The Surfing Heritage & Culture Center (SHACC) has two ongoing tributes to the late, great filmmaker Bruce Brown, who passed away surrounded by loved ones in December of last year: The exhibit “Bruce Brown: A Life Well Lived” and the special-interest license plate that’s in the process of becoming available for California vehicles. Once a goal of 7,500 pre-registered plates is reached, few hurdles remain to get the plate approved and manufactured. Only ten days into the campaign, 2,585 people have committed 4,234 cars.
Don’t be fooled by the bogus Florida version I saw on Coast Highway the other day; it’s unlicensed. The state gets away with it by leaving out The in the film’s title, and using a similar, but single-surfer graphic. The colors are the same as John Van Hamersveld’s original design, with its day-glo sunset palette.
The exhibit at the San Clemente surf museum has early renderings of the poster and The Endless Summer plays on a loop, but it digs deeper into Brown’s early life and his first five films. There’s images from his Navy days in Submarine School, devices Brown fashioned for filming in the water, his own board shaped by pal Phil Edwards, and video testimony of friends cut in with footage Brown shot of them surfing decades ago. Cameras and equipment, photos, contracts, letters, posters and other fascinating ephemera add up to a portrait of a creative, funny, determined family man who made lifelong friends wherever he went.
SHACC executive director Glenn Brumage says he and curator Barry Haun made the trip up to the Brown ranch in the foothills north of Santa Barbara, and were given free rein by the filmmakers’ kids, Dana, Nancy and Wade, to gather objects and take framed photos right off the walls for the exhibit. Stories poured forth and a few tears were shed during the collection process. When they got out onto the porch, Brumage says, Haun asked if they could take the rocking chair, thinking that Brown, who died at age 80, had sat there. But Nancy said, “He never sat in that!”
Instead, he relaxed on the left side of a rustic bench with his dog at his right, looking at the Pacific Ocean in the distance and the Channel Islands on the horizon. The bench is at the SHACC, and when you sit on the smooth and polished spot where Brown always sat, you see a photo of the view Brown enjoyed from the porch.
More than 20 members of the Brown family came to the opening party, according to Brumage, who said it was one of the best-attended events SHACC has had. Just about everyone took a turn sitting on the bench.
Surfing Heritage founder Dick Metz, who met Brown in a lineup in Hawaii when Brown was 18 and he 28, became instant friends—all later living in Dana Point. Brown’s first office was where Bonjour Café is located, his second where the Post Office sits. Before the harbor was built, Metz says, Dana Point was a true surf city. He remembers abalone and lobster parties with Hobie, Brown, and John Severson, who started Surfer magazine. He smiles when saying they got away with bonfires on the beaches invisible to Coast Highway,
Metz’s 1958-61 “surfari” inspired Brown to film wave riders beyond Hawaii and Mexico, and led to the making of The Endless Summer. Metz hitchhiked south on freighters doing odd jobs and finding surfbreaks along the way in Panama and New Caledonia, eventually reaching Australia and then South Africa. There he found a right-hand pointbreak at Cape St. Francis, South Africa, that blew Metz away, and is featured in The Endless Summer.
On a pedestal near Brown’s motorcycle, which he raced all over the ranch, is a Bell & Howell 16 mm projector that Brown used to screen The Endless Summer starting in 1964. He’d set up in high-school auditoriums and while the film ran, he’d narrate in his sardonic and funny way with no other soundtrack. Tiring of the spiel, he recorded his comments and, according to Brumage, would push the play button on a Wollensak reel-to-reel player at the same time he started the projector.
Bruce Brown Films had a hell of a time getting The Endless Summer distributed. Even though selling out a week at a theater in the dead of winter in Wichita, Kansas, it wasn’t until a sold-out month at Kips Bay Theater in New York that a reluctant distributor finally caught on. Brown blew up the 16 mm to 35, recorded his narration and added the Sandals music. The titanic popularity of The Endless Summer put an end to the Moondoggie-type surf film.
Brown came out of retirement in the early ’90s for The Endless Summer II, which his son Dana produced, along with Step Into Liquid. Dana’s son Wes is also a filmmaker. The legacy lives on.
Go check it all out, and have a seat on the bench.
“Bruce Brown: A Life Well Lived” at Surfing Heritage & Culture Center, 110 Calle Iglesia, San Clemente, (949) 388-0313; surfingheritage.org. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through May 12.
Lisa Black proofreads the dead-tree edition of the Weekly, and writes culture stories for her column Paint It Black.