It might not be the oldest beach volleyball tournament around, but The Gillis is probably one of the most fun, according to longtime participants. Next month locals celebrate the 45th tournament in their usual creative costumes at nearby Dockweiler State Beach.
It was originally a tournament for people who attended St. Bernard’s High School or Westchester High School and lived in the Westchester, Playa del Rey area, but many of the people who play in the tournament are from Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach. Brothers Steve and Dave Cressman started the two-day event in 1971, and this year’s tourney takes place Aug. 8 and 9 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., about one mile from its original location at Gillis Street near Los Angeles International Airport.
“The Gillis is unusual in that we want everybody who comes to play,” Dave Cressman said. “It’s not an AVP type situation where the majority are just watching. Our goal is for all to play at any age and at any skill level.”
Seventeen two-man teams played that first year, and the tournament now has grown to 800 participants.
“It was such a hit that people kept asking us to do it again,” Dave Cressman said. “We started adding courts to accommodate all of the teams, and it has not stopped growing since.”
The tournament is broken down into two parts – doubles or six people. Within those competitions are groups based on ability.
“We have so many different brackets to accommodate all who are interested,” Dave Cressman said.
While the volleyball is why they get together, the focus on fun and family has created traditions that people don’t see anywhere else, he said.
“The real personality of The Gillis is in the family-fun atmosphere with costumes, camps, skits, kings and queens, music and so much more,” Dave Cressman said.
People plan well in advance what they’ll wear to The Gillis.
The first year, Denny Smith of Manhattan Beach and others showed up with custom-made trunks and started the first tradition. From that point on players would show up with matching homemade trunks and an award was given out for “Best Trunks.”
“You have to start the tournament with at least matching trunks or you start down five points,” said Smith, who is in the CBVA Beach Volleyball Hall of Fame.
In 1980, it was taken to another level when Dr. Pat Turley of Manhattan Beach and his partner Dik Johnson of Palos Verdes showed up at the courts exiting a 1930s Cadillac dressed as Laurel and Hardy. They did a short skit and then proceeded to disrobe down to one-piece old style bathing suits.
“We just started talking that we should do something different that would blow them away,” Turley recalled.
In the following years, the pair came as the Lone Ranger and Tonto on horses, as Arab oil sheiks on a real camel and their biggest success might have been arriving in an actual LAPD car (that was rented) as they busted the tournament, pulling off the tarp of a makeshift jail with a band inside that played “Jailhouse Rock.”
“We had a great run,” Turley said.
Al Wheeler’s kids and crew put on a memorable skit to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” one year too. The players said that The Gillis has influenced many other tournaments with its costumes.
Tim Bradford of Manhattan Beach has played in or worked with the tournament for 42 years and said it’s one of his favorite events of the year.
“It’s the big smile, like Christmas in August of every year,” Bradford said.
Dave Cressman said ultimately what makes The Gillis so special is that it has maintained a local feel for nearly half a century.
“My brother and I have seen The Gillis turn into a very special tradition that people keep coming back to each year,” he said. “We have kept it a local event for locals.”
The Gillis is an invitation-only tournament but the public is welcome to watch and enjoy the games.