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  • Andrew Cowell

BRUCE BROWN - A LIFE WELL LIVED

Updated: Oct 16, 2020

The story of Bruce Brown is not dissimilar from many Californians of the post-World War II era. In 1937, San Francisco, Brown was born and spent his middle childhood in Oakland. Shortly after his ninth birthday, Bruce’s parents relocated to the bustling port town of Long Beach, California. Before the installation of the Long Beach Breakwater, the beach community of the LBC was full of entertainment, and a plethora of distractions suitable for any inquisitive young man, from the mischievous playground of the “Pike” district, a hotbed for sailors and servicemen, to its expansive beaches. It is here that a young Bruce Brown was first introduced to California beach culture, becoming entranced by the ancient Hawaiian pastime of riding waves.


Bruce Brown’s first surfboard was custom made by Dale Velzy, at his Manhattan Beach workshop. A balsa board that Brown surfed the jetties of Long Beach and the classic breaks of Malibu and Palos Verdes Cove on. Even though World War II had ended, the draft was still in effect, due to the Korean War. Many young men and women were sent to defend the cause of freedom and democracy at the 38thparallel. Bruce, recognizing the inevitability of the draft enlisted in the Navy’s submarine corps, based in Hawaii. In his fantasies, he would surf the warm waves of Oahu and spend the afternoons relaxing on white sand beaches. Even though his dreams were far from reality; Bruce brought his movie camera, filming the surf and surfers while on R & R from his North Pacific patrols. Upon his discharge, he returned to California showing his short surf films in high school gyms and small auditoriums up and down the California coast, for the ticket price of 25 cents. Bruce’s enterprising spirit and film making acumen captured the attention of surfboard maker, Dale Velzy. Soon after they formed a most unlikely partnership.

By the late 1950s, Bruce Brown was out of the service and lifeguarding in the coastal town of San Clemente, California. Velzy, observing the blossoming prosperity, and the abundance of quality surf in Orange County, had moved his operation from Los Angeles’ Manhattan Beach to the same town. Dale Velzy, a charismatic and gregarious character, recognized the marketing and money making potential of surf films. Bruce, now flush with a $5000 loan from Dale, bought new film equipment, and set off for the tropical, sun soaked Hawaiian Islands with the Velzy Surf Team. The ensuing movie, “Slippery When Wet,”captured the early essence of riding big waves, in addition to, the classic stylings of soon-to-be surf royalty: Kemp Aaberg, Del Cannon, Henry Ford, and Dewey Weber. Upon returning home, Bruce recognized the need for a soundtrack for his new feature film. A quick stop at Hermosa Beach’s Lighthouse, a 50s and 60s venue for West Coast jazz, Brown enlisted the help of Bud Shank. By showing the film through an office mail slot, Brown and Shank scored the soundtrack and the surf movie was born. From miles around, young surfers would flock to hear the cool jazz stylings of Bud Shank, and eloquent narration of Bruce Brown.

Bruce Brown would go onto make several other surf films throughout the early and mid-sixties: “Surf Crazy,” “Surfin’ Shorts,” “Barefoot Adventure,” “Surfing Hollow Days,” “Water-Logged,”and the groundbreaking “The Endless Summer.” Bruce’s last major motion picture featured an unlikely pairing with actor/stuntman, and motorcyclist, Steve McQueen. The commercially successful film, “On Any Sunday,”portrayed the trials and tribulations of the motorcycle professional with McQueen staring.

Editor's note: This was written for a collaboration between the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center (SHACC) and Hobie Surf Shop.

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