By Carlos N. Olvera
In writing history, you look for the forgotten or least-told tidbits, where some will say of it, ‘I didn’t know that,’ or, ‘Yeah, I was there.’ You assume some events or pictures that have become iconic would no longer be interesting. But OC Parks currently has an exhibit at the Old County Court House in Santa Ana on Bruce Brown. It included a showing of The Endless Summer at Salt Creek last month. The interesting display presents an inside look at the career of Bruce Brown.
Bruce was born on December 1, 1937, in San Francisco, and grew up in Oakland. The family then moved to Long Beach, where, as a young teenager, he took to enjoying the water on a paddle board before graduating to a surf board shaped by Dale Velzy from his Manhattan Beach shop. Upon graduating high school, the Korean War was taking place and a decision had to be made.
Reading about a submarine base located in Hawaii, Bruce joined the Submarine Reserves after learning those in the top of their class in school were able to choose the submarine to serve on. Surfing in Hawaii was Bruce’s goal. He graduated at the top of his class and was able to pick his submarine, the USS Gudgeon (SS-567). He went to the shipyard in the morning, chipped paint and surfed in the afternoon. By tradition, newbies on board started out as mess cooks, working half day shifts for a month at a time. There went his surfing time.
The USS Gudgeon (SS-567) was a fairly new submarine; it launched in 1952 and was used for special secret operations. That took him to the Bering Sea, where the Russians hung out, and under the ice pack, all on patrols lasting 90 days.
While in Hawaii, during his two-year stint, he hooked up with John Severson from San Clemente, who he already knew as a California surfer, and was stationed there with the Army. The two of them began to film surfing using his 8 mm home movie camera.
Bruce’s surfing films began in 1958 with Slippery When Wet (shown at Orange Coast College in spring of 1959 and for which he received $50), then Surf Crazy, followed by Barefoot Adventure, Surfing Hollow Days, Water Logged and the iconic The Endless Summer in 1966. It was when he returned to San Clemente, as a life guard and working at night for Velzy, that Velzy got the idea Bruce could expand surfing if he upped his movie-making skills. So Dale bought him a 16 mm Bolex camera and several telephoto lenses. He then went back to Hawaii to film, followed by a California college road trip to show it.
The classic Endless Summer poster was a product of Brown’s publicist R. Paul Allen. Inspired by a photo in the Orange County Register, Allen had photographer Bob Bagley with Brown, Robert August of Seal Beach and Mike Hynson of Laguna Beach—the two stars in the movie—take four photos of the three on the beach. Then graphic designer John Van Hamersveld, working for Severson at the time, created the 1964 surfing icon poster. Brown is in the foreground with the surfboard on his head.
The Endless Summer movie had been compared to Gone with the Wind for the surfing set. The 91-minute documentary set attendance records in spots where some didn’t even know what surfing meant. The success was measured by other movies when in Wichita, Kansas, where Bruce rented a theater by providing a financial guarantee first. For a two-week period, the film out-grossed the theater’s two previous showings, The Great Race and My Fair Lady.
But his filming of surfing expanded into motorcycle riding by 1971. Living in Dana Point, on El Camino Capistrano, the hills in view gave him the opportunity to just roam the scenic terrain of South Orange County. Rather than go off hob-nobbing after television appearances, he preferred hanging out at Herb McPhee’s “Mac’s Coffee Break” (on Coast Highway), a small, nine-stool coffee shop.
Carlos N. Olvera is Chair of the OC Historical Commission, and councilman of Dana Point.