If you know one thing about The Endless Summer that wasn’t part of the surf flick’s 95 golden minutes on the screen, you know about Wichita.
Wichita, Kansas wasn’t exactly a place most folks associated with surfing 50 years ago (nor do they now), and that was precisely the point. When promoter R. Paul Allen sought national distribution for director Bruce Brown’s round-the-world surf odyssey, the movie moguls in New York told him there was no way the film would sell 10 minutes from the ocean. But Allen and Brown knew this flick was different. It wasn’t Slippery When Wet, Brown’s first film, about a dream trip to Hawaii, or Surfing Hollow Days, his fourth, which featured Allen covered in cornstarch and almost suffocating in an early wetsuit, or the other two films in-between. The Endless Summer was a hero’s journey, a quest for the perfect wave, an aspirational story Allen was sure would play anywhere. On a flight back from New York, after getting rejected by the bigwigs again, Allen looked at an airline map tucked behind the barf bag and decided Wichita was where they’d make their last stand.
What happened next has become part of the movie’s lore, discussed in The Endless Summer Revisited and countless books and articles. Wichita was slammed with a huge snowstorm that winter and icicles dangled from the marquee of the Sunset Theater that bore the name of the film in February 1966. Allen feared a flop, but beneath the frosty sign that first night stretched a long line of Kansans, hopping up and down to stay warm while waiting to watch the adventures of Robert August and Mike Hynson on the big screen. The movie sold out two straight weeks. Distributors in New York still weren’t impressed, but the movie’s success in the middle of winter, in the middle of America, convinced Brown and Allen to keep fighting, and they rented out a theater in Manhattan and finally got the buzz they needed to turn the film into a $30 million behemoth.
That’s the film’s official backstory, enshrined as part of its creation myth, but only recently did Allen reveal just how easily the tale could’ve ended differently. He told me a much fuller story after I wrote about the film’s 50th anniversary for LA Weekly, including how things started going wrong that first night in Kansas before he’d even arrived at the theater.
Problem Number One was a projectionist strike in Wichita. The theater manager called to say the guy who was supposed to run the 16mm projector, which Allen had shipped from Chicago, was on the picket line instead of in the booth. Luckily the manager used to be a projectionist himself, but he could only do the job if Allen could take the tickets and handle everything else. No problem, said Allen, that was what he’d been doing for Brown for years. He hopped in a car and headed to the Sunset Theater.
“I got past the picketers and saw a line of people around the block,” he says.
You’re probably imagining a gaggle of teenagers giggling in scarves and knit hats, but Allen says these were older Midwesterners, not one of them under 40, many of them not even sure what surfing was. Allen ushered them into the theater, introduced the flick and closed the doors. That’s when he encountered a very big Problem Number Two.
“Standing there in the empty lobby, I see two guys walk in in heavy overcoats,” he says. “They looked like they were gangsters. I thought, Oh, shit, we’re going to be robbed. They walk up to me and they flash their badge and say they’re with the Wichita Police bomb squad.”
Someone had called in a bomb threat. The voice on the phone had said the bomb would go off at 8:30 p.m., 30 minutes into the screening. Allen wanted to evacuate the theater immediately. But the cops and the theater manager suspected the threat was a false alarm, called in by the projectionists union, so they all searched the building, the booth, the lobby, the outside.
“I’m watching these guys and thinking, Oh, my gosh. What am I going to do?” said Allen. “They go to the bathrooms. They go to every closet. And it’s like 8:15 or 8:20, and they come out and say, ‘We think it’s OK.’ Listen to those words: ‘We think it’s OK.’”
Those next few minutes lasted forever. The manager said they should keep the movie running and wait to search the seats. So they waited. 8:30 p.m. came and went. During intermission, the police walked up and down the aisles with flashlights. If anyone asked, they were searching for a wallet. There was no bomb. The show went on.
Allen told few people about the bomb scare. “Frankly I felt I’d put these people’s lives in jeopardy,” he says, “my own life included.”
If that theater had been evacuated, if local newspapers had even reported on the bomb threat, the movie would not have sold out those two weeks. Wichita would have been a bust. Allen and Brown would not have had the confidence to rent out Kips Bay Theater in New York. The Endless Summer would have been over.
The bomb scare creates a fantastic what-if scenario, a tale never reported before, so I wanted to confirm the details myself. The Sunset Theater screenings were more than 50 years ago, and maybe Allen’s memory was fuzzy. He and Brown were wonderful storytellers, and they’d been known to stretch the truth a little, especially when it came to just how often that perfect wave in Cape St. Francis fired. I emailed Brown and he wrote back, “You can believe anything Paul Allen tells you,” but I needed outside confirmation as well.
I talked with a couple Wichita historians, and they knew all about the city being instrumental in The Endless Summer’s success, but they hadn’t heard of the projectionist strike. The proof came from the Wichita Police Department, who were very helpful in digging up a microfilm of a case dated February 11, 1966. They shared the document after I made an official request via the Kansas Open Records Act. There’s no mention of what film was playing that night in Sgt. D. Behrend’s report, but otherwise, it’s all there. The picket. The bomb scare. The search of the theater. The waiting. The waiting. Then no bang, not even a whimper. It all happened.
Allen’s original contract with the theater, shared with me by the Surfing Heritage & Culture Center, has the film opening on a Wednesday, while the police report has the incident on a Friday, so maybe the bomb scare wasn’t at the very first screening, but it all happened. History often turns on the littlest of moments, and the past is loaded with close calls and would’ve-could’ve-should’ve. That bomb scare in Wichita, and the decision to not clear out the Sunset Theater, is one of those moments in the history of surfing. The global phenomenon of The Endless Summer could’ve been part of an alternate timeline, but instead it’s all ours.