Sweet Pleasures by the Bonfire

The lost world of the Beach Party films.

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Dick Graham had a knack for being in the right place at the right time in early 1963. He was 25 years old then, working data processing for Petersen Publishing in Hollywood, California, and fresh off his first print venture: the book Surfing Made Easy, by Hobie Alter and Ted Masters. His next project would be Petersen’s Surfing Yearbook No. 1, which by 1964 would become Surfing magazine, of which Graham would be named technical editor. His jobs with Petersen included snapping the occasional photograph, a duty he was fulfilling in February 1963 at a small surf contest at San Diego’s Ocean Beach that needed covering. The event, remembers Graham, “happened to coincide with a film crew from Hollywood arriving to shoot scenes for the [yet-to-be-released] Beach Party.”

A handful of locals from the Windansea Surf Club had shown up at San Diego International Airport to greet the cast with signs reading, “We’re Going to a Beach Party.” Longboards were lined up as though a battalion of surfing’s greatest soldiers was about to pass through. Instead, what they got was a parade of slick-looking movie producers and prima-donna actors, including American International Pictures (AIP) co-founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, original Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, Hungarian-born glamour girl Eva Six, and guitar man Dick Dale. Word on the street was that this international breakout moment in surf cinema was to feature cameos by such greats as Johnny Fain, Chuck Hasley, and Miki Dora. In point of fact, says surf historian Douglas Cavanaugh, Beach Party’s director, William Asher, was a Malibu surfer himself. 

“[He] realized that to show surfing with at least some semblance of authenticity,” notes Cavanaugh, “he was going to have to hire some real surfers as extras and stunt doubles for his stars.”

The initial Beach Party film would spawn 11 sequels by American International Pictures, as well as myriad knockoffs by other studios, consequently painting a ham-fisted portrait of that era’s surf culture for an outside audience. Image courtesy of the author.

Besides Dora, Hasley, and Fain, Asher was able to get Butch Van Artsdalen, Linda Benson, and a handful of others to appear in the film. Dora—who’d already served as a stunt double in Columbia Pictures’ 1959 movie Gidget and 1961’s Gidget Goes Hawaiian, and who, according to legend, released a jar of moths in the theater when Beach Party had its debut screening on July 14, 1963—stayed on through much of the series, which ran 12 films between 1963 and 1967. Windansea Surf Club founder Mike Hynson was slated to appear in 1964’s Muscle Beach Party, but had to bail last-minute when Bruce Brown procured funds to travel for and shoot what would become The Endless Summer, released in 1965. Michael Dormer, creator of the famed Hot Curl cartoon character (the de facto mascot of the Windansea club), was tapped to produce original murals for two films in the series, while hot-rod icon Ed “Big Daddy” Roth contributed both artwork and custom car designs to several others. 

Yet according to actress, surfer, and San Diego local Salli Sachse, on that first day when the cast and crew arrived in San Diego, the Windansea boys quickly figured out the score, “had enough of Hollywood, and headed back to La Jolla.” 

“Some at the airport stayed on as extras,” recalls Graham, “while others saw the film shoots as an invitation to come down and party. But no one took it seriously. It was a paycheck. Simple as that.” 

That doesn’t quite explain why Dora, however, accustomed to riding the small- to medium-size waves of Malibu, would risk life and limb to surf the 25-foot heavies of Waimea Bay for the production of 1964’s Ride the Wild Surf—a ride that turned out to be one of the best in his storied cinematic career.

Indeed, while the Beach Party genre remains a thing that surfers love to hate, the fact is that it never quite goes away. Perhaps it’s that non-surfers don’t know the difference between real and imitation. Or it just could be the old adage: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” No doubt entire industries in fashion, film, and music have sprung from the California myth of feckless surfer boys and bikini-clad go-go girls. Yet it also may be that the Beach Party films mark, in a most unpretentious way, the vernacular language of a subculture at the very cusp of its breakout moment.

Throwing parties on the beach with friends or family is probably as old as mankind itself, but its integration into surf culture is most easily traced to 1920s Hawaii, where the Waikiki Beachboys held legendary seaside soirées—replete with rum drinks, Hapa Haole songs played on ukulele, and natives like Chick Daniels dropping his pants in front of white society women who’d come to Hawaii to shed their inhibitions. Loosey-goosey song recordings from the 1930s and 40s, like “Sunshine the Beach Boy,” “Café Life,” and “Waikiki Chickadee,” culminated in the 1960 Elvis Presley film Blue Hawaii, where the King plays a surf instructor and hotel entertainer, and his soundtrack includes the rollicking “Beachboy Blues.” 

1963’s Beach Party—the first in the AIP series—is a direct continuation, and somewhat of an amalgamation, of Blue Hawaii and Gidget, with actors in both the Elvis beach movies and the Gidget series (e.g., Shelley Fabares, James Darren, and Deborah Walley) appearing throughout the Beach Party series and its numerous knock-offs. Lead actors actually change names and roles so often that continuity from film to film becomes something of a tongue-in-cheek punchline. Funicello, for instance, most often plays a surfer named Dee-Dee, though in 1964’s Pajama Party she inexplicably goes by the pseudonym of Connie, and in 1965’s Ski Party she makes a small cameo as sex-ed teacher Sonya Roberts. Teen idol Frankie Avalon, her counterpart through much of the series, plays a teenage surf rat in Beach Party, Muscle Beach Party, and 1964’s Bikini Beach, though in Pajama Party he plays a Martian named Socum, and in Ski Party he dons a blonde wig and women’s clothing to get close to his love interest, played by Walley.

The aforementioned Ocean Beach may have been one seaside location for filming, but, more often than not, it was Malibu where the Beach Party action was shot and set. The nightclubs where teens congregate to dance in the series—Big Daddy’s in Beach Party, Cappy’s in Muscle Beach Party, and Big Drag’s Pit Stop in Bikini Beach—were all based on Southern California beatnik haunts, including Positano’s in Malibu (where Dora often slept on the floor), the Gas House in Venice, and the Café Frankenstein in Laguna Beach. That Dick Dale plays a beatnik in the first film while Bob Denver ostensibly reprises his role as TV boho Maynard G. Krebs in the 1964 United Artists clone For Those Who Think Young all but cements the relationship between the Beat Generation and surfers in that era. 

Yet by 1964, anything local having to do with surf culture had already gone national, even international, with its primary exponent being the popular songs written by Brian Wilson for both his own band, the Beach Boys, as well as their main competitors in the surf music genre, Jan & Dean. Looking back at the films, Wilson’s fantasy-laden surf anthems seem to have had a large overall influence on the ecosystem of the Beach Party genre. 

According to second-unit director, producer, and sometimes-writer of the series, Anthony Carras, the Beach Boys actually were supposed to star in the first two films, “but [Capitol Records] and American International could never come to an agreement on rights.” Even still, the group managed to appear in the 1965 Paramount knock-off The Girls on the Beach, and alongside Funicello in Disney’s Monkey’s Uncle, also released in 1965. Wilson himself wrote the vocal numbers for Muscle Beach Party, in collaboration with Gary Usher (who also co-wrote “Surfer Girl” in 1963 with the head Beach Boy), and Usher then co-wrote original music with longtime Beach Boys lyricist Roger Christian—including “Shut Down,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “Don’t Worry Baby”—for five more films in the series.

Moreover, it seems many of the actual plot points in the Beach Party films are based in some of Wilson’s best-known hits, including one scene where the entire cast, crowded into a convertible wagon and cruising down Pacific Coast Highway, sings together, “We’re gonna go to Bikini Beach,” where there’s “lots of girls and a guy for each.” In Pajama Party, Funicello croons the bedroom serenade “Stuffed Animal” in what feels like a wistful, feminized version of Wilson’s confessional hit “In My Room.” In the closing scene of Bikini Beach, co-star Avalon accepts the challenge of a potentially fatal drag race, a tableau lifted directly from the Wilson/Christian lyrics of “Don’t Worry Baby.” And in every film in the series, there’s a scene of Annette and Frankie walking hand in hand along a moonlit beach, singing plaintive rock ’n’ roll ballads based on Wilson’s prototype, “Your Summer Dream,” with its lilting back beat, smooth acoustic strumming, and lyrics about teenage love and longing. 

If the Beach Party genre had run its course by 1967, the final year that American International produced a new film, the close association it had with Wilson’s creative universe allowed for its California myth to live on through his later releases, each one more clearly responding to the growing generational divide, as captured in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the late 1960s. The Beach Boys’ 1966 Pet Sounds and 1967 Smile, for example, were sea-change moments for the group, with Wilson’s avant-garde tendencies on full display in the transcendent “God Only Knows,” the absurdist “Love to Say Dada,” and the apocalyptic “Surf’s Up,” with its saturnine lyrics about the crumbling of the old empire and the rise of a new, youth-centric world. 

This revived surrealism was further amplified by other acts in the psychedelic-surf idiom—particularly in groups like the Laughing Gravy (a Jan & Dean pseudonym), the Yellow Balloon, and the Giant Jellybean Copout, the latter of whose “Awake in a Dream” featured a 45 sleeve that crossed the exaggerated still-life aspect of René Magritte with the comic book/moiré pattern of Roy Lichtenstein. Jan & Dean’s 1968 single “Laurel & Hardy” captured the revived interest of 60s kids for the earlier ragtime, vaudeville, and flapper sensibilities, best remembered for their integration into landmark albums like the Beatles’ 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Kinks’ 1968 The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, and television satires such as Fractured Flickers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus

This pre-Great Depression look and sound had been a mainstay of the Beach Party films as well, with silent-era stars such as Buster Keaton, Peter Lorre, and Dorothy Lamour making cameos, and ragtime-inflected surf music setting the rhythm for physical comedy scenes—which, in their own way, signaled the reawakening of progressive social attitudes from the Roaring Twenties, suppressed for three decades under the weight of economic woe and then world war. In the same way, a 1920s-themed party, photographed for the February 1966 issue of Surfing Illustrated, featured Mickey Muñoz and Heidi Edwards dancing the Charleston together, an unnamed female surfer dressed as Bonnie Parker, and host Greg Noll in a top hat and bowtie receiving a bomb as a party gift from his prime board-shaping competitor, Hobie Alter. 

By decade’s end, however, the Beach Party legacy was more culturally implicit than directly referenced. Funicello’s appearance next to Davy Jones in the 1968 Jack Nicholson—written death-of-artifice film Head, starring the Monkees, for instance, was a subtle nod to her lily-white persona in the Beach Party films, while in 1970 the future members of art-punk band Devo dressed up like apes and invaded art museums and other institutions of high society around Cleveland, Ohio—a “scene” that harkened back to the earlier gimmickry of the surfing-monkey character in Bikini Beach

Yet if the films feel somehow both archaic and weirdly enchanting today, it isn’t because we lack critical-thinking skills or need some purist athletic type to point out the differences between fantasy and reality. It has rather to do with the freshness of the world that Beach Party and its myriad sequels managed to capture—a freshness that in 1963 hadn’t yet been scrutinized, intellectualized, corporatized, or regulated according to measurements of authenticity. It feels like a lost world simply because it could be new only once.