COOL DUDE: RIP Bruce Brown (1937 – 2017)

Smoke gets in your face. Bruce Brown loved his menthols. Portraits: Lucia Griggi.

Way back when, around 1965 or so, the Century 21 Theater in San Jose, California had a sweet deal: For $2, you got popcorn and a big soda and a double feature: On Any Sunday about motorcycle, which were cool, and a movie about surfing, The Endless Summer, which wasn’t as cool as motorcycles, at least to a landlocked kid from the Santa Clara Valley.

That theater was energized with kids cranked-up on caffeine and adrenaline, watching cool dudes like Malcolm Smith do wheelies on motorcycles and two dudes named Mike and Robert traveling the world to ride waves.

A few years after that, in the early 1970s, I got into surfing, and motorcycles dropped to #2. A few decades after that, I worked as an editor at Surfer Magazine and got to hang out and work and interview and argue with Bruce Brown: Another cool dude. The coolest.

I’ve written a fair bit about surf history and the line I use over and over again about The Endless Summer was this: “Bruce Brown made Endless Summer to let the world know that real surfers didn’t break into song in front of their girlfriends.”

Which was true. Bruce Brown was a real surfer going back to the 1950s when surfing was a secret thing enjoyed by a Happy Few. Bruce knew what was up and so when Hollywood began making it’s “waxploitation” movies with Frankie and Annette singing to each other in front of a green screen and Elvis as a Hawaiian surfer singing to his granny and all that nonsense, Bruce wanted to set it straight and let the world know what surfers were really all about.

And in making Endless Summer, he made a classic.

A whicker motorcycle chair in Bruce Brown’s living room, near Refugio, California. Photo: Lucia Griggi.

Bruce Brown was an all-American kid who was a surfer and a motorhead. Born in 1937 that meant he was a kid during World War II, a teenager and a submariner and a surfer in the 1950s and a very succesful movie maker in the 1960s – and anyone who knows anything about those periods knows how cool it was to be a surfer and a movie maker then.

By the end of the 20th Century, Bruce was living in a ranch house in a canyon up Refugio between Santa Barbara and Point Conception – an oasis of peace and quiet removed from the rattle and hum of the modern world.

Bruce could have lived on the Hollister Ranch if he wanted to, but he was a dedicated motor head and that didn’t jibe with the way the Ranch ran things – for example, I believe it’s correct you aren’t allowed to bring a motorcycle into the Ranch even in the back of a pickup truck.

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