In 1966, three Californians made a movie about surfing. The idea behind “The Endless Summer” was to travel around the world chasing the summer season. Something like this is a natural hit in Huntington Beach, but would it play in Wichita?
The distributors didn’t think so.
But after two weeks in wintry Kansas, “The Endless Summer” was outselling “My Fair Lady.”
Still, the distributors balked.
“Unless it happens in the Big Apple, it doesn’t happen,” recalls filmmaker Bruce Brown, who took out a $50,000 loan to rent a Manhattan theater, pay for advertising and have the 16-millimeter film blown up to 35 millimeter. “I put everything I had on the line,” says Brown. “If it wouldn’t have worked, it would have been the ball game.”
It’s been 25 years, and the classic film still reigns as the ultimate surfing safari.
In making the 90-minute documentary, Brown crossed the Equator four times and shot nine miles of film in such exotic locales as Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii.
Along the way, Brown and the two young Southern California surfers who accompanied him--Robert August of Seal Beach and Mike Hynson of San Diego--discovered “the perfect wave” off a deserted South African beach.
Even more surprisingly, the trio of barefoot adventurers made even bigger waves:
* “The Endless Summer” ran for 48 weeks in New York City and broke theater attendance records nationwide during its 18-month run.
* It became became the first surf film shown in theaters and it stoked the critics, who dubbed Brown “the Bergman of the boards” and “the Fellini of the foam.”
* It was named on several top-10 movie-of-the-year lists for 1966.
* The State Department showed it at the Moscow Film Festival.
The movie, now available on video, made the 28-year-old Brown a wealthy man, and it turned August and Hynson into celebrities on beaches up and down the coast.
But for landlocked audiences around the country for whom the terms turning, stalling and hanging 10 were meaningless, “The Endless Summer” offered a stunningly photographed glimpse into the real world of surfers.
Robert August, now 46 and a longtime surfboard manufacturer, said the film “made people aware of what surfers really do.”
“Before that, it was really ‘Beach Blanket’ films and silly Beach Boy music about going nuts in your own bedroom and stuff,” he said. “Nobody who was ever a surfer listened to any of that and nobody got out of the water and danced on the beach at noon.”
Steve Pezman, publisher of Surfer magazine, agrees. He describes Brown as “one of the primary communicators of surfing as a sport to the masses.”
At the time, Pezman said, “surfing was kind of an interesting subcultural phenomenon. It was a bunch of kids saying to their parents, many of whom were children of the Depression and were into security, that there’s other things important in life.”
Although the breathtaking surf and Brown’s lush photography are timeless, the film today seems quaintly dated. August and Hynson, who ride vintage long boards, are shown wearing sport coats and ties as they board their plane for Africa. And in his sometimes corny narration, Brown expresses shock that gasoline in Africa is $1 a gallon and the hotel rates in Dakar, Senegal, are an “unbelievable $30 a day-- each. “
“I don’t think you can overlook the fact that it’s 25 years old,” said Brown, 53, who lives north of Santa Barbara. “As far as why it captivated people the way it did, I really don’t know. That’s the magic of films. I run across people who say, ‘Gosh, that film changed my life.’ ”
He learned to surf at 12 and shot home movies of his buddies surfing in Hawaii while in the Navy. After moving to Dana Point in 1958, the then-20-year-old Brown spliced together 90 minutes of his surfing footage. San Clemente surfboard manufacturer Dale Velzey showed it in his shop, charging 25 cents a head.
The screenings were so popular that Velzey suggested Brown make another surf film in Hawaii, this time in 16 mm. The result was “Slippery When Wet,” which debuted at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa in the spring of 1959.
Five more films followed, which Brown narrated live in high school, college and civic auditoriums.
In 1962, Brown began shooting in Hawaii and California for “The Endless Summer,” which became his most ambitious and expensive ($50,000) surf film. The three-month trip around the world with 18-year-old August and 21-year-old Hynson began in November, 1963.
During the trip, the three Southern Californians introduced surfing to the natives of Ghana, encountered sharks and carnivorous stone fish, witnessed a revolution in Kenya and dealt with unfriendly customs agents in India who confiscated their surfboards and equipment.
But the most memorable part of the trip for all three was discovering that perfect wave in South Africa’s Cape St. Francis.
Crossing three miles of towering sand dunes to reach the beach, they found perfectly formed, glassy waves and ideal conditions--70-degree water and an offshore wind. The waves provided rides so long that Brown joked that he could barely get them on one piece of film.
As with his previous films, Brown showed “The Endless Summer” in California auditoriums and provided live narration.
“We showed it seven nights at Santa Monica Civic, which is a huge auditorium, and it sold out every night,” said Brown, who was convinced the film would appeal to a national audience. His instincts were right.
Although Brown finds it difficult to explain the phenomenal popularity of the film that would earn him “a million-plus” over the years, August has his own theory:
“In the Vietnam era, everybody needed something like that. God, you felt good when you left the theater.”
Despite its success, “The Endless Summer” proved to be Brown’s last surf film. He returned to the big screen in 1971 with “On Any Sunday,” a documentary that did for the sport of motorcycling what “The Endless Summer” did for surfing.
But while “On Any Sunday” earned him an Academy Award nomination for best documentary, Brown retired from filmmaking.
“I was kind of burned out on it,” he explained. “My philosophy from the time I was a kid has been, Why would you want to work if you didn’t have to?”
Brown hasn’t seen Hynson since the three were reunited on the 20th anniversary of the film in 1986. At the time, Hynson, who over the years has worked as a surfboard designer and shaper, had invented a giant bubble wand. He lives in San Diego where, according to a surf shop acquaintance, he was last heard to be repairing bicycles.
But Brown and August have remained friends and occasionally get together to surf at a spot near Brown’s home called The Ranch.
“Bruce,” said August, “is still stoked when the waves are good.”