by Corky Carrroll
There was a time when going to see a surf movie was an “event.” They were filmed in 16mm and pieced together by the guy who was making them. Then he would rent a high school auditorium, or some other sort of hall, stick up a screen and a projector, sell tickets and show up with a home tape recorder with a boot legged soundtrack that he put together and a microphone to personally narrate the movie himself. Everybody would show up and it was as much a social evening as it was to see the movie. I loved going to the surf movies. The next day I would always be out in the water early to see if I could practice some of the moves that I had seen the guys that were in the movie do. The Dewey Weber cutback, the Phil Edwards head bobble, the Mike Doyle nose tweak, the Mickey Munoz “el mysterioso,” the Mickey Dora nose-wiggle, on and on. For some strange reason it seemed like every following morning after a surf movie the surf would be horrible, I have no idea why this was, but it just was.
I will never forget my first surf movie. 1958, the movie was SURF SAFARI by John Severson. The DeCheverous brothers mom, Ruth, packed us up in her station wagon and drove us to Hollywood where the film was playing in a tiny art theater, I think it was the Encore. I was in surf gremmie heaven. The highlight of the movie, and something that has stuck with me since then, was when the big wave sequence came on. John’s narration went like, “On December 15th the biggest swell to hit the Hawaiian Islands in over 50 years came marching out of the North Pacific….. and only a handful were there to meet the challenge.” At that moment the theme to Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini came blaring out of the loudspeakers at mock volume and these guys were taking off on waves so big that I was scared just watching from the safety of my seat. Freaking epic stuff, breathtaking.
The golden years of surf movies lasted until the early 1970’s, pretty much the same as the golden years of California surfing. There were some classics over that time span. Severson came back after Surf Safari the next year with “Surf Fever.” He put together what he had thought was going to be a program to go along with the movie, which actually became the first issue of SURFER magazine. Of course, SURFER became the bible of surfing and is still on the stands today, even though John is riding waves with the angels. His next release was titled “Big Wednesday,” and became the title idea for the big Hollywood version staring John Michael Vincent, Gary Busy and Billy Katt. His last, and best, surf film was “Pacific Vibrations,” which ran into a snag over the use of the song “Wooden Ships,” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. The era of bootleg soundtracks was over. It was one of the best surf movies ever though.
There were also some really fun releases from Grant Rohloff, Dale Davis, Greg Noll, Gordie, Hal Jepson, Jamie Budge and Walt Philips. Probably the best known were Severson, Bruce Brown, Bud Brown and later Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman (MacGillivray/Freeman Films.).
Bruce Brown hit the big time with his epic “Endless Summer.” The most well-known and successful of the lot. Bud Brown had better footage than Bruce, but Bruce could steal a crowd with his amazingly smooth narration. It wasn’t until Bud’s last film in the early 1970’s, “Going Surfing,” that he got some really good people to narrate. I think most surfers of that era would agree though that the greatest surf film ever made, just for sheer being GOOD, would be the Laguna Beach based MacGillivray/Freeman classic “Five Summer Stories.” This included the historic original soundtrack done by the HONK band as well as it was the first time that the surfers in the film actually got paid. We were all in shock, happy shock though. Greg MacGillivray has gone on to win numerous awards and acclaim for his Imax releases including “Everest” and “The Living Sea.” Go to MacGillivrayFreeman.com to see the long list of hits.
Yes, there were some really good films to come after this, and I probably should do a story on the “second phase” soon. But the fact is that there was nothing really like going to Newport Harbor High School or Laguna High School or Pier Ave or the Santa Monica Civic to see the latest surf film. If you survived the bottle cap flipping it was always a great night.