The water is calm. Good. The sun is out. Fine. Most of the people sprawled on the Southern California beach seem to be awake. Bingo.
For a hot-dog water-skier these are ideal conditions. Tony Klarich, a very hot dog from Long Beach, Calif., is riding in a speedboat that is being towed by truck along the shoreline toward Long Beach Marine Stadium. Mike Murphy, Tony's uncle and a waterskiing legend in his own right, sits beside his nephew. As they ride by, a female fan on the beach spies the handsome Klarich and calls out a gushing greeting. In the boat, Murphy turns to Klarich and coos in falsetto, "Hiii, Tony!"
Relatives. Uncles. What can you do.
There's not much Klarich could do, or would do, about Uncle Mike, the man who is, after all, most responsible for Klarich's current top-dog standing in his sport. Murphy's method of taunting and goading—part mentor, part tormentor—has spurred Klarich to preeminence in slalom hot-dog skiing. Murphy has lectured his nephew on all the fine points of skiing, he has passed on family secrets, he has explained the mechanics of grabbing air and the secrets of grabbing attention. Murphy has a maxim for everything, even this last item: 'No use showing off for the fish," he says. "They don't appreciate it."
Nor, seemingly, does professional waterskiing. Hotdogging, which is stunt skiing performed on a standard slalom ski, has yet to gain the status—in cash competitions and otherwise—of such traditional pro-tour events as slalom, jump and conventional trick skiing. That may change soon, and if it does, Klarich, who's 26, and Murphy will certainly have had something to do with it. "Right now hotdogging is just considered fun—something to blow off steam," says Terry Temple, editorial consultant for Water Ski magazine. "But more and more it is becoming its own event. And Tony Klarich is doing his damnedest to make it happen."
"I'm the halftime show. I go on between the real skiers," says Klarich, who performs exhibitions at tour events on behalf of a sponsor who pays him about $50,000 a year. "I'm the dog act. But the thing is, I get the best crowd response."
Klarich takes his sport seriously even if the water-ski establishment doesn't; he works hard at making the wildest stuff look easy. "Tony's skills on the water are excellent," says Temple. "He's the Number One hot dog right now. But of course, his uncle Mike is considered the father of hotdogging."
Uncle Mike demurs, and that isn't something he does often when paid a compliment. "This guy was the original hotdogger," says Murphy, indicating a white-haired gentleman who is emerging from the truck that was towing the powerboat. "Back in the '50s he was skiing with the rope squeezed between his legs, with his arms out to his sides like a bird. And he'd jump," Murphy adds, jumping. "Clear both wakes too. Don't think that wasn't brave."
The older man is Nick Murphy, Mike's father. Nick taught his kid all he knew—just as Mike would teach Tony what he knew—and by the mid-1960s Mike had developed into an impressive show-off on a slalom ski. He was also impressive in speed and distance events: He won the 75-mile Lake Mead Marathon in 1967 and the 52-mile circuit from Long Beach to Catalina in 1962 and '63. The Catalina out-and-back race was a cakewalk for Mike. "To practice, my mom and I would always ski over to Catalina every Sunday instead of going to church," says Mike. "Religiously. We'd both ski over, eat breakfast, and then I would ski back."
At the Long Beach marina Mike helps his father push the beige powerboat into the water. "Tony!" Mike hollers as he fires up the 198-hp engine. "You're up!" The boat roars off, and 75 feet behind it Klarich rises out of the water against a curtain of iridescent spray. Cutting wide to the left, he pulls the rope behind him and slices back toward the wake, which he uses to launch himself into a 360-degree "helicopter" spin. He lands—smack!—and then turns around and skis backward so that he can wave to a couple watching from a nearby boat. "Never waste an audience" is another of the family maxims.
As did his uncle, Klarich refined his showmanship during several seasons with California theme-park ski shows, such as the one at Magic Mountain in Valencia. Now his every spin, smile and salute is calculated to draw attention. With one eye on the small beach gathering, Klarich signals Uncle Mike that he will be doing a forward flip, a stunt Klarich was the first skier to master. Launching himself from the wake again, he somersaults through the air as Murphy slows the boat to give Klarich some slack. Klarich lands upright, and Murphy throttles forward. A chorus of yips and yells rips from the crowd. They want more. Relishing his role, the hot dog does two more flips. The fourth ends in an explosion of spray, and Klarich goes down. "What's the matter?" Murphy shouts. "Did you hit a wet spot?"
Klarich refuses the bait and says nothing. He swims to the boat and stows his ski. Then he straps himself onto a neon-green kneeboard of his own design. The boat takes off, and Klarich skims across the water once more, at 35 mph, spinning and rolling. He earns more whoops and whistles from the sand gallery.
Klarich has won the National Knee-board Championships—it's a sport held in somewhat higher esteem than hotdogging—in three of the past six years. He picks up a small bit of change competing in five or ten kneeboard events each year, from San Diego to Orlando, Fla. Nevertheless, Klarich has an expensive habit—school—and so he works two nights a week as a Los Angeles Harbor longshoreman to pay his bills. He is in his fourth and final year of internship at the Cleveland Chiropractic College in L.A. "You know, there's more to life than skiing," he says. He pauses and casts a sidelong glance at Murphy. "Some people get so caught up in it. But the sun is not always going to shine so bright."
Uncle Mike yawns, and shakes his head in disagreement. "Tony," he says tiredly. "Tony, you should have been a philosopher." For Murphy at 42, life is a beach. The more crowded the sand, the better.
In 1975, after more than a decade with the ski shows, Murphy founded a water-ski shop and school on the Colorado River near Parker, Ariz., an operation he has since sold. Uncle Mike was always on the lookout for cheap labor, and his sister Mary's young son filled the bill. "The first time I went to the river," says Klarich, "I was 15. I stayed for a month. But the next three years I worked the whole summer. I was the chief slave. I'd work in the shop, give about 20 beginner ski lessons a day...."
"Don't forget creosoting the buildings," Murphy interrupts.
"Yeah, doing his buildings in 110-degree heat," Klarich continues. "But the key for me was free ski rides. When you're 15 or 16 and you get to ski with someone who can teach you something, that's what makes it worthwhile.
"One summer I had learned four or five new tricks that no one had done before, and I was telling Mike he was an old man, that he couldn't do them." Klarich shakes his head. "He could, though. He learned them all in one day."
"One ride," Murphy insists.
Under Uncle Mike's tutelage, Klarich became, by necessity, a similarly quick study. "For other kids, learning a helicopter was cause for celebration," says Murphy. "But with Tony I was always going, 'God, Tony, what took you so long?' or 'C'mon, Tony, what's wrong with you? So-and-so can do it.' " Uncle Mike was the Little League parent of hot-dog waterskiing.
Murphy now spends most of his time developing and promoting ski products and minding two new water-ski shops he has opened in California. His skiing has gotten a little rusty. This is apparent as he and his nephew switch places, Klarich taking the helm of the powerboat and Murphy grabbing the rope. "Let's see if the old dog can do his old tricks," Klarich says, smiling, as he powers away with Uncle Mike in tow.
Murphy howls an enthusiastic "Yee-haw!" as he executes a few stunts—a tumble turn, a 360. In comparison with Klarich he looks pretty rough around the edges. And, surprisingly, he admits as much once his ride has ended. Having made sure that his nephew—his protègè—is safely out of earshot, Murphy says proudly, "If I was in my prime and did every trick I've ever done, Tony would still beat me—even on his bad days."