Directed by William Asher
Produced byJames H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff
Co-Producer: Anthony Carras
Screenplay by William Asher, Leo Townsend and Robert Dillon
Photography by Floyd Crosby, ASC
Film Editors: Fred Feitshans and Eve Newman
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Music Score by Les Baxter
Music Coordinator: Al Simms
Cast: Frankie Avalon (Frankie & Potato Bug), Annette Funicello (Dee Dee), Martha Hyer (Vivian Clements), Don Rickles (Big Drag), Harvey Lembeck (Eric Von Zipper), John Ashley (Johnny), Jody McCrea (Deadhead), Candy Johnson (Candy), Danielle Aubry (Lady Bug), Meredith MacRae (Animal), Delores Wells (Sniffles), Donna Loren, Little Stevie Wonder, The Pyramids, The Exciters Band, Janos Prohaska (Clyde), Timothy Carey (South Dakota Slim), Val Warren (The Teenage Werewolf Monster), Keenan Wynn (Harvey Huntington Honeywagon), Mickey Dora, Gary Ushes, Roger Christian, Mary Hughes, Salli Sachse, Patti Chandler, Boris Karloff (The Art Dealer)
The green metal-flake Volkswagen made its way through the drive-in lot toward the concession stand, its redline tires crunching in the gravel as it prowled in search of the best vantage point. Passing by the Beatnik Bandit, the Deora and the Silhouette, it found its spot, parked and waited for the feature to begin.
The concession stand was a shoebox. The screen tower was my parents’ console TV. And the patrons were my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars. That’s how I saw my first Beach Party flick, Bikini Beach (1964). It made quite an impression on an eight-year-old kid from South Georgia: I thought life on the California beaches was really like that. I was hooked, and Bikini Beach remains one of my favorite films to this day.
At the time of its release, the critics’ nightmares were coming true: the AIP Beach Party films were becoming a series. And with this third one, they’d truly hit their stride. It’s got surfers, chicks in bikinis, rail dragsters, Beatle satire, Gary Usher songs, Boris Karloff, Don Rickles, Timothy Carey, Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), Deadhead (Jody McCrea) and Candy Johnson.
All that, plus a fake monkey who surfs and drags. A masterpiece of Dumb.
Frankie Avalon plays two roles this time. He’s Frankie the happy-go-lucky surfer, of course, and he’s The Potato Bug, an obnoxious British pop star. He handles the part surprisingly well, turning in a Terry Thomas-ish performance (aided by hysterical fake teeth). He does one satirically Beatlesque tune (complete with the prerequisite “yeah-yeah-yeahs”), playing a cool double-neck Danelectro guitar. Of course, the two Frankies end up competing for Annette’s affection. Annette loves Frankie, as we all know, but if he’d only settle down! (I have to stop here to mention that for some people, such as my wife, the Potato Bug subplot is the cinematic equivalent of Chinese water torture.)
Annette: “I’d always hated the beach. The sea air made my hair frizzy, and as for surfing-forget it. In almost every picture, the director would call for a shot of me running down the beach, board tucked under my arm, then leaping gracefully into the surf and paddling out. But back then boards were over six feet long and weighed upward of twenty-five pounds. I tried several times, but the most they ever got out of it was a totally winded Annette gasping in the sand, my board lying several feet behind me.”
Millionaire Harvey Huntington Honeywagon (Keenan Wynn) is out to get the kids this time, using a chimp named Clyde (actually Janos Prohaska in a monkey outfit) to show up the gang (and teenagers in general) by outdoing them at surfing, drag-racing, etc. Plot-wise, that’s pretty much it. But we’re not here for the plot, are we? Just know there’s a fiery dragster crash, Timothy Carey as a pool hustler named South Dakota Slim, a Boris Karloff cameo, and it somehow ends with a chase that has Eric Von Zipper zipping around in a twin-engine go-kart like a bat out of hell.
Bikini Beach seems like a Panavision time capsule of teenage life in Southern California in the early 60s — fed through AIP’s powerful exploitation machine. You’ve got the surf culture, complete with the instrumental surf music that would soon be laid waste by the British Invasion (which itself is represented by The Potato Bug); the drag-racing and custom car sequences featuring a number of real cars and drivers; even go-karting is represented. And some of SoCal’s finest were on hand as technical advisors (sometimes with credit): “TV” Tommy Ivo, a 50s TV star who turned to drag-racing in the 60s; legendary surfer Mickey Dora, surf-hot rod songwriters Roger Christian and Gary Usher; and Von Deming, “West Coast Go-kart Champion.”
Don Rickles does a lot for this film, returning as Jack Fanny (from 1964’s Muscle Beach Party) — who’s now changed his name to Big Drag, ditching the bodybuilding scene for the drags and the arts. “…I got out of the Fanny business. That’s all behind me now.” (Smart move, Jack.) His club, Big Drag’s Pit Stop, is where the kids all hang out.
Don Rickles: “They’d shoot the entire picture in a couple of weeks. Fourteen days from start to finish… One problem: I was working clubs up in Hollywood at the same time. I’d get home at 4, grab an hour’s sleep and head out at 5 for a 6AM call at the Malibu Pier. When the camera started rolling, my eyes started rolling back. I was out of it.”
Timothy Carey is hilarious and a little creepy as South Dakota Slim, a creepy nut-job pool hustler. He’d have a bigger part in the next Beach movie, Beach Blanket Bingo (1965). To see him share a scenes with Harvey Lemback (as Eric Von Zipper) is terrific.
Some great cars get screen time here. First, check out Clyde’s dragster. It’s The Showboat, a four-engine Buick-powered dragster owned by “TV” Tommy Ivo. The Showboat has four slicks and when it hops off the line at Big Drag’s Dragstrip, it smokes up the entire track. How did anybody see to steer the thing? (A model of the car was available from Revell.) However, it turned out that four engines were not necessarily an advantage: due to the extra weight, it was slower than Ivo’s twin-engine machine.
Dean Jeffries’ showcar, the Mantaray, also appears. The Potato Bug cruises up to the dragstrip in it. That’s actually Jeffries, in the Bug’s duds, behind the wheel. Jeffries is also the creator of the Black Beauty from TV’s The Green Hornet. All the racing scenes were shot at Pamona Raceway, using footage from the ’64 Winternationals (including a run from “Big Daddy” Don Garlits).
The music’s always great in these things, but a real highlight here is an appearance by The Pyramids, the crazed bald surf band from Long Beach known for their hit “Penetration.” They do two songs, “Record Run” and the boss instrumental “Bikini Drag.” (Both tunes finally appeared on a Pyramids compilation CD from the good people at Sundazed.) Donna Loren sings “Love’s A Secret Weapon,” backed by The Exciters Band as Candy Johnson does her incredible gyrations. The Exciters Band, who backed Candy for her nightclub act, serves as the house band whenever The Pyramids aren’t around. “Little” Stevie Wonder also appears, singing over the end credits.
The story goes that The Beatles were contacted about appearing in Bikini Beach, but by the time production got underway, the Fab Four had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and were now demanding far more than AIP’s $600,000 budget would allow. So The Beatles became The Potato Bug.
Around this time, Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine held a monster makeup contest with the winner getting the chance to appear in an AIP film — and AIP getting their movie plugged in FM. The winner was Val Warren, which explains why there’s a werewolf drinking milk at the pool hall with South Dakota Slim and Eric Von Zipper. Given the tone of the film, he’s right at home.
The great Floyd Crosby was Bikini Beach‘s director of photography — and he keeps things bright and colorful throughout. Around the same time, he was shooting AIP’s Corman/Poe series, which gave him a chance to really experiment. (Floyd is also former Byrd David Crosby’s dad.)
I watch Bikini Beach about once a year. There’s something about it that just makes me happy. It’s dumb, it’s funny, the music’s great, the cars are cool, it’s got Timothy Carey in it. It’s available on a great-looking DVD from MGM (and as part of a set of all the Beach Party movies). I long for the day when it’s available on Blu-ray. Then, all will be right with the world.
This post is comin’ in off the curl as part of the Beach Party Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, June 8-12, 2015. Be sure to check out the other posts offered up by bloggers and gremmies from all across the web. And do the wise thing: apply plenty of sunscreen.
SOURCES: A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes by Annette Funicello, and Rickles’ Book: A Memoir by Don Rickles