Bare Feet, Bikinis & Balboa Bars
I don’t do movie reviews, leaving that particular art form to folks who spend more time in the dark than I do. That said, I recently saw “The Way, Way Back,” a wonderful movie that has it all: a uniquely interesting story, unusually smart writing, a satisfying mix of wonder, drama, pathos and humor all delivered by an excellent cast led by Steve Carell (of TV’s “The Office” fame) in a role completely unlike any he’s played before. I’ll just say that he’s surprisingly good at playing a character you love to hate.
The story opens with 14-year-old Duncan and his divorced mother heading to the coast with her also-divorced boyfriend (Mr. Carell) for what is supposed to be a long summer vacation at the boyfriend’s beach house.
Besides being great fun to watch the progression of poignant, life-changing events unfold on-screen, this special movie reminded me of the many summers I spent (for one or two weeks at a time, that is) at one of Southern California’s premier family beach destinations of the ’60s and ’70s – Balboa Island in Newport Beach.
Technically, Balboa is more like a spit of land that was separated from the mainland by a channel dredged around it soon after the turn of the 20th Century. Once not much more than tidal mudflats and marshland, in the early 1900s, Balboa was developed into a tiny island only 0.2 square miles in size with lot sizes only 30 feet wide by 85 feet deep. (Today those itsy bitsy lots represent some of the most expensive real estate in America, second in cost-per-square-foot only to lower Manhattan.)
In my youthful summers, we’d load up our family land-yacht, aka the station wagon, with its faux-wood vinyl sides and rear-facing third row seat (just like Duncan sits on in the movie as he rides sullenly to the beach) and head south on the 605 Freeway. We’d already be smelling of Coppertone bronzing lotion or, for the hard-core tanners in our party, Johnson’s Baby Oil (sunscreen was still years away from being mandatory for beach trips).
We’d take the Jamboree Road off ramp and head due west towards the coast. Back then, Jamboree wound its way to the ocean through many miles of undeveloped rolling hills covered with tall grass. Where Jamboree ends, we’d drive over the narrow two-lane bridge that connects the island to the mainland. Balboa Island is crisscrossed by narrow cement streets with names that will forever remind me of walking in bare feet from one side of the island to the other and back; street names like Agate, Pearl, Opal, Coral, Topaz and Ruby. Just writing those names, I can feel tiny grains of beach sand rubbing between my toes and ground into the tar on the heels of my summer-tough feet.
We’d walk everywhere during our summer visits to the island, whether to the ferry landing where my friends and I would sit on the seawall and watch the “Admiral,” “Commodore” and “Captain” ferry boats slowly churning across the channel to the Peninsula and back. Of course, when we weren’t watching the ferryboats, our young male eyes were glued to the coveys of young females barely wearing bikinis and pretending not to notice us noticing them as they giggled and jiggled by.
After walking to the center of the island where shops and restaurants lined Marine Avenue, we’d walk past the queue of tourists waiting for a table at the Jolly Roger restaurant and head straight for the nearby walk-up window to buy chocolate-covered bananas and Balboa Bars – a big slab of vanilla ice cream on a stick dipped in melted chocolate and slapped into waiting toppings like crushed peanuts or rainbow sprinkles. Such good times. And even better memories.
I doubt they’ll ever produce a movie about my summers on Balboa Island, but if they do, I’d like Ben Affleck to play me. Just sayin’.
I’ll see you ’round town.