Browne, Bud

The original surf moviemaker, from Southern California; producer of 13 full-length movies from 1953 to 1973. Browne was born (1912) in Newtonville, Massachusetts, near Boston, and moved to Los Angeles in 1931 to attend the University of Southern California. He was captain of the top-ranked USC swim team in 1934, learned to surf at Venice Beach five years later, and was a Los Angeles County lifeguard before and after serving in the navy during World War II. Nicknamed "Barracuda" for his tall, angular build and because he spent so much time in the ocean, Browne was long regarded as one of the sport's best bodysurfers.

In the early '50s, Browne worked as a substitute high school teacher while attending film school at USC; in 1953 he began editing together the 16-millimeter surfing footage he'd shot during his annual summer visits to Waikiki. The result was the first commercial surf film—a simple but energetic 45-minute work titled Hawaiian Surfing Movies. It debuted to a full house that fall at John Adams Junior High School in Santa Monica, with Browne sitting in the projection booth doing narration over the school's PA system, playing his own reel-to-reel music soundtrack at the appropriate times, and trying not to panic as the take-up reel malfunctioned and the film piled onto the floor behind the projector.

Browne produced one movie annually for the next 11 years, including Surfing in Hawaii (1957), Cat on a Hot Foam Board (1959), Spinning Boards (1961), and Cavalcade of Surf (1962), all made for less than $3,000 and all following the same format: lots of surfing action from California and Hawaii, interrupted now and then with short comedy bits. Browne at first barnstormed his movies from San Diego to San Francisco, renting out school auditoriums and Rotary Club halls for live-narration screenings. Beginning in 1961, he hired radio disc jockeys to do taped narration, and was then able to ship copies of his films out to the East Coast and to the growing surf markets in Australia, New Zealand, France, and South Africa. Browne made his own waterproof camera housings, and developed his own dry suit that allowed him to shoot film from the water for hours at a time without getting cold.

The 60-year-old Browne came out of retirement in 1971 to begin work on his last and best surf movie, Going Surfin', which debuted in 1973. Browne was then still regarded as the finest water photographer in the business—a few years earlier he was the first person to take a movie camera out at Pipeline—and he also filmed the breathtaking water sequences for MacGillivray-Freeman's 1972 hit Five Summer Stories. Browne retired for good in 1977, after working on Warner Brothers' Big Wednesday.

A dry, reticent, undemonstrative man, the never-married Browne kept his own company for the most part, and always seemed a step removed from the generally loud and raucous profession he invented. Surf moviemaking covered his living expenses, and nothing more. "But it was always worthwhile for me," Browne said in 1995, "because I got such a big hoot out of everyone enjoying the films."

In 1987, Surfer magazine selected Browne's Locked In (1964) as one of the best three surf movies ever made, along with The Endless Summer (1966) and Five Summer Stories. Surfing the '50s, a video compilation of Browne's early work, was released in 1994, and some of his midcareer titles were also released on video.

Browne was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996. He was profiled in 50 Years of Surfing on Film, a 1997 cable TV series produced by Opper Films; the following year he received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Surfer Magazine Surf Video Award show; in 2001, at age 89, he won the Waterman Achievement Award from the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. "Bud Browne: Works from 1955–1975," an exhibition of Browne's still photography, was held at the Surf Gallery in Laguna Beach in 2002. Bud Browne died in 2008 at the age of 96.

[Note: Bud Browne's films and photos are not available to EOS]