Ollie Rides Again

The man who changed skateboarding forever skates in Hollywood -- Florida, not California

Back in 1976, Alan "Ollie" Gelfand -- a nervous, fast-talking kid with bulging eyes, long brown hair, and heat-inviting corduroy pants -- was flying with buddies Kevin Peterson and Jeff Duer in a chartered plane, their eyes hungrily scanning the landscape below. The 14-year-old friends had pooled their allowances and meager savings to collect the $75 necessary for the flight, and now, low over South Florida with a pilot and plane from North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, they strained their eyes looking for swimming pools. The boys had grown frustrated by the lack of skateboarding options and were too broke to keep paying to skate the same parks over and over again, so they had decided to take matters into their own hands. Their goal: finding empty pools, preferably ones outside of uninhabited houses.

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 '70s. 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."

Robbie Weir (top left) and Alan Gelfand (other pictures) practice making funny faces at the Olliewood ramp
Colby Katz
Robbie Weir (top left) and Alan Gelfand (other pictures) practice making funny faces at the Olliewood ramp

But it was the late '70s, 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 16-foot-wide, 10-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 30s and early 40s 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 here 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 20 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.

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