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Hey Everybody, Surf’s Up!

Remembering the Beach Party Films

Who would have ever thought that two Italians from New York City would come to represent the “summer blond” California surfing movement?

But that’s what happened when American International Pictures launched one of the most successful series of pictures with Beach Party in 1963. Since then, the names Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello are not only eternally linked to each other, but also to the whole surfing craze of the 1960’s.

Here's the lowdown on the movies that kept us entertained in the mid-1960's.

AIP was famous for producing what we called “drive-in movies.” These were movies that really didn’t get a whole lot of attention from critics…or from their intended audience, if the truth be told. That’s because most of us went to the drive-in to have a place to be alone with our boyfriends/girlfriends. There was a reason we called drive-ins “the passion pit.”

So AIP produced movies that could be made quickly and cheaply and provide just enough entertainment when you were coming up for air between make-out sessions.

Mainly, they dealt in cheap horror films, often with more than a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor – like Buckets of Blood, a whole slew of low-budget Edgar Allen Poe movies, and their most famous film, the original Little Shop of Horrors.

Always quick to cash in on trends, the head of American International, Sam Arkoff, saw the business both Gidget (1959) and Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) had done. So he planned his own low budget surfing movie with a few changes.

First, he added a lot more girls in skimpy bathing suits. Then, he banished any parents. (Think, did you ever see Frankie’s mom or Annette’s dad in a beach movie?) Any adults on screen (and they included Bob Cummings, Dorothy Malone, and Don Rickles) were the object of comedic ridicule. Arkoff also got rid of any moralizing or social consciousness. Viet Nam? Civil rights? They just didn’t exist in this world. The Beach Party films were pure, 100% escapism.

Most movie buffs consider an even dozen films as the “official Beach Party series.” They are:

  • Beach Party (1963)
  • Muscle Beach Party (1964)
  • Bikini Beach (1964)
  • Pajama Party (1964)
  • Beach Blanket Bingo (1965)
  • Ski Party (1965)
  • How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)
  • Sergeant Deadhead (1965)
  • Dr, Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965)
  • Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1967)
  • Fireball 500 (1967)
  • Thunder Alley (1967)

Of course, the success of this series also spawned additional imitators, including Ride the Wild Surf (1964 w/Fabian, Tab Hunter, Barbara Eden & Shelly Fabres), Beach Ball (1965 w/ Edd “Kookie” Byrnes and the Four Seasons), and others.

Not all of the AIP series took place on the beach. Ski Party, for example, is set at a winter ski resort and the final two films focus on car racing, not surfing.

In most of the films, Frankie and Annette played the same characters (Frankie and Dee Dee). They are joined by a regular company of other kids who also played the same characters from film to film. The most memorable of these was unquestionably Harvey Lembeck as the least threatening biker in history, the bumbling Eric Von Zipper.

Due to their other commitments, Frankie and Annette don’t always appear together in these films. For example, Annette appears opposite Tommy Kirk in Pajama Party while Frankie goes it alone in Ski Party. However in both of these films, the missing partner from the team pops up in an amusing, but brief walk-on.

Half of the Beach Party films were directed by William Asher, who was to marry Elizabeth Montgomery and go on to help create and run her successful Bewitched TV Series.

With all those boys and girls in next-to-nothing bathing suits and no adult supervision, you’d think there might have been quite a bit of sexual content in the Beach Party movies. But you would be wrong.

The movie posters and radio advertising for these films always promised way more sex than the actual pictures delivered.

There was also a reason why Annette never wore a bikini in any of the films. It’s because she was still under contract to the Walt Disney Studios and they would only approve her Beach Party appearances if she stayed in a one piece or the most modest of two-pieces.

The films aren’t “musicals” in the conventional sense, but they were always loaded with plenty of tunes aimed at the teenage audience. In fact, Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, was recruited to write many of the songs in the very first Beach Party film. And in Ski Party, you get excellent on screen performances of their hits by James Brown, the Hondells, and Lesley Gore.

While none of these films are Academy Award material, the Beach Party series holds up better than you might expect. Renting or streaming one tonight may bring back fond memories from your teen-age years. That is, if you ever looked up at the screen when you were at the drive-in.

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