“I was just thinking of this place that I’ve been. It’s a secret beach, a real paradise. There are giant waves all day long every day of the year and plenty of girls. No hodads, no grammies—in fact, there are two girls for every guy.”
—Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, in an unaired 1963 television pilot episode of Surf Scene
William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence (better known as the duo Jan and Dean) sang about a fictitious spot known as “Surf City.” The 1963 single, which was co-written with Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, became the first surf song to reach No. 1 on the charts. Almost three decades later, “Surf City” graduated from a fictitious city to a real one when Torrence successfully lobbied his adopted hometown of Huntington Beach to be known as Surf City, USA. The nickname stuck and helped solidify HB as the No. 1 Orange County beach on the map.
However, life hasn’t always been a beach for Torrence. By the end of the 1960s, he would be linked to not only a high-profile kidnapping, but also a tragic car crash involving Berry that would pump the brakes on his musical career.
In stark contrast to most acts of the ’60s, Jan and Dean prioritized college over music, recording songs and making public appearances on the side. In 1963, they attended rival universities: Torrence majored in advertising design at USC’s School of Architecture, while Berry studied medicine at UCLA.
After meeting Wilson when the Beach Boys were merely a local group from Hawthorne, Jan and Dean reached commercial success faster than their mentors. “Surf City” would be the first of many collaborations between Berry and Wilson, and while the Beach Boys’ musical genius was thrilled over the hit song, his father and manager, Murry Wilson, was irate, believing his son had wasted a No. 1 record for his own group. Murry called Jan and Dean “pirates,” and when Berry heard how angry Mr. Wilson was, he reportedly arrived at a Beach Boys session at Western Studios wearing an elaborate pirate costume, complete with an eye patch. Murry was not amused. Together, the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean pioneered the California sound and popularized surf lingo. (In case you were wondering, a “hodad” is a non-surfer who frequents beaches pretending to be a wave rider, and a “grammie” is beachgoer who is old and gets in the way of the surfers.)
At the height of their fame in 1964, Jan and Dean hosted and performed at the notorious TAMI Show and sang the title track for the movie Ride the Wild Surf, which is widely considered the best Hollywood surf movie of that decade. The pair were cast in the film to co-star alongside teen idol Fabian, but they were pulled by Columbia Pictures after news broke that connected Torrence to Barry Keenan, the mastermind behind the 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. Torrence’s best friend from University High School, Keenan was down on his luck when he convinced the singer to lend him $1,200 to finance the abduction. Sinatra Jr., who was following in his father’s footsteps on the crooner circuit, was booked at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe on Dec. 8, 1963, when the 19-year-old was taken from his hotel room at gunpoint. Sinatra Sr. paid a $240,000 ransom, which Keenan planned to eventually pay back after investing it in a business venture. The bizarre plan quickly went awry, and at the trial, Torrence first maintained that he was simply a friend of Keenan’s and didn’t realize what he had planned to do with the money. However, after the mid-afternoon recess, Torrence returned to change his testimony, admitting to prior knowledge of the kidnapping plot. He was not charged with being involved in the crime, but his TV pilot, Surf Scene, was canceled over the controversy.
In 1964, Jan and Dean released their fourth single, “Dead Man’s Curve.” Part of the teenage-tragedy-tale phenomenon of the period, the hit song told the story of a Corvette Stingray’s deadly crash on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills known as Dead Man’s Curve. Just two years later, life tragically mirrored art when Berry crashed his own Corvette Stingray in a near-fatal accident on Dead Man’s Curve. He recovered from brain damage and partial paralysis, and in his absence, Torrence recorded Save for a Rainy Day, a concept album featuring all rain-themed songs that was created on a four-track in his garage. Torrence posed with Ken Berry, Jan’s brother, for the album cover photos and kept open the possibility that they would perform together again someday. Meanwhile, in November 1967, Torrence opened the graphic-design studio Kittyhawk and became a Grammy Award-winning artist, designing the album covers for recordings by Canned Heat, the Ventures, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Harry Nilsson, and Linda Ronstadt, as well as for Steve Martin’s first three classic comedy records: Let’s Get Small, A Wild and Crazy Guy, and Comedy Is Not Pretty!
Despite the many physical problems Berry had to overcome, including partial paralysis, aphasia and very limited use of his right arm, Jan and Dean performed live again at the Orange County Fair in 1985. Four years later, Torrence moved out of his Hollywood Hills home and set up permanent residence in Huntington Beach. In 1991, he helped convince elected officials to nickname the town Surf City. After several back-and-forth lawsuits with Santa Cruz, Huntington Beach was officially trademarked as “Surf City USA” in 2006, and a major marketing campaign to rebrand the town followed.
For years, the outgoing message on Torrence’s answering machine was “If I’m not home, I’m probably out Boogie-boarding.” Although he retired from surfing, he still runs his graphic-design company from the spacious office above his home and performs more than 40 gigs per year with his band, the Surf City All Stars. He even joined the Beach Boys onstage for their 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour at Irvine’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in June 2012.
The 79-year-old remains a lively and well-respected figure around Huntington Beach. Last year, he began a business venture with longtime friend Doug Cavanaugh, founder of the Ruby’s Diner chain. Over breakfast one morning, Cavanaugh floated the idea of transforming the entire 2,000-square-foot second floor of the Ruby’s at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier into a tiki restaurant. Torrence loved the idea. World-famous tiki-bar designer and fellow Huntington Beach resident “Bamboo” Ben Bassham designed the space, replacing the boring white walls that previously surrounded Ruby’s overflow guests on busy days with bamboo walls, tiki-inspired totem poles and dim lighting to draw visitors’ attention to windows facing the Pacific Ocean’s gorgeous swells. A little more than a year after that breakfast, on Oct. 10, 2018, Jan and Dean’s Tiki Lounge opened with a celebration featuring a live performance by the Hula Girls.
The stylish, colorful menu, which was designed by Disney contributing artist Jeff Granito, promotes a very fine selection of tropical food and cocktails, including coconut shrimp, huli-huli wings, piña coladas, mai tais, pain killers and a specialty drink called “Dean’s Dream.” With a liquor license still pending, as well as plans to add a walk-up bar, cocktails are currently crafted with a rum-infused brand of sake. A secret button on the wall cues “The Tiki, Tiki, Tiki Room,” the official song for Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, and a Dole Whip can be ordered from the dessert menu, meaning there are two ways to experience Disneyland delights. Cavanaugh and Torrence have plans to keep the tiki torch burning by opening up to four more Jan and Dean’s Tiki Lounge locations at Southern California Ruby’s Diners within the next year.
It has been 56 years since Torrence recorded “Surf City,” a song he estimates he has performed live more than 800 times. He remains the heartbeat of not just Huntington Beach, but also the SoCal surfing lifestyle.