H2O MAGAZINE Summer 1980

"I'm Curious-Green"

by Mary Jo Johnson
Photo by Anthony Friedkin

Growing up in Malibu tended to make you build up an immunity to movie and television celebrities. The only true stars were those in the night sky. It was not unusual to wait in the checkout stand at the Malibu Colony Mayfair Market behind Rock Hudson or Tab Hunter. Getting off at the La Costa bus stop after school I would often come across Kim Novak picking up a bottle of vodka or Ronald Reagan stopping for a quart of milk. I remember to my amazement when my girlfriend visiting from Norco (located south of Riverside) stormed up the beach to intercept Lloyd Bridges, who was thrashing through the surf, no doubt practicing for his T.V. series Sea Hunt, for an autograph. I buried my head in the sand.

The only thing that gave me hot flashes then was the surfing mania that exploded overnight in '58 and spread like the red tide across the Lincoln Junior High School campus in Santa Monica. At that time, my biggest thrill was taking a milk shake order from Johnny Fain, a local surf hero, at the Kingaburger. Not far from my school was the Santa Monica Civic auditorium, then known as the Grauman's Chinese of surf theatres. It was there that we were exposed to what was really happening in the film world. Walking to A&W (the surfer hangout for Samohi) at noon my friends and I were always stoked when the Civic marquee would advertise the latest surf flick. There really wasn't any transportation to town in those days so if Dad didn't feel like dropping us off in the station wagon we were out of luck. When my parents learned what really went on at the surf movies, they became totally off limits. X-rated.

"Gee, Mom 'n Dad, 'Wet and Wild' only goes around once – three days at the Civic and never again!" I protested. There was no chance to catch these as reruns, not like Hollywood's version of the way it was, the "Beach Blanket Bingo" series which starred the likes of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. I mean they didn't even have blonde hair! So if I was unable to experience the real thing I created my own surf fantasy. Posters of "Ride the Wild Surf" and "Wet and Wild" covered all four walls of my bedroom and surf shop decals cluttered my window. I became the Peggy Guggenheim of surfing. Every schoolbook cover featured my drawings of surfers in various poses, grabbing the rail, or "hanging ten." Even now, having looked forward to such recent surf films as "Fantasea" and "Free Ride," I was disappointed. Sure, there's the hooting of the audience at the first sight of Pipeline, but where were the spinning bottle caps, Pendleton jackets and B.A.'s hung on the stage at intermission? Or the brawls between the surfers and the hodads at the Deauville Club afterwards?

Nearly 20 years later while walking down a side street in the Pacific Palisades one evening, a distant voice called out to my friend, "Hey Marty… Marty Sugarman!" The voice coming from a nearby garage belonged to one of the pioneers in surf photography, a man whose 8 1/2 x 11 film posters I used to hang on my bedroom wall, whose films my parents would never allow me to see, Grant Rohloff.

A five minute greeting turned into a two hour private showing for Marty and me. Enthusiastically Grant expressed his love for the surf film and how the genre itself evolved. Inviting us to sit down on some makeshift boxes, Grant threaded the ancient projector, a gift from his father, as if it were the premiere showing of a film which he had made well over 10 years before. It was all there, the old scratched film contained the hilarious stunts, the personalities (Grant had worked with them all) and the ever-present surf music in the background. Following tradition, Grant interspersed live narration with the footage. "Bud Brown was the father of surfing films," Grant asserted. His shots of Hawaii, Winter of '53-'54, were the first seen by an audience; though rough, they were nevertheless "awesome." The power of the image, the fear and wonder of the huge waves, coupled with the lure of the Islands, created quite an impact on the audience. This was not unlike Lumiere's immortal image of a train moving directly toward the audience causing them to shriek in horror in 1895. Incidentally, the viewers at that time were older, as were the performers, because of the bulk and size of the boards of that era.

John Severson was next and it was while watching him that Grant, on his first trip to the islands, which was via a DC 6B and took over 14 hours, became inspired to become a filmmaker. Severson had an art background and some business sense. Consequently, his films added a cinematic flair to what had essentially been the reportage style of Bud Brown. He even designed and executed his own surf posters which turned out to be the main vehicle for advertisement. Severson's first film was entitled "Surf" in 1957-58 and was made while he was in the Army stationed at Schofield Barracks. It was produced on a meager budget but with Severson's creativity he managed to record some sensational 50 foot Makaha surf with a limited amount of film. His next effort, "Surf Safari," was more sophisticated, and his use of the musical score from Peter Gunn accompanying Ricky Grigg at Sunset to open the film sent the audience into a frenzy. Severson was also the first to photograph Pt. Conception, now known as The Ranch, and he captured the drama of the Redondo Beach Breakwater. Shortly after, in 1960, he created Surfer Magazine.

Bruce Brown, who later came to fame with "The Endless Summer," the most successful surf film of all time, was the first to insert a story line and a sound track. His "Barefoot Adventure" featured an original music score by Bud Shank to coincide with the action on the screen. "The Endless Summer" was probably the first and last successful surf film to appeal to a general audience. The story line featured Mike Hynson and Robert August in search of the perfect wave. Their travels to exotic places avoided the typical approach of "wave after wave" which really appealed only to the hardcore surfer.

Grant Rohloff entered the scene with his first movie in 1960, "The Wonderful World of Surfing." It was produced on a $2,000 budget and featured a funky opening scene in black and white of a man emerging from downtown L.A., getting on a bus, traveling to the Santa Monica Pier. Entering the Penny Arcade he looked into an old time peepshow machine only to be confronted by a giant 20 foot fullcolor wave at Waimea Bay with three surfers looking on. This type of offbeat opening scene became a Rohloff trademark – lots of surprises, humor and great waves.

One of the biggest problems, Grant contended, was controlling the surf audience. Bud Brown's first screening in 1954 played to a small group. Amongst the viewers were Richard Jaekle, Peter Lawford and Barron Hilton. But later audiences such as at the Civic (which could hold up to 2,500 young, restless gremmies) were more difficult to control. In order to avoid tedium at all costs, the films had to contain humor, entertainment, loud music and live narration, in addition to breathtaking photography. Booing and hissing accompanied many a lackadaisical surf film. At that time promotion was accomplished with the help of the local surf shops which distributed the flyers and arranged for door prizes, usually free surfboards. Of course, word of mouth was also a big factor.

"I see it as a contemporary modern western with surfing expanding the globe – the surfer as the messenger of the future as the cowboy was before…" Grant trailed off as the film wound to a close.

The end of the movie, the lights went on, the spell broken – not the Civic but a garage in the Pacific Palisades.

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Los Angeles, California, United States
Official website at www.brasstackspress.com