The Aloha spirit In Manhattan Beach

by Trelaine Peese

If home is where the heart is, the Irwin house on Duncan Place may be one of the biggest homes in the area. The "last of the ticky-tacky stucco boxes," as owner Liz Irwin refers to it, contains three bedrooms, a bath, kitchen and a living room with a dining area in less than 2,000 square feet. But that's plenty of space for 42 years memories and mementos.

"This was originally part of the Page Military Academy. We still have some of the blacktop from the basketball courts in the backyard," said Liz. "When we moved in we were one of the only houses on this street, which was a dirt road. We could see from Palos Verdes to Malibu."

That view of the Pacific has a deep meaning for Liz and her husband Jim. They met at San Onofre. Jim surfed there every day after work, rain or shine. He still surfs at San Onofre, where he is known as the guy who does headstands and never uses wax.

"Jim began surfing in 1950 at the Manhattan Pier. His aunt had a house on the Strand in Manhattan, which by the way, is still standing. He surfed with Dale 'The Hawk' Velzy, and those folks. I grew up in Santa Ana and hated it. After doing our weekend chores, we'd take the bus to the beach."

Liz toured Europe with the Buster Crabb Aquaparade in 1950 and again in 1953 with Johnny Weismueller and the Noel Sherman Review. Upon returning, she was determined to learn to surf and headed out to San Onofre.

"I had a 40-pound, blue board -- it must have been a Hobie. This was before wetsuits. If the water was below 64 degrees we would wear small wool sweaters to keep warm."

Jim bought the Duncan house while Liz was in the hospital having their first child. Jim designed the stained glass for the front door. It's their "Adam and Eve tree," he said.

He also made the living room furniture. The sofas are filled with horsehair that was used in packing from Hughes Aircraft. The end and coffee tables incorporate shells the couple found at the beach and pressed into concrete. Their lamps, created by local potter Frank Matranga, balance beautifully with the sofa fabric, purchased while on a ski vacation. Their artwork was collected on their travels. Most is inspired by Polynesia, with dolphins and surfboards in abundance.

Inspired by Dorothy Lamour movies, Liz began learning Polynesian dance in 1960.

"There was a woman, Napua Woodd, who was an award-winning swimmer from Oahu. She migrated to the mainland and performed Polynesian dance in the '40s and '50s in Las Vegas and New York. I took lessons from her. She was teaching in Redondo Beach. By that time she was a grandmother," Liz recalled.

The lessons turned into a 25-year career for Liz. She recently retired from the City of Torrance Recreation Department with a commendation from the mayor.

"My dance partner and I had a wonderful career. Our husbands would be home with the kids at night while she and I went out to dance for local shows. Sometimes Jim would be the announcer for dance competitions. We still travel to Hawaii one or two times a year. The Merry Monarch dance competition in Hilo is quite spectacular, although Irvine's E Hula Mau competition is comparable."

Their travels have taken them to Cortina, Italy, Egypt, Tahiti, the Mediterranean, Alaska, and Africa. They climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro at the ages of 60 (Liz) and 65 (Jim). They will soon be traveling to Costa Rica.

But surfing remains a big part of their lives. Jim announced surf contests at San Onofre for 47 years. Their oldest daughter, Wendy Gilley, is a former nationally-ranked surfer who still competes. Wendy and Liz joined WSA (Women's Surfing Association) together. Come summer, you'll find Liz and Jim, their children and grandchildren spending their weekends back where the couple first met, in the water at San Onofre. SBL