The Coast News Group
Denny Aaberg is a surfer, musician and writer — in that order. Photo by Chris Ahrens

Waterspot: The long, storied history behind Denny, John and Lance

In the early ‘60s filmmaker, turned Surfer Magazine publisher, John Severson set the surfing world on fire with his film “Big Wednesday.” Two surfers raised on it and other surf films of that era — Denny Aaberg and John Milius — had that title and accompanying images marinating for a decade and a half before they co created a film of the same name, and what many believe to be the best feature on surfing of all time.

It began with Denny Aaberg taking a creative writing class and submitting a short story called “No Pants Mance.” The short story thinly disguised Lance Carson, Aaberg’s (and just about everyone else’s) surf hero from the ‘60s with a name that rhymed.

Carson was so influential on me that I once had my mother drive me to Hermosa Beach from my inland home just to see Lance behind the counter at the Jacob’s shop. Lance was not known as a big-wave rider, but he was a brilliant surfer whose power turns and silky style — hands at his side while endlessly hanging 10 into the Malibu kiddie bowl — spoke of genius.

He was a lovable, flawed character whose fortes and foibles made for great cinema. Milius, whose screen credits include “Dirty Harry,” “The Wind and the Lion,” and “Apocalypse Now” had spent the summers of his youth riding waves at Malibu where he, like all of us, tried and failed to imitate Lance Carson. Instead, he did the next best thing: he re-created the entire scene.

Using surfing stunt doubles Billy Hamilton, Peter Townend, Jay Riddle and Ian Cairns to surf for Jan Michael Vincent, Gary Busey, and William Katt, Milius and company flew to El Salvador where they vainly attempted to recreate ‘60s Malibu. While the El Salvador footage ended up on the floor, Hawaii’s Sunset Beach put the friendly point on HGH and somehow made the cut for the movie’s final scenes.

By now the controversial move of California Gov. Gavin Newsom to open the Hollister Ranch to the public is old news. In 1976, when “Big Wednesday” was shot, however, it was strictly off limits to anyone but illegal boaters and Ranch property owners. And it was there at a spot whose name I won’t mention, that the Malibu wall was reconstructed and crisp, playful point waves did their magic.

The music adds a lot to “Big Wednesday,” especially Aaberg’s unplugged version of his song, “Crumple Car,” a tribute to an old, abandoned rusting vehicle that, in Denny’s imagination, once served surfers by getting them to the beach and was then being tossed around in the Ranch shorebreak.

I like “Big Wednesday.” The story is compelling, the language is authentic, the surf and the surfers are good, and the portrayal of Lance Carson does my favorite surfer from that time justice. And, while it lifts my spirits on one hand, it also lowers them a bit and I long for those endless days before endless freeways and two bucks could take you anywhere you wanted to go, lunch included. 

Milius aand Aaberg remember too when the beaches were our playground, the waves our salvation, surfboards our idols and kings rode tall.