Not a whole lot of history books mention the role Frisbees played in sparking the call for democratic reform in China in the 1980s, but according to Chipper “Bro” Bell, the impact of the plastic discs on that society should not be underestimated. He would know: He was one of the guys throwing them.
“Our demo sparked the demonstration that led up to Tiananmen Square,” says Bell, a multi-time world Frisbee freestyle champion and founder of Ventura’s Aloha Beach Festival. He first traveled to China in 1988 as a member of the Bud Lite Frisbee Team, opening for surf-pop duo Jan & Dean. His knowledge of the Orient at the time was, let’s say, limited. “I was plucked from California to go to Beijing; when they said Shanghai, I thought they meant Shangri-La. I didn’t know; I’m just a California jammer. When we went to the first concert, that was the first concert people had ever been to. I was surprised no one knew how to clap to the rhythm or how to dance and move and have a good time.”
At one point, Bell decided to take matters into his own hands. During a performance of “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” he and his partners charged into the audience, grabbed a fan by the arm and began dancing with him. It lit up the crowd, but the man’s boogying apparently irritated the wrong officials, who later arrested his son. The other concert attendees protested his imprisonment. Eleven months later, thousands of students crowded Tiananmen Square in defiance of the government’s authoritarianism, anywhere from a few hundred to over 2,000 were killed, and one brave individual stood in front of a tank, creating one of the most iconic images of the 20th century — and, if Bell is to be believed, it all began with the toss of a Frisbee.
That wasn’t the only historic moment Bell was indirectly involved in on that trip, either. He also claims to have been the first person allowed to skateboard on the Great Wall of China.
“Dean [Torrence of Jan & Dean] puts on his Web site that he was first,” the 45-year-old says, “but he borrowed my skateboard after I did it!”
All this might simply be an attempt at personal mythologizing, but there are a few things Bell has accomplished that are certifiable. He has been named a freestyle Frisbee world champion 13 times. He has toured with the likes of Cheap Trick, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Santana and the Beach Boys, warming up live crowds of up to 60,000 people. And in 1990, he started an invitational beach Frisbee tournament, which evolved, 14 years later, into the Aloha Beach Festival, the 2008 edition of which happens Aug. 23-24.
Of course, it’s not all fun and games and bringing democracy to Communist nations for Bell. He has been working customer service for Patagonia for 17 years. At heart, however, he is still a dedicated beach bum.
“I do as little as possible,” he says in a stoked-out, distinctly Californian drawl, “so I have time to surf.”
Bell didn’t come out of the womb clutching a Frisbee, nor did he dream of throwing one around for a living while growing up. That’s mostly because, when he was born 45 years ago, the concept of Frisbee as an actual competitive sport didn’t exist — at least, not outside college campuses and a small core of dedicated participants. According to the Freestyle Players Association (FPA), it began to grow as a legitimate athletic endeavor in the 1970s, starting with the inaugural Canadian Open in 1974. But back then, Bell’s interests were more board-based.
“When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a pro surfer,” he says. “And when the surf was flat, I’d play Frisbee. I played on the beaches a lot, and at the time, alternative sports and freestyle were super-big.”
Once he realized there were tours and championships associated with Frisbee, however, he got swept up in the movement, and began to hone his skills. Bell says a typical freestyle routine is “a little bit like ice skating.” It is judged similarly, on difficulty, execution and “artistic impression,” which include considerations of musical choreography, originality and teamwork (most routines are performed in pairs of two or sometimes as trios). Beyond the basic maneuvers such as catching the disc between the legs or behind the head, the more elaborate tricks have, expectedly, quite flowery names: the Flamingo, Flamingitis, Triple Fake, Scarecrow, the Bad Attitude.
One assumes most or all of these are now part of Bell’s arsenal, considering his standing in the freestyle Frisbee world. He won his first world title in 1982, and added a dozen more over the next decade. He says at one point, he and his partners on the Bud Lite Frisbee Team were among the highest paid Frisbee players in the world. His training regimen became as serious as that of any athlete — to a certain degree.
“You’ve got to adapt,” he says. “If we were to go to New York or Texas or Colorado for a competition, we would try to find a training venue that would complement what we were up against. When we played in Texas, it was summertime. In August, we would leave the beaches … and go train in Palm Springs, in sprinklers to give us humidity.
“Nothing prepared us for the real deal, though,” he adds. “I got off the plane and was like, ‘Oh, God. I’m going to die.’ ”
After 10 years of Flamingoes and Flamingitises, however, Bell decided to settle down. He got married, started a family and got what he calls a “real job” as brand ambassador at Patagonia. But the Frisbee world hadn’t completely left him: In 1990, he decided to bring the World Beach Invitational Frisbee Freestyle Disc Championships to Ventura. Held at the Promenade west of the pier, it featured players from all across the country, and later involved participants from other countries.
Then four years ago, Bell built on the popularity of the annual event and expanded the festivities to include surfing exhibitions and a paddleboard race, as well as live bands. “It created more of a community event, having culture, arts and sports combined,” he says. Dubbing it the Aloha Beach Festival, the gathering has become an anticipated end-of-summer bash for locals and out-of-towners alike.
This year is no different. Along with sets by local favorites Jonathan and Nathan McEuen, the Legalizers, and Jackass, there will be the Outrigger Canoe Race, Classic Paddleboard Challenge and Old Guys Rule Long Boards and BZ Surf Expression Session. While admission is free, proceeds from the beer garden go toward Peace Through Music, local environmental group the Groundswell Society and Jack Johnson’s Kokua Hawaii Foundation.
As for Frisbee, there will again be a tournament, and novices are invited to join in along with the professionals. Although invitations were extended to international players, only two from the UK have confirmed their involvement, which Bell says is because the official world championships were held in Germany only a few weeks ago.
“Everybody’s happy, brown and broke,” he says.
The 4th Annual Aloha Beach Festival takes place Aug. 23-24 along the Promenade from the Ventura Pier. For more information, visit www.alohabeachfestival.com.