San Luis Obispo

Surfing's First Filmmaker: Preserving the Legacy of Bud Browne

Riding the waves.jpg

Two men left an indelible mark on Anna Trent Moore's life - her late father, legendary big wave surfer Buzzy Trent, and Bud "Barracuda" Browne, the pioneering surf filmmaker who spent more than four decades documenting the sport.

"Bud was my second father," explained the Shell Beach resident, who wrote about her relationship with both men in her 2010 book "Increments of Fear: The Buzzy Trent Story."

Browne and Moore shared such a close bond, in fact, that she inherited the filmmaker's vast collection of films, photographs, movie posters and personal correspondence upon his death in 2008. Known collectively as the Bud Browne Film Archives, the collection offers a comprehensive overview of surfing's golden age - something any museum would be happy to have.

"It's probably the most historically significant film collection (of its kind) in the world," said Moore, who's even saved Browne's ashtrays and Aloha shirts. "You have so many lives that are immortalized in his films."

Bud Browne was the focus of a Surf Nite tribute at the 2008 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. | San Luis Obispo International Film Festival

Browne, who spent the last four years of his life in San Luis Obispo, is credited with creating the first commercial surf movie half a century ago. He was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996.

"He was the grandfather of surf filmmaking," said Wendy Eidson, director of the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, describing Browne as an innovator whose work inspired scores of future filmmakers, including Jack McCoy and Bruce and Dana Brown. They attended a 2008 tribute to Browne in San Luis Obispo, along with several surfing pioneers.

"Bud was one of a kind," said Bruce Brown, best known for his seminal 1966 surf documentary "The Endless Summer" and its 1994 sequel, "The Endless Summer II."

In fact, when Brown decided to make surf movies, he sought out the older filmmaker's permission first. "He said, 'Yeah, go ahead,'" Brown recalled. "I just thought it was fair to go ask him. ... To me, it was his deal. He invented the genre."

Born on the outskirts of Boston, Bud Browne moved to California in 1931 to attend the University of Southern California, where he served as swim team captain and competed with the L.A. Athletic Club. He learned to surf while working as a Los Angeles County lifeguard in 1938, later buying a 8mm camera to document the surfers he saw plying the waves.

After a stint as a Navy chief specialist during World War II, Browne - now a teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District - returned to his passion, upgrading to a 16mm Bell & Howe movie camera in 1947.

A poster for Bud Browne's 1964 surf movie

Then, in 1953, a fellow teacher invited Browne to show his footage - "Hawaiian Surfing Movie," filmmed during annual trips to the islands -- at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica. Browne, who advertised the 45-minute film by nailing handmade posters to telephone poles near surf spots, not only sold the 65-cent tickets and operated the projector but also provided live narration.

It wasn't long before Browne quit teaching to dedicate himself to filmmaking full-time, traveling as far as Australia and Tahiti in search of the best waves.

Between 1953 and 1964, he released a new surf film each year, including "Cavalcade of Surf," "Cat on a Hot Foam Board," "Gun Ho! and "Locked In!" (Later, he collaborated with Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman on 1972's "Five Summer Stories" and served as a surfing photography consultant on 1978's "Big Wednesday." ) Often shot from the lineup, his movies made celebrities of the likes of Linda Benson, Peter Cole, George Downey and Gerry Lopez, and introduced audiences to exciting new surf spots around the globe.

According to Bruce Brown, a new Bud Browne movie was considered "a happening." "It was a big deal.... Probably every surfer that existed in the area went to the thing and took some of their friends along (too)," he said. "Here'd come a wave and everybody would be screaming and yelling and cheering."

With his tall, thin frame and quiet, observant manner, Browne didn't exactly fit in with the bronzed, muscled men and women of the surfing community.

"He was so conservative and so unlike the 'Rebel Without A Cause' group and yet he really liked being around them," said Moore, describing Browne as a teetotaling health nut who only ate one meal a day. The surfers, for their part, "loved having Bud around because, at one point in the '50s, he was the only one filming."

Big-wave surfers Wally Froiseth, Buzzy Trent and George Downing were among filmmaker Bud Browne's subjects. | Bud Browne Film Archives

In particular, Browne hit it off with Buzzy Trent, another California transplant seduced by Hawaii's killer waves. Despite their 17-year age gap, the men shared an unrelenting love of the water.

The grandson of John Parkinson, the architect who helped design many of Los Angeles' most famous landmarks including City Hall, Memorial Coliseum and Union Station, Trent grew up on a 500-acre ranch in San Marcos before moving to Santa Monica with his family at age 12. It wasn't long before Trent convinced his mother to buy him a 100-pound redwood surfboard, which he towed behind his balloon-tire bicycle in a rickshaw.

"He had that pioneer spirit at a very young age," Moore said of her father, who turned nearby Malibu into his personal playground. During World War II, he traveled up and down the West Coast with surfboard designer Bob Simmons.

After a brief stint as a boxer, Trent played football for USC before his career was cut short by a leg injury. In 1953, inspired by Walter Hoffman's stories of surfing in Hawaii, the Los Angeles County lifeguard joined the crew of a catamaran bound for Honolulu in the Transpacific Yacht Race.

Trent ended up in Makaha, a rural outpost on the west coast of Oahu known as the birthplace of big-wave surfing. He married a local woman and started a family, working as a fireman and heavy equipment operator when he wasn't surfing, diving and spearfishing.

Legendary big-wave surfer BuzzyTrent navigates a break. | Bud Browne Film Archives

According to Moore, the Trents lived simply, without a telephone or television. Still, she considers hers a "charmed childhood, very magical in a lot of ways."

One reason was Browne, who stayed with the Trents for six or seven winters during Moore's youth. The young girl followed the filmmaker around "like a little puppy dog," she said, fetching him fresh canisters of film and keeping an eye out for surfers navigating the often treacherous breaks.

Browne and Moore kept in contact after she moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to study dancing. Over the years, as Moore moved to the Central Coast and switched careers from dance instructor to elementary school teacher, the two exchanged countless letters and phone calls and went on lengthy trips together.

Browne even walked Moore down the aisle at her 1996 wedding in Morro Bay. "In many ways, I think of him as a champion," she said, describing the filmmaker as unfailingly loyal. "Bud just thought you could do no wrong."

After Browne lost his sight, Moore moved the 92-year-old from Costa Mesa to a residential care facility in San Luis Obispo. He died four years later. (Trent, who never returned to California, died in Honolulu in 2006 at age 77.)

A selection of film canisters from the Bud Browne Film Archives. | Bud Browne Film Archives

According to Moore, the Bud Browne Film Archives represent a way to honor both men. By preserving Browne's vast collection, "I was preserving my family history and preserving my ties to my father," she said, comparing Browne's documentaries to home movies.

"My goal is to share as much as possible," said Moore, who has licensed footage to six film projects since inheriting the archives. She's also screened Browne's films at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.

"There's not a day that goes by that I do not pinch myself. I cannot believe this amazing treasure Bud willed to me," Moore said. "Whether it's worth five cents or $5 million, to me it is priceless."

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Top Image: A surfer rides the waves in this vintage film still from the Bud Browne Film Archives. Courtesy of Bud Browne Film Archives.

About the Author

Sarah Linn covers film, television and the performing arts as the editor of Ticket, the arts-and-entertainment section of The Tribune newspaper of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
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