Bruce Brown, 80, Dies; His ‘Endless Summer’ Documented Surfing
The New York Times
12 December 2017
Bruce Brown, whose documentary “The Endless Summer,” which followed two surfers on an epic adventure in pursuit of the perfect wave, became an unlikely hit when it was released nationally in 1966, died on Sunday in Santa Barbara, Calif. He was 80.
His son Dana said the cause was probably heart failure.
Mr. Brown had been making surfing films — mainly for his fellow surfers — since the late 1950s. But as he contemplated making “The Endless Summer,” he had a bigger mission: to change the way surfers had been depicted in popular culture.
He had been surfing since age 11 and believed that surfers were not beach bums or losers.
With a budget of $50,000, he set out in 1963 with two Southern California surfers, Robert August and Mike Hynson, and a Bolex 16-millimeter camera for Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Australia, Tahiti, New Zealand and Hawaii, following the surf over several months as if summer would never end.The Endless Summer - Trailer Video by Cinedigm
“The title was just a pipe dream,” Mr. Brown told the website of Dusters California, a skateboard maker, in 2014. “Gosh, if you’d travel around the world, at the right speed, you’d be in the middle of summer 365 days a year.”
The movie was completed in 1964, but at first Mr. Brown could not find a distributor willing to believe that a surfing documentary could appeal to people living outside the East and West Coasts of the United States.
He knew audiences liked the film, though, from the response he had received when he took it on tour — showing it in school auditoriums and at other venues, where he narrated it and played surf music records as accompaniment.
He tried other strategies to prove the film’s broad merit. In February 1966, he rented the Sunset Theater in Wichita, Kan., for two weeks and audiences came in droves. But he still lacked a distributor. That June, he borrowed $50,000 to blow up the print from 16 to 35 millimeters, rent the Kips Bay Theater on the East Side of Manhattan, and promote it.
“I put everything on the line,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1991. “If it wouldn’t have worked, it would have been the ballgame.”
It worked. The film’s success there led to a distribution deal with Cinema V later that year.
In completed form, “The Endless Summer” had a musical soundtrack from the Sandals, a surf-rock band, and an amiable narration by Mr. Brown. (Some critics, he said, felt he sounded like Howdy Doody.) It reportedly grossed $30 million worldwide, according to “The Encyclopedia of Surfing” (2005).
Critics like Pauline Kael of The New Yorker and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times praised it.
In his review, Mr. Ebert called it a “completely uncomplicated film, fresh and natural, designed only to please.” And, he said, “It does.”
Matt Warshaw, the author of “The Encyclopedia of Surfing,” said “The Endless Summer” was transformative.
“What Bruce did, and what nobody has done since, was to square the circle,” Mr. Warshaw said in a telephone interview. “He was able to present surfing as it really is, to non-surfers.
“Up to that point, surfers had gotten media they were happy with, like Bruce’s early movies and John Severson’s Surfer magazine. But surfers weren’t happy with how we looked in ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ or how we sounded in the dopier surf songs.”
Bruce Alan Brown was born in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 1937, and moved with his family to Long Beach, in Southern California, shortly after World War II. His father, Dana, owned a small chain of toy stores; his mother, Myrna, was a schoolteacher.
He took an interest in surfing early on, and it developed into a passion; for two of his teenage years, he never missed a day on the waves, rain or shine. After high school, he served aboard a Navy submarine for two years and made eight-millimeter surfing movies of Hawaii in his free time while he was stationed in Pearl Harbor.
Mr. Brown enrolled at Long Beach City College on his return but, his son said, lasted there only a week or two. In 1958 he became a lifeguard in San Clemente and worked in a surf shop owned by the surfboard manufacturer Dale Velzy. Mr. Velzy showed the home movies Mr. Brown had made, charging 25 cents a ticket.
“We spent the summer negotiating about making a ‘real’ surf film,” Mr. Brown told Surfer magazine this year. “He’d pay for it and I would make it. Eventually, Velzy put up $5,000, which was to include, among other things, camera equipment, 50 rolls of film, six plane tickets to Hawaii and my living expenses until the film was completed.”
Mr. Brown rounded up several surfers for the filming. On the flight to Hawaii, he read a how-to book on moviemaking.
What resulted was “Slippery When Wet” (1958), which he followed with “Surf Crazy” (1959) and four other full-length documentaries before he directed “The Endless Summer.” He rented out theaters and high school auditoriums to show them. His wife took the tickets. As he would later do with “The Endless Summer,” he provided narration.
Mr. Brown pursued another personal interest, dirt bikes, when he made the motorcycle racing documentary “On Any Sunday” (1971). Featuring Steve McQueen, whose company produced it, “On Any Sunday” was nominated for a 1972 Academy Award for best feature documentary. (It lost to “The Hellstrom Chronicle.”)
In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby said that after “On Any Sunday” and “The Endless Summer,” Mr. Brown was in line to become “the unofficial poet of the sports world.” He added, “By putting his cameras on the cycles, Brown achieves audience-participation effects with speed that amounts to marvelous delirium.”
Mr. Brown returned to surfing for his final film, “The Endless Summer 2” (1994). In its review, Variety said that with a bigger budget than the original, it had more “spectacular scenery and a most impressive technical and visual sheen,” but added, “The narration is not as diverting and tongue-in-cheek as that of the first film.”
In addition to his son, who wrote and directed a sequel to “On Any Sunday” in 2014, Mr. Brown is survived by his daughter, Nancie Brown; another son, Wade; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Patricia Hunter, died in 2006.
With enough money from his filmmaking and investments, Mr. Brown did not work after making “The Endless Summer 2.” He pursued hobbies like target shooting, collecting old cars and racing rally cars.
And he continued surfing until about nine years ago, when he injured a shoulder.