Let’s Go ‘Back to the Beach’ For Its 35th Anniversary

Back in 1988 or so, Back to the Beach used to play on a never-ending HBO loop. It was always on and was kind of the perfect mid-day, nothing else to do movie for a kid my age at the time when the internet didn’t exist yet and I wasn’t old enough to drive a car. Paramount is releasing a brand new Blu-ray to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Back to the Beach and, I’ll admit, I was a little bit wary in a, “Will this still be good?,” way. Anyway, I had a fantastic time watching this again. It, strangely, works better in 2022 than it did in 1987.

Starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, at the time it was a tribute to ’60s beach movies with some cameos from the stars of Gilligan’s Island and Leave it to Beaver sprinkled in. But today, it really works as a snapshot of the 1980s featuring the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Fishbone, and of course Pee-wee Herman singing “Surfin’ Bird.”

Lyndall Hobbs directed Back to the Beach and, speaking to her about it now, she seems bittersweet. She’s extremely proud of what she accomplished on a tight schedule and budget – and feels she made some good choices in the aforementioned cameo department with names that still hold up today (well, except OJ Simpson). As she mentions, Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs up, but she isn’t even sure how they saw it because, at the time, the film kind of got buried and she says there weren’t even any critic screenings. It wasn’t until its cable run that Back to the Beach took off, but, as she says, that really didn’t help her career.

So I had not seen this since it was on HBO. This movie makes a lot more sense to me now, if that makes sense. I had a great time rewatching it…

Yeah, it does. No, it’s witty. It holds up. It’s bizarre. I saw it not so long ago, too, and it was like, Gosh. This was really funny. And had some really good, cute stuff and some good jokes and just a really nice feeling and some great music that you know.

Well, I’m going to take it a step further. I’m going to say not only does it hold up, I think it plays better in 2022 than it does in 1987. What do you think of that?

Oh, well, excuse me. I’m very happy to hear that. That’s fantastic. Honestly, how about just whack it on back out there?

It’s summer. Everyone can go back to the beach.

People have been having such a hideous time for so long…

Well, that’s true.

And it’s ongoing as we know, so what about a bit of absolutely preposterous nonsense that’s fun and adorable and cute to watch? Anyway, that’s just my five cents.

At the time, I know Siskel and Ebert loved it. But I think the audience didn’t quite understand what it was. And since then, a lot of movies like this have been made…

Right, right, right. No, I think it did start something and you’re right. Listen, a lot of people were snobs. Also, let’s be frank, Siskel and Ebert managed to get it. Paramount, somehow, completely ditched it and there was not even literally a single press screening. The press were not allowed to see it. There was no opening, and for whatever reasons, Paramount decided to never release a single solitary, fabulous photo of me directing on the beach with my gorgeous daughter on my hip. The film was given zero push. So the fact that it was enjoyed by so many was great, but it wasn’t really launched in the way that had originally been planned. People just still come up to me and go, “Oh, my god”…

Are you surprised by that? Are you surprised? Like you just said, it didn’t get much of a push at the time, but it’s still a movie people like and want to talk about.

Well, not particularly. No. I think I did a pretty wonderful job, frankly.

Right, but there are other movies that I think people did wonderful jobs on that aren’t talked about today. I don’t think it’s a done deal that you get talked about today just because the movie is good. Does that make sense?

You’re right. You’re right. You’re right. I’m not sure. It hits some sort of nerve of just innocent, fun times that we like to associate the summer with. We like to think of it as America was a fun time where you can go to the beach and also, beach movies were things. So I guess there’s dumb nostalgia. Look, yes, I guess it does surprise me a little bit. Yeah.

Well, ’80s nostalgia, or its influence, never goes away for some reason. Speaking of Paramount, Top Gun is the biggest movie of the year this year. And Back to the Beach packs more ’80s culture into this movie than I think it does ’60s culture.

You’re right about that. No, absolutely.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Fishbone, and Pee-wee Herman are in this movie. Were those your decisions?

That was on me. I loved Pee-wee Herman. I loved Fishbone. With Fishbone, they were like, “We’re doing a number with Annette?” I thought it was so surreal and crazy that they went along with it, which was great. And so that was an insanely mad, surreal combo. But, yeah. And Stevie Ray Vaughan is just a classic. I was thrilled when he said yes. That was a coup, I thought.

Tony Dow just passed away but he is in this movie. He and Jerry Mathers are basically playing Siskel and Ebert-type characters.

Well, that was adorable. That was sweet. In a funny way that almost made me a tiny bit sad. It was kind of like, “This is what they’re doing now. Why can’t they have a show of their own?” But, look, everybody just had a great attitude towards it. I don’t know. I guess there’s something about the beloved Frankie and Annette that everybody was just predisposed towards. Everybody kept saying “Yes”, which was surprising.

That’s interesting, because I’ve been thinking about this a lot since I re-watched this a few days ago. If Leave it to Beaver were an ’80s show, I feel today they would have their own show. I think people remain relevant longer, maybe because of social media. But you brought all these people back like Bob Denver and Alan Hale Jr…

Let’s not forget O.J. Simpson.

Yes, he is also in this.

Yeah. We probably shouldn’t crow about that, but he was perfectly charming at the time and professional. But there were also some very witty lines in there. The kid has some witty lines. The late Chris Thompson who created Bosom Buddies, he did the big re-write on it and there was some funny stuff that still makes me laugh that’s just silly, but quick and funny and witty. So I think people respond to that, too.

Annette Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the year this came out. I don’t know if she had any symptoms while filming, but it is nice she got to do this movie while she still could.

Absolutely. No, there were no symptoms at all. I had no idea. She, obviously, didn’t mention it, but was brave enough and obviously, well enough to do it. But I think a year or two later she went downhill, unfortunately and it was… yeah. Incredibly sad.

Because there were talks about doing another movie and I read she basically said she couldn’t do it.

Right. Exactly. I’ve subsequently thought a TV show Back to the Beach where Frankie is now the grandfather, and then there are the kids and then the grandchildren are all hanging out at the beach and he took over the bar, but haven’t really pursued it. But it does occur to me that it’s probably time for some corny TV show like that with all sorts of new people and surfing.

So how were Frankie and Annette on set? The plot sets up Frankie as this kind of loser who just talks about his glory days on the beach. I kind of wonder how he was about that, ego-wise?

No, look, they were completely fine. They never added a word of a complaint or, “What if we changed this word?” Frankie and Annette were just absolutely professional beyond belief. Complete gems. Ready. They really, really were just complete pros and Frankie does have his moment in the end. He’s the Big Kahuna again there, on the board. So I think he was thrilled with that. He’s got a good sense of humor, Frankie. He’s smart. He got it.

You said you were a fan of Pee-wee Herman. Do you just call Paul Reubens and say, “Hey, do you want to be in this?” He had just done Pee-wee’s Big Adventure

You know what? He was completely thrilled to do it. It was one night of shooting. There are not a lot of words. He did mime, but he didn’t have to mime a lot of words. No, he was totally into it. There was never a problem, really, getting anyone. I can’t think of anyone we tried to get that we couldn’t. They saw that it was a cute, fun, witty script. That side of things was great. When I turned it into a musical, I didn’t get any extra time or budget. So the fact that I brought it in on time and on budget was pretty great, but everybody worked like dogs and it wasn’t an easy shoot. It was really beyond exhausting and grueling, but we got that. It happened. And lots of long nights shooting.

Before we go, is there anything else that sticks out? Like, “well, this weird thing happened.” Like, Don Adams is in this…

I barely had time, unfortunately, to chat and hang and schmooze with these people. I know tons of my friends and people who worked on it would have all sorts of stories. “Oh, my God. We were having lunch and Don said this.” I didn’t have time for that. I had to be so focused. So all the cute things that happened off-set, I wasn’t privy to because I was working like a dog. All I can say is everybody had a ball and let’s do another one. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, but it was a pretty fun experience except that, as you say, at the time, it wasn’t a big hit. So if it’s not a big hit at the moment, it didn’t help my career. But, subsequently, it somehow lasted. So that’s very nice to know.

So with Don Adams, you could say you … missed it by that much.

[Laughs] Exactly.

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