Today we come with a brand new interview to the Bruce Lee‘s student that you’ve never heard of. Enjoy while Barney Scollan describes his master and the ’60.
How did your passion for martial arts started?
I was raised in Sacramento, California in the ‘60s. In my circle of friends, the principal forms of recreation and entertainment in those days seemed to revolve around football games, beer, school dances, main street drag racing, beer, and trying to attract females. All of these activities involved large doses of teenage hormones and immature macho
attitudes which often resulted in senseless street fighting.
Being one of the smaller kids around, I was always seeking whatever advantage I could find to equal the odds in these battles. Around 1962, a movie titled The Manchurian Candidate was released. The plot featured Frank Sinatra fighting a villain who was trained in a strange form of combat which allowed him to shatter tables and everything else with his punches. This was my first exposure to Karate and I was hooked. Just what I needed to do battle on the streets of Sacramento.
Shortly thereafter, a Karate studio opened in my neighbourhood, Tracy’s Kenpo Karate.
I raced over and introduced myself to Al Tracy, a short, somewhat nerdy looking guy with thick glasses. I was not impressed, that is until he demonstrated a few “moves” with speed and power that I had never seen on the street. I signed up and became one of his first Sacramento students (He had another established school in San Francisco).
Karate became my passion and soon I was taking classes daily. It was interesting in that, once you became somewhat skilled and confident in your abilities, the desire to fight pretty much evaporated.
How did you met Bruce Lee?
In 1964, Al Tracy’s instructor, Ed Parker, had his first International Championship
Tournament in Long Beach, California. Masters and students from many styles came from all over the world to demonstrate and participate.
I was in a group of students from Sacramento who were entered in the “white belt” category. In those days, sparring was a “no contact” sport. I was disqualified for kicking my opponent in the groin during my very first match. Anyhow, it was at this tournament that I first encountered Bruce Lee.
Can you tell us something more about Bruce’s demonstration and why it resonated with you?
Bruce took the floor and demonstrated many of the most popular martial arts styles with great skill. Then he explained why he felt they were impractical for actual fighting, causing more than a little anger among the followers of those styles.
To demonstrate his amazing speed, he would have someone from the audience face him in a defensive position. Bruce would stand some three feet away and dart in and out, touching the fellow’s forehead before the person could raise his arm even 6 inches to block the punch.
He also showed lightning fast kicks and punches which had most of us shaking our heads in disbelief. Two fingered, one armed pushups were also very impressive. The simplicity and directness of his principles and technique made a lot of sense to me.He made a number of believers and enemies that night.
You were lucky to experience Bruce’s school in Oakland, can you tell us something about practicing there?
In the autumn of 1964, I began attending the University of California in Berkeley. I knew that Bruce had just opened a school in Oakland and I was able to sign up and become one of his first students at that location. The cost was $20 a month for 3 lessons a week.
The school was in a clean, modern building in Oakland. It was a good-sized room that I think had once been a dance studio. There were bars along one wall that we used for stretching at the beginning of each class. The daily routine varied quite a bit, but always started with stretching, then some exercises. The number of students seemed to vary quite a bit from 3 or 4, to as many as a dozen.
Classes were fun and pretty easy going, with Bruce constantly explaining theory, demonstrating, correcting technique, and telling stories. He would sometimes stand with one leg raised straight over his shoulder, then switch to the other, all the while talking normally as if anyone could do this effortlessly.
We would work on form, balance, speed, and endurance. There was a punching bag suspended between two elastic cords that was used to teach how to punch straight ahead from your center which was one of the principles of Wing Chung.
Later the school was moved to James Lee’s garage, also in Oakland. Classes there were more relaxed and usually ended up in James’s living room afterward. We would discuss everything from martial arts to the best places to eat. Often Linda Lee was present with new baby Brandon in a crib in the corner.
It was during one of these times that Bruce demonstrated his now famous “1-inch punch” on me. I was leaning forward, braced in a football type stance with a couch cushion held in front of me. Bruce held his fist about an inch away and punched. I flew through the air hitting and tipping over the couch behind me. My two roommates in college were there watching and grabbed me, saving me from hitting the large window behind the couch.
What was James Lee like and what was the atmosphere like in his garage studio?
Bruce was travelling quite a bit during this time and James Lee would often teach the classes in Bruce’s absence. James was much more serious than Bruce and the classes were “no nonsense.” He was quick and very powerful. When he showed you something, you paid attention.
Can you recall the major differences from your training in Oakland to your previous martial arts instruction?
The technique of Jeet Kune Do was quite a bit different than those of the Kenpo Karate I had been studying. Kenpo utilized more circular punches and a wide variety of combinations. Kicks were also quite varied and often aimed high.
Jeet Kune Do on the other hand, was based on simplicity. Its purpose was to eliminate the non- essential movement. Kicks were low and punches were straight and short. Less was more. Bruce preached not daily increase, but daily decrease – hack away the unessential.
The fighting stances were very different also. Kenpo was based on the traditional “horse” stance, while Jeet Kune Do usually used a more flexible, moving stance.
What is your fondest memory of Bruce Lee? What was socializing with him like?
Bruce was just fun to be around. He had a great sense of humor and always seemed to be in a happy frame of mind. A tradition of Bruce’s was to invite his students out to lunch on his birthday. A few of us were invited to go with him to a Chinese restaurant in Oakland. I can’t remember the food, but I do remember telling jokes and laughing all the way to the restaurant. Bruce had a bit of a Chinese accent and would talk slowly to get the pronunciation correct. There was something about Bruce telling jokes in this slow, forceful manner that made them even funnier.
When did you last see Bruce?
I graduated from Berkeley and Bruce was off to Southern California to pursue his growing movie career. I never saw him again, but followed him as closely as possible through various articles and of course the movies. I am still amazed at his skill when watching his movies after all these years. He was one of a kind and I didn’t realize at the time how fortunate I was to have known him.
How did his dead affect you?
Like everyone who knew him or admired his skills and insights, I was totally shocked when I heard of his death. His death was an incredible loss to the world. As great as he was and as important as his legacy is in so many ways, I feel he was just beginning.
Did you have contacts with any of his students after he died?
Years later I moved to Carmel California and opened a home furnishing/ antique store in an historic building that was built in the 20’s by my wife’s grandfather. One day I noticed a seedy looking, long haired guy with a beard and sunglasses in the store who looked familiar. I asked him, “Aren’t you Steve McQueen?” He looked at me like I was a bug and said, “Yeah. Why?”
“Because we had the same Sifu – Bruce.”
He warmed up and said, “Boy, I could sure use a good workout.” I told him – “Let’s go. I have a gym set up in an old barn.”
We traded techniques and punches, and then told stories over lunch. Later he took a shower at my house. My mother-in-law was visiting at the time and I won’t forget the look on her face when she walked into the bathroom and found Steve McQueen wearing only a towel.
Hoe did you get involved with telling your story now in Striking Distance by Charles Russo?
I was waiting in a Doctor’s office in Carmel, and I noticed an article in San Francisco Magazine featuring Bruce Lee. To my surprise, a picture of Bruce that I had taken years earlier was the opening photo for the
article. As I had never shared the many pictures I took of Bruce with anyone, I wrote Charles Russo, the author of the article to inquire how he got it. He explained that he got it from the Bruce Lee Foundation.
Apparently a clerk at a photo shop in Carmel had stolen the negatives when I had copies made and sold them to Black Belt Magazine or someone. It turned out that many of my photos had been on-line for years without me knowing it. The moral: when you are having photos copied of someone famous, don’t brag to the clerk about who it is!
Anyhow, after contacting Charles about my photo in San Francisco Magazine, he suggested we get together to discuss my experiences with Bruce and the martial arts scene in those days. We shared insights and stories, trying to separate fact from fiction, and became pretty good friends in the process.
He did an amazing amount of legwork and some pretty cool sleuthing to gather all that information. Most of which would have been lost forever had he not embraced this project, and gained the trust and confidence of so many of the key players in the history of the Bay Area martial movement. I loved the book and am proud to have been a very small part of it.