By RANDALL C. HILL
Imagine a world where every day is a beach party. Nobody is inconvenienced by school, parents, or illness. Where life involves no work schedules, no church services, no money problems. Where nobody riots for civil rights, wreaks inner-city destruction, protests an unjust war, embraces illegal drugs, or murders prominent leaders.
Welcome to the world of “clean teen” 1960s California beach party movies, whose key elements include eternal sunshine, skimpy swimwear, surfing scenes, nighttime bonfires, teen-oriented tunes, and the promise of (gasp!) sex.
Actually, scratch that last one.
While the assurance of lovemaking was indirectly alluded to in movie trailers and on theater posters, no such activity actually materialized on the screen.
Leading the charge for these films was AIP—American International Pictures—who can take the credit—or the blame—for several innocuous, but highly profitable, releases from 1963 to 1965.
Omnipresent in AIP’s stories were protagonists who were young, slim, and beautiful.
Mostly missing in action were parents, although adults were often featured for comic relief.
AIP had once focused on low-budget 50s juvenile-delinquent features, such as Hot Rod Gang and High School Hellcats. Then, in 1959, Columbia Pictures’ beach-and-surf bash Gidget appeared.
Its box-office success inspired the two biggest guns at AIP, Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson, to order their writers to work up a fun-in-the-sun script that omitted such annoyances as morality lessons and parental involvement.
The result was Beach Party.
In AIP’s 1963 release, former American Bandstand teen-dreamboat Frankie Avalon was paired with voluptuous ex-Disney Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.
It was an odd matchup of two attractive, dark-haired Italian-Americans, whereas the quintessential Golden State surf/beach devotee was actually a long-haired blonde of either sex.
Dick Dale & the Deltones provided the music in Beach Party, with the surf-guitar wizard blasting a highly amplified instrument that was strangely unattached to any visible power source.
Music was always an important feature. Later beach party flicks featured such diverse tune-makers as the Beach Boys, Little Stevie Wonder, Nancy Sinatra, James Brown, Lesley Gore, the Righteous Brothers, and Little Richard.
Annette later offered her take on the popularity of the beach party films.
“It showed everybody’s dream of what they would like their summer vacation to be, especially those kids who didn’t live near water. Their big dream was to come out to Malibu Beach and to surf and dance on the sand … It also showed that you could have fun without using vulgar language and without explicit sex scenes.”
Frankie and Annette remained co-stars together in the later AIP offerings of Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
In 1987, 24 years after Beach Party appeared, Avalon, Funicello, and Dale came together one last time in the nostalgic Back to the Beach. More a satire than another featherweight teen romp, it proved to be like many high-school reunions: fascinating but with a slightly depressing edge confirming that, no, you really can’t go home again. ISI