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History of Surfing: A Technicolor Surf Boom

Hollywood goes surfing, and we all get covered in froth

Surfing in Boom-era California would inspire such a following after Gidget that dollar signs began to spiral in the eyes of the movie industry. In reality, though, for every other industry fixed on the nation’s young people, the upside of surfing’s widespread promotion was too lucrative to ignore. The latest entry in the History of Surfing follows the surfing lifestyle’s leap into the early ’60s. Matt Warshaw explains more:

Surfing had generated a lot of momentum by 1959—new boards, wetsuits, competition, surfer-produced films; a magazine on the way—and the sport was at a tipping point. Then the movie version of Gidget was released in April of that year and pushed it over the top. A nine-year surf explosion followed. Wave-riding itself became more popular, yes. But the boom was mostly a cultural phenomenon, one that spread to the near and far reaches of teenage consumerism. Tens of thousands of young people slow-danced to "Surfer Girl" and thronged the local Bijou to see Ride the Wild Surf; at May Company they bought Hang Ten sneakers, nylon competition-strip trunks from the McGregor Surfer Collection, and Cutex "Wipe Out Pink" toenail polish. Coppertone and Jantzen rolled out surf-theme ad campaigns—no surprise there. Pepsi did surf ads, too. So did Triumph, Mobile, Chevy, and Dewar's, and a ubiquitous Hamm's Beer billboard featured Rusty Miller charging down the face at Sunset Beach. It didn't matter if you were a five state lines off the coast, the boom was inescapable. “Surfing,” as the Saturday Evening Post put it in 1967, was "the most successful California export since the orange."

All the sex chatter and naughty words that gave the book version of Gidget an authentic-sounding voice were deleted from the screenplay—a tactical move by Columbia executives looking for a wholesome alternative to the pomaded and black-leather-jacketed teen exploitation films. The movie nonetheless had its own cheerful bounce. There wasn't much actual surfing, although Miki Dora stunt-doubled all of Bobby Darren's rides—if the onscreen action was brief, it was new and hot. But surfing itself didn't much matter to America's landlocked teens. It was the suntanned girls in bikinis, the shirtless boys playing bongos, the evening barefoot dance parties on the beach, the wet skin—all presented in glorious 35mm CinemaScope. Nothing looked as good onscreen in 1959 as the California surfing life.

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We reached out to Warshaw and Watusi’d our way through the Hollywood surf scene of the ’60s.

At one point, the U.S. GDP grew something like 6% a year during the '60s. The middle class had never been more prosperous. It wasn't just that surfing reached more young people through Hollywood than ever before. More young people, and not only those from California, now had the financial imagination to see it.

More allowance money, more free time, more media, more products of every kind. And just the sheer numbers. Those first-wave Boomers were riding so high. Surfing, rodding, the Beatles, they just owned the world. Right up until the draft notice arrived.

If there ever was a President who embodied teenaged American hope, JFK was it. How did his election in 1960 affect the confidence found in Hollywood’s young beach culture? Did JFK affect the way young people viewed authority?

I’m not sure how much JFK directly affected surfing. But going from Ike to Kennedy, sure, all of a sudden, you've gone from old to youngish, grim to glam. Having Kennedy as President was something you'd breathe in, something that would unconsciously make the point that things were changing, progressing, skewing younger. Supposedly he hung out a little with Peter Lawford at the Colony in Malibu. Marilyn dug surfers, JFK dug Marilyn, so we're all on the same page.

When did audiences begin to grow tired of clean-teen films? What was the first surf movie that embraced the delinquency of beach culture?

The best surf delinquents were on TV, on Dr. Kildare and a drama series called Burke's Law, where surfers play bongos on the beach, hang out a dive bar called the Ho-Dad, and give "the fuzz" a hard time.

Beach Party played a big part in popularizing the bikini. Even though Annette Finicello didn't wear one on screen, she had a deceptively far-reaching influence on the beach.

The bikinis come bursting off the screen, polka-dotted and larger than life, but you'd already be seeing all skin at beaches across America. Australia, not so much. Australia actually had beach inspectors with measuring sticks walking around checking girls' bathing suits to make sure things didn't get to prurient. The really sexy business in the beach movies, though, was the dancing. YouTube “Candy Johnson." Your eyes will melt.

In a lot of ways, the '60s marked a jump in human consciousness: Gandhi, MLK, Mother Teresa, Hendrix, the Doors. Did that global contemplation make its way into Hollywood, and in the lineup?

Sorry, I'm still watching Candy Johnson.

You write in the chapter that, in Ride The Wild Surf, “the underlying premise is how American Youth, including surfers, will tire of delinquency and grow up.” When did that cultural hope begin to fall apart?

It began falling apart right away. The Boomers never really did grow up, or at least not to the degree their parents did. We didn't have direct contact with World War II, or the Depression, and so much of what was valued in the '60s and '70s—doing your own thing, follow your passion, live your dream—runs counter to the notion that you grow up and look beyond yourself. We are now a nation of children. We believe in UFO and ghosts and angels the way little kids believe in Santa Clause. We wear pajama bottoms on airplanes, for God's sake.

For more, visit the History Of Surfing website here. Missed a HOS chapter? Click here.