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In January of 1964, audiences lined up during a raging blizzard in Wichita, Kansas to see a new documentary by a relatively unknown young filmmaker. Perhaps the title lured those seeking to escape the freezing Kansas winter. If so, the opening credits alone rewarded their tenacity, as a schooner rides high in the distance while palm trees sway in the tropical breeze. Golden light shimmers across a dancing sea and two silhouettes glide across the rolling waves. The opening minutes of Bruce Brown's “The Endless Summer” provided a cinematic glimpse into an idyllic fantasy world of sun, sea, and surf.
Brown initially struggled to find a distributor for his now classic work, considered by many to be the finest surfing film ever made. Brown's iconic movie established his reputation as a director and offered audiences around the world a vision of life for the California surfer. Many fans hoped to emulate their surfing idols and, as demand for surfboards and accessories grew, entrepreneurs rushed to fill the lucrative new market. “The Endless Summer” grew from a simple idea into a cultural product, a lifestyle available to anyone with the means for a ticket. Brown set out to sell a film and, in doing so, he inadvertently sold a dream.
From the late-1950s through the early 1960s, studios flooded theaters with a succession of inexpensively produced films centered around southern California’s beach culture. “Gidget,” based on the best-selling novel and starring box-office draw Sandra Dee, introduced surfing and the surf film genre to the American public. The film received relatively good reviews and, more importantly, earned a hefty profit. American International Pictures recognized the financial potential and produced “Beach Party,” starring Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and teen idol Frankie Avalon. The film, AIP’s highest-grossing project to that point, proved wildly successful with audiences. The company quickly churned out a sequel, ultimately expanding the series to 12 films following the same format.
While incredibly popular, producers never intended the films as any type of artistic statement. Mostly frothy and forgettable comedies, the movies featured good-looking, scantily clad young people frolicking on a beach who were more interested in catching each other rather than catching waves. The surfing sequences, though performed by skilled athletes, failed to reflect many surfers’ passionate devotion for their sport. Moreover, the movies often portrayed surfers as shallow, hedonistic bums. These movies offended Bruce Brown and his cadre of surfers, so he determined to direct his own film and document a real surfer’s quest for the perfect wave.
Brown began surfing in the 1950s and, soon after, started taking photographs of surfers in order to show his mother the beauty and excitement of the sport. He also used an 8 mm camera to film his friends, editing together highlight reels of the most thrilling moments. The simple films garnered attention as surfers and fans forked over hard-earned money to sit in the dark and watch others surf the waves. Brown realized he could turn his hobby into a business. With an investment of $5,000 from a friend who owned a surf shop, Brown bought a new camera, a book on filmmaking, and a ticket to Hawaii. He returned with “Slippery When Wet,” his first feature documentary from 1958.
Several more films proved equally as popular as Brown toured California using high school gyms and coffee houses as theaters. Brown recognized that while his films were bringing in crowds, achieving a breakthrough success would require a greater investment of both capital and time. The now experienced showman reworked his first several films into a longer documentary, using only the most popular parts. The resulting film, “Water Logged,” provided Brown the income he needed to make his masterpiece.
“The Endless Summer,” as described in the film’s opening, stems from the idea that with enough money a surfer could follow summer around the globe, from northern hemisphere to southern and back again. California surfers Robert August and Mike Hynson embark on the journey, chasing sun and surf around the world as Brown captures their adventures. From New Zealand to Ghana, the surfers explore land and sea as Brown narrates and discusses surf culture.
The film moves seamlessly and artistically from the excitement of traveling in exotic locales to the exhilarating athleticism of surfing as filmed by a passionate surfer. However, when Brown first presented his film to Hollywood distributors, they were convinced the documentary would have narrow appeal and earn little at the box office. Brown proved them wrong.
Brown opened his summer beach film in a rented Wichita theater. Crowds loved the movie and, despite the weather, the film sold out for two weeks of multiple showings. Still, Hollywood remained unsure, demanding changes to the poster and the addition of bikini-clad girls in order to distribute the work. Brown rejected their overtures, turning instead to New York, where he again rented a theater and played the film successfully for a year. On the strength of the New York run, Cinema 5 agreed to distribute the piece with no changes to either the film or the poster. Released nationally in 1966, the movie received excellent reviews from critics at “Time” and “The New York Times.” Audiences agreed and the movie, shot for $50,000, earned $5 million domestically and more than $20 million around the world. Moreover, audiences wanted more than just a ticket to the show. Many wanted to live a part of “The Endless Summer.”
The tremendous return on so little an investment brought surfing and beach culture to the notice of business interests. California beach culture, represented by “The Endless Summer” as well as the films which Brown so disliked, transformed the dream from an ideal to a commodity as surfers became entrepreneurs and corporations rushed to fulfill consumers’ demands. While not everyone had access to a beach, anyone with the funds could buy into the lifestyle.
Companies such as Quicksilver, Rip Curl, and O’Neill sold surfboards for those who desired, but they also sold clothes and accessories for those who simply wanted to look like they were fresh from the beach. Men and women alike could obtain swimsuits and shoes, hats and bags — all intended to replicate the feel of southern California’s beach culture. Surfers joined in the commercialization of their sport and lifestyle. Following the success of their film debut, both August and Hynson turned to surfboard creation, selling licensed designs. Any fan hoping to live his or her own beach fantasy today can now own a 50th anniversary “The Endless Summer” longboard for just $5,000 — the cost of Brown’s first film.
From a personal passion, Bruce Brown created an enduring classic, showcasing the culture of California surfers. His work touched others around the world, many of whom sought to purchase his vision as their own. Surfers and salesmen gave audiences the opportunity to own a piece of the dream, and surf wear is now a multibillion dollar market. The lasting appeal of surf films and music, along with a growing profusion of surfing-inspired apparel and products, demonstrates the allure of Brown’s film. Audiences are still buying their tickets, still hoping to create their own “Endless Summer.”
Top Image: Press photo for "The Endless Summer" | Bruce Brown Films, LLC