beach party, movies, summer

Summer Movie Blogathon: “Muscle Beach Party”

(Note: I’m thrilled to be writing this post as a part of Chris Sturhann’s “Summer Movie Blogathon” on his Blog of the Darned https://chrissturhann.blogspot.ca/)

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I discovered the Beach Boys when I was 12 years old. Soon I began to grow enamored of mid-century Southern Californian culture in it’s entirety. This quickly and obviously led me to the “beach party” movies, especially those produced by American International Studios in the early-to-mid 1960’s. The first film I discovered in this genre was 1964’s “Muscle Beach Party”. On a personal note, I had taped it off TV when it was broadcast on the late, late show on CITY TV in Toronto where I grew up. It was part of their line-up of “Not So Great Movies”. You often hear people say ‘I’ve watched that movie 100 times!’. While I may not have seen “Muscle Beach Party” 100 times, I must’ve watched that video tape dozens of times.

“Muscle Beach Party” was released in March of 1964. It was the second in American International’s “beach party” movie series which began the previous year with “Beach Party”. This second film also features the most unlikely looking beach types in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello as Frankie and Dee Dee. Also returning are John Ashley, Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, Morey Amsterdam, Jody McCrea and many of the “beach party” guys and girls. The film opens with three car loads of kids beginning some vacation time on the beach at Malibu. Frankie and Dee Dee are the leaders of this troupe but early on we see a hint a trouble as Dee Dee seems to be withholding affection from Frank.

Muscle Beach Party frame grabs (34)

It’s Easter vacation and the gang is heading to Malibu where they’ve rented a house on the beach. Morning finds them hitting the surf and discovering a yacht anchored just offshore. Relaxing on the beach, Frankie talks to Dee Dee about some of his dreams. He loves being free to surf and feels like there is an ’80 foot wave’ out there just waiting for him. A gym full of muscle men has set up shop next to the kids’ house lead by ‘trainer’ Jack Fanny. The kids watch the men doing their morning exercises and heckle and mock them. Out on the yacht, “Bella Contessa”, we meet S.Z. Matts who is the business manager and traveling companion of the very rich Julie Giatta-Borgini. Julie has dragged S.Z. to this neck of the woods in her desire to “buy” Flex Martian, the head muscle man, whom she has fallen in love with while looking at his picture in a magazine. She heads to the beach for a look at Flex and the other muscle men and takes Flex back to the yacht for lunch. Next we see Frankie and Dee Dee stealing away for some alone time by the fire on the beach. Instead of reverie, the discussion gets heated. Dee Dee wants Frankie to grow up, settle down and accept responsibility. Frankie, of course, bristles, declaring he wants no strings. He asks nothing of the world and only takes what’s free: sun, sky, beach and ocean. Back at the muscle house, S.Z.’s assistant, Theodore, continues to negotiate the purchase of the muscle men with Jack Fanny. Jack seems reluctant. When Julie and S.Z. return with Flex, they find that there are still some details to hammer out. Bored with such details, Julie decides to walk on the beach. She overhears Frankie sing a song and kisses him, smitten. This is witnessed by Dee Dee and the two girls trade barbs. Frankie gets slapped and Dee Dee storms off. Meanwhile, S.Z. and Jack have concluded their deal. S.Z. tells Julie the good news but now she says she doesn’t want Flex and Co. She’s in love with Frankie! When Jack, Flex and the muscle men find out they have been jilted, they are none too happy. Later, the kids are hooting at Cappy’s while Dick Dale entertains. Frankie and Dee Dee are trying to patch things up when Julie comes in asking Frankie to sing. Dee Dee sits down in a huff and Julie records Frankie’s song, telling him she’s going to make him a recording star. This infuriates Dee Dee but before she can punch Julie out the muscle men barge in. Jack Fanny declares war on the surfers in order to restore his and Flex’s honour. Before the fists can fly, Deadhead announces that the surf is up and the gang splits. That night, the kids further mock the muscle men and Jack Fanny commits himself to destroying them. Later, in a significant scene on the beach at night, Frankie discusses with Julie whether or not they would be right for each other. Frankie says he’s got paradise right here, right now. Julie tells him he can have all of that and more if he goes away with her. Frankie realizes that Julie and her plans for him are the 80 foot wave he had talked about earlier. This is his dream supposedly coming true. Frankie meets the gang on the beach saying they can all come with him on his adventure. The gang, however, is not having it. They are happy where they are. Thanks but no thanks. Julie and S.Z. run into Dee Dee. Julie explains that Frankie and her are going away together. Dee Dee says that is fine. She is angry but wants Frankie to be happy. Dee Dee storms off and S.Z. wonders aloud if Julie has done the right thing, taking Frankie away. Julie gets upset and asks why can’t she have what these kids have just because she has money. S.Z. wisely suggests that’s it’s a case of “people for people” and that Julie and Frankie don’t fit together. Frankie arrives and begins to pack. S.Z. takes matters into his own hands explaining how Frankie will live off Julie and be “kept”, describing in harsh terms how things will be. Frankie has second thoughts and takes off. S.Z. explains himself to Julie by telling her he was trying to save Frankie and Dee Dee from broken hearts. Frankie runs down to Cappy’s to apologize to Dee Dee and explain to the gang that he was dazzled by Julie’s promises but now he’s come to his senses and realizes that his paradise, his 80 foot wave, is right here with Dee Dee and his friends. Julie arrives to hear the end of his speech and tells Frankie she understands and all is cool. Until the muscle men come in and a ridiculous brawl ensues. The surfers survive the rumble, watch as Julie’s yacht sails away and party the night away on the beach!

Muscle Beach Party lobby card

The first sequel to “Beach Party” (1963) is probably the best of all the ‘beach party’ movies. Perhaps it’s the absence of Harvey Lembeck as the excessively imbecilic Eric Von Zipper that elevates this film. Certainly the cast is the best of the series. In the previous film, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were billed 3rd and 4th behind ‘mature’ leads Bob Cummings and Dorothy Malone but in this second installment they take top billing and center stage. Frankie and Annette may not look like typical Californians but they carry off the roles well. Avalon definitely had personality and he handles the humourous material naturally. When he is called upon to play it serious or angry, he’s also very convincing. When you think about it, for a guy who’s legacy may be lightweight, he sure had a fair amount of acting – and singing – ability. Annette is pretty and bubbly and you can easily buy her as the girl who is planning for the future and encouraging her man to do the same. One thing about American International; they seemed to be able to attract pretty female talent. Case in point is Luciana Paluzzi as the Contessa. The Italian Paluzzi – still with us at 80 – is possibly best known for portraying SPECTRE assassin Fiona Volpe in “Thunderball”. She also appeared in “Return to Peyton Place”. John Ashley returns as Johnny (formerly Ken). Small and dark like Avalon, Ashley comes off well as a teen-aged surf bum. He later married “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” actress Deborah Whalley. In the ’80’s, he produced the television show “The A-Team” and provided the narration over the opening credits. Don Rickles appears as trainer Jack Fanny. Rickles is exactly how you’d like him to be – delightfully zany. Jody McCrea plays Deadhead. McCrea – son of Joel McCrea – obviously knows what he is doing onscreen despite getting stuck playing the moron. He is also exactly in the type of shape guys wanted to be in, maybe even more so than the bodybuilders. Dick Dale is actually a straight-up guitar legend. His rep is so huge that it actually suffers from being in these “beach party” movies. His music in the films is not his own and nowhere near indicative of his virtuoso playing. Here he’s cool, though. Virile. Candy Johnson and her crazy dancing? I’m sorry. Terrible. Real life bodybuilder Peter Lupus appears as “Mr. Galaxy – Flex Martian”. Lupus is billed here as “Rock Stevens”, as he was in the many ‘sword and sandal’ films he made in the 1960’s. He is given idiotic lines and doesn’t particularly shine in delivering them but it’s all good. We give Peter a pass because of his work in the television series “Mission: Impossible”, where he shone delivering few lines but effectively portraying the team’s ‘muscle’. Valora Noland and Delores Wells deserve special mention. Fresh-faced and attractive, it’s fun to watch them as they decorate every scene they are in. It is difficult to find any info on the internet about Noland but Wells was a prominent Playboy model in the early ’60’s. Singer Donna Loren doesn’t have any lines and only duets with Dick Dale on one mediocre song so there’s not much to say about her in this film. But she turns in a great performance singing “It Only Hurts When I Cry” in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and had a wonderful voice but a decidedly unsuccessful singing career. She is still thriving in the fashion industry in Hawaii. Morey Amsterdam is loony as Cappy, owner of the kid’s hangout. He was funnier in “Beach Party”. Curiously, Buddy Hackett has a low billing in this film. He is great as the oddly named “S.Z. Matts” and while here he is much less manic than he usually is, he is obviously in control, understands his character – such as he is – and plays him well. Little Stevie Wonder actually sings a song. 13 years old at the time, Stevie here puts me in mind of James Brown in American International’s ‘winter beach party’, “Ski Party”: a whole lot of soul in an extremely white environment. Don’t think Stevie built his rep on having been in “Muscle Beach Party”. Keep an eye out for future “Grizzly Adams”, the late Dan Haggerty as one of the muscle men, cutey Amadee Chabot as one of Jack Fanny’s assistants and Peter Lorre, in his last film, as the silent partner, Mr. Strangdour, the strongest man in the world. I take the time to go over the cast because I think each of the above is worth pointing out. It’s actually a great cast with everyone playing their parts well. It’s interesting to me to note that seemingly everybody in this type of film went on to make either terrible movies, terrible movies in Europe or no movies. Ever seen John Ashley in “Black Mamba”? Or Valora Noland in…like..nothing? But the thing is – that’s OK. We love these actors in these roles. They become our friends. We become one of the gang.

MBP frame grabs (13)

“Muscle Beach Party” was filmed in part at Paradise Cove in Malibu. The location now is the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe. They have an excellent website (http://www.paradisecovemalibu.com/) and a really good social media presence. Nice to know that you can plan a trip to the actual place where this and other films were made. It’s also great while you watch this movie to look around in the background and see what the land and homes were like at the time. The painting used over the opening credits I call the “Muscle Beach Mural”. It was painted by cartoonist Mike Dormer, whose surfer cartoon character “Hot Curl” can be seen on sweaters throughout the film. I’d kill for one of those sweaters and certainly for the mural. Dormer also created the children’s show “Shrimpenstein” who was a miniature Frankenstein’s monster that was created when his creator dropped a bag of jelly beans in his monster machine. Apparently Frank Sinatra and the boys never missed an episode. Dr. Pepper was prominently placed in the film, which was why Donna Loren appeared to sing a song; she was the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and sang in their commercials. Legendary Beach Boy, Brian Wilson – genius behind the band’s music – co-wrote six songs for the film. With frequent co-writers Roger Christian and Gary Usher, Wilson penned the excellent opener “Surfer’s Holiday” sung by Frankie and Annette and the equally good “Runnin’ Wild” that Frank sings in Cappy’s. Although American International did not capitalize by issuing a soundtrack LP, Frankie Avalon did sing these two songs and others on his album “Muscle Beach Party and Other Movie Songs” on United Artists Records. A quality recording, the first side features songs from the “beach party” movies and side two showcases Avalon’s great voice on songs from other popular films.

Frankie LP

Here’s the thing about this film. Of all the “beach party” movies – including movies in the same vein made by other studios – “Muscle Beach Party” is really the only one that has a script with any merit. I’m referring mainly to the Frankie-Dee Dee-Julie storyline. Early in the film, we see Frankie on the beach talking to Dee Dee. Keep in mind how old these kids are. We are never told specifically but I think it’s safe to assume they all are at the ‘pivot point’ in life – the time when you begin to turn away from your childhood and look forward to being an adult and assuming your role in society. I’ve always felt strongly about this point in life. It is heavy. It is rife with storylines about how well or how poorly people make the transition. I think of John Milner in the great coming-of-age film “American Graffiti”. In that film, it is said of him “y’wanna be like John?! You can’t stay 17 forever”. In our film, Frankie is dreaming out loud on the beach, sharing part of himself with Dee Dee, his girlfriend. “I think about it sometimes”, he says, “out there, way beyond that white boat, there’s a wave building…maybe it’s 80 feet”. Avalon does well getting the viewer to realize that this is his dream in life – maybe not exactly an 80 foot wave but he has dreams of fun, adventure and accomplishment for his life. The more realistic Dee Dee gently shoots him down saying that that wave is in his head. Even a seagull has to come down once in a while. Frankie disgustedly shakes his head: “Girls don’t fly!”. Later, again on the beach, Frankie and Dee Dee have an argument. Dee Dee again encourages Frankie to start making his life count for something. Sidebar: I own the novelization of “Muscle Beach Party” that came out slightly before the film. It’s written by Elsie Lee, a female author, who punches up the idea that Dee Dee is, of course, the more mature of the two. She is – step by step – making Frankie into the man she wants him to be – the man she knows he CAN be. She uses subtle feminine wisdom to get him to begin to be ready to assume responsibility and be an adult. And – most importantly, a husband. Back on the beach, Frankie counters with the simple fact that he is happy. He’s living the way he wants to live. He says that Dee Dee is starting to sound like a wife. He expresses his desire to avoid “time-payment city…being in hock, working 8 to 5”. Dee Dee comes back with the fact that they could have a nice home and fill it with kids. Then Frankie delivers a classic line: “Look, this beach is free and the sky goes straight on up and your life is your own. Now, isn’t that enough?” No, it isn’t, Dee Dee answers. All you do is take, she says. I only take what’s free, Frankie answers. It’s actually a really well written scene and one that virtually everyone can relate to. Women will smile knowingly and think of how much more grounded and sensible – and, let’s face it, more right – they are. Guys will remember their youthful freedom and how reluctant they were to give it up and face reality. In the midst of all this hassle with Dee Dee, in comes Julie, the Contessa who is gorgeous and filthy rich. She takes a shine to Frankie. Later comes the important scene I alluded to in the synopsis. It’s night and Frankie and Julie are on the beach. When Frankie asks Julie “where do you go on that big, white boat?”, Julie talks about all the wonderful places she can take him. He asks about surf and she replies “the riders look like gods skimming the crest of the waves”. Frankie looks off into the distance and it hits him: “it’s an 80 foot wave”. He realizes that Julie is handing him everything he’s ever wanted. It’s a dream come true and Frank is all in. Until S.Z. shines a bit of light on the realities of “life with La Contessa”. Frank’s second thoughts lead him to a realization. Frankie realizes that he is already living his dream life. He loves Dee Dee. He loves being leader of the gang. He loves his life: living, working, saving for holidays like this and dreaming. Taking him away from all that is not a dream come true. He has been asked a question that is seemingly easy to answer: what is your perception of paradise? I have a special place in my heart for this idea as it formed the basis of the novel I started writing in my early 20’s and have yet to finish (20+ years later).

Let’s get one thing straight: I understand that most surf movies (except “Big Wednesday”) are lame. I know how none of them accurately depicted true surf culture and how “Gidget” resulted in the glutting of Malibu, ruining it for real surfers. And I know that the American International pictures in particular are goofy and kind of dumb. I’m not suggesting that the Academy take another look at these films. They are guilty pleasures, I always say. I’m a fan not a critic. And what I am saying is that these films are really enjoyable if only as snapshots of a wonderful time in American history. The location shooting, some of the things you see in the background or the furnishings in the beach houses, the cars all combine to make these films delightful especially to those of us immersed in mid-century culture. “Muscle Beach Party” is a great example of one of these films. Films I like to call “delightfully ridiculous”.

Muscle Beach Party

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Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry: The Proof is in the Covers

 

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Chuck Berry has died at age 90. I was happy to see tributes to him all over the internet because here is a performer that has become a true legend with almost no peer in the history of rock music. As I’ve said before, to fully understand where you’re at at any given point in time, you need to understand and appreciate where things have come from. There may be some degrees of separation, yes, but Chuck Berry is at the heart – at the absolute core – of popular music as we know it today in the 21st century.

To track the origins of “rock ‘n’ roll”, you have to go back to the early 1950’s to records like “Sixty Minute Man” and “Rocket 88”. Then, in 1954, you had Bill Haley and His Comets recording the immortal “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s first record, “That’s All Right, Mama”. In these four instances you had 1) black rhythm and blues groups having success and getting noticed by white high school kids and 2) you had country boys channeling a “black sound” while still exhibiting a southern look (Haley) and/or a decidedly southern sound (Scotty Moore’s guitar). When you add in the gospel flavour of an artist like Ray Charles, you have all the ingredients for what would become known as “rock ‘n’ roll”, the first music that was made specifically for young people. So, here you have the foundation of the music. But let’s consider this: there’s a difference between blending R&B, gospel and country to make rock ‘n’ roll and actually making rock ‘n’ roll. In the spring of 1955, Chuck Berry took the results of the ‘experiment’ that Bill Haley and Elvis Presley had been conducting and added certain key things. The result of the additions he made emerged as nothing less than the blueprint of rock music. In fact, he was the first to combine all of the necessary elements that are essential to rock music. These elements include showmanship, for starters. Chuck played the guitar and the very fact that his instrument was strapped to him allowed him to move around while playing it and therefore engage in the type of showmanship rock ‘n’ roll is known for. Another main element is the guitar itself. Because the guitar was his instrument, he, of course, featured it in his songs, starting most of them off with an energetic ‘riff’ taking both the guitar and the riff to the forefront of this new music. He also established, two years before Buddy Holly, the singer performing songs he himself had written. And then there’s the subject matter of these songs. Something else he was the first to popularize was singing with humour about teen life, often telling a story in his songs.  He wisely considered the audience for this new music consisted of kids so he wrote joyful, happy songs about cars, about school, about getting out of school, about getting in your car and going to the local hang out and pumping dimes into the jukebox. He sang about being a fan of rock ‘n’ roll, about taking this music with you as you grew up, got a job and got married. He was like a reporter, reporting on kids’ lives while they were happening. From 1955 into the early 1960’s, Chuck laid the foundation for what rock music would become.

The proof is in the covers. Chuck’s story is told, for the most part, by looking at who covered his music. Suffice it to say that any group of guys who got together and plugged in in the garage were following Chuck Berry’s lead but when you look at the artists that have covered a Chuck Berry song you understand the immensity of his contribution. It’s interesting to note that you cannot name me one significant cover of an Elvis Presley song. There are no other notable versions of “Hound Dog” or “Jailhouse Rock”. Those songs are so indelibly connected to EP that no one else dared to attempt them. The wonderful thing about Chuck is that his songs were really for everybody. Every important rock artist after Chuck had to try their hand at one of his songs. If for no other reason than to make it clear what their intentions were: if you cover “Johnny B. Goode”, it tells the world what kind of band you are.

The connection may not be readily apparent but we’ll start with the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson may be the most successful songwriter ever who was least influenced by black music but Brian, his brother, guitarist Carl and their cousin, lead vocalist Mike Love were all enamored of doo wop and – mostly Carl, natch – Chuck Berry. Brian Wilson enjoyed Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” so much that he took the melody and changed the lyrics to include popular surf spots across the country. Initially, the songwriting credit listed only Wilson. Then it was changed to credit Berry only. I remember, when I was 12, owning the popular Beach Boys compilation “Endless Summer” and noticing that it listed Chuck Berry as the writer of “Surfin’ U.S.A” which was a real head-scratcher for me. Nowadays, both Wilson and Berry are credited. It’s always been published by Chuck’s Arc Music publisher. Chuck was a major influence on Carl’s playing and the Beach Boys released an early tribute to Chuck and others called “Do You Remember?” in 1964: “Chuck Berry’s gotta be the greatest thing that came along. He made the guitar beat and wrote the all time greatest songs”.  Then, in the 1970’s, the Beach Boys emerged from a creative valley with the album “15 Big Ones” that featured, as it’s lead-off single, Chuck’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. The single went to #5, which was their highest charting single since the landmark “Good Vibrations” in 1966.

Like every other beat group that emerged in England in the early 1960’s, the Beatles were heavily influenced by rhythm and blues. If you had seen them in pre-stardom days on stage in Hamburg or at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, you would have seen a gnarly bunch of greasers crunching their way through a set list loaded with covers of their favourite records. Chuck Berry loomed large. Their raucous cover of Chuck’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was featured on their second album, 1963’s “With the Beatles”. This track of Chuck’s was a favourite of the boys’ since even before they were called “the Beatles”. Just as exciting was their cover of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”. This track appeared on “Beatles For Sale” in ’64 and features an excellent, frenetic vocal from John. Another litigation episode involves the Beatles. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” was targeted by the owner of the copyright to Chuck’s tune “You Can’t Catch Me”. The owner claimed the two tracks were similar musically (they aren’t) and that the first two lines of the Beatles song – “Here come ol’ flattop, he come groovin’ up slowly” – was too close to a line of Chuck’s: “Here come a flattop, he was movin’ up with me”. They settled out of court with John promising to record three future songs that were controlled by the same copyright owner. The result was Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” and “Ya Ya” for his excellent 1975 album of covers “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (his “Stand By Me” is spectacular).

Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. I mean, that’s it, right? The two legends together are probably the most influential artists in rock history. EP covered Chuck in early 1964. Presley was experiencing  his first dry spell on the charts and he had latched on to Chuck’s “Memphis, Tennessee” for his next single. Memphis, after all, was Elvis’ hometown and he worked hard on getting just the right sound for his recording, a recording Presley believed would restore his standing on the pop charts. At this time, Elvis and his buds were living in Elvis’ Los Angeles home and when they were not at the studio working on “Memphis”, they were kicking it around in the living room and talking excitedly about the track. Hanging around the house at the time was singer Johnny Rivers. Elvis biographers and many ‘Memphis Mafia’ books report that Elvis felt betrayed when, after sharing his hopes about the song with the boys with Rivers in attendance, Rivers himself released a version of “Memphis” of his own and watched it rise to #2. Elvis was deflated and felt that releasing his version now would just seem exploitative. Rivers and Chuck Berry himself have claimed that the move by Rivers was not malicious but simply orchestrated by Rivers’ record label. No matter. Johnny Rivers became persona non grata with Elvis and the boys and is a minor villain in ‘Elvis World’. Presley went to Chuck again for a track that easily ranks among the top ten Elvis Presley recordings of all time; 1973’s “Promised Land”. In terms of energy and flat-out, driving, pedal-to-the-metal power, it’s hard to find an EP recording that tops this. Adding to the coolness level of this recording is the fact that it was recorded at the famed Stax Studio in Memphis and features some stellar clavinet. It’s hard to do justice in words to Presley’s recording of this track; you have to listen to it. A lot. Interesting to note that Berry wrote this song while incarcerated in 1961-62 for violating the Mann Act. He has said that while writing the song he wanted to study an atlas to confirm some of the lyrics but one wouldn’t be provided. It may prove too helpful in planning an escape route.

There’s been many other fantastic covers of Chuck’s songs. They make for great listening because when you’ve got a well-written rock song and an artist who wants to pay homage and at the same time sink his teeth in and put his own stamp on a song, the results quite often are good. Cases in point include the Animals and their scintillating “Around and Around”, Electric Light Orchestra’s soaring version of “Roll Over Beethoven” and Rod Stewart (back when he was cool) tearing a strip off “Sweet Little Rock ‘n’ Roller”, with the help of a rabid dog. I’ve tried here to provide details on some of the earliest stand-out covers of Chuck Berry’s songs. The three artists we looked at here are as big as you get and it’s telling that they’ve all notably – NOTABLY – tackled Chuck Berry’s music with interesting and exciting results. But the list of other artists to cover Berry is extensive. And varied. Everyone from Wyclef Jean to Uriah Heap. From Tanya Tucker to Peter Tosh. I haven’t even touched on the Rolling Stones’ fantastic Chuck run-throughs in their early days and gritty bluesman George Thorogood’s devotion to Chuck’s songs. But if you check the lists of artists who have covered Chuck, you’ll see that his music has been visited most by three of the biggest artists in music history. What does that tell you?

Thanks, Chuck.

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Spotlight on…Gidget

“Wait’ll you see my Gidget. You’ll want her for your valentine.”

– Johnny Tillotson

“Gidget” is a person, a novel, a film, a film franchise, a song, a television show and a cultural phenomenon. In 1957, Frederick Kohner, an Austrian-born Jew working as a screenwriter, wrote a novel based on the beach adventures of his under-sized, surf-obsessed daughter, Kathy. The nickname the boys at the beach gave her served as the title: “Gidget”. Half-girl, half midget. The tale depicted in the novel and subsequent film is basically true: Kathy was a petite, young girl who, at an impressionable time in her life, fell in love with the beach and surfing. An outgoing tomboy, she attached herself to a group of surfer boys at Malibu at a time when surfing was still an obsessive pursuit enjoyed by few. A niche next to the Malibu Pier housed a small, dedicated colony of young surfers, many of whom went on to become legendary in the sport and/or the industry.

The novel was an instant success. So much so that it largely contributed to a boom in surfing that began in the late 1950’s. Soon, many hardcore surfers were lamenting the increase in crowds at surf spots up and down the West Coast. Kohner eventually wrote five sequels to his first novel although they were not successful. The little known fact that they were written at all is no more than an eyebrow-raising bit of trivia. He also novelized the two subsequent film sequels and these have become collectible items of the genre.

gidget

The film “Gidget”, released by Columbia in 1959, is landmark in a way that few films can be landmark. It was truly a first: Hollywood’s first surf movie. Putting “Hollywood” and “surfing” together is anathema to any true, self-respecting surfer. Real surfers bemoan the release of “Gidget”, and blame it for exploiting their wave-riding lifestyle and causing a glut of “hodads” and “gremmies” (wannabes) on any and all beaches where there were breaking waves. The Beach Boys and American International’s “beach party” movies soon followed. Gidget and a true phenomenon was born. Surfers have long been hostile to an industry that depicts them as Spicoli-types: stoned vagrants who contribute zero but instead leech off society. They point to films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Point Break” as failures in Hollywood’s attempt  to portray the surfing lifestyle. But this is no fault of “Gidget”‘s. The 1959 film is truly engaging. It made stars of Sandra Dee and James Darren, boasted a cast of notables such as Cliff Robertson in the iconic role of Kahuna, Arthur O’Connell, Yvonne Craig, Joby Baker and Tom Laughlin. More than just a surfing movie, it is a delightful slice of life circa 1959. Suburban homes, front yards, living rooms, Saturday nights. A lovely time capsule. The beach scenes are also great images of the summertime living of the era. The requisite burger stand sits atop the hill. Beach goers descend and come upon the surfer’s enclave: Stinky’s surfboard ‘shaping bay’ sits next to the Kahuna’s shack. Inside is all you’d ever need: exotic pictures on the wall, cot, chair and hot plate with coffee pot. Outside, the boys loiter, waiting for surf. Reclining in a hammock, playing chess, plinking on a ukulele or beating a drum. With these indelible images, you could watch with the sound down and still be enthralled.

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The “Malibu” scenes were actually shot 20 miles up the highway at Leo Carillo State Beach (which is a wonderful aside for us classic movie fans. Leo Carillo was a wonderful Spanish actor in many old films. In later life, his work as a preservationist was honored with this beach and state park being named after him. Fitting, too, that many films were shot here, including the aforementioned “Point Break”). The sequels, as most sequels do, decline in quality. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian”, however, is another delightful film with many things to recommend it. Sandra Dee is absent and in her place is Deborah Walley, on whom the jury is still out. She is sprightly, bubbly and good at handling this material but at the same time she can be hammy and irritating. Watching with hindsight though you can keep in mind her performances in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Spinout”. James Darren returns as Monndoggie as does Joby Baker albeit as a different character. This excellent cast is rounded out by pretty Vicki Trickett, Michael Callan, Carl Reiner as Gidget’s dad and the actress JEFF Donnell (Jeff?) as the mom. The script is pleasant and deals with the damage loose talk can do to a girl’s reputation. Not much to say about “Gidget Goes to Rome”. James Darren is, as always, reliable as he completes the trilogy as Moondoggie. The bland Cindy Carol becomes Gidget #3. Interesting note: Don Porter appears as Gidget’s father. He would return to the role on the small screen. Caesare Danova (“Viva Las Vegas”) and Danielle De Metz provide the Roman eye candy. Not much surf in Rome, though, so this film is OK but maybe not as a vehicle for the beach bunny Gidget.

Music from movies doesn’t have to be good. I can enjoy it simply because it puts me in mind of the films I love. It so happens, though, that the songs spawned by the films are pretty good. The first film featured an appearance and two songs from the Four Preps, a collegiate-type vocal group that featured Glen A. Larson who would become a heavyweight TV producer in the ’80’s (“Magnum, P.I.”, “Knight Rider”). They sang the delightful title track over the opening credits. James Darren also had a crack at it in the beach shack. The Four Preps added “Cinderella” and Darren the excellent “The Next Best Thing to Love”. “Gidget Goes Hawaiian” was a snappy song done well by Darren and in an instrumental version by Duane Eddy.

The small screen featured several incarnations of “Gidget”, however none of the actresses chosen to play the role are notable in any way; except the fact that they once played Gidget. Television’s first Gidget, however, was played by fresh-faced, 18-year-old Sally Field. The series is delightful and features many changes from the films. The series begins where the first film left off: Moondoggie is heading back to Princeton and Gidget is sweating the thought of their separation. The differences between series and films are many. First off, Moondoggie (played blandly by Stephen Mines) does not feature in the events of the series. Also, suddenly Gidget’s mom has died and Professor Lawrence is raising Gidget on his own. Gidget’s sister and her husband are always throwing in their two cents where Gidget’s rearing is concerned. Gidget’s best friend, Larue, plays Ethel to Gidget’s Lucy. It’s interesting to watch the show and see that a lot of it revolves around how father and daughter relate to each. Their relationship is clearly defined and it’s charming to see how they love each other and form a partnership and navigate adolescence. I have to think that this abbreviated family was a rare depiction on television of the day. The most significant thing about the series is this: here we have a character who is synonymous with a beach lifestyle and the freedom that comes with summer but we’re seeing her IN SCHOOL. The “Gidget” series serves as a bridge between the frivolity of the “beach party” movies and real life: school, homework, week nights. With the series we get that great post-Labour Day salve. We’re all back to school and so is Gidget. Bottom line: Sally Field is effervescent and delightful to watch. The show did poorly in its first season but began to pick up and showed a big following with summer reruns. The network, however, had already cancelled it and that was that.

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Gidget as ‘phenomenon’ has been with us for almost 60 years. It’s cool, by the way, that the word ‘gidget’ was simply invented by a bunch of regular joes hanging out at the beach. “Gidget” has come to refer to any light, bouncy and young beach girl. It’s used as the name of a cute camper trailer and some girl rocker. Gidget is also a feminist icon. Women might disagree owing to her perceived airheadedness. But Gidget was a vivacious young woman who took life by the horns, had a positive attitude and was sure there was nothing she couldn’t do. She had unapologetic fun and endeavored to help those around her. Not to mention the obvious fact that she was a proponent of athleticism and an outdoor lifestyle. Coolest of all though is that it’s a homegrown phenomenon. Kathy Kohner Zuckerman was a real girl, nicknamed by friends, immortalized in her father’s book. Novels, films, television, cultural phenomenon, feminist icon, cutie. Quite a girl.

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Change of Season Part 1

“Feels like time for a change of season.”

– Daryl Hall & John Oates

It occurs to me that summer is the only of the four seasons that has a definite end. Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: on the calendar, every season has an actual start and end point and summer ends on September 22nd. But ask any young person: any season that finds you in school ain’t no summer.

Which brings us to Labour Day Weekend, one of the most emotional statutory holidays on the calendar. Labour Day evening, getting ready for bed that night, your mind can’t help but go to the fact that IT’S OVER: when you wake up in the morning, the world has gone ‘back to school’ and summer is definitely over. And even if you’re a single adult with no children, you can’t escape the fact. Whether it’s your own memories or the ‘Back to School’ sales at the mall, it’s all around you.

Just thinking of Labour Day Night gets me misty. I remember as a kid feeling the enormity of the changes that would kick in in the morning. Something as simple as the  change in routine seemed heavy. I distinctly remember one particular first day of school tearing up over my Shreddies exclaiming “it’s different” by way of explanation of my distress.

Then as a young adult out of school it was still on me due to my inclination to listen to music and to watch movies that fit whatever season it happened to be. So, all summer I’d been watching Beach Party movies and listening to the Beach Boys so that, come Labour Day, moving away from that signaled a big change that I found romantic or emotional or simply thought-provoking food for my vivid imagination. Then as a father I lived it again through my kids. I was always keen to not make a big deal out of summer ending so as not to get them bawling along with me.

Here’s the thing about summer: it’s hedonistic. It’s all about freedom, fun, sex and “me”. It seems to me that it’s the most superficial of all seasons, if that’s possible. What I mean is it’s the ‘sexiest’ season: people wear as little as possible and bodies are on display. It’s hot, people are sweating and they go to the beach – there’s just this sense of a ‘lack of depth’ to the proceedings. How you look at the beach is what matters most. Inhibitions and boundaries are at a minimum. This really seems to change when the seasons ends.

I mentioned music and movies. I don’t like to restrict certain genres, artists or movies to a specific time of year but at the same time certain types of music and certain films ‘go down’ better in the summer. July and August find me gravitating more towards surf music, bossa nova, Jan and Dean, etc. And it’s in the summer that I seem to relate better to films like “Tequila Sunrise”, “Big Wednesday” or American International’s Beach Party movies.

But then Labour Day Weekend comes and your thoughts go to every movie you’ve ever seen where the kids have to face the fact that summer is over and it’s back to school. So often this can mean a real ‘coming of age’ when a young person faces the ‘pivot point’ of their life and they have to leave home and go away to school. No more kid stuff. It can be such an emotional time. George Lucas’ second film, the immortal “American Graffiti” deals with this perfectly. His film depicts a group of young friends having one last big night before the seriousness sets in. To make matters worse, one of their number is going away to college. Lucas’ story adds punch – and has become iconic – partly because he sets it in 1962. This was a time when not only was summer ending but American society as it was known was ending.

Labour Day is a poignant ‘transition’ night. You know you have to get up the next day and bend to your task.

So, what? Does this mean that with the coming of autumn (ie, the day after Labour Day) life becomes terrible? Not at all. We talked about summer being sexy and showy. Autumn, on the other hand, is all about soul. Summer is free and easy, you don’t have to think. But in the fall you’ve got less options for outdoor activities. So things seem to take on more depth. Screaming at the beach gives way to quiet, ponderous walks. You begin to spend more time in the warmth of home, talking to your family, maybe reading. Hot tea. Literally and figuratively, we all come home in the autumn. We settle back down, breathe and think. Crazy nights at the drive-in become sitcoms on the couch. Music can mirror the season perfectly, adding to your enjoyment. Wailing surf guitars or a strutting David Lee Roth are replaced with Stan Getz blowing soft or Sinatra singing about lost love and the wee small hours. The Ink Spots or the big bands. Sounds like home. Cozy. And just think what’s on the horizon: the earthy, family vibe of Thanksgiving. The children’s fun and great, old monster movies of Hallowe’en. And don’t even get me thinking about the glorious Christmas season. So, the End of Summer seems less like an ending and more of a beginning. The beginning of another great – although different – time of year.

The fall is like a train dropping you back at the station after a fun trip abroad. It’s as though at the start of every summer a train picks you up and takes you on an amazing ride. Fun, exhilarating, almost selfish. In the fall, the train returns and it’s back to normal, family, real life.

The summer is a great place to visit. Autumn feels like home.

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“We’ve been havin’ fun all summer long.” – the Beach Boys

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