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Shooting the Curls : Filmmaker Bud Browne finds there's new interest in the old days and turns his vintage footage into 'Surfing the '50s.'


COSTA MESA — Let's take a little surfing quiz, shall we?


1. Who invented surfing?

a) Dick Dale.

b) Frankie Avalon.

c) Alexander Graham Bell.

2. Which of these are names of famous surfing waves?

a) Bus-line.

b) Wicki-wicki.

c) Fred.

3. What was the first surf movie?

a) D.W. Griffith's "The Surf of a Nation."

b) "Surf of the Spider Woman."

c) "Ride the Wild Smurfs."


If you found all of the answers mildly insulting to your knowledge of surf history, then chances are you've heard of Bud Browne.

Over two decades before surfing became a national fad in the early 1960s, Browne was in the waves on a long board, and on the beach with a movie camera documenting the early days of the sport of kings. And long before Bruce Brown and other surf filmmakers came along, Browne was sharing his celluloid visions of the aquatic good life.

Between 1953 and 1964 he made a film a year, with titles like "Cat on a Hot Foam Board" and "The Big Surf," presenting them in coastal auditoriums and such far-flung locales as New Zealand and South Africa. His most popular film was "Going Surfing" in 1973, and he also got a lot of '70s screen exposure shooting surfing scenes for "Five Summer Stories" and John Milius' "Big Wednesday."

At 82 years of age, Browne still swims three times a week at the Newport-Costa Mesa YMCA and has recently become enamored of bungee-jumping. He broke a rib river-rafting last year, and a collarbone while bicycling this spring.

As much as he's enjoyed this peaceful retirement, he's been back at work of late. Browne has been editing down the shelves of film that dominate the living room of his compact Costa Mesa home and has recently released the first product of that effort, a 70-minute video titled "Surfing the '50s."

"There's been such a renewed interest shown in long board surfing and those times. I had all this film, including all this 1950s stuff that nobody had seen in 30 years. So I did this video thinking it would be a contribution to the history of surfing, as well as something of general interest to surfers, especially old-time ones who went through that period. And hopefully to make some money from it," Browne said with a chuckle. (The video is available through Santa Ana's Hillcrest Publications, (800) 248-8057.)

Even for non-surfers "Surfing the '50s" can be a captivating film. It is all but impossible to not be caught up in the drama of riders looking like tiny stick figures in a maelstrom as they negotiate the huge surf at Makaha. It's scarcely less challenging watching his filmed showdown of surfers seeing who can be first to finish 4 1/2-pound steaks.

There's enough of that lifestyle stuff to give a feel for the magic and lure of those times, but most of the focus is on the surf. There's historic stuff here, legends like Phil Edwards and Buzzy Trent, as well as Browne's capturing on film the first occasion in modern times that the treacherous wave at Wiamea Bay was surfed. Though Browne makes no artistic claims, there is also a genuine poetry to his camera work, with the full power and roiling wonder of the waves transferred to the screen.

"There is a real art to his stuff. You could tell he loved it. He filmed from his heart," says San Clemente surf entrepreneur and filmmaker Herbie Fletcher. Now 45, at 17 Fletcher was ranked the No. 2 surfer in the nation. He has since raised two surfers of his own, and produced 25 surf videos, including the quarterly video magazine "Adrenaline Surf."

Fletcher said Browne's films didn't have much influence on his own "cutting-edge, MTV-style" videos, but that they did have a more profound influence on him. "As a kid, it was his movies that inspired me to get out there and ride the big waves," he said.


Browne was born in Boston and lived in several parts of the country before settling in Los Angeles in 1931.

"That was the first time I remember seeing surfing. I went out to the end of the Balboa Peninsula and saw across the channel there was a concrete wall there that they were surfing against at Corona del Mar. Then I started lifeguarding in Venice in 1938 (he also was on the USC swim team), and began surfing myself," he recalled.

His first board was a lifeguard's plywood paddleboard: hollow, 45 pounds and about as long as a phone pole. But then the whole surf scene was a very different thing.

"There were comparatively few surfers then, maybe 100 in Southern California at that time. Four or five surfers in the water was considered kind of crowded. Older Californians have hated to see how crowded everything has gotten since then. It was ideal in 1940 when you could go diving and surfing unimpeded, and there wasn't much traffic. Of course, back then we had to take surface streets to go from L.A. to Laguna," Browne said.

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