September 15th in Seal Beach History

On this date in 1966, the film crew shooting scenes for Born Losers, the first Billy Jack film, was told to be out of town by sundown.

Poor Billy Jack. He’s an Indian, a “former Green Beret ranger,” and a man of peace. All he wants to do is mind his own business and be left alone. Sadly, a corrupt and cowardly society combined with the aggression of bullies and thugs constantly tests his code of honor and spiritual morality, and Billy Jack is forced to bring half a ton of whup-ass down on the wicked.

On top of all that, Billy Jack got kicked out of “Mayberry By The Sea.” The guy just can’t catch a break.

Let’s be honest. Born Losers is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. The plot is dopey and contrived and filled with silly, over-the-top violence. The dialogue is clumsy and wooden. The characters are flat and inconsistent. I am in no way recommending that anyone watch it. Ever.*

However, the film does provide a historical visual record of Main Street Seal Beach in September 1966. And the behind-the-scenes tale of the film shoot adds a colorful story to Seal Beach lore.

The official Seal Beach story as reported in the September 17th edition of the Long Beach Independent goes like this.

The City of Seal Beach had given permission to a movie production company to film in Seal Beach. Scenes were shot in a bar one day, and then the filming moved outdoors on Main Street, and residents complained that the motorcycle gang being filmed there was “giving the town a bad name image.” Crowds of young people gathered and blocked access to Main Street businesses as they watched the movie crew film the actors, described as having “stringy hair, tattoos, and mean looks.”

“We were somewhat perturbed, and that is putting it very mildly,” said City Manager Lee Risner. Permission had been given for filming on September 13th and 14th, “but there was no mention of any motorcyclists.” The film company had also blocked off Main Street traffic, another violation of the production company’s agreement with the city.

There’s also a point of confusion in the Long Beach Independent story. The story specifically states that permission was given to film on Tuesday and Wednesday (September 13th and 14th), but Risner says he was out of town on Wednesday and told the producer at mid-afternoon on Thursday to be out of town by sundown and then declaring, “They were.”

This makes it sound as though filming went an extra day past the permitted dates, but the news story curiously didn’t add that to the list of complaints against the film crew. Based just on this account of the events and the description that the city had “abruptly taken back its principal thoroughfare,” it seems likely that permission had been given to film longer than just Tuesday and Wednesday and probably into Friday. Why place such an emphasis on ordering the film company out of town if they were to leave anyway?

Obsessive-compulsive nitpicking aside, the crew was told to finish shooting and to leave town and were gone by sunset on Thursday, September 15.

But the 1966 Long Beach Independent story isn’t the only version of that day’s events. In 2000, “Billy Jack” himself, Tom Laughlin, Born Loser star and director did a filmmaker commentary for the Born Losers DVD with his wife, Born Loser producer (and co-star in future Billy Jack films), Delores Taylor. They talked specifically about shooting in Seal Beach that day and tell a different story.

Keep in mind that the commentary was recorded thirty-four years after the events, enough time for details to be lost to memory and actors to polish and embellish a good story.

BORN LOSERS – 2000 DVD Filmmaker Commentary Excerpt

Tom Laughlin: This… this was Seal Beach. Here’s a heck of a story which went on down in Seal Beach. Delores, why don’t you tell them? You went down and got permission — verbal permission, no permits — from the city fathers to shoot, and then what happened was amazing.

Delores Taylor: Well, it’s a small beach town, and they were very kind. They’d not had anybody come down and want to shoot on their Main Street before. And, uh, so I said to them, you know, we’ll be in there and out of there on the Main Street in a day. And, uh, but they didn’t kind of realize what was going to happen. What we did is, uh, we had Hell’s Angels, real ones, uh, riding…

Tom Laughlin: That’s another story you’ll have to tell later. Doddie hired real Hell’s Angels except for one or two actors. These are the real thing.

Delores Taylor: …and, uh, they had their own Harleys and were zooming up and down the streets. And what it did was, it gathered a crowd of the people that lived in the area and came down to shop. [They] couldn’t believe what was happening, and the store owners were getting a little upset because no one was coming into the stores. They were all watching what going on. So they…

Tom Laughlin: Well, they were lining the streets. Suddenly there were hundreds of people on all sides of the streets by eleven o’ clock that morning…

Delores Taylor: Yeah, and, uh…

Tom Laughlin: …The word was out. Wow, look at what’s going on in downtown Seal Beach!

Delores Taylor: Anyway, they came down. Three or four of the city council came down finally and were going to close our set down, and we hadn’t finished yet. So I told Tom, “You go ahead and shoot, and I’ll take them off to the side and talk to them and stuff.”

And we went down to the end of the street, and they kind of got involved in watching themselves, which was nice. But we talked and talked and talked and, uh, Tom finally signaled to me that he was done and…

Tom Laughlin: Well, while you were doing that, this scene here right down by the corner by the highway where we have to smash the car, he runs over, in a few minutes I’ll shoot the guy in the parking lot — all of that we’re shooting like mad and Doddie’s down the street…

BREAK IN AUDIO

Tom Laughlin: … There’s our daughter, Teresa, and there’s our son, Frank. We always had them on the set.

In any event, I’m shooting like mad, Doddie’s down there… and it was hours, honey. I mean, I don’t know how you charmed them, but it was hours. And it was the police chief, and I’m in there and we’re going smash the guy’s face into the window like this…

BREAK IN AUDIO

Tom Laughlin: … I shoot a guy right on that corner little drive stand whatever it was here, this store right here…

Delores Taylor: Right.

Tom Laughlin: … and you’re there holding them off.

Delores Taylor: Yeah, well, they were a little shocked because, first of all, they didn’t know it was going to be real Hell’s Angels. Secondly, they didn’t know it was going to be violence on their streets or Main Street, and, uh, but I think the biggest thing was the stores were a little upset because nobody was coming in to do any shopping. They were all just standing around and watching. “What in the world is going on?”

There’s a second Born Losers commentary recorded in 2005, but it tells the same story. I think the truth is somewhere in between the Seal Beach and Laughlin/Taylor versions of the story, but both version have the same essential details. Crowds formed to watch the filming, merchants panicked at the loss of sales, bikers riding up and down Main Street freaked out older residents, and the city shut down filming early.

——————————

These screen captures of different moments in Born Losers were taken to highlight the various Main Street shops and businesses in the background and provide a visual record of Main Street Seal Beach in September 1966. I’m not attempting to create a complete still photo narrative of the events in these Seal Beach scenes.

It’s also important to point out that some shots from other locations were inserted into the Seal Beach scenes. I’m not reproducing any of those shots here, but I’m giving fair warning not to drive yourself crazy watching Born Losers and trying to identify where in town these insert shots were filmed. A good example of this is a shot of cars waiting at a red light to turn on to a busy highway. This was filmed miles away from Seal Beach, but it is the first shot of the first Main Street sequence. In the film, that highway is located a few car lengths from Condo’s Rock Shop. In reality, the shot was filmed miles away and edited into the Seal Beach sequence.

If you try to fit that shot into the Seal Beach landscape from the rest of the sequence, that busy highway would be located at where Seal Beach’s Ocean Avenue. Movie magic, folks!

One detail mentioned in passing in the DVD commentary is that Laughlin incorporated some of the crowds watching the filming into the shots of the biker gang racing and doing stunts up and down Main Street. So look carefully, you might recognize someone.

——————————

The first Seal Beach sequences in Born Losers starts with two lanes of traffic waiting for a red light. A young man in a Volkswagen Bug is distracted by a biker chick in the next lane and bumps his bug into the motorcycle in front of him. The rider is the leader of the Born Losers motorcycle gang, and the situation escalates quickly. The young man is pulled from his car and viciously beaten by the gang.

He manages to stumble down Main Street away from the gang towards Central Avenue, giving us a view of sixties vintage Seal Beach businesses like the barber shop, Vinzant’s Variety, John’s Food King, the old Bank of America building, and waaaay off in the distance, the Bay Theatre (where I saw Billy Jack for the first time. Born Losers has never been shown at the Bay.)

One shot later, he attempts to enter Guy’s Burgers at the opposite end of the block on the corner of Ocean and Main. (More movie magic!) Billy Jack helps him make a phone call to the police, but the gang drags the young man out into parking lot and continues to beat him. Billy Jack takes a shotgun from his jeep and forces the gang to stop the beating. The police show up and round up the gang, but Billy Jack is also arrested for contrived plot reasons, er, I mean, for firing a shotgun in city.

The Born Losers are freed to continue their wild shenanigans on Main Street because the young man they beat didn’t press charges. They race and do stunts while a crowd of young admirers watch from the sidewalks.

According to the DVD commentary, these were local girls who were watching the filming and then were invited to be in the film. They were given dialogue, but I suspect their speaking roles had more to do with revealing swimwear than any acting ability.

The Born Losers vandalize Billy Jack’s jeep outside the Irisher to rub his face with their anti-Indian prejudices and warn him to leave town. (No one wants Billy Jack around!)

Then there is one final Main Street exterior scene of the Born Losers thrilling the crowd as they stage a race out of town.

And they’re gone from Main Street.

There are also two interior scenes filmed inside Byrne’s Irisher by the Sea. The Irisher’s interior serves as a hangout for The Born Losers biker gang. In the first scene, a police officer enters the bar and hassles the gang, but the gang doesn’t take him seriously. In the second scene, Billy Jack enters the bar and orders a drink and remains stoic and manly when the gang harasses him. Since the shots are pretty much duplicated in both scenes, I’m only showing the Billy Jack scene. 

And that’s the story of  Born Losers in Seal Beach.

– Michael Dobkins

*This Date in Seal Beach History strongly advises not watching Born Losers and is not legally responsible for harm or injury to anyone who chooses to watch Born Losers based on this post.


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1 Response to September 15th in Seal Beach History

  1. Lonnie Brownell says:

    Amazing. I spent way too much time at work (!) scrolling up and down, reading the text and captions, recalling the look and feel of the town. I knew that it happened (I was 11 at the time), but wasn’t down there for any of it (the St. Patrick’s Day “riots”, yes…this, no).

    The old Bayside Land Co/Art Center building housed our veterinarian for a while, and the “Medical Offices” is where we went to see Dr. DeSadeleer.

    That apartment building that towers above the Marina Cleaners, I remember when it was built, it looked like the most modern thing I could imagine. IIRC, the California T-Shirt Shop — the first silk-screened T-shirts I’d ever seen — was on the ground floor of that building (later though, early 70’s I think).

    A couple of years ago we met some friends in Seal Beach for dinner (they were coming from Santa Monica, us from Encinitas), and bought some SB coasters at California Sea Shell — so glad to see something like Condo’s is still in place. And so much nostalgia for Vinzant’s Variety! Didn’t remember the name of Guy’s Burgers — my grandma simply referred to it as “The Greasy Spoon”, so did, too. John’s Food King around the corner from where my grandparents lived, and the Rexall (before it was Bob’s Rexall) where my mom later worked. I miss Seal Beach. Does it show?

    Also, the picture of Delores and the kids is in front of a giant Wardy surfboards logo, so most likely taken in Laguna Beach.

    Plus, saving us from burning our retinas and brains by watching Born Losers (although…I’m kind of tempted…)

    Epic work, Mr. Dobkins.

    Like

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