Vintage Bruce Brown Interview from 1965, via Encyclopedia of Surfing
Jan. 9, 2014 - Before Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Reef and Volcom ruled the surf world with their billion dollar bottom lines. Before Billabong dominated, then plunged into worthless despair (“A 40-Year-Old Surf Company Declares Its Brand Is Worthless”-Forbes.com August 2013). Before Nike, Target, Patagonia, Hollister and Red Bull dipped their toes in the ocean and local brands like Epic, Jetty, Ergo Phobia and Hyperflex rose from the cold barrels of New Jersey. Even before OP, Sundek, Lightning Bolt, Katin, Vans, Rusty, Instinct, Body Glove, Town & Country, Gotcha, Jimmy ‘Z, Maui and Sons and Ocean/Earth. Prior to there really being anything resembling a surf industry outside of a smattering of surfboard shapers selling T’s, there was…(cue the ominous music)…the Dana Point Mafia.
The Dana Point Mafia primarily consisted of filmmaker Bruce Brown, surfboard shaper Hobie Alter and Surfer Magazine publisher John Severson. The group thrived during the 1950’s and 1960’s and was so named because of the power they held over the surf industry and because all three lived within the small confines of Dana Point. Though not all from that little town, there were others that could arguably be included, such as Dale Velzy, Gordon “Grubby” Clark, Bing Copeland and Greg Noll (all tied to surfboard shaping and filmmaking). And in terms of style, we should mention Phil Edwards, the genesis of high performance surfing. But Brown, Alter and Severson were the key figures since, collectively, they controlled board production and media, which, at the time, was virtually all that comprised the surf industry. Outside of a few t-shirts and board shorts that were sold as one-offs to a select few, there was truly nothing else—no accessories, surf camps or resorts, extensive clothing lines, websites, fin systems, etc….
Money was to be made, but much like the world tour now, it only went to the top few that could figure out how to make the system work and, for the most part, you were talking thousands, not millions. The three below not only cashed out, but called the shots. They were the original badasses of the surf world.
The Hobie Story, Pt. 1. Video: HobieUSA
Eager to find an alternative to balsa wood for surfboard building, Alter teamed up with Gordon “Grubby” Clark (of Clark Foam fame) in 1958 to produce polyurethane foam board blanks. In short order, he was using the foam blanks for his entire line of boards and given their cost, weight, design elements and maneuverability, the boards revolutionized the board building industry. As a result, he controlled the market for a full 12 years, which is remarkable given the wild west nature of the “industry” then. Let’s just say that it didn’t suffer fools.
Alter’s even larger contribution came in the form of a new kind of sailboat he created—the Hobie Cat. Unlike anything else prior, the catamaran was designed for speed and to be launched from the beach. Its knife-like pontoons cut through waves like butter, making sailing a breeze (pun intended) and its popularity to the present day (i.e. the America’s Cup yachts) speaks to his brilliance.
Hobie was also a waterman in the truest sense, making his mark in big waves in both Hawaii and California and was a huge early proponent of wake boarding, once doing it 30 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island.
-1993 Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Waterman Achievement Award
-1997 Inducted into Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame
John Severson, via Maelstrom
If you control the media, you hold the reins on anything. Just ask Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The bugger’s got a stranglehold on the country’s 143 million citizens. By simply being the first surf publisher, Severson was the lone purveyor of soul in the 1960’s with Surfer Magazine. The mag started as a 36 page folio to promote his film Surf Fever, but quickly took on a life of its own. If you were a writer or photographer, you had to work with him. If you were a surfer, surfboard shaper or filmmaker, you needed him. Though I’ve never heard of power plays and bullying deals, Severson held the direction of the sport in the palm of his hand.
Of note, such industry legends as photographers Art Brewer, Jeff Divine and Ron Stoner and artists like Rick Griffin (a rad guy who went on to design rock posters and album covers) and John Van Hamersveld all developed under his tutelage. The industry would be nothing without these minds and who knows if we ever would’ve heard of them without Surfer Magazine.
-1991 Inducted International Surfing Hall of Fame
-1995 Inducted into Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame
-1997 Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Waterman Achievement Award
Clip from Bruce Brown's iconic film, Endless Summer
A journeyman filmmaker, Brown took a lot of swings with various surf movies like Surf Crazy (1959), Barefoot Adventure (1960), Slippery When Wet (1961) and Surfing Hollow Days (1961). But he hit the big time with his iconic The Endless Summer (1966). Empowering a legion of surfers to hit the road to find their own Cape St. Francis, he transformed the mindset of surfers into the road weary warriors we’ve all become or aspire to be. Additionally, his easy-going narration allowed the film to appeal to surfers, but also to land locked wannabes in places like Kansas, where it outsold My Fair Lady for two weeks straight. The film made Brown a very wealthy man and for all intents and purposes, he retired at a young age to the exclusive Hollister Ranch area of Central California. Brown’s place in the Dana Point Mafia can be credited to the money he made, but I like to think it’s because of the surfer mindset he instilled in all of us.
-1994 Surf Industry Manufacturers Association Waterman Achievement Award
-1997 Lifetime Achievement Award at Surfer magazine Video Awards
-1999 Named 5th most influential surfer of all-time by Surfer Magazine
Many surf roads lead to these guys, at least when it comes to U.S. surfing and deservedly so. They changed our experience of the ocean, our romantic fantasies of what was possible and the ways in which we consumed our surf-related news. They truly poured the foundation for all that has arisen in their wake. And they did it from the place of love and a desire to catch a few more waves. I’d be remiss to say that Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing was not a massive source for this article. If you want to know more about these guys, you should check out www.EncyclopediaofSurfing.com.