By Michael E. Miller
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Gelfand and many of the others are just getting back into skateboarding after, in Gelfand's case, a twenty-year absence. "A lot of these guys who were dominators in their youth are coming back," Bruce Walker explains.
Walker, young-looking at 51, was around when the early, early skaters skated on clay and sometimes even steel wheels. "Bruce Walker? He's like Yoda. He's the Stacy Peralta of the East Coast," is how Robbie Weir, a once-pro skater who lives in Miami Beach, describes the Melbourne Beach resident. Walker's Satellite Beach office could double as a museum of Florida surfing and skating history. His desk is covered with stacks of magazines for the two sports, and posters and pictures of the famous athletes he's worked with dot the wood-paneled walls. Just outside his office is a warehouse lined floor to ceiling with surfboards. Walker himself looks very much the part of the surfer/skater/businessman. Tall and lanky, he is broad-shouldered and wears T-shirts and shorts to work at Walker Surfboards, where his employees are dressed the same and sport multiple tattoos and piercings.
When Walker first stepped onto a skateboard in 1963, enthusiasts like him were used to shaving their own decks from hardware-store wood planks and dismantling roller skates for the wheels. Back then nobody knew what skateboarding was supposed to look like, so squeaky-clean competitions yielded prizewinners with Eddie Haskell haircuts who typically wowed judges by doing handstands on their boards or skating on two boards at a time, one for each foot. But the standard clay wheels couldn't grip the pavement, the trucks were too tight to steer, and the slab-of-wood decks were simply clunky. Outside of the competitions, skateboarders -- or sidewalk surfers, as they were often called -- found themselves dodging cars and pedestrians, not always successfully. By 1965, twenty U.S. cities and Norway had banned skateboarding from sidewalks and streets. When Army brat Walker moved to South Florida in 1969 to start college and skate across campus at the University of Miami, the fad of skateboarding was considered dead. "In 1969, there were no skateboard shops, no skate parks. All the skateboard companies from the 1960s had gone out of business. You'd say 'skateboard' and people would say, 'Isn't that like the yo-yo? Isn't that like the Hula-Hoop?'"
On campus, Walker was constantly being stopped by people wanting to try out his board and asking where they could get one. So in 1972, he and a partner opened Fox Surf Shop on Fifth Street in South Beach. One year later, they moved the store to Ocean Drive. Walker says his biggest worry was having enough skateboards to sell, but he lucked out, finding a toy distributor in Miami who had been stuck with hundreds of skateboards after the fad had died in the late Sixties. "I tried not to act too excited and made him an offer and bought them all from him. He was thrilled, because no one else wanted them." Walker sold two models of Super Surfer boards, for $4.95 and $7.95 each.
Just as Walker was about to sell out, Frank Nasworthy, a Virginia Beach resident who would later open (and close) a skate park in Pompano Beach, invented the urethane wheel, inciting a second boom in the sport. Urethane allowed the rider to grip the pavement and move at higher speeds than ever. With clay, a pebble could lock the wheels and put the skateboarder out for a week to recover from injuries. With urethane, the rider just kept rolling. Nasworthy called his invention Cadillac Wheels; after a slow start, he was soon selling them faster than he could make them. Credited as the biggest single innovation in skateboarding, the urethane wheel resurrected interest in the sport. Riders who had given it up in the early Sixties were again buying and riding skateboards.
After graduating from college in 1973, Walker opened a second Fox store two and a half hours north, in Melbourne Beach, and moved himself there, where the more accommodating waves sated his surfer side. "I can be just as much of a skateboarder up here, but it's a little easier to surf here," Walker says. (He's been just as influential in the surfing world as in skateboarding. In the late 1980s, Walker signed a very young Cocoa Beach resident named Kelly Slater to his surfing team and coached Slater all the way to superstardom.) In 1978 Walker decided to buy out his partner and change the name of his company to Ocean Avenue Surfboards and Walker Skateboards. It was about this time little "Ollie" Gelfand realized that with some fancy footwork, he could defy gravity.
In the summer of 1977, Stacy Peralta was on a skate tour of the East Coast that included a stop in South Florida. He checked in at Solid Surf, a now-closed skate park two miles east of I-95 on Oakland Park Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale known for its nearly unridable pools and bad transitions. An hour into his session, another skater yelled that Peralta should go check out the tricks a local kid was doing. Peralta skated over and, as he writes on Gelfand's www.ollieair.com Website, "Standing alone atop the three-foot cement bowl was a small Jewish kid skating in long pants." Peralta watched as Gelfand dropped into the bowl, and when he reached the top of the other side, "his board suddenly popped off the cement lip, lifted off the ground, and in mid-air switched 180 degrees and then landed.... I was dumbfounded. It happened so fast. I wasn't sure what I'd just seen and thought for a moment that it was some kind of an illusion." Gelfand performed the trick again for Peralta. "When he reached the top of the bowl he used his back foot to horse-kick his tail, this act shot the tail of his board, almost crashing it into the concrete lip. It seemed the harder he kicked it, the higher his board would pop, or 'ollie.' I was amazed. I'd never seen anything like that before, and he did it so fast and effortlessly," writes Peralta.