These sideshows have produced some of the most memorable moments in Gillis history.
Around the eighth outing, competitors Pat Turley and Dik Johnson pulled up to The Gillis in a 1932 Cadillac, dressed as Laurel and Hardy. They drove onto the sand and ripped off their costumes, revealing 1920s-style swimsuits hidden beneath. The following year they arrived on horseback, dressed as the Lone Ranger and Tonto. The year after that, they arrived on a camel, costumed as a pair of oil sheiks. They completed their legendary run two years later, when their whole crew arrived as LAPD officers, with borrowed LAPD cars, and threatened to shut the tournament down. They yanked a tarp off a makeshift jail cell, revealing a band which started playing the rock ’n’ roll classic “Jailhouse Rock.”
In 1980 The Gillis moved to Toes Beach, where it stayed for 25 years before the county became concerned about crowd sizes and moved them to Dockweiler State Beach. In 2016 the brothers successfully lobbied for a return to Toes after agreeing to downsize. Still, Dave Cressman predicts around 5,000 people will filter through Toes over the course of the weekend — a reliable boon for local businesses.
“No food trucks!” he said. “We like everybody going to The Shack, going to Mo’s, Prince O’Whales, Hacienda [Playa]. We want them all eating locally — we want the locals to get the benefit.”
In 2012, L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl recognized the tournament’s contributions to the community by announcing “The Gillis Day in the City of Los Angeles,” and awarded the Cressmans with a plaque signed by members of the L.A. City Council. Earlier this year, the Neighborhood Council of Westchester – Playa also recognized the Cressmans, naming them “Stars of the Neighborhood” at the LAX Coastal Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Westchester Fourth of July Parade.
“It’s my brother’s and my legacy for the community,” said Cressman.
While putting another Gillis on the books, the Cressmans are hoping to see some familiar faces from years past, which begged the question: How did things turn out between Steve Cressman and Sue Wolgemuth?
“He should have gotten more than he did get, let’s put it that way,” Cressman answered, laughing. “We’re all still friends though — she still comes to The Gillis!”
The Gillis takes over Toes Beach in Playa del Rey from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28. Visit thegillis.com for more information.