Bud "Barracuda" Browne
Surfing's First Commercial Filmmaker
"Gun Ho!" movie poster courtesy of Bud Browne.
A lifeguard/surfer beginning in the late 1930s, Bud "Barracuda" Browne
went on to become surfing's first commercial surf film maker. Throughout
the 1950s, it was Bud's surf movies that provided the stoke and defined
the genre. While other notable surf film makers followed, from the late
1950s onward, Bud continued to practice his craft and this has resulted
in his cinematic influence continuing to present day.
I was fortunate to be able to interview Bud in
the mid-1990s. That interview was published in Surfing magazine
and is also included here at the LEGENDARY SURFERS website. It is much
abbreviated, so if you don't have the time to read this chapter, here on
this page, click on the Bud Browne Interview to
get the "Reader's Digest" version. There's a few more pics there, too.
The Lifeguard-to-Surfing Progression
Hawaiian Surfing Movies, 1953-55
Trek to Makaha, 1956
The Big Surf, 1957
Surf Down Under, 1956-58
Cat On A Hot Foam Board, 1959
Surf Happy, 1960
Spinning Boards, 1961
Waves of Change, 1970
Going Surfin', 1973-77
You'll Dance in Tahiti, 1967
Surfing the 50's, 1994
"However, the real unsung hero, the man always
in the background of surfing is Bud Browne. While the heroes are carving
their names in the Surfing Hall of Fame, Bud is the photographer, bedecked
with camera, wetsuit and fins, who sits hour after hour at the impact zone.
He goes over the falls, shooting film of the surf heroes..."
-- Fred Van Dyke
In this day and age, most surfers think of the first surf movie as
being the The Endless Summer (1963) by Bruce Brown. Yet, well over a decade
before, Bud Browne -- no relation to Bruce -- was shooting surf footage
and putting out surf films for surfers to get stoked over. Although "Doc
Ball, John Larronde and Don James all took surf movies in the old days"
before him, Bud "Barracuda" Browne was the first one to do so commercially.
In fact, Bud was the originator of the surf movie genre. The surf movie,
aka surf film or surf flick, became a primary form of communication among
surfers between 1953 and the beginning of the 1980s. Bud's influence on
surfing has been huge and largely unrecognized by later generations of
Born circa 1915, Bud grew up in the water and swimming played a major
role in his life.
"I was a Phys. Ed. major at USC beginning in 1931," Bud told interviewer
Gordon McClelland, "and was the swim team captain in 1934. I also swam
for the L.A. Athletic Club from 1931 to 1948."
Swimming lead to lifeguarding which lead to surfing. It was not an
unusual line of progression in the 1930s.
"I started lifeguarding in Venice Beach in 1938," Bud told me. "I
lived down there and started surfing that summer, using the lifeguard rescue
board. When I began, I surfed with mostly Venice lifeguards and some guys
who were members of the Palos Verdes Surfing
Club, cuz I surfed there; guys like Adie
Bayer and Tulie Clark."
The summer of 1938 lead to others full of lifeguarding, wave riding
and diving, too.
"In the summers, before and after the war, I lifeguarded at the L.A.
City and County beaches, around Venice and Hermosa. That led to my interest
in diving and surfing. I've always enjoyed diving and would go out every
chance I could. When the water was clear we would paddle out on a mat and
free dive for lobster. In those days we'd get some big ones right here
off the coast, mainly at Palos Verdes, Pt. Dume and Laguna.
"Whenever the surf was up, the water got murky and was no good for
diving, so my diving partner, Jim Eubank, and I would ride waves on the
Bud also surfed "right next to the Sunset Pier on our station's
rescue board... sand now extends 30-40 yards beyond the end of Sunset
Pier." But, prior to World War II, Bud was into
diving much more than surfing.
"I went to the Red Cross Aquatic School on Catalina Island. They
taught life saving techniques that are required of lifeguards. I dove around
Catalina and also went to Todos Santos, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island...
diving for lobster and abalone. We used to give a lot of our catch away
and sell some to make a few extra bucks.
"At first we just went in the cold water in bathing suits. Then,
I got some rubber from a company called Rubber Craft, made a pattern and
glued some suits together with rubber cement. We put on long woolen underwear,
then pulled the dry suit over them. You had to be careful, because if you
tore a hole in the rubber with a spiny lobster or crab claw, water leaked
in on the wool and you started getting wet and cold."
At one point, Bud experimented with a device using a compressed air
bottle with continuous air flow to a dive mask. "I saw the first 2 dry
suits," Bud remembered, "by Charlie Sturgel, and began making my own from
When asked how he got into surfing specifically, Bud explained, "Back
in 1932, I watched them surfing at Corona
Del Mar next to that long, straight jetty and it looked like fun. While
lifeguarding, I started riding waves on an old hollow Rogers paddleboard,
mostly around Venice Beach. When the surf came up at
Verdes Cove , I put aside my diving gear, picked up a board and went
surfing. There is a picture of me surfing on one of those hollow boards
at the Cove in Doc Ball's California Surfriders book."
In the 1930s, " Doc Ball was the first surfing
photographer, but he didn't make a commercial film to show around like
us other surf film makers did, later on." The classic example of Doc Ball's
photography stands in the immortal California Surfriders, 1946,
a photo journal of surfing as it exhisted in California between the mid-1930s
to the end of World War II. Gordon McClelland,
in his interview of Bud in The
Surfer's Journal, Winter 1995, entitled "Scenes from the Life and
Times of Bud Browne," asked Bud about the number of waveriders surfing
back in the '30s.
"Not many compared with today," Bud replied. "Most of the lifeguards
surfed at Malibu and Venice Beach. Also Tulie and Bud Clark, Doc Ball,
Hoppy Swarts and Mary Ann
Hawkins all surfed at Palos Verdes. Down south at Corona Del Mar and
Onofre, you'd find people surfing year-round. It was nothing like it
is now, but there were a fair number of surfers then."
Gordon asked Bud about Mary
Ann Hawkins and wasn't she an early woman surfer?
"Yes, and a very talented woman," Bud replied. "She used to swim
and surf well, and was the only woman I remember who was out regularly.
We became good friends in the early 1930s and would see each other at the
swimming meets, mostly ocean swims. She also worked in the motion picture
business in Hollywood, doubling for Dorothy Lamour and other famous actresses.
Later, as Mary Ann Sears, she had a swim school for tots at Waikiki. Several
times I took underwater movies of her classes."
The year 1938 was an eventful one for Bud. That year, besides getting
into surfing, he made his first trip to Hawai`i.
"My first trip was on the maiden voyage of the steamship Matsonia
to Honolulu in 1938. Duke Kahanamoku came
out to greet the ship when it arrived, as he did on special occasions when
VIPs were on board. Most of that trip was spent on Oahu, but I made a short
visit to Kauai. Being short of cash, a friend and I wsent steerage on an
inter-island boat and saw most of that island hitchhiking.
"Hawai`i was an exciting experience for me. I'm quite sensitive to
changes in sight, sound and smell, so Hawai`i's music, hula, flower leis
and landscape had a profound effect on me. The tranquil, uncrowded conditions
contributed to much of the charm. I didn't actually surf on my first trip.
I watched them surfing at Waikiki in 1938, then in 1940, I brought my hollow
plywood board to Hawai`i and surfed Waikiki."
At Waikiki, Bud met both Duke Kahanamoku
and Tom Blake. "Yes, they were on the beach
at Waikiki quite a bit," Bud recalled. "We had mutual friends and Duke
liked catamarans, so I'd film him sailing off the beach. There are several
segments of footage showing one of these rides in the video Surfing
the '50s, when a group of us went out on one of Woody
Of Tom Blake, Bud recalled "that he was really into health foods.
One time I walked into a small Waikiki restaurant and saw him eating raw
oatmeal; dry, nothing on it. That seemed a little odd to me, but he was
a nice person and was very popular at the beach."
During WWII, Bud was in charge of the swim
program at Terminal Island Naval Base. "I was a Chief Specialist in Athletics
-- first at San Pedro, then in the Southwest Pacific," Bud said. "Our CASU
and ACORN outfits supplied land-based Marine fliers with food, lodging,
etc." He didn't get any surfing in, "but I did get some diving in, and
I had time to hunt shells. I made necklaces out of the small ones and the
guys eagerly bought them as novel presents to send home."
It was at this point that Bud gained his nickname of "Barracuda."
"During the war, when I was stationed at Terminal Island, in the navy,
someone called me that and it was picked-up later by -- I don't really
remember who -- It could have been someone like Mickey
"... it just sort of stuck with me," Bud reiterated. "... it was
given to me because I spent a lot of time in the water swimming and have
a tall slender build."
Before and during the war, Bud hadn't done much with film. "No, that
was before I became seriously interested in movie making," he said. "I
did shoot some 8mm film of underwater subjects and surfing then, but they
weren't really movies per se. It was just a hobby with me then. The results
encouraged me to buy a 16mm Bell and Howell movie camera after the war.
That 's when I really began to shoot film in a more serious format."
"I bought a movie camera in 1940," he told me. "-- the two hobbies
just came together naturally. I first started shooting moving pictures
with an 8 millimeter Bell and Howell camera. It wasn't until 1947 that
I got a 16mm and continued taking surfing movies with that; mostly in Hawai`i."
"Everything... being a lifeguard, a surfer, a diver, kind of lead
up to the point where I went back to Honolulu in the late
1940s, joined the Waikiki
Surf Club and began taking 16mm color movies."
"The Outrigger Club was expensive so most of us ended up joining
the Waikiki Surf Club. I kept my hollow box board (built by L.A. City Lifeguard,
Lug Carlucci) in the club's storage area downstairs, right there at the
beach. I favored Canoes and Queens at the time, although I can remember
mat surfing a big day at Public's and getting washed up on the inside reef."
Surfing Movies -- 1953-55
By the beginning 1950s, Bud was going back and forth to Hawai`i and
Tahiti regularly, from the Mainland. "I had a teaching job with the L.A.
Unified School District," he explained, "with summers off. I looked forward
to those summers!"
Bud didn't like teaching as much as he liked to be in the ocean.
As time went on, his teaching position looked less and less attractive,
"especially after I got a taste of the potential of doing something in
the surfing world."
"In the early '50s, I attended the USC Cinema School for a while
to learn more about photography and editing. Probably the editing was the
most important information I got there."
Bud tells the following story of his very first showing, at Adams
Junior High School, Santa Monica, 1953:
"In the Summer of 1953, I was at Waikiki talking with Dave Heiser,
a teacher from Santa Monica, and he became interested in the surf film
I was shooting. He invited me to show the footage at Adams Junior High
School where he taught. I spliced my film together, called it Hawaiian
Surfing Movie and charged 65¢ admission."
Bud was asked how he advertised.
"Just nailed some handmade posters to telephone poles near popular
surf spots and the word got out. It worked pretty good too. It drew a fair-sized
crowd of beach goers at the first showing."
Bud was asked if he remembered how it went.
"Oh yeah! That evening, after introducing the film on stage, I hurried
up to the projection room to join the operator of an arc projector I had
hired. I could see the screen from a small window, I had a microphone in
hand and a tape player with music. It was a nervous time, trying to coordinate
telling the projectionist when to switch from sound to silent speed and
vice versa, playing music in some places and not in others, and narrating
when needed. Sometime during the show I remember the take-up reel quit
turning and much of a 45-minute reel of film piled up on the floor. Although
this was a sort of nerve-wracking experience, I've always thought of the
overall event as going pretty well."
"I had my first showing at Adams Junior High, in Santa Monica, in
1953," Bud repeated to me and added: "I had one or two showings that year.
I think I showed in La Jolla that same summer, but that was all. Hawaiian
Surfing Movie was the first commercial surf film to be shown anywhere.
It encouraged me so much -- to keep doing it. So, I had a new film every
year for about 13 years."
"I quit the teaching job, and for the next twelve years, I released
a movie each year. As surfing got more popular, I increased the number
of places I would show them; like in La Jolla, Redondo Beach, Oceanside,
Newport, Hermosa, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, all up and down the California
coast at school auditoriums and recreation halls mostly. Surf shop owners
like Jack O'Neill in the Bay area, would find places to rent, then I'd
show up with the movie. Also promoters like Larry Stevenson in Santa Monica,
Buzzy Bent in La Jolla and Ken McLentyre in New York would rent the movies
to show at special surf-related events."
Other show sites included "School auditoriums, sometimes gymnasiums,
cafetoriums," explained Bud. "At that time, not many theatres were rented.
We'd show them in community halls, like this one, here [San Clemente Community
Center]. As it got more popular, over the years, I was encouraged to keep
on doing it and show them at more places throughout California, Hawai`i,
Australia and New Zealand."
Hawaiian Surfing Movie (1953) was followed by Hawaiian
Holiday (1954), more Hawaiian Surfing Movie (1955) and Trek
to Makaha (1956).
to Makaha, 1956
"I spent winters in Hawai`i every year," Bud continued. "Buzzy
Trent had a Quonset hut at Makaha,
and from 1957 I rented rooms and houses on the
Shore... Makaha, Sunset, Waimea
and later Pipeline. In California, I'd go to the better spots, Malibu,
Wind N' Sea, Trestles, Steamer Lane, Rincon
; just places where good surfers would be out when the surf was up."
In those days, the North Shore "was kind of remote," remembers Bud.
"I first remember people surfing at Sunset. Peter Van Dyke, Dick Barrymore,
Wayne Land and some others were living in panel trucks on the point at
Sunset Beach. They had some saw horses on the lawn and were shaping surfboards.
Mike Diffenderfer and Pat Curren lived by the
beach at Pipeline, and others pooled their money together and rented small
"In those days many of the guys who surfed were more all around watermen.
They lived near the ocean; swam, free dived, lifeguarded, bodysurfed, raced
paddleboards... did a lot of water related stuff which included surfing.
Also, most of them kept in good shape, so when the big surf came up on
the North Shore or Makaha they would be physically prepared for surf sessions.
"It all started in 1952 when a group of guys went out in big surf
at Makaha and Scoop Tsuzuki, a Honolulu newspaper photographer, took some
still photos of them surfing large waves. Those photos went out all over
the world, popularizing Makaha as a big wave surf spot.
"After 1955, big wave riders spent most
of their time surfing on the North Shore, where the waves were consistent
and there were more spots to surf. But... when it got too big began closing
out on the North Shore, the waves wrapped around Kaena Point and rolled
right into Makaha, so everybody would head there under those conditions."
Bud's early films, like the Hawaiian Surfing Movie series
and Trek to Makaha, unfortunately, are no longer together in their
original forms. Bud's 1956 offering, Trek to Makaha "was mostly
filmed at Makaha and featured George Downing, Buzzy Trent and Walter Hoffman
riding the large winter swells," described Bud. "It also had some of the
early Makaha International Surf
Championships that had begun a few years earlier. By 1956, the contest
was attracting surfers from all over the world and large crowds of tourists
from the Waikiki hotels."
Events at the Makaha International Surf Championships included "Paddleboard
-- individual and relay races. Tandem riding and mat surfing were other
featured events. I got first place twice in mat surfing at the contest,
I think it was 1955 and 1956."
"When it's smaller [at Makaha] you can shoot from the beach, so often
local people and swimmers could be seen in the movies... like those taken
at the Makaha Surf Championships. When it gets big, the only spot to shoot
from is out on the point. Otherwise the surfers are too far away and become
a small image in the frame.
"I've seen it fully 25 foot, but heard of it being bigger. They told
me 30 foot sets came in during a January 1958 swell. Pete
Peterson borrowed a movie camera to film the riders, but ran into a
problem. On non-reflex cameras the viewfinder isn't always lined up with
what the telephoto lens sees. Pete had taken some excellent shots of the
wake behind the surfers! Unfortunately, I missed out on photographing this
epic event... I was in Australia at the time."
Big Surf, 1957
On the North Shore, Bud Browne was the first to name Laniakea, "after
having seen a sign on a house" with the same name. A crew of people consisting
of Pat Curren, Buzzy Trent,
Peter Van Dyke, Fred Van Dyke, George Downing
and Wally Froiseth surfed Laniakea for the first
time in memorable November 1955 surf. Fred Van Dyke recalled Bud that day
and the cinematic aftermath: "Bud Browne... climbed to the top of a water
tower... and set up his camera... no waves under 15 feet all day.
"We were exhausted when we drove back to Honolulu. Two days later
Bud Browne got his films back and we screamed and yelled at wave after
wave, 15-20 foot walls 200 yards long rolled by on film. In those days
we could measure pretty accurately the size of waves by looking through
a view finder, and using pieces of paper to measure our stance. Then you
multiplied the stance by the number of times you could put it against the
In 1956 , Van Dyke noted that, "Bud Browne went back to California
with his new film [probably The Big Surf], and it was an instant
success -- with one drawback. Crowds came to the North Shore -- or what
we considered crowds -- about 20 new guys in all..."
Of all Bud Browne's surf movies, The Big Surf probably made
the biggest impact on surfers in the United States. Many 1950s and '60s
surfers remember this movie. One such surfer was world champion Mike
"The first surf movie I ever heard of was The Big Surf, by
Bud Browne," recalled Doyle. "We were all excited when it came to Culver
City in 1957. I went with Herb Dewey in his '52
woody on opening night. I can remember driving around the corner and seeing
the marquee that read, in giant red letters, The Big Surf.
"The theatre was one of those old-fashioned places with steep aisles,
cheap baroque walls, and purple velvet curtains. By the time Herb and I
got inside and found seats, the place was filled with a raucous crowd of
surfers who had come all the way from Santa Barbara, to the north, and
from Windansea, to the south. Every surfer (and wannabe surfer) in Southern
California must have been there.
"We all knew before the movie started that it was going to be about
surfing in Hawai`i -- why else would it be called The Big Surf?
Most of us had never seen film of Hawaiian surf before -- just still photos.
We expected the waves to be big, but when the film finally started and
we got our first look at Sunset, Waimea, and other surf spots on the North
Shore of Oahu, we were astonished at the speed and power of the waves.
They were beautiful and fascinating, but also intimidating.
"I can especially remember Conrad [Cunha], a heavyset Hawaiian, riding
Ala Moana; he had an old pig board he could turn with amazing speed. Another
surfer who really stood out was our own Dewey Weber, from the old 22nd
Street Gang, wearing bright red trunks at Makaha and running back and forth
on his board like a little wound-up puppet. Dewey was really building a
reputation for himself in the surfing world as the first ripper and slasher.
He had grown up surfing the same waves I had, so I felt encouraged when
I saw that he could handle the best surf Hawai`i had to offer.
" Mickey Dora was at the
theatre that night, pouting, it seemed, because everybody was paying more
attention to the movie than to him. He was wearing a white sheet, like
an Arab costume, but that wasn't good enough to compete with our first
look at twenty-foot Sunset. Just as the movie was ending, we heard a series
of loud concussions coming from the restrooms. Dora was throwing cherry
bombs in the toilets.
"They didn't show surf movies at that theater again for a long time."
I asked Bud about this element of rowdiness at surf movie showings
that would become a trademark of the genre for decades following. He clarified
that there had been rambunctiousness "almost from the start. Not in '53
or '54, but, I would say '56 or '57, around there, that I noticed it."
Bud acknowledged the impact of The Big Surf. "My movie The
Big Surf that I showed there [first in Australia, in 1957] featured
huge 15-25 foot waves, filmed at Makaha and on the North Shore of Hawai`i.
This was the first time many surfers had ever seen waves that big being
ridden. And... it is true that surfers from all over California and Australia
began showing up in Hawai`i on a regular basis after this film was shown
around. It's hard to know these things for sure, but it does seem that
"One reason for the enduring appeal of surf movies -- even when they're
bad," postulated John Grissum in his book Pure Stoke, "-- is that
surfing translates beautifully into film, particularly when shot in slow
motion. Not only does a celluloid rendering of a wave and a rider invite
a vicarious identification, but one is able to see clearly the subtleties
of positioning and movement which are often missed when observed during
their actual execution, particularly on fast-breaking waves. Apart from
that, the movies are fun and escapist, providing an opportunity for a fairly
crazed ritual gathering of a still largely misunderstood subculture, whose
members share a specialized knowledge (and matching language) about which
the rest of the world knows little and cares less. To be sure, behavior
at surf movies occasionally gets out of hand..."
Nat Young, in his History of Surfing noted the rowdy tendency
exhibited in 1959, when a "highly publicised
screening was held at Santa Monica High School, where just about everyone
who rode a board converged to see a collection of movies by Bud Browne,
Don James and Walt Hoffman. Someone set off a firecracker, the lights went
out and everyone sat mesmerised by sequences of waves at Sunset and surfers
like Buzzy Trent and Jim Fisher coming down and proning out on huge Makaha
waves. Screenings of surf movies soon got a reputation for being rowdy,
Bud didn't deny the rowdy factor. "For about the first minute or
two of the films, especially at the Santa Monica Auditorium, when the movie
started, they would all start yelling so loud and flipping bottle caps,
no one could hear the music or sound track for awhile.
"Once I was showing a film and one of the big reels wasn't fastened
into place. Suddenly it flew off the projector and went rolling down the
floor. Then there was that time in the elementary school auditorium in
Culver City when someone set off cherry bombs in the auditorium and men's
room. After that, surf films were banned there... And you had to make sure
the sponsor had guards at all the exit doors to keep out freeloaders. Bad
events like these were few and far between though... for the most part
everyone including myself had a good time at the surf film showings."
The surf film became a "tribal celebration." The reason, wrote John
Grissum in his book Pure Stoke , was because "the audience is surfing
that film, making every take-off, carving every bottom turn, and living
for a few moments in the world of pure stoke... it is hard to conceive
any [other type of social gathering, including music concerts] equaling,
much less exceeding, the sheer intensity of passion displayed by audiences
that flock to surf movies in either hemisphere..."
With the rising popularity of surf films, others began to join Bud,
beginning in 1957. " Greg Noll
came in around '57," Bud recalled. "1958, Bruce Brown and John Severson
came in and then Grant Rohloff came in after that."
Beverly Noll remembered when she and Greg first started shooting.
"When it was time, we'd get situated. I'd always go out on the point, next
to Bud Browne. Bud would have his cameras there and I would have mine and
we'd shoot film all day..."
Down Under, 1956-58
In 1958 , Bud shot and showed Surf
Down Under, a surf flick that has been credited as "the first truly
international surf film."
"I went there to show surf movies and to shoot film for my next annual
surf film," Bud recalled. "It was an interesting trip. I'll start from
the beginning. In 1956 a group of U.S. lifeguards went to Australia for
some international life saving competition in conjunction with the Olympics
at Melbourne. There were some good surfers on the American team, including
Greg Noll and Tom Zahn, and in their
free time they surfed at the local beaches and amazed large crowds of cheering
onlookers with a surfing style and surfboards never before seen in Australia.
Upon leaving, the Americans left their boards or patterns as models for
a new generation of Aussie boards, but for the present they had to make
do with hollow boards of plywood because they could not yet get balsa from
South America. That was the situation when in December, 1957, I sailed
from Honolulu aboard a liner with Bill Coleman, an excellent bodysurfer
from Hawai`i. In my stateroom, I put together two 90 minute films I titled
Surfing in Hawaii and The Big Surf. With the help of surf
entrepreneur Bob Evans, I showed them
in the surf lifesaving clubs north and south of Sydney. My days were spent
searching for and filming any surf I could find. Not only are Australia's
summers their poorest surf season, but that particular summer was below
normal. But the lifeboat races intrigued me, and I wanted to get some shots
inside the boat while they caught waves. I arranged for a boat crew to
take me out after work in the late afternoon, the day before I was to fly
back to Hawai`i. I mounted my camera on the bow pointing back at the crew.
When a wave approached I'd start the camera and then try to hide in the
boat out of the camera's view. It all went well, but later when I opened
the camera -- you guessed it -- I had forgotten to load it! A photographer's
nightmare. I was lucky to contact another boat crew who took me out early
the next morning fo rsome good shots, and I made it to the plane okay."
Australian Nat Young had this perspective, addressing the growing
surf movement along Australia's coast: "Bud Browne, the American surf-film
maker, heard about what was happening in Australia and filmed the start
of the explosion down under. One of the surfers he met was Bob Evans; he
and Evans developed a rapport and Bob agreed to show Bud's surf movies
in Australia. The movies gave Australians a window on the surfing world
overseas and showed them what had been happening just a few months ago
in California and Hawai`i; soon local riders were making every attempt
to emulate the action they saw in the movies...
"The film Bud Browne shot in Sydney was included in his new movie
of '59 and it was inevitable that some of the more adventurous American
surfers would see it and be turned on to Australia as a new frontier where
a pure surfer could stay one jump ahead of the masses. Bob Cooper was virtually
the first American surfer to do this. He came in late 1960..."
The film Bud shot in Australia in 1956 and 1957 became the primary
footage for Surf Down Under, shown in 1957, "but I was concerned
about not having enough good surf footage," Bud said. "Perhaps I could
include other aspects of life in far off Australia that the U.S. surf audiences
would appreciate, such as Australia's indigenous animals, surf carnivals
and some skits. Later, at the premiere showing at a Pacific Beach school
auditorium, my worst fears were realized when noises started coming from
the audience, including cat calls. I sweated out that showing and thought
about how I could change it for the next evening's show at the same place.
I spent the next day ruthlessly cutting and editing film and music tape
that eliminated much of the non-surfing. The second showing went better
and I never again misjudged surf film audiences."
On A Hot Foam Board, 1959
Surf stylist Phil Edwards once called Bud Browne "the Matthew Jack
Brady of surf photography." Edwards recalled the making of Bud's 1959 production:
"he had been shooting movie film all up and down the West Coast. And Browne
-- like others -- was beginning to get hooked on this surfing-ability kick
that would make the movies something different from what they had been
up until that time.
"Browne planned an epic to be called Cat
on a Hot Foam Board... which was to be the first surf movie whose
theme bent around surfing ability.
"By epic, I mean I was actually to get paid for it. My fee: plane
fare to Hawai`i. (Later, when the movie was exhibited on the great high
school tour -- a pubescent Minsky's Circuit for the underground movies
of that day -- I was to collect a little more money from it. Nothing wildly
profitable; Browne was kind enough to give me some of the action in a couple
of small towns where he showed the film.)
"Still, I was poised for a first starring role in a movie, with Dewey
Weber, another surfer, which began to indicate that a life devoted to surfing
was not exactly a misspent youth. Remember, youth spent in pool halls can
only make a hustler of you. There is no way to hustle anyone on a surfboard.
I add that little comment as the underlying moral of this book. You may
"Hot Foam Surfboard under my arm -- everything I owned in a small
suitcase -- I headed for Hawai`i. But not by plane.
"I pocketed the money Browne had given me and signed on as a crewman
aboard an 83-foot sloop that was to be delivered to Hawai`i...
"Seventeen days after we had left California, I met Bud Browne on
the dock, surfboard still intact, ready for the movie.
"It turned out to be a good one..."
"In the Fall of 1958," Bud recalled, "I met with Hobie and some others
at Hobie's shop and talked about filmmaking and different surfers. From
that meeting came the idea of Phil Edwards, L.J. Richards, Hevs McClelland
and I spending a month in Hawai`i doing a movie.
"I went over first, bought an old blue Buick for $50.00 and for $90.00
rented a house close to Sunset Beach. Hevs and L.J. arrived later and Phil
came over on a sailboat. Dewey Weber was there too.
"Each morning we'd go out looking for good surf. Phil and L.J. surfed
and I filmed. Hevs surfed some, but he had a natural comic talent and he
appeared in humorous sequences in several of my films. That's about it,
it just happened."
"By 1959 and '60," recalled Fred Van Dyke, "there are six guys making
surf films... and crowds fill[ed] the surf movies..."
Mike Doyle recalled the North Shore winter of 1959/60 when, "There
was a filmmaker living at Kawela Bay, Bud Browne, who'd made the first
surf movie I'd ever seen, The Big Surf . They called Bud 'the Barracuda'
because he was so thin and because he was a great swimmer. Bud was eccentric
in some ways. Back in California he lived in a one-room apartment above
a garage in Costa Mesa. He'd been a schoolteacher before he started making
films. He only ate one meal a day, dinner, and most of that was sugar;
canned pears and fudge were his favorites. Because he was so fond of sweets,
he had a lot of bad teeth that had been repaired with gold bridgework.
"Every winter Bud would go to Hawai`i to work on his surf films.
He was very innovative, and they say he developed one of the first underwater
cameras. He was also a very kind man. He appreciated my surfing ability
and took me under his wing. I lived right next door to him at Kawela Bay,
so when he took off every morning to go filming, I jumped right in his
car. Bud and I spent a lot of time together, driving around the island
looking for surf.
"When Bud Browne made a movie, instead of just showing a whole bunch
of guys out surfing, he would pick a couple of surfers he thought were
hot, and he'd build the whole movie around them. It made a nice story,
with real characters that people could relate to. And instead of just showing
all surf shots, Bud liked to record the day-to-day lives of surfers living
on the North Shore -- the house, the cars, going to town for groceries,
and so on. One time he took a group of us up to Waimea Falls, where he
filmed us jumping from the cliffs to the water eighty feet below; [and
at the Pali] we'd lean off the cliff and let the wind blow us back. And
another time he filmed us sacrificing old cars and old surfboards to the
surf gods, a ritual surfers still practice."
Happy , 1960
Mike Doyle recalled a certain day
in 1960. "I was driving home from work one day, when I pulled up to a corner
stoplight and noticed a poster stapled to a telephone pole. The poster
was advertising a new surf movie that was going to play at the Pier Avenue
School in Hermosa Beach. There was a photo on the poster of a powerful,
Hawaiian-looking wave. The surfer in the photo was leaning hard into the
wave, crouched down with one hand on the rail and one hand raised in the
air. There was something vaguely familiar about it. Then I realized the
movie was Bud Browne's latest, Surf Happy, and the surfer on the
poster was me.
"Some people have forgotten how surf movies were distributed in those
days. The regular film distribution channels weren't open to surf movies
-- there just weren't enough surfers to make it worthwhile for the big
film distributors. So filmmakers like Bud Browne, John
Severson, and Bruce Brown had to create their own channels. Every little
beach town up and down the coast had a civic auditorium, a high school
gym, or YMCA that could be rented for one or two nights. The filmmaker
would send out a crew a few days in advance of the showing to nail posters
on telephone poles and bulletin boards. Then the news would spread by word
of mouth. The filmmaker would roll into town with the film the day of the
showing and help set up chairs in the auditorium. He would even sell the
tickets at the door himself. Because a lot of the early films didn't have
sound, he would do his own live narration. If a good crowd turned out,
he might have enough money to get a motel room for the night. If not, he
would sleep in his car."
The surf flicks Bud had been making and the ones that Noll, Severson,
Brown and Rohloff joined him in creating were quite unlike the Hollywood
surf movies then beginning to appear. With the release of Gidget
(1959) and a short list of "beach blanket" movies, surfing was introduced
to the general public for the first time. As Mike Doyle put it, the Hollywood
surf movies "were the first glimpse most people in the country had of the
surf culture, and I think because the movies were so badly made, so phony
and just plain dishonest, the image of surfing, at least in the mainland
U.S., was forever stamped as being silly, adolescent, and superficial.
There were authentic surf movies being made, too -- by Bud Browne, John
Severson, and Bruce Brown -- but they were never distributed outside the
relatively small beach communities of California, Florida, Texas, and New
Jersey, and were rarely seen by anyone who wasn't a surfer."
During the early 1960s, when the Hollywood movies were dominant,
Bud continued to show his. Spinning Boards followed Surf Happy,
"Before 1961 all of my films were personally narrated," Bud said.
"Usually I'd go from a script, but sometimes I would just freely talk about
what was happening. During the showing, I would have a tape recorder with
some prerecorded music that went along with the film.
"In '61, in Hawai`i, Peter Cole and John Weiser helped me put together
sound tracks with narration and music starting with Spinning Boards.
Weiser owned KUMU radio station so we had access to sound facilities.
"At a Honolulu film studio, Cine Pic Hawai`i, when Peter narrated,
he would just start talking about what he saw as the film was running.
It was live so to speak. When a mistake was made, the studio technician
would have to rewind the film and music tape for another try. But when
we knew his patience was at a breaking point, we'd just let it go, mispronunciation
and all... but it had a spontaneous feeling, so it worked out okay.
"Having the sound track right on the film also made it possible for
me to rent the films out for showings in other states and in other countries,
without traveling there myself."
Cavalcade of Surf (1962), Gun Ho! (1963), and Locked
In (1964) completed Bud's most prolific period.
"One advantage," said Bud of the mid-'60s international popularization
of surfing, "was that there was more interest in surf films in countries
like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France and England. The general
public became more aware of surfing, but since basically only surfers came
to see my films, I don't think there was much impact on attendance really.
A lot more people started making surf films in the '60s, so the overall
attendance increased [because of that]."
Bud was once asked about his cast of characters:
" Phil Edwards, Dewey Weber, Buzzy Trent and Peter Cole were in nearly
every film, and let's see... there was Mike Doyle, Mickey Muñoz...
just about all of the best surfers of that time. David Nuuhiwa and Gerry
Lopez appeared quite a bit in my films of the '70s."
After Locked In, in 1964, Bud ended-up not making another
surf movie until 1970. I asked him about the "flat" period and what happened
with the ill-fated collaboration with Bruce Brown who, by this time, had
made a major contribution to surf film making and had even succeeded in
getting a real surf film into national distribution. That movie was The
Endless Summer (1966):
"As I remember... one year, I just didn't go over to Hawai`i. Another
year, the surf was so bad, I didn't have enough footage to make a film...
I had a lot of good footage after another year of so, but then I talked
to Bruce Brown and he was gonna edit it and narrate it and get a distributor
for it." It turned out to be more work than Bruce had bargained for. "So,
I took it over and went in with McGillivray/Freeman on their film Waves
of Change, 1970
At the beginning of the 1970s, "I began working with Greg MacGillivray
and Jim Freeman who had joined together to form MacGillivray-Freeman Films,"
Bud said. "They liked some of the film I was shooting and added it to their
film to produce a number of surf movies."
Most notably, there was " Waves of Change, which was later
updated, blown up to 35mm, and called The Sunshine Sea and Five
Summer Stories. And sometime in there they released The Surf Movie
which had a lot of different stuff from mine and other people's surf films."
Although Waves of Change (1970) is a MacGillivray and Freeman
production, Bud's contribution was significant. He continued to deliver
innovative water camera angles, using a water-proof camera housing of his
own design. It was "a water-proofing like nobody else has done." Bud told
me what he did with the camera: "Put it in a rubber bag. All the others
were plexiglass or a metal box... When you get hit by the surf, you're
more likely to lose a box or even have it hit you." Bud "Stuck the bag
between my legs and used my arms for swimming... I used that rubber sealing
for all my water shots."
In another interview, Bud elaborated further:
"I made some waterproof bags for my cameras, using the same kind
of rubber I had used to make the 'dry' diving suits. Most of the film was
taken while I treaded water, near the impact zone. I'd swim out with my
camera strapped to my body and when I sized up a wave, I'd quickly try
to swim to the best photographic spot. I believe I was the first person
to go out in the water with a movie camera at Pipeline. Sometimes it was
pretty dangerous, but most of the time I just had to do a lot of swimming
and diving. If the surf was outstanding, I'd be out there for 3 to 5 hours.
Timing is important. If you don't dive at the right time, you could get
hit by a board or sucked over the falls. I only got hit once -- at Pipeline...
I remember Jeff Crawford and I were both completely inside a tube and his
board hit me on top of the head, but it didn't hurt much. I've been pretty
fortunate... many times they came within inches of me. You have to duck
under at the last moment when they come directly overhead."
Waves of Change went through the same kind of evolution that
Endless Summer had gone through. It was so popular, Greg McGillivray
and Jim Freeman blew up the 16mm to 35mm and went for a general release,
renaming the film The Sunshine Sea (1971).
Bud also collaborated with McGillivray/Freeman on their classic Five
Summer Stories, which was released in 1972, and Five Summer Stories
Plus Four, released in 1976. Leonard Lueras, in his book Surfing,
the Ultimate Pleasure, wrote that "Bud Browne's water photography at
Pipeline set the standard for every movie that followed."
"I kept shooting," Bud said, "and came out with my own film called
Surfin'," in 1973.
"It came out in 1973," Bud said, "with Hevs McClelland narrating.
Then four years later, a new version called The New Going Surfin'
was released. Greg MacGillivray's work on the sound track was responsible
for much of the film's success."
"In one section I rigged up a small hand-held water-proof camera
and let Gerry Lopez take it out at Pipeline. He filmed the inside of the
tube looking out, then backwards into the tunnel and everything in between!"
"Bud Browne's Going Surfin' ," wrote Grissum, "is a durable
example of the best of the genre, drawing upon his... [many] years of film-making.
There were vintage shots of Buzzy Trent, Greg Noll, and other madmen tackling
North Shore monsters; old footage of Phil Edwards waltzing on southern
California peaks; up and coming hotties from Hawai`i and the coast; and
all of it interspersed with comedy skits, sight gags, horrendous wipeouts,
sunsets, pretty girls in wet T-shirts, and a lot of rock 'n' roll with
Beach Boys harmonies. Never mind that some portions don't hang together
well, that up-dated footage makes for a few jerky transitions. Browne's
cinematic trademark is a pervasive happy-go-lucky feeling, a go-for-it
optimism, and a sense of humor -- and innocence -- that defines what one
skit in Going Surfin' called 'The Stoked Life.' Moreover, Going Surfin'
been re-edited from time to time after hundreds of screenings to insure
that, regardless of its cinematic shortcomings, it grabs you early and
keeps you locked in and entertained for the duration."
"Superb editing and pacing," wrote Lueras, "many truly funny moments."
"We added a bit for The New Gone Surfin'" in 1977, Bud told
me. Around 60 years old at the time, Bud also continued filming as a freelancer
for ski photographers and windsurfers. Bud's last assignment actively filming
surf sequences was for Big Wednesday , in 1977 and the last time
he shot 16mm film for commercial production was in 1980. He uses a camcorder
now, as a hobby, shooting mostly shots of friends, family, and his travels.
"Once I broke a camera going over the falls at Pipeline; the front
glass was shattered and water got in the camera. In 1977, when I was shooting
for the theatrical release Big Wednesday, I took a real bad wipeout
at Sunset. It was about 18 feet and I was filming Reno Abellira when I
went over the falls and the white water kept me under nearly all the way
to the beach. Another time, I took a wipeout at Waimea and lost a camera.
Mike Doyle and Rusty Miller were coming toward me and it looked like both
were inside this big beautiful barrel. I kept filming them a little too
long and the crest caught me. There were more close calls, but for the
most part I've been pretty lucky.
"When taking water shots in big surf, whatever danger there was,
I always felt the big surfriders were at far more risk than myself. They
took such horrendous wipeouts, relying solely on their unaided swimming
ability to get them out of trouble, whereas I had the use of swim fins
which I regarded as an advantage out-weighing the burden of carrying a
camera with me. An observation I made during my forays at Waimea was how
far a 20 to 25 foot crashing wave -- the turbulent white water -- penetrated
below the surface. I was surprised that it was no more than about 15 feet,
as far as I could estimate. That it was no deeper worked to the advantage
of imperiled surfers caught between waves of a large set."
Dance in Tahiti, 1967
Besides surf films, Bud has also filmed travelogues of Tahiti, mostly
for his own personal viewing. An exception to that was You'll Dance
in Tahiti, which Bud showed in 1967.
"I first went to Tahiti in 1940 on the Matson Line 'Mariposa' Steamship.
Although I only spent two days there, I became enamored with the place.
Then when the airlines started flying there, I visited nine more times
from 1960 to 1990.
"Tahiti with its vast beauty, exotic music, dancing and the carefree
attitude of the people captivated me so that it became irresistible to
put it on film, so that's what I did. It was a labor of love, so to speak.
It hasn't made me any money, but that's all right. Like all photographers,
I guess, when I see something, my foremost thought is how good a picture
will it make, or will it be valuable in future years. In Tahiti, especially,
I like to photograph kids."
Bud Browne's surfing years spanned the period 1938-57, "around that
time," he said. Bud's surf films stretched from 1953 to 1977. Surfers that
Bud caught on film reads like a who's who of legendary big wave riders
of the 1950s and '60s. Bud organized the recollections by surf spots. "There
was Waimea with Peter Cole, Fred Van Dyke, Ricky Grigg, Kimo Hollinger...
Pipeline: there was Gerry Lopez, Rory Russell, a whole bunch of others...
Makaha: there was Buzzy Trent, George Downing, Greg Noll, and lots of others."
I asked him about Buzzy Trent.
"I lived with him for six winters in Hawai`i at Makaha and the North Shore,"
Bud replied. I asked him why Buzzy had gotten out of surfing. "Well, I
guess age has something to do with it and he got other interests like hang
gliding, diving for fish, does bicycle riding, now. I think when you get
in your 40s and 50s you just don't tackle big surf like you used to...
It's a young man's sport, big waves."
Bud said that, later on, "When the surf was good, I'd want to shoot.
Guys would borrow my board, come back with dings in it. Got tired of that
after awhile. I wasn't using it, so I sold it. Since then, I've been body
surfing and mat surfing." That's not to mention the recent river rafting,
hang gliding and bungie jumping this 82 year-old surfer and surf film maker
has done to keep the adrenalin flowing. Also, he's continued with a "labor
of love," his travelogues on Tahiti, visiting that island chain off and
on over the years. On a regular basis, Bud swims "at the Y about three
times a week and ride my bike."
Does surfing's premier commercial film maker have any favorite surfers
he particularly enjoyed shooting? He answered by putting it more in context
of locations rather than persons. "There are various surfers for different
spots, for small or large surf. I'd rather not go into naming any favorite
surfers because I liked those who would perform the best in their favorite
places to surf. Like, in the old days, Buzzy Trent and George Downing at
Makaha; Gerry Lopez and Rory Russell at Pipeline. But, they were more or
less the old timers... I'd hate to name surfers and leave people out that
need to be mentioned."
Favorite music he particularly liked to use in his surf films? "It
depended on the sequence you were using it with," Bud said. "There was
hot dog music for small surf and there was dynamic or classical music for
big surf and there was lilting, fast music for comedy sequences... You
might say the guitar was my favorite..."
Favorite camera of all time? "I would have to say a Bolex, mainly
because it had a reflex lens. You could look through the lens and see what
you get. With the Bell and Howell [his first 16mm camera], you had an outside
view finder which didn't always line up with the picture you were taking.
It could be off a little bit. That was especially true with a telephoto
lens... All the surf photographers that I knew of had a Bolex because of
the reflex feature... I got the Bolex around 1960."
Bud's first projector was a silent one, with no particular speed.
"It had a variable speed, depending on how you adjusted it. But, for showings,
I think I had a Bell and Howell sound projector." Even so, Bud's favorite
is the one he presently owns. "The one I have now, I like. It's a Graflex.
But, the disadvantage is that it's heavy and it's not really bright enough
for big auditorium shows.
"Now, MacGillivray/Freeman bought some Bell and Howell projectors
with a xenon lens which, compared to the arc projectors that were used
for auditoriums before that, were much brighter and better suited...
"When I showed in big auditoriums in the old days, I used to hire
an operator with an arc projector and used that. That Bell and Howell projector
MacGillivray/Freeman had -- I would have liked to have -- was very expensive
and, during the later years, I didn't want to invest in one... But, when
MacGillivray/Freeman distributed my films, they used the good projectors,
with the expensive lens, so I didn't bother to buy one."
the 50's, 1994
By the early 1990s, Bud was still pushing the envelope, hang gliding,
bugy jumping and bodyboarding in river rapids. "It was thrilling!" he recalled
of his escapades in New Zealand. "Recently I got my old surf mat out of
the attic to try some more of the same thing here in the States... Sometimes
I bodysurf and I still swim several times a week to keep in shape."
In 1994, Bud edited and re-released the best material from the eight
surf films he produced between 1953 and 1960. It took a year and a half,
off and on, to put together. Surfing the 50's is 70 minutes of all
color film on video tape, narrated by Peter Cole and John Kelly, "two old
time surf experts," declared Bud. The video gives an historical background
to surfing, touching on how the sport has been passed on from one generation
to another; as Peter Cole put it, "keeping the good of the past alive."
the 50's also features: a look at the San
Onofre tradition; Australian water sports; tandem surfing; catamarans;
surfing at Waimea for the first time (1957); huge Makaha surf; women surf
pioneers; classic Phil Edwards, Dewey Weber, Duke Kahanamoku,
George Downing, Buzzy Trent and many more great surfers of the 1950s.
"One day early in 1993," Bud wrote, "I realized I had all this pristine
surf film on the shelf that no one had seen in more than thirty years,
and that it would be of value as a historical record of an important time
in the early years of surfing..."
Bud said the video's music track consists of "Music contributed through
an ad in the Surfer magazine." People sent him music from all over the
world. "I must have gotten 35 or 40 audio cassettes. Out of those, I used
23 individual selections." This "voluntary music came from surf-oriented
groups and individuals who asked only to be a part of the video," "plus
other music I obtained." "I am grateful for their contributions," Bud said,
"as the music played a very important role."
"The available footage I had to select from consisted of both original
and often projected print film, which picked up scratches over the years.
I thought viewers would prefer to see the best footage of the fifties rather
than the limited film that survived with no imperfections."
Bud gave special thanks for help with Surfing the 50's to
Gordon McClelland, Jim Dunfrund, John Gardell, Surfer magazine and
Surfer's Journal. Post production was done by Dennis Richardson of
Due to the success of Surfing the 50's, Bud released his 1963
classic Gun Ho! and Cavalcade of Surf.
Asked what his advice would be to future surf film makers or videographers,
Bud responded, "I was once asked that question about 40 years ago and I
said, 'Yes, stay out of it!' because I didn't want competition. But, since
then, there have been -- I don't know -- 60, 70, 80 surf photographers
along the line.
"I would say, look into the cost of buying the equipment and the
film, which has gone up considerably since I was buying film, and look
into the market for it and see if it's worthwhile for you to start it;
worthwhile to get into the business rather than try something else; some
other life's work."
Bud continued, "Now, no new surf films are being made that I know
of. Bruce Brown's Endless Summer II was the last [most recent] one,
but it was a big time Hollywood effort.
"So, all the old timers are now changing their films into videos
and selling them. Then there's guys like Herbie Fletcher who are making
videos, but not making 16mm film, to show like the old film makers did."
"I never went into this thinking I was going to amass a fortune.
Actually, most of my films just paid for my daily expenses and made enough
extra to invest in the next movie. The money just seemed to be there for
the next step."
I watched Bud set-up his Graflex, in the San Clemente Community Center's
Ole Hanson Room. His movements were quick and practiced -- testiments of
his being in his element and to his spirit, undampened by his 82 years
on the planet. Two years or so, a similar observation was made and published
in The Surfer's Journal:
"Imagine seeing genuine 16 millimeter surfing films for free. What
a departure from the norm... Browne settled into his narrative patter.
The lights were off, the film reels were creaking and when the drive socket
slotted into the perfs, all was right with the world. Men, women, children
and dogs were all riveted to the screen. If it wasn't perfect, it was damn
close... It was a lot like the first surf movies any of us ever saw; pure,
utter magic in a black room."
Back in the black room, Bud began showing some early 1950s footage
of Dewey Weber and Linda Benson. The ever shout of "Down in Front!" reminded
me of the tribal rite of true surf movie showings that Bud pioneered. Almost
immediately, there were whoops and whistles, oooh and ahhs at the sights
Bud delivered on screen. The Sun Rays sang "I Live for the Sun," as Bud
made subtle adjustments to the Graflex.
That night, legendary surf photographer LeRoy Grannis, also honored,
was to sum-up the feeling most all of us had, with his own personal testimony:
"In all my years of shooting surf and surfers," LeRoy said, "Bud
was always at least 50 yards ahead of me."
Sources Used In This Chapter:
California Surfriders, 1946
on a Hot Foam Board
Cavalcade of Surf
Five Summer Stories
Five Summer Stories
Fred Van Dyke
History of Surfing
Surf Down Under
Surfing the '50s
Surfing, the Ultimate Pleasure
The Big Surf
The Endless Summer
The New Gone Surfin'
The Sunshine Sea
The Surf Movie
Trek to Makaha
Waves of Change
You'll Dance in Tahiti
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