You Must Remember This: Bud Browne, surfing filmmaker


As a city, we’ve never embraced surfing the way we’ve embraced boating, and it’s a shame because Newport, particularly Corona del Mar, is such a part of the sport’s history. I was reminded of this the other day when I was looking for something in one of my father’s old college yearbooks. By chance, the 1933 edition of El Rodeo opened to Swimming and Water Polo. I gave a quick glance, and one phrase caught my attention: Bud Browne, captain of the swim team.  THE Bud Browne? A quick review of his bio, and yes, he swam for SC.

Not everyone will recognize the name, not even every surfer, but Bud Browne, who lived in Costa Mesa a good part of his life, was a pioneer in surf films. He was one of the first to edit footage into a coherent narrative, and while none of his films was as transformative as The Endless Summer, by Bruce Brown (no e) they were highly appreciated by aficionados, particularly as he did so much of his filming in the water. That seems ordinary enough today, but it was not at all the norm when he was doing it and even today not just anybody can manage the task.

It’s one thing to take stills, but a film sequence? You have to be a really strong swimmer to hold the camera steady for the duration. What made it more challenging for Browne was the lack of appropriate equipment. When he started filming in the early 1950s, there weren’t wetsuits. In those days you got up at five on a winter morning and drove to Trestles where both the water and air were in the 50s, and you went out in nothing more than a bathing suit and goose bumps.   When filming, Browne often spent four or five hours in the water which is an invitation to hypothermia in California, so to counter the chill he glued together pieces of rubber, creating his own wet suit. Also, in that period you couldn’t just bop over to Samy’s for an affordable waterproof camera. The waterproof cameras that existed were solid and boxy which presented a hazard. Browne was filming in surf and occasionally got sucked into waves. He didn’t want a hard, sharp object smacking him in the head, so he developed a bag-like rubber container that perfectly met his needs. With these innovations and his outstanding water skills, he was able to get shots no one else was getting – surfers in the tube, for example, commonplace today but unique then.

Browne first got the surfing bug in 1932 when he saw some surfers out at the Corona del Mar breakwater, the same spot that attracted Duke Kahanamoku.   Already an avid swimmer and skin diver, Browne quickly added surfing to his repertoire. After graduating from SC, he taught school, served in WWI and then returned to teaching, but the siren of the waves was too strong. He went back to SC, to the film school, to get the technical training he needed and from there he helped create a genre. His first film, Hawaiian Surfing Movie, shot in 1953, is credited as the first commercial surf movie, and his later film, Surfing Down Under, was the first international surf film. While often difficult, filming was in many ways the easiest part of the endeavor. A huge challenge after creating a movie was how to show it. There was no distribution system for what he was doing, so he went from town to town, renting an auditorium if available, setting up a tent if not, putting up flyers and gradually building up a market for his product.  One of the secrets of Browne’s success was that in his films it wasn’t just one big wave after another. He showed surfers doing things besides surfing, establishing their personalities and he added humor. He had Hevs McClellan narrate at least one of his films, and anybody who ever heard McClellan announce a surf contest can attest to his wit.

Over the years, in addition to his own films he helped with the photography on Big Wednesday and collaborated with MacGillivray-Freeman films and he also shot locally. In the late ‘50s, you’d often find him filming at the Wedge on a big day. Browne lived modestly in an apartment over a garage, never gaining the financial success of some of his successors, but he had the respect, even veneration, of several generations of surfers who recognized how much he contributed to the success of their sport. Browne is another of our under-appreciated local ties to the world of surfing. 


Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, long-time resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.