Last week ‘the father of surf films,’ Bud "Barracuda" Browne, the onetime lifeguard who began showing his 16-millimeter movies commercially in the early 1950’s, died in his sleep at his home in San Luis Obispo. He was 96.
Born July 12th, 1912, in Newtonville, Massachusetts, Browne began swimming competitively at age seven. He attended USC, was captain of the swim team and in 1933 ranked second in the nation as a collegiate swimmer. While working as a lifeguard at Venice Beach in late thirties, Browne was introduced to surfing. In 1938 he went to Hawaii to ride the big waves in Waikiki, taking along an 8-millimeter movie camera to film the local surfers. One his first and most prized reels of film recorded the legendary king of the surfers Duke Kahanamoku.
During World War II, Browne served as a navy chief specialist in athletics (earning the nickname "Barracuda" for his long lean look). Following the war he became a teacher in Los Angeles, working as a middle-school physical education instructor and also attended USC Film School. He upgraded his camera to a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell. In 1953, after spending several years filming surfers in Hawaii, Browne pieced together enough footage to compile a 45-minute film. Hawaiian Surfing Movie debuted at John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica.
Browne eventually gave up his teaching gig and took to chronicling the 1950’s surf scene full time, releasing at least one movie a year between 1953 and 1964. With films such as Trek to Makaha, The Big Surf, Surf Down Under, Cavalcade of Surf, Locked In and Gun Ho!, Browne documented all the surfing greats of the longboard era, like Phil Edwards, Buzzy Trent, Greg Noll, Miki Dora, Linda Benson and Dewey Weber, plus the first-generation of shortboard riders, like David Nuuhiwa, Nat Young and Gerry Lopez. In addition to completing nearly 20 of his own films, he also contributed footage to other projects such as Big Wednesday, directed by John Milius, Greg McGillivray/Jim Freeman’s Waves of Change (also known as The Sunshine Sea) and their 1972 classic Five Summer Stories. In the early 1990’s Browne began re-editing some of his earlier efforts. The first project, Surfing the 50's, honed his best color footage from the eight films he produced during the fifties. That success led to re-releasing some of his other movies such as the 1963 classic, Gun Ho!.
As a surf-film pioneer, Browne had a huge influence on those who came after him like Bruce Brown (The Endless Summer) and photographer John Severson. Bud Browne was inducted into the International Surfing Hall of Fame in 1991 and the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1996. This past March, he was honored at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival for his lifetime achievements to the genre of surf films.
Here is some of Browne’s footage used in a Hamms Beer commercial from 1965.