Inside the plane, their teenage faces pressed to the windows, Gelfand and his friends paid careful attention to any and all landmarks and made a list of where they thought the empty pools were located. Later, with a friend old enough to drive, they went back through the neighborhoods to search for the exact locations. Most of the empty pools still had several feet of murky green water standing in the deep end. "We'd have to bucket-brigade them," Gelfand remembers. So they called all their skateboarder friends to enlist help. Then everyone skated the pools until the homeowners or the police made them leave. "We didn't do anything else back then," Gelfand says. "We skateboarded. That's what we did."
Riding ramps and pools was still relatively new in the late Seventies. The vertical aspects of skateboarding were just being explored, and Gelfand and his crew were eager to test their wheels at high speeds on inclines. In California, members of the infamous Dogtown Z-Boys team from Santa Monica took a more direct approach to skating pools, bragging that, given four hours and a pump, they could drain an unsuspecting Californian's swimming pool and spend the rest of the day carving the walls and grinding the coping. The Florida boys were a bit nicer. Call it Southern hospitality. They didn't see any reason to be rude. "We'd peek over fences looking for pools to skate," says Dan Murray, a Coral Springs resident and Florida skate veteran. "It wasn't, like, criminal or anything. We weren't like the California guys. We just didn't think you had to be jerks to be skateboarders."
But it was the late Seventies, the pinnacle of skateboarding's golden age, and urban explorers were willing to do reconnaissance to find ridable turf. Just one year earlier, in 1975, the Dogtown Z-Boys -- icons like Stacy Peralta, Tony Alva, Jay Adams, and Shogo Kubo -- had completely changed the look of the sport by incorporating a surfer's style into concrete waves. ("Dogtown" was their own, slummy section of Santa Monica; "Z-Boys" came from the local Zephyr skate/surf shop under whose auspices they skated.) In 1975 the Dogtown skaters got national attention after they commandeered the Skateboard Championships at Del Mar skate park. The Z-Boys shunned the goofy 1960s tricks and stick-straight upright riding style of the other skaters and instead showcased their own surf-inspired radical approach. Carving "berts" on the flat, freestyle area, keeping their bodies slung low to the ground, often scraping the heels of their hands on purpose, the Z-Boys caught the other competitors off-guard. No one had ever seen anything like it. The judges were confused but impressed and awarded a cache of first prizes to the Z-Boys team. Skateboarder magazine was similarly impressed; soon Craig Stecyk, a co-owner of the Zephyr shop, began writing about and taking pictures of the Dogtown wonders for several articles published in that magazine.
Because of these articles, skateboarders everywhere wanted to imitate the Z-Boys style. In Florida, Gelfand and his friends started skating pools; in 1978, they graduated to their own ramp, a sixteen-foot-wide, ten-foot-high plywood monster they called the Hollywood Ramp (though it was located in Pembroke Pines). "That ramp was put together with toothpicks," Gelfand says. "People used to steal plywood and bring it to us. It had just one rickety, single layer of plywood." Still it was better than anything they had ever skated. Skateboarders from all over Florida arrived to skate the ramp. Even today, guys in their late thirties and early forties get a little dreamy-eyed remembering it. But as proud as they were of the Hollywood Ramp, it was imperfect, especially by today's standards. The thin sheets of plywood and numerous seams jostled skateboarders left and right, yielding a ride the skaters called "kinky." In California, municipalities paid for and built shiny new skate parks where moves could be perfected on smooth ramps. Whooshing up the sides of a halfpipe, all the Californians had to worry about was staying on the board. But in Florida, ramps were homemade and shoddy, and the humid environment warped the wood. To adjust to the ride, the Florida skaters had to get creative. And in so doing, they changed the direction of the sport.
It's a story that older Florida skaters know well and tell often. Guys who grew up spending Saturdays at Skateboard U.S.A. in Hollywood and Solid Surf in Fort Lauderdale aren't surprised to hear that twenty years ago, Gelfand and other Floridians forever altered skateboarding. But to the rest of the world and to many of Florida's newest generation of skateboarders, "ollie" is a trick, not a person.
In March 1999, the Dogtown story was the subject of a Spin magazine article, which inspired a widely acclaimed film documentary released last year called Dogtown and Z-Boys. Skateboarders all over the world lined up outside theaters to see it. Now out on DVD, it's a home-theater mainstay, where skateboarders young and old gather to play and replay the scenes that show their heroes performing jaw-dropping tricks. In short, the Z-Boys are now codified in the casual history of skateboarding. But playing second fiddle to California, just as they did twenty-odd years ago, the Florida boys received scant mention in the film. Perhaps it's because they don't have a cool name like the Z-Boys and don't come from a rundown surf town. Hailing from Hollywood, Kendall, Delray Beach, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Tampa, Melbourne, and a few other parts of Florida, these kids never had the skate-and-destroy, harbingers-of-disaster image popularized by the West Coast riders. Clean-cut kids with honor-roll grades, they tended to obey their parents and get their homework done. None of the top Florida riders spent time in jail, and most now boast successful, professional careers. Some, like Gelfand, still claim to have never so much as puffed a joint or sipped a beer. But charged by the success of the Dogtown film, these now-middle-age skateboarding innovators have come back to the sport, a little older, a little softer, and often accompanied by their own teenage children. They say they want credit given where it is due.
"Those guys were really pushing things, and they were ahead of the curve," says Bruce Walker, who is considered one of the sport's early heroes. "In California, they were innovative, sure. At the same time, we weren't waiting around for them to introduce us to things."
On a recent Friday night at the 39-year-old Gelfand's new "Olliewood" ramp in Hollywood, the Cars' "Best Friend's Girl" blasts through the speakers of a boombox in the corner. Yet even at top volume, the song is scarcely audible over the hum of dozens of urethane wheels on Skatelite, a modern wood-based material used to build smooth skateboard ramps. Olliewood, the ramp, is nothing short of amazing. Forty-eight feet long and ten-and-a-half feet high, it covers an area roughly comparable to half of a basketball court and yawns up toward the concrete rafters of the warehouse space. Gelfand and a friend bought the warehouse solely to house the ramp, which was finished in early summer. He estimates that in all, they have about $250,000 invested in the space.
In clusters, skateboarders of various ages begin to arrive. With little hesitation or conversation, they mount the stairs that lead to a platform on top of the ramp. There are platforms on both sides, but the skaters all stand on the left side to take advantage of the fans there; the temperature inside the warehouse is in the eighties and climbing. One by one, they drop in, skating solo. At first they move cautiously, dipping from one side back to the other, riding conservative crescents at rhythmic intervals, like pendulums. Soon they begin to break out their tricks, each skater silently pushing the next to try something harder. Handplants and aerials draw the most applause from the old-timers while the younger guys present, those under 30, cheer loudly for anyone trying a switch-stance run.
The crossover between surfing and skating is obvious. At Olliewood, the skaters carve like surfers, zagging horizontally across the ramp before breaking and descending. They ride up the steep vertical sides, then flatten their boards on the edge of the platform, letting the metal trucks grind against the metal coping before dropping back in to carve the ramp again. Close your eyes and the hum of the wheels on the ramp sounds just like the roar of the ocean. And, just like surfers, skaters stop a run only when they crash. For this they wear kneepads, helmets, and wrist guards. Eventually a misplaced hand or a misjudged grind causes each rider to skid down the sides of the ramp on his knees; boards fly to the left, to the right, and toward the ceiling, sometimes smacking against the rafters before slamming back onto the ramp.
One skater, a guy named Kurt who looks to be about 40, is making this a "snake run," skate-speak for cutting in line. He drops in about three times as much as anyone else, eliciting the occasional look of disgust on the face of a skater he's cut off. "Kurt's a dick," Gelfand declares. "He comes here and skates for, like, twenty minutes, kicks all of our asses, never says anything, and then he just leaves." Kurt is talented, but his techniques (handplants, aerials), his apparel (tight, cuffed denim shorts), and his hairstyle (Eighties ponytail) reveal his age, while his attitude makes him unpopular with the other skaters. The older guys present are mostly grown-up surfer dudes with casual demeanors, floppy hair, baggy clothes, and an eager speaking style that relies heavily on the word "like." The younger skaters tend to keep their mouths shut and just skate. But Gelfand says he's desperate to find good skaters to skate with, so he tolerates Kurt's antisocial behavior. "I skate by myself most of the time," Gelfand complains. "Here I've got this great ramp, and no one ever wants to skate it. I love to skate with any good skaters."
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.
How did Gelfand come up with this radical new maneuver? "Our skate parks were so horrible back then, so kinky and oververtical, that I kind of did an ollie by accident," he says. "That's how we learned to do it, here in the skate parks of Florida." At the Skateboard U.S.A. skate park, which was once located north of Sheridan Street near I-95, Gelfand discovered that the kinks in the ramps forced him to pop the board, suck his legs in a little, then pump them back out. This caused the board to float parallel to the ground. A physics professor would likely have an explanation for why, but skater Weir simply says, "It's like magic."
More than just magic, it's the trick upon which all other skateboard tricks are now based -- the arithmetic of the skating world. Young skaters "ollie-up" to more advanced techniques. "The ollie changed skateboarding, and still every trick starts out as an ollie," says Grant Brittain, photo editor and senior photographer for Transworld Skateboarding magazine. "[Gelfand] changed the direction of skateboarding. But young kids now think an ollie-pop is a bubble gum."
By the time he first witnessed the ollie, Peralta had mostly bowed out of skateboarding himself, preferring the business side of the sport. He teamed up with George Powell, creating Powell Peralta, which would become the largest and most successful skateboard company of the era. Powell Peralta also boasted the hottest skateboard team around; teenagers everywhere dreamed of joining this crew. After seeing Gelfand execute the ollie, Peralta offered him a position on the team.
Soon Gelfand was making regular trips to California and performing at and winning skateboarding contests all over the world. "In 1978, I went to California and it took months before anybody even figured out how to do an ollie," Gelfand says. "I used to get my shoes stolen all the time at contests. They'd take them to look for hooks or magnets or Velcro. They couldn't figure out how I stayed with the board." On that California trip, Gelfand took fourteen-year-old Mike McGill along, after the two lied to McGill's parents, saying they'd be staying with Gelfand's uncle. "We actually just stayed with people we met when we were out there. But we got my brother to pretend to be my uncle and call Mike's parents," Gelfand recalls. By 1979 Powell Peralta had its core riders in place, forming an unparalleled, star-studded skate team that included Ray "Bones" Rodriguez, Steve Caballero, Alan Gelfand, and Mike McGill. The team became known as the Bones Brigade. Meanwhile, back at home, Gelfand and McGill had inspired a generation of Florida skaters to hone their skills.
"A lot of guys on the East Coast never got recognized," says McGill, who went on to invent "the McTwist," a 540-degree aerial spin. "People in California were always blown away when they'd see guys like us skate. In Florida, we'd travel hundreds of miles just to skate a ramp. We were just hungrier."
Because of the attitude and abilities of Florida skaters, Peralta was soon making regular recruiting trips here. "I was out back riding my ramp one day, and my mother -- she's Scottish -- she comes out with her Scottish accent, and she's like, 'Robbie, there's a phone call for you from California,'" Weir says. "So I go, 'Who is it?' and she goes, 'Some guy by the name of Stacy Peralta.' I almost had a heart attack." Weir says he listened as Peralta told him that Gelfand and McGill had suggested that he would be a good addition to the team. "He said, 'So whaddaya think?'" But Weir was already riding for Bruce Walker, so he told Peralta that he couldn't give him an answer right away.
It was a scenario that would repeat itself as the years passed. Walker would spot and sign talent and fly them out to competitions in California. Then, as their popularity increased, Peralta would sign them away. "You could be a rare talent here," Walker says, "but if you stayed in Florida, you'd be the rare talent that no one ever heard of." The industry, the magazines, and the contests were all in California, and scouts were reluctant to look for rising stars on the East Coast. "Guys that didn't leave Florida just evaporated," says Transworld's Brittain. "To stay in the industry, go to the contests, be in the magazines, you had to be in California."
At the same time, Walker's riders found their loyalties torn. On Walker's team, many of them had found a family, and in Walker they found, depending upon their age, either a father or a big brother. "I had a lot more team loyalty than other companies did," Walker says. "A lot of those teams had people constantly coming and going. I retained most of my team." Walker is now legendary in the industry for the extra attention he paid to his riders. Unlike members of other teams, Walker's riders could count on him to be present at all of their contests, coaching. They also knew that if they found themselves trapped in a losing streak, Walker wasn't likely to dump them. Robbie Weir was eventually taken back onto Walker's team after he was dropped from Powell Peralta.
In the early 1980s, just as a young kid from Gainesville named Rodney Mullen was turning heads skating for Walker, skateboarding hit a second bust. The newness of the sport's late-Seventies innovations had worn off, and nothing had come along yet to reinvigorate skaters. Facing injuries and -- now being old enough to drive -- distractions, Gelfand dropped out of the sport completely in 1981. "If he had stayed longer and ridden out that five-year storm, he could have been a champion skater all the way through the Nineties," says Michael Brooke, author of The Concrete Wave, a book on the history of skateboarding. But Gelfand, enthralled with his driver's license and his new Volkswagen Scirocco, bought with money he earned skateboarding, turned his attention to autocross, racing the Scirocco in the Florida state autocross championship in 1982. Then in 1983, a friend turned him on to go-cart racing; Gelfand won the Florida state go-cart championship that same year.
Meanwhile, deep in a recession, skate teams everywhere, including Walker's, began slashing budgets. Most skate parks closed in the early Eighties, and the sport went underground, taking Mullen with it. In that economic climate, it was no longer feasible for Walker to fly skaters out to competitions in California. He had to downsize his manufacturing operations for his company to survive. "I knew that I couldn't afford to do for Rodney [Mullen] what [Powell Peralta] could do for him," Walker says. "So just like you would with your own child, you want to set up the best circumstances for them." Mullen had won over 30 first-place victories in three years' time and was already considered one of the world's top skaters in 1980, even before he turned pro. A dentist's kid whose father made him wear so much protective gear that his skate friends called him "the human pad," Mullen was a straight-A student who many today still consider to be the greatest technical skater ever. Called "the King of Freestyle" in Brooke's book, Mullen took Gelfand's ollie to the ground, creating more tricks than anyone cares to, or can, name.
By the time the sport became popular again in 1986, Mullen was a full-fledged star, even flying to Europe on the Concorde for a skateboarding demonstration. And he was skating for Powell Peralta's Bones Brigade, on the same team with a young, dynamic Tony Hawk -- arguably the most influential skateboarder ever. Hawk, a San Diego native, took Mullen's street-skating flair to the vertical ramp, twisting his board and his body into positions never thought possible. "I remember in about 1982 was the first time I saw Tony Hawk," Weir says. "He was the skinny little kid that showed up with Stacy Peralta, and when we saw him ride, we were all like, 'Oh no.' We knew he was going to be huge."
While the sport of skateboarding experienced its second fall and third rise, Gelfand found increasing success riding four much faster wheels. Eventually he worked his way up to Formula Four racing, which he describes as "mini Indy cars," finishing tenth in the nation in 1992. Satisfied, he stopped racing in 1993 and opened a Volkswagen repair shop in Hollywood. He would race again, driving a Porsche Boxster in 2000, but the expense of racing became too much for him to continue. So after Mike McGill sent him a ticket to an "Old School Skate Jam" in 2001, where lots of veteran skateboarding stars like himself were gathering, Gelfand turned his attention back to skateboarding. Forty pounds overweight and still plagued by the same knee problems that forced him to quit twenty years earlier, he cautiously eased his way back into the sport, hiring a personal trainer to help get back into shape. Today, minus those 40 pounds, he's lean and wiry, with short-cropped hair and the same fidgety mannerisms that earned him the nickname "Ollie" as a teenager.
A lot can change in twenty years. Besides dealing with his own age-based physical limitations, Gelfand has come back to a sport that bears little resemblance to the one he left. When he quit and the skate parks closed in the early Eighties, Mullen and others adapted ollie-inspired vertical (or "vert") tricks to streets, curbs, and handrails, the only places still open to skaters. Then when skateboarding died a third time in the early Nineties, it was Tony Hawk who performed CPR. Hawk combined street technical proficiency with vert drama, creating a hybrid that mesmerized kids and adults, skateboarders and nonskateboarders, and, perhaps most important, TV producers. Extreme sports became popular, and Hawk-style skating epitomized the trend. Popularity for Hawk and his Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game grew, and audience members at Hawk demonstrations became more specific. "Kids would yell, 'Do a 900!' at him," Weir says. "I heard Tony say that these kids want him to do things he can't even do in real life because in the video game he can. So he says he just does a 540 and they don't know the difference."
Skateboarders today split pretty clearly between vert and street, old and new, with a small but growing number of skaters practicing both. "The only vert guy making a lot of money is Tony Hawk," Transworld's Brittain says. "You go to a skate park now and the vert ramp is empty." But to the average observer, street-style skating, with its almost imperceptible nuances, is dull. The gravity-affirming board switches and "goofy" riding (when a skater who normally skates with his right foot leading leads with his left instead, or vice versa) are the athletic equivalent of key changes in music: technically proficient but boring to watch. Lay audiences aren't as impressed by munky flip-outs, nollie hardflips, crooked grinds, and darkslides as they are by a classic McTwist.
Hawk, the X Games (ESPN's eight-year-old Olympics-style competition featuring skateboarding, snowboarding, motocross, and BMX), and a sports climate with an affection for things extreme can be credited with the current mainstream popularity of skateboarding. But most riders insist that high-flying vert skaters like Hawk actually make up less than ten percent of the current skateboarding population. "A few years ago, if we even showed vert skating in the magazines, we'd get death threats," Brittain says dismissively. "Vert skating is the ambassador. It takes skating to the masses. The X Games show it." But ironically, this exclusive attitude has alienated some of the sport's older denizens, who grew up on handplants and five-foot aerials. "How many people sliding rails can you see in one magazine?" 43-year-old skate veteran Murray asks. "In Transworld, all you see are sliding rails."
But with cities opening skate parks and a rising generation of kids with former or current skateboarders as parents, Gelfand, McGill, and others believe that the future of skateboarding will involve a combination of styles. Walker predicts that the spirit the older guys bring to the sport will infect the style of the younger stars. The next generation of skaters, he believes, will skate more like Tony Hawk, combining street flair with impressive aerials. Gelfand, McGill, and the corporations backing them are banking on that notion. Gelfand is introducing a signature line of kids' skate shoes for Payless shoe stores, and McGill has teamed with Wal-Mart to sell a signature line of inexpensive gear and boards, with both skaters' goods due out in time for Christmas. They're hoping to cash in today on the tricks they invented twenty years ago. Brittain thinks it's high time they did. "I've seen skaters get ripped off for twenty years," he says. "Whatever is coming for skaters now, I'm all for it."
But with or without commercial success, Gelfand and his middle-age friends insist they're happy just to be skating again. At Olliewood, weekend skate sessions are part workout, part high school reunion and tend to end by 10:00 p.m. so everyone can get home to his family. All of these skaters are eager to brush up on their fallow skills and, now that it's being written, to be included in skateboarding history. They want a world of young skaters to know that not everything started in California. "There's almost this evangelical feeling -- that we're all teaching the next generation of skaters about the history of skateboarding," Brooke says. "It's a real renaissance now, a rebirth. When you tell people that Alan 'Ollie' Gelfand is skateboarding again, you just can't imagine the response. It's huge."