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Lyndall Hobbs Has Mixed Feelings about Back to the Beach

I would wager that very few movies surprised Roger Ebert. In his more than 45-year career, he pretty much saw it all. But in 1987, he wrote that he was “blindsided” by, of all things, Lyndall Hobbs’ “Back to the Beach.” In his three-and-a-half-star review, he wrote, “I don't know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn't the funniest, quirkiest musical comedy since ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ Who would have thought Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello would make their best beach party movie 25 years after the others?”

Frankie, for you of tender years, was a teen idol with five top 10 hits, including two No. 1s. Annette was first-generation Mouseketeer on “The Mickey Mouse Club.” They were first paired in “Beach Party” and quickly established themselves as a screen couple whose sunny chemistry made them their generation’s Tracy and Hepburn as well as unlikely Southern California icons (Frankie was a dark-haired Philadelphia native).

In “Back to the Beach,” Frankie and Annette are middle-aged, married and living in Ohio. Frankie is a stressed-out, high-strung car salesman. The self-described “corniest couple in the world” are in a rut. They take a detour on their Hawaiian family vacation to visit their daughter (Lori Laughlin) in Malibu. Times have changed: She is living with a surfer and mohawked punks are taking over their former beach. But some things stay the same: Surf guitar god Dick Dale (who was in the original “Beach Party”) is still rocking the kid hangouts, and romantic jealousy and misunderstandings (in the form of “bad girl” Connie Stevens) threaten to split Frankie and Annette. Seems like old times.

The pleasures of “Back to the Beach” are boundless. Damien Slade steals every scene as Frankie and Annette’s needling punk wannabe son. The film is peppered with cameos by 1960sTV icons, including Bob Denver and Alan Hale, Jr. (“Gilligan’s Island”), Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers and Barbara Billingsley (“Leave it to Beaver”), Don Adams (“Get Smart”) and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes (“77 Sunset Strip”). A pre-Trial of the Century O.J. Simpson sends up his Hertz TV commercials.  

The musical numbers are the absolute utmost. Pee-Wee Herman drops in to perform “Surfin’ Bird,” because why not, but the highlight is “Jamaica Ska,” performed by Annette and Fishbone. This is what OMG looked like in 1987.

“Back to the Beach” made only a little splash at the box office; it opened against “The Living Daylights,” which introduced Timothy Dalton as James Bond. But 35 years later, '80s nostalgia has “Back to the Beach” riding a new wave of cult fandom. It also serves as a poignant valentine to Funicello, who kept from the cast that she had been diagnosed with MS. She died in 2013 at the age of 70.

“Back to the Beach” was Hobbs’ directorial debut. An Australian native with music videos and an “SNL” short to her credit, she was unfamiliar with the “Beach Party” franchise. But she managed to create what Ebert hailed as “a quirky little gem filled with good music, a lot of laughs and proof that Annette still knows how to make a polka-dot dress seem ageless.”

“Back to the Beach” turns 35 this month. Hobbs spoke with about the joys of working with Frankie and Annette, who in the icon-packed cast had “an edge” and how her big break caused her career to wipe out.

You’ve heard the maxim, “Never meet your heroes,” but I have never heard a bad word said about Frankie and Annette. What was your experience with them?

Completely divine beyond belief. The best vibes. Professional like you wouldn’t believe. On time. Knowing their words. Heaven. Joking around. Not jaded. Enthusiastic. You couldn’t ask for any more.

You grew up in Melbourne. Were you familiar with the “Beach Party” movies?

I grew up watching “The Mickey Mouse Club.” I wasn’t aware of the Beach Parties until I was offered the script to do, and I quickly did some research. I had become a journalist in England, but suddenly in my late 20s, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a director.’ My then-husband Chris Thompson who was a very funny writer—he created “Bosom Buddies”—was given the script to do a big rewrite on. He thought I could do this. I was in London showing off my baby and suddenly got a call from Paramount asking if I would direct this film. And I was like, ‘What?’

Did you do a crash course on the “Beach Party” films?

Not really. I didn’t have to. I was witty and clever enough [laughs]. I read Chris’ script and thought it was very funny and that I could do something with it. I decided we should turn it into a musical and Paramount said they weren’t going to give us any more time and money. We said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pull it off,’ and we did.  

I had fabulous set designers and costume people and a great crew. Frankie and Annette inspired people to agree to be in it, like Pee Wee. Every person we went after decided to do it. It was one of those special things where everyone comes together and it works despite the difficulty of shooting on the beach in Malibu in winter.

This film looks like it was a blast to make.

I didn’t have a lot of fun shooting it. I was crazy busy. Everybody else would tell tales of Frankie and Annette sitting around chatting and hanging on the pier and having a ball. That was not my experience. I’m not complaining. I had a great time, really, but it was pretty hard to pull off.

One of the pleasures of the movie are the 1960s TV icons. We just lost one of them, Tony Dow. Were you familiar with "Leave It to Beaver" and do you have any memories of working with him?

Oh, sure. We watched ‘Beaver.’ I knew all the shows; I knew who everybody was. I wasn’t naïve in that sense. I just hadn’t watched all the “Beach Party” movies. Tony Dow was divine. They were all the sweetest people. I felt bad there weren’t more lines for them. But Paramount wanted me to keep cutting stuff. But I was like, ‘For god’s sake, can’t we give them more to do?’ I felt like that with everyone. You didn’t have to do take after take with them. Don Adams’ ‘Missed it by that much?’ One take. Everybody was a hoot.

Even O.J.?

He was probably on set for an hour-and-a-half. That was a tricky day filming at the airport, but he was a doll; a charming perfectly good guy. He did not mind being silly. He was charming. He got the joke. And that’s what everyone was like. They didn’t mind spoofing themselves. I take that back. There was one who had a little edge to her.


Connie [Stevens].

I don’t want to hear that. She was my first TV crush. She was Cricket on “Hawaiian Eye.”

No, she was fine. There was just one very late night and were doing the big beach party bonfire and she was on edge. But she was fantastic. That scene where meets Frankie again in the club, she’s brilliant. She totally got it, she nailed it. Great sense of humor.

What was the most fun scene to shoot, and why was it “Jamaica Ska”?

Just because I loved every part of it, the combination of the Fishbone arriving at the beach and Annette rehearsing a little bit behind the scenes, everyone saying I was not going to pull it off and I should cut it. But we pulled it off; the sun came out, and the playback was fun and everyone was completely digging it. It was one of those brilliant days where I thought, ‘Wow, what a lucky girl I am.’.

The film did not do well in its initial run, but it has picked up a cult following over the years.

Paramount publicity didn’t do a press screening and it was not given any kind of a release, but somehow the incredible Siskel and Ebert got to see it and gave it a great review. It did nothing for my career, in fact, quite the reverse, because as a female in those days, if you don’t make a hit film right out of the gate, you’re considered a dud completely. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, I can assure you.

But it has to be rewarding that it continues to find an audience 35 years later.

I wish it would lead to something else. Somebody recently said why not do a TV series where Frankie is a grandfather now. Everyone’s ready for a fun beach series because life is so incredibly bleak a lot of the time now. I would love something to come of it all. I do have a good feeling when people talk about how the movie puts a smile on their faces. I feel very honored.

On top of everything else, it’s such a wonderful tribute to Annette.

Such a tribute to Annette! She was one of the sweetest, nicest, kindest people. People now say that she was starting to feel a few problems because of the MS, but we certainly didn’t know. She was a divine girl.

“Back to the Beach” is now available for the first time on Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based film critic, entertainment writer and DVD reviewer. He has been published in The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, Printer's Row Journal, Los Angeles Times, Movieline and Entertainment Weekly.

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