Mr. Surf City
Dean Torrence – of Jan & Dean – proudly champions his adopted hometown of Huntington Beach
Surf City was a mythical place, a paradise for the era’s restless teens in the summer of 1963, when the song became the first surfing tune to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
Fame came quickly for the Los Angeles-born duo of Jan Berry and Dean Torrence, who became stars in their early 20s. They would build on their success with hits such as “Dead Man’s Curve,” “Ride the Wild Surf” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” joining with their younger friends, The Beach Boys, in writing the anthems of the California coastal lifestyle.
Skip forward more than half a century and, predictably, much has changed. Berry has been dead for 10 years. Severely injured in a car crash in 1966, when his Corvette struck a parked truck a few miles from the stretch of Sunset Boulevard known as Dead Man’s Curve, he overcame brain damage and partial paralysis to resume performing, but died in 2004 shortly before his 63rd birthday.
Torrence, meanwhile, has found a lasting home in Surf City. In one of those surreal instances in which life and art intertwine, Torrence became a catalyst in turning his adopted town, Huntington Beach, into the official Surf City. He spearheaded the push, in 1991, when the City Council voted 6 to 1 to use the nickname as part of a major marketing campaign. The effort involved spending $2,500 to copyright the slogan.
Although he no longer surfs, Torrence, now 75, is still riding the wave. He is a venerated figure around town. He runs his own graphic design business and pursues amateur photography and philanthropy. He finds time to play surf music with his band at as many as 40 gigs a year, many of them local, some as far away as Myrtle Beach, S.C.
For most of the past quarter-century, Torrence has been a volunteer board member of the private nonprofit group Visit Huntington Beach SurfCityUSA, which posts tourism information at SurfCityUSA.com. He shoots beach photos for the organization’s glossy magazine.
Everyone asks him: How does it feel to be the original singer of “Surf City” now living in a real place named after the song?
“I love it,” Torrence says, answering his own question over a soda on the upper floor of Ruby’s Surf City Diner, at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier. Replicas of Jan & Dean’s gold albums hang on a nearby wall. “I’ve been collecting signage for five, six or seven years – signs relating to Surf City,” Torrence says. He has photographed 60 or 70 such signs featuring the phrase “Surf City” and is assembling them into one big poster.
“I love going down the street and seeing a diner or a business or license plate frame or decal with ‘Surf City’ on it,” he says.
Soft-spoken and unpretentious, but direct when offering opinions, Torrence is given to touches of wry humor and exhibits a playful side, especially on stage. He is fond of Hawaiian shirts and cargo pants.
Striding along the pier, looking somehow hawk-like with his eyes squinting against the sun and his hair – mostly white now – cropped high and combed straight back, Torrence pauses to point out yet another “Surf City” sign above a shop door. He remembers, with evident relish, when Huntington Beach fought and won a court battle with the city of Santa Cruz, which also laid claim to being Surf City.
“It made international headlines,” Torrence says of the protracted feud. “The publicity was fan-tas-tic!”
Adopting Surf City was all about gaining exposure, and Torrence is ever-mindful of the big picture. No one can gauge precisely how important the marketing campaign has been to Huntington Beach’s growth, but the city, which hosts the annual U.S. Open of Surfing at the end of July, is undergoing a boom.
Busy Main Street, near the pier, now spills over into an adjoining commercial strip known as The Strand. In November, developers expect to open Pacific City, a huge beachside complex of stores and restaurants anchored by a 550-room luxury hotel near relatively new existing resorts operated by Hilton and Hyatt Regency.
Five hundred new apartments are going in along with a 2-acre park, notes Kelly Miller, CEO of Visit Huntington Beach, who calls the “Surf City” moniker “wildly important” to breeding tourism. Huntington Beach now commands one of the highest average room rates in Orange County – $242 a night – and draws upwards of 13 million visitors a year.
Standing at Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street, under the mute gaze of a statue of surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku, you can see the pier extending beyond the breakers and teens strolling by in bikinis and boardshorts “You can say, ‘I’m here. I’m at the Times Square of surfing,’ ” Miller says. “People conjure this image of Surf City USA – it means surfing, bonfires, woodies and old cars, great beach tunes and small-town America. We have all those things.”
Torrence embodies something of Huntington Beach’s small-town roots, Miller says. “He’s probably one of the most approachable pop icons you could ever meet. He’s unassuming. He has a sense of serenity about him. He still flashes that great teen-idol smile.”
The voice, too, remains smooth and resonant, and Torrence goes on at length about matters of importance to him. He tells a rambling story about how he met his wife, Susan, whom he married in 1982. He was on a spring concert swing through Florida, and she was a marketer for Anheuser-Busch, the sponsor. Seventeen years younger than he was, she had never heard of Jan & Dean.
Soon he segues to a related story about a free outdoor concert in Daytona Beach and an irascible promoter who feared they could not fill the 800-seat band shell. “The event comes, and we drive in and see thousands of people walking toward the band shell – 25,000 people,” Torrence says, smiling.
His parents, who were living in the Bay Area, were on a job-scouting trip to Los Angeles when Torrence was born prematurely in 1940. They saw his birth here as a sign they should settle in Southern California, and Torrence’s father, Maurice, accepted a job at Wilshire Oil Co. “I was lucky,” Torrence says. “Had they gone back … ”
His voice trails off. Torrence would not have grown up in West Los Angeles nor met Jan Berry while on a junior high school football team in Westwood, nor performed with him in a garage band while at University High. He would not have befriended The Beach Boys – younger surf-singing kids who would become protégés of Jan & Dean and regular collaborators with them on albums and in concerts.
Longtime band mate Chris Farmer, who worked with both groups, moved from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach in the 1980s and takes credit for persuading the Torrences to move to the beach town. From the deck of his house, Torrence can watch the looming sunsets, ready with his camera.
“You can see when these skies are going to happen after a rain,” he says. “I get in the car, park quickly, and shoot it. I’ve been shooting it for years.”
Torrence enjoys talking about his two daughters, who grew up in Surf City. Katie, 25, is a singer who was featured on the soundtrack of the 2011 low-budget horror film “Return of the Killer Shrews,” with Torrence assisting on background vocals.
Jillian, 21, is a marketing major at San Francisco State University. She took a surfing class while attending Huntington Beach High School, requiring dad to drop her off at 5:30 a.m. at the beach parking lot. “I have her report cards,” Torrence says with amusement. “I can say, ‘Well, I don’t surf, but my daughter got an A in surfing.’ ”
Around town, Torrence is known for his support of community causes. “He’s always generous with his time,” says John Etheridge, a board member of the Surfing Walk of Fame, who attended a gala last fall at which 28 custom surfboards were auctioned off for nearly $100,000. Torrence donated a gold record of “Surf City” that was mounted into a board – which now hangs on Etheridge’s wall. “It’s like the centerpiece of my house,” he says.
A collector of memorabilia, much of it stashed in rented storage space, Torrence was able to dig out a special gift for Doug Cavanaugh, co-founder of Ruby’s Diner, to celebrate the opening of a new restaurant in Costa Mesa. Ruby’s is named after Cavanaugh’s mother. The gift “was one of those 1950s bowling balls, with all the swirls in it,” Torrence recalls. “A pretty bowling ball, ruby red. And the name on it – it was a woman’s bowling ball – was RUBY.”
The past is a big deal for Torrence. He has abundant memories of people, trips, concerts, Berry’s car crash. The emotional devastation it caused, derailing the duo’s career, rendering Berry, who had been tested at a genius level, barely able to function. “He went from an IQ of 177 to 68,” Torrence says. “I felt very badly for him, and upset at how careless and reckless he was.”
In the aftermath, Torrence resorted to graphic design, a subject he had studied at USC; he began creating album covers, earning a Grammy Award in 1971 for co-designing the album “Pollution” by Pollution.
Only after 13 years of difficult rehabilitation was Berry able to return to the stage. Torrence remembers teaming up with The Beach Boys for a sold-out show at the massive (and now razed) Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh in 1979. “Within four or five months, we were flying around on their private jet, playing stadiums,” he says. “It was pretty damn neat.”
Jan & Dean officially toured again from 1980 to 2004, until Berry’s sudden death from a seizure. Crowds embraced them, Torrence says, but Berry had lost his songwriting prowess and the rigors of traveling and performing were “extremely difficult for him – and for us,” Torrence recalls. Berry had limited use of the entire right side of his body. He dragged his right foot. He had to learn to write with his left hand.
“Most people thought he’d had a stroke,” says Torrence, who felt the concerts gave Berry “hope that he could become close to normal again. It never would be.”
Torrence sees a “huge parallel” in the psychological struggles of Berry and their friend Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys, who is the subject of a film due for release this month called “Love & Mercy,” starring John Cusack as the Wilson of recent years.
Torrence is just as apt, however, to talk about current topics: The proprietors of downtown Huntington Beach. The Surfing Walk of Fame (he thinks the “stars” should be starfish) on Main Street. The design work he plans to start for next year’s 50th anniversary of The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” album. And various business ventures, including his plans to celebrate car culture and entertainment with a pair of enormous motor speedway complexes, one near Fresno, the other outside New Orleans, featuring theme parks and band venues. He and a “loose bunch of like-minded people” hope to begin construction of the California project later this year.
Of the past, Torrence says simply, “It’s in the past. I guess I’m blessed enough to have thousands of things I’m as interested in – stuff I haven’t done yet. I feel sorry for those people who only have the past as the only good time they’ve ever had.”
So when Cindy Cross, director of the International Surfing Museum, asks for Torrence’s help in staging a fundraiser for the tiny establishment just off Main Street, Torrence rounds up three other members of his band and plays a benefit set on the patio of the SeaCliff Country Club. It’s a lovely setting, overlooking a fountain and pond and the green contours of the golf course, with the sun slipping toward the ocean.
“Anybody have any requests?” asks band member Farmer.
“Surf City!” Cross says.
Torrence feigns indignation. “We don’t start out with it!” he says. “Obviously, she’s not in show business.”
The band rolls through a series of classics, the soundtrack of the boomer generation: “Pipeline,” “Hotel California,” “Sloop John B.” The sun nears the horizon as Torrence and his guys launch into “Surf City.”
Torrence smiles. He looks happy. Fewer than 30 spectators occupy the patio, but the band might as well be playing a jam-packed Angel Stadium as they close out the set with a high-energy rendition of The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
“... Everybody’s gone surrrrfin’, surfin’ U.S.A.”
“Was that OK?” Torrence asks, as Cross rushes to meet him afterward.
She is ebullient. “That was more than OK!”