Marine Stadium Leeches...


It’s a cold foggy Tuesday morning in the dead of winter and Marine Stadium is empty.

The same Marine Stadium that has become world renowned since its inception before the 1930 Olympics; the Marine Stadium that’s seen Olympic gold medals in rowing, national championship drag boat races, world record waterskiing times, and crowds into the fifteen thousands…

The Marine Stadium that projects the roars of a summer stadium crowd so loud they tickle the ears of residents from 90803 to 90808…

That Marine Stadium.

It’s quiet, silent and empty except for a guy named Wayne Wilms, who’s rigging a clothesline between a city parking sign and an old home-made “Easy-up Tent” with four wooden legs. Setting up camp.

It’s too foggy to see the water while standing on the sand. Never mind 15 feet down to the stadium. But the others know exactly where to find him. After all, the routine’s been going on for a long time, about 8 years or 48 depending on who you are and how you look at it. The exact spot here even has a name: Scrogs Landing. A guy named Lou coined that...

Leeches enjoy company at Scrogs Landing on a Tuesday waiting for their next pull in Marine Stadium

In about 30 minutes the fog will clear revealing a spectacular view. The sun will begin rising over the calm, crisp, glassy

stadium surface. Between 9am and 3pm about 20 - 30 diehard skiers will mosey in and out of the stadium, sit under the tent, share stories, eat lunch, play cards and take turns skiing behind Wayne’s boat.

The “Leech Club,” as they call themselves, is a Long Beach Water Ski group as unique, impressive, notable and perhaps as under-the-radar as Marine Stadium itself.

If there were memorable summer times at Marine Stadium over the past 50 years, these are the guys who would know. For them, it started in the early 1970’s. They were at the stadium pretty much every day back then giving the club its name, “leeching” water ski pulls from unsuspecting boat owners. Wayne and the other members reminisce about that long-ago heyday for waterskiing. The stadium was always packed, 20 to 30 boats full all spring and summer long.

Perfect for Leeches.

“All they can do is say NO!” reads the club motto printed all over members’ T-shirts and patches. The young men were in their 20’s back then, and good at what they did – both the asking-for-rides part, and the skiing part.

They even had a Leech Club Code of Conduct: Always offer five bucks and ask for two laps and no more. It was a sucker’s offer though and the Leeches knew it. They always had a “free ride coupon” the boat owners wouldn’t know about. It was called skill. These guys were good.

Once boaters gave them one pull, the rest of the day was usually free. If you liked water-skiing at all this was the group you wanted to watch. They rode at high speeds, jetted side-to-side, and pioneered cutting edge tricks. But, once they kicked off their skis and went barefoot, it was game over for the driver.

Some of the best barefooters in the history of the sport are Leech Club members, now in their sixties and seventies. On any given Tuesday, these skiers can be found at Marine Stadium sharing stories, feats, resumes and world records with one another. Stories that, if known, would make the joggers, strollers, and general passers-by drop their jaws and pull up a chair. Of course, no one does because, well, they don’t know. Shame, because they’d be welcome to join the group too. Turns out these “leeches” don’t quite live up to their name these days. The group’s gone-all generous in their older age.

But before we get too far into the lives of today’s Leeches - guys like Lee Squier, Stan Leder, Wayne Wilms, Craig Vestermark, Charlie Saunders and Greg Jones - we have to talk about the guy who started it all.

The Godfather.

The brawny, barefootin’, bartender.

The welcoming, wavy-haired, Italian.

The original “scrog” with a personality that can’t be forgotten.

Lou Arzio.

Big Lou.

The Great Luigi.

Before Taco-Tuesday, Super-Tuesday, two-for-Tuesday or anything else, Tuesday’s were “Lou’s Days” at Marine Stadium, Long Beach. There’s really only one reason so many water ski legends and local greats gather at Marine Stadium every Tuesday even in the dead of winter to slice up the glassy water: Lou Arzio.

The Leech Club is Long Beach through and through. Guys like Greg Jones and Craig Vestermark, multi-generational Long Beach folks. Lou Arzio was not a Long Beach guy. He was a bartender from the San Fernando Valley and Tuesday was his day off…or his day on, depending on how you look at it. Tuesday’s were, and always will be, Lou’s days.

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Simply put, for a group of Leechers, Lou was the find of a lifetime. A blood donor.

Much of what are Tuesday rituals today at Marine Stadium still mirror what Lou began in the early 1970’s. He would drive down from The Valley early in the morning, 8 a.m. or so, bringing his boat, his hibachi grill, and his personality.

“Outgoing, gregarious, yet extremely patient and sincere,” that’s how Lou’s son Tony describes his dad. “It was like growing up with a dad who was a celebrity.”

Lou seemed to know everyone who strapped skis to their feet in the Southern California waters. He introduced many of them to the sport; probably over 1,000. He tended bar by trade and would invite anyone who showed vague interest in the sport to come out on his boat. His original stomping grounds were out at Hansen Dam. But after a horrid winter in ’69 and ’70 closed that lake down for good, Lou Arzio was introduced to the golden waters of Marine Stadium. The Glassy Oval.

He drove his boat down all by himself one Tuesday, parked it in the river, and hoped for the best.

Lou met Gary Covert first, who eventually introduced him to the rest of the gang. Thus began a legendary decade of Tuesdays. The Leeches were in their 20’s and they were down at the stadium almost every day. But their favorite was always Lou’s Day. Tuesday, when they soaked up the wonders of this amazing man Lou, almost triple their age, who was so, so cool.

Today when the Leeches talk about Lou their deep admiration for him resonates. There have been lots of additions to the Tuesday crew since the original Leech Club, both guys and gals, all with impressive water ski achievements. But something peculiar happens when you ask about Lou, the now-deceased Long Beach Legend. A certain respect. Or hierarchy. Not just for Lou, but for the guys who knew him.

It’s like you’re a little bit cooler if you knew Lou. And if you knew him well, or for a long time, you’re that much cooler.

Wayne Wilms is cool. He knew Lou well.

Wayne’s the guy who drives his boat down now and waits for the others to show. By all accounts Wayne shares a dedication to the sport and special patience for encouraging others, just like Lou. You won’t see him grilling burgers and dogs on the beach anymore…the city put a stop to that. But you will see him passing around bowls of fruit and snacks, inviting everyone to dig in. Around 11:30 am Bill McQuaid shows up with pizza from Costco, and the group eats lunch. “Pizza Bill” they yell out, as if his name is “Norm!”

Just like Lou, Wayne drives the boat for most of the day, giving the others pulls. Twenty or thirty skiers might roll through on a given Tuesday, but not all at once. The morning crew comes and staggers out. The lunch crew rolls in, and eventually the afternooners. Wayne stays.

Around 2:00 or so, if the skiers are content, they’ll park the boat and pull out cards. Gin or Hearts are the games of choice. But if someone needs a pull, Wayne or one of the others is back in the boat.

Like Lou, Wayne doesn’t do much skiing anymore. He’s content to host the others. But it’s not because he can’t ski anymore. He’s still damn good. He can barefoot, one foot, you name it. Some days he does more than others. And every Tuesday he does at least two laps.

The two laps are a tribute to Lou. And during the two laps he does a trick that none of the others can do. Just Lou and Wayne. It’s called the Great Luigi, and Wayne only started doing it after Lou passed. The routine is a sight to behold.

Wayne is a salt water beach rat, from a German background. But watch his routine and it’s like you’re watching the Italian Stallion himself.

The boat takes off and he starts by getting his hands wet and slicking back his hair, shrugging his shoulders, licking his lips, and cranking his neck. The fellas on the shore smile at the tribute to ole Lou. He slaloms then bends his knees. One side, then the other side. Slaloms then bends his knees. The driver of the boat starts laughing. He twists his waist, raises his hands, and does just about every other grandiose Italian physical movement you can imagine. His body language screams Luigi.

But don’t be fooled and think it’s just a pantomime act. As the boat makes its turn down by Marina Vista Park, it picks up speed and turns into a straightaway. Wayne (or Lou, it’s hard to tell at this point), brings his right foot out of the ski, balances on his left, kicks his right foot into the air, and puts the rope in his mouth with his hands out to the side. The flying Luigi.

The crowd on the shore gives him a standing ovation fully orchestrated with high pitch whistles and yells. Tuesday Lou’s Day lives on for one more week.

Why do I get the feeling one day in the future a group like this one will be paying tribute to Wednesday Wayne’s day?

***

The 70’s at Marine Stadium were a heck of a time.

As far as a particular “summer to remember” goes, Craig Vestermark makes his case.

Craig wasn’t part of the Leech Club back then, just because he grew up in a different group of friends. But he was still down there every day leeching rides. He just didn’t have a patch with a name. It was only a matter of time till he linked up with these other guys though. They share the passion.

Craig would tell you the summer of ’72 was the one. The year he became world record barefoot skier twice in 3 months. First, in Bakersfield clocking at 72mph. Three months later Craig went head to head with the world record barefoot skier from Australia. And won. Taking the win by 4mph and representing the United States at the World Championships held at the Long Beach Marine Stadium. It was the biggest crowd he’s ever seen in Marine Stadium at one time. And keep in mind there have been lots of them.

The National Drag Association allotted 10,000 tickets for the event and sold out in minutes. Unsure of what else to do they started collecting 5 bucks from the oncoming crowds. An estimated 18,000 showed up to Marine Stadium that day to watch the races, the highlight being The American… the Long Beachian… the local…Craig Vestermark setting the world record in barefoot speed topping out at 88mph. The stadium was so packed the people were standing 10 deep in the water.

Craig Vestermark after barefoot racing in front of a huge Marine Stadium crowd in 1976 Championships

The others nod in agreement with Craig’s account. They were all there. It was a huge deal back then.

They sit now around a booth at The Crooked Duck on PCH reminiscing about those days of packed races. They were all so cool. This one was the best.

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