A short nine-iron shot from the tourist-tint of State Street, at the seaside end of Helena Street, Jim O’Mahoney busily prepares to give Santa Barbara a brilliant, bizarre, and largely unexpected gift. He is putting his hyper-collecting, quasi-pirate, and full-blown bohemian arts’-eye-view of the world into a new museum dedicated solely to this mountain-, valley-, and beach-rich wedge of the planet we call Santa Barbara.
Standing in the middle of the building on a recent sunny afternoon, the detritus of his work in progress scattered about him in various states of finish, O’Mahoney laughed and gestured through the wall toward his nearly two-decade-old Santa Barbara Surfing Museum. “Over there is heaven,” he said, “and this is hell—a good hell.”
Fronted by two massive elephant doors from India—each side weighing over 1,000 pounds—the space is stuffed with things like the original El Camino Real bell from Rincon; a hand-carved buttress of Juan Cabrillo; an incredibly rare black-and-gold California flag, circa 1862, from the Santa Barbara Presidio; an homage to Santa Barbara’s own Nostradamus, Gin Chow; and a big, custom-made book of fairy tales from Neverland Ranch. It’s a still-coming-together eclectic archive of weird, wonderful, and occasionally spooky artifacts from S.B. days gone by and is the ideal western edge for the endangered Funk Zone beyond. It’s the sort of place that only an individual like O’Mahoney, a self-described “treasure hunter” with a trademark cackle that smacks of mid-grade mischief, could pull together.
With more than 65 years of adventure under his belt, O’Mahoney is, among myriad other things, a surfer, skateboarder, artist, and all-around fun hog who also happens to be one heck of an antique collector and dealer. His space on Helena, which he calls his “nest of funk,” has been the informal clubhouse for his wide-ranging collections for the past 28 years.
In 1992, he opened up the Surfing Museum—a place often overlooked but unequivocally enjoyed by all who happen to wander in—to the public. However, after deciding a year and a half ago to sell much of that initial collection, which included the ring that Captain Cook was wearing when he “discovered” Hawai‘i, to Jimmy Buffet for Buffet’s Honolulu Surfing Museum, this son of Tarzan (literally—O’Mahoney’s dad, Jock, was one of the first actors to play Tarzan in the movies) saw his surf museum in need of a redo. In the time since, as he has worked to make over the wave-riding side of things with other gems from his vast collections, the regular foot got the idea to organize some of his non-surf, Santa Barbara-specific artifacts in a space of their own.
For the past two months, Jim has spent most of his days prepping the “heaven” side for its reopen (which happened late last month) and painstakingly putting together the new museum. Serving as both curator and carpenter, he hopes it will be ready for a public unveiling in the near future. “I design as I go. … Really, I just like old stuff and trying to make it look neat,” explained O’Mahoney.
But his modesty grossly understates the marvelous and truly unique nature of the end result. Whether you are digging an abalone-inlayed Yater longboard, checking out the ukulele Marilyn Monroe famously strummed in the movie Some Like it Hot, finding yourself staring at the program from James Dean’s last car race (which was here in Santa Barbara), or being transfixed by the bell from Santa Barbara’s fatal Easter Sunday trolley crash in 1907—noticing me noticing the bell, O’Mahoney points out that it was probably ringing nonstop once they figured out they’d lost their brakes—you can’t help but be both educated and entertained by his exhibition efforts.
“It’s fun, but it’s just stuff. I mean, if you’re laying in an iron lung, it doesn’t do you any good,” said O’Mahoney, after I laughed out loud in amazement for the 47th time since stepping into his world. And while I certainly agree with his assertion, if you live in Santa Barbara and find yourself growing weary of the big-brand invasion and the high-gloss gentrification, his little slice of Helena is just what the doctor ordered.