Everybody's talking and no one says a word
Everybody's talking and no one says a word
Cart 0

TRANNY: act 1, part 1, by dave carnie

A few years ago I was approached to be the director of a documentary about the history of vert and transition skating. I was very excited because I started skating in the late '70s, was a vert skater in the '80s, and have championed transition skating ever since—if there’s anything I nerd-out on in skateboarding it’s the history of vert. I excitedly began prepping for the doc immediately and, as is my habit, I over-researched and took way too many notes, most of which I knew would never see the light of day. While my “extreme” research and development looks like a waste of time, I know this longwinded process often provides me with a richer, fuller background from which unusual connections arise (there’s nothing surprising in that because if you stare at a pile of trash long enough you’re going to connect with something, even if it is just trash). Unfortunately, after nearly a year of writing, writing, and more writing on the history of transition skating, the project was cancelled.

The author enjoying some of the only “tranny” northern California had to offer in the '80s at Derby Park, Santa Cruz. It’s surely early '80s because I’m grabbing Stelmasky. Before we attended a vert contest at Race Street Ramp in San Jose and saw people doing proper b/s airs, we thought you grabbed like this. Love the pads, and the garden glove combined with the batter’s glove is a nice touch as well. Stickers: JFA (x2), Whipping Boy, The Faction, and Thrasher. Pretty sure that stupid shirt I’m wearing has a hand drawn Minor Threat sheep on the back. Big guns.

The notes, however, still exist. On the surface, they’re essentially Skateboard History 101. We’ve heard these stories a million times—“They took a pair of roller skates and a 2x4 and BOOM!”—but the more I worked on the project, the more the history of skateboarding made sense, if that makes any sense. Skateboarding started to become something of a life form to me, with a history, and a personality, character, and temperament. I was, in short, in conversation with Skateboarding during this project.

I continue to find the subject immensely interesting and I thought it might be fun to share some of the insights I discovered while working on this project here.

INTRODUCTION

First, a few background notes from this study:

1. The working title for this project was, History Of Vert, or, History Of Transition Skating. Simple, accurate, but not very catchy. We never got past those titles, but at one point I began dabbling with the title, TRANNY, short for “transition.” And by “dabbling” I mean I was trying to figure out a way to sell it to the international corporation who had hired me since the term “tranny” is also an abbreviation for “transsexual,” making the word a homophone, and while I love it and I embrace all of the meanings for “tranny,” the more the merrier, I’ve learned over the years that international corporations don’t enjoy being in the proximity of anything that might be considered slightly objectionable to even one person. Fortunately they are no longer part of the picture so I’m going to run with that title here, because I think it perfectly represents what the doc was supposed to be about: the history of skateboarding on transitions, TRANNY.

The duplicity of the word “tranny” has delighted us to no end and you can’t imagine how excited we were when Nieratko befriended transsexual skateboarder, Hillary Thompson. I vaguely remember that we really wanted to get a photo of Hillary skating transition for the cover of this 2011 issue of KING SHIT, because we had envisioned all kinds of cover blurbs like, “TRANNIES ON TRANNY!” or “THE TRANNY ISSUE!” or something. But, ultimately, out of respect for Hillary and the LGBTQ community, we turned that down a notch. That’s a switch back 180 down a 10-stair, btw. (Photo: Messina)

2. This project concerns only what we would call the “Modern Era” of skateboarding: 1970 to present. Skateboarding existed, of course, prior to this time, no less interesting, but vert and transition skating really took off in the '70s.

3. This study will contain scholarly words like “study” as well as other academic language, because it makes the author (me) look like a smart cunt even though I’m not very smart and there is nothing the least bit scholarly about this nonsense.

4. TRANNY is divided into three acts, as is the practice in film, yet these three acts, representing three different historical periods, also happen to fit very neatly into what is known as an Hegelian Dialectic (again: smart cunt—also note that I used “an” denoting that “Hegelian” begins with a long ā sound and thus requires a slight English accent). I recognize that applying such an erudite philosophical system to a subject that doesn’t deserve or require it is nothing more than intellectual masturbation, but, at the same time, the Hegelian Dialectic is an interesting and convenient framework upon which to hang this story, not to mention it’s fun to say. Please forgive my indulgence.

“What the fuck is a fucking Hegelian fucking Dialectic, you fuck?” you ask? Well, it’s a three-part system for explaining how shit works itself out (I have no idea). It’s actually very simple (it’s not):

1. THESIS: the initial kernel of a subject, “the abstract” or “the concept.”

2. ANTITHESIS: It explores the opposite/negative side of the Thesis; contradicts or negates the Thesis.

3. SYNTHESIS: the tension between the opposites, Thesis and Antithesis, is resolved/mediated by means of a Synthesis of the two.

For instance, imagine the thesis: I’m cold. To remedy this situation, I explore cold’s antithesis and move myself closer to the fire, but there I find that I am too hot. Thus I learn that I need to synthesize the extremes of hot and cold and soon determine that somewhere between the two—a synthesis—is my best situation. (That’s a caveman example in more ways than one.)

Thus our story will move through this dialectic in three acts as we witness skateboarding “working itself out”:

ACT 1, THESIS: vert/transition skating is born and reigns from 1970 to 1990.

ACT 2, ANTITHESIS: vert dies circa 1990 and is supplanted by its antithesis, street skating—no transitions.

ACT 3, SYNTHESIS: the rebirth of skatepark culture in the 2000s, with its mix of street and transition elements, gives rise to a new generation of skaters who have the technical skills of a street skater, but the power and speed of a vert skater.

Laura Thornhill, f/s kickturn, Carlsbad Skatepark, 1976.

ACT 1, PART 1: The Skatepark Boom

While skateboarding enjoyed spikes of popularity throughout the '60s, '50s, and even earlier, what we now refer to as “modern” skateboarding arose in the '70s. Three developments occurred in rapid succession that gave birth to the Modern Era (please imagine all three covered in copious amounts of goo, snot, blood, bloody snot, and whatever else amniotic fluids are comprised of):

1. Urethane

The urethane wheel was introduced in 1972 by Cadillac Wheels resulting in skateboard performance previously unimaginable on the steel and clay wheels previously available. (The introduction of urethane was probably the biggest game-changer in skateboarding’s history, but it should also be noted that Bennet Trucks were introduced in 1973 and were also a significant contribution to the evolution of skateboard performance—suddenly the wheels could roll and the trucks could turn.)

“The first pool with a curved composition, curved walls, as well as a shallow and deep end, was designed and built by Aino Aalto at Villa Mairea, Finland, in 1939. Aalto’s friend, Thomas Church, copied the pool’s design at Donnel Garden in Sonoma, Ca in 1948. The Sonoma pool received a lot of attention and from that point forward organic shapes ruled pool design. In short, the traditional kidney-shaped pool that became so popular with skateboarders has its origins in Finland, of all places.”

2. Drought

A massive drought in California in 1976 resulted in a mandate to empty all pools across the state. Skateboarders, most notably the infamous Dogtown and Z-Boys crews, discovered that pools were even better than sidewalks for surfing and vert skating was born.

The “mogul” section of the Carlsbad Skatepark.

3. Skateparks

The first skatepark in the world, the Carlsbad Skatepark, opened on March 3, 1976. (Note: Skateboard City in Port Orange, Florida, is debated by some as opening “one week before Carlsbad,” but no one has ever produced an opening day date, there is no media coverage of an opening day, and the park itself could be described as “slapdash” at best.) Over the next few years, hundreds of skateparks were built worldwide.

This is an image from Skate City in Florida. Out of frame to the right was a giant wooden starting ramp that would shoot skaters down a hill and into the big bank at the end of this photo. From what I understand, that was about it, but I’d love to learn more.

These three elements are, of course, ubiquitous to skateboarding today, but at the time all three of these innovations were so new and exciting—we’ve all seen the photos of Tony Alva blasting an air in a backyard pool? That had never been done before—that skateboarding’s popularity exploded like never before and the institutions of culture and commerce quickly arose around it:

Skateboard associations were formed and held contests (US Skateboard Association, World Skateboard Association, National Skateboard Association).

Skateboard magazines began covering the growing culture (Skateboarder, World Wide Skateboarding, Skateboard World, Action Now, Thrasher).

Skater-owned skateboard companies, along with their teams, emerged and the industry was born (Zephyr, Z-Flex, Logan, G&S, Sims, Tracker, Indy, etc.).

In short, the '70s was when skateboarding graduated from being just a toy/fad to “A THING.” (Which raises an interesting question: why do some fads grow into established communities, while others fade-away after their short-lived popularity? Why, for instance, did skateboards survive while hula-hoops, yo-yos, and rollerblades died? Is it that skateboarders had a more tenacious spirit, or was it just dumb luck?) Not only did skateboarding become “a thing,” but it became its OWN thing. Prior to this, skateboarding was nothing more than an impersonation of surfing on rickety old rock-hard wheels, but the revolutionary improvements in equipment in the '70s unlocked new terrain and skateboarding—no longer “sidewalk surfing”—was born.

Greg Weaver, layback, Carlsbad 1976.

THE FIRST SKATEPARK

Jack Graham was an inventor of sorts in the '70s and, at some point, for whatever reason, he envisioned building a facility dedicated entirely to skateboarding. He partnered with his young neighbor, a skater named John O’Malley, who would be instrumental in helping design this first skateboard facility. Jack secured the location with the help of his friend, Larry Grismer, who owned the Carlsbad Raceway. And so, next to a drag strip, that’s where they poured the cement for the world’s first skatepark.

As Miki Vuckovich says in the excellent documentary, Skate SD, “At that time there was no precedent, so they had to build it from scratch—they had to conceive it from scratch.”

Even the word “skatepark” didn’t exist. Its first appearance in print may have been on the plan for the skatepark itself (lower right).

There was, in fact, some precedent. Skaters had discovered pools, pipes, banks, ditches, etc.; the Rampage halfpipe was built the year before in 1975 (more on that later); apparently ski moguls were the inspiration for a portion of the Carlsbad design; and there was always the influence of the waves in the ocean, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of what Miki is saying: no one had ever constructed a facility specifically designed for skateboarding before (there were a few skateboard-specific facilities in the '60s, but they would be better described as tracks or trails). What does it look like? How do you build it? Huh?

The Carlsbad Skatepark closed in 1979, was buried under dirt, then resurrected and demolished in 2005. John O’Malley retrieved this chunk during the demolition and it now resides in The Smithsonian’s collection. At least someone agrees with me about Carlsbad’s historical significance.

The fields of undulating cement that they poured in Carlsbad created a surreal, lunar landscape the likes of which had never been seen before. This first park was, of course, rather primitive and skateboarders’ skills quickly outgrew the obstacles in the park, but it’s astounding how successful they were first try. When you look at pictures of the Carlsbad park today, it looks like a skatepark—a little wonky, perhaps, but a skatepark nonetheless. It looks fun and apparently it was VERY fun because it became very popular and was responsible for the massive skatepark boom that followed. (Frankly I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more attention given to the historical significance of the Carlsbad Skatepark.)

The Carlsbad Skatepark showed that there was money to be made in skateboarding. Investors started funding the construction of copycats around the world. Every park that was built was intended to be more attractive and more challenging than the previous and as a result they started getting bigger and bigger—but not always better. Profit is, of course, more important than people, so parks were often designed by people who had never ridden a skateboard, corners were cut during construction, parks were built in haste, and the poor quality of some of these early parks was the cause of a lot of injuries—serious injuries.

“[On] opening day, the paramedics were there three times,” Dan Petersen, the manager of Winchester Skatepark in San Jose, recalls.

 I’ve always loved this old Winchester contest footage. Former Winchester manager, Dan Petersen, is one of the first to speak. “We have all the top skaters from around the country here. We’re going to do some really intense maneuvers for you today,” Dan says.

As a result of the spate of injuries across the country, insurance rates for skatepark operators skyrocketed. When the Del Mar Skate Ranch opened, for instance, insurance was purportedly around $11,000/year, but by the time it closed its insurance obligations were well over $100,000/year. Most skatepark owners were merely investors who had no invested interest in skateboarding and since their investments were no longer making money, the skateparks closed. Hey, izz bizness…

This, to me, is an extraordinary extinction event: the first skatepark was built in 1976. Then, over the next few years, HUNDREDS of these gigantic cement moonscapes were constructed across the country and around the world. But by 1981, just five years after the first park was built, nearly every single one of them was gone. The skatepark boom lasted just five short years, then—POOF!—hundreds of skateparks were demolished and gone. That is, like, so weird.

Not to mention that this extinction event was also very disappointing on a personal level because that’s pretty much right when I started skating. While I was riding a skateboard in the late '70s, it was a “toy” and I was a “child.” In 1980, however, when I was 10-years-old, our family moved to Cupertino. We lived on a hill. And there was an older, punk rock kid in the neighborhood that would bomb the hill, shod in Vans, on a “real” skateboard. His name, interestingly enough, was Dave Phelps (no relation to Jake, RIP). It was thanks to Dave Phelps that me and my dumb little buddies were introduced to Skateboarding proper. He told us to go to California Surfer (our local shop) and buy real skateboards, pick up a copy of Thrasher while you’re at it, stop listening to REO Speedwagon here’s Black Flag, and basically pointed us down the path to becoming certified nomadic skateboard warriors. And that’s when I decided to become a Skateboarder. And a man—albeit a 10-year-old man without any pubic hair, but a man none-the-less.

Del Mar Skate Ranch was one of the three skateparks to survive extinction in the US. We sort of felt like we were Del Mar locals simply because we used to watch so much footage of the keyhole. Mike Chantry (Tahoe Ramp) filmed the entire 1984 Del Mar contest from the face wall with barely an edit. It is hours and hours of footage and we used to watch it constantly. The session in this clip appears to be practice days before that contest? I include it because it contains a bunch of Neil Blender footage I’ve never seen before.

The very next day after my initiation into the Skateboard Brotherhood, I sought my mother’s assistance in delivering me to the aforementioned Winchester Skatepark in nearby San Jose—yet a man, I was technically only ten years of age and not yet legally permitted to operate a motor vehicle. When we arrived at the skateboard facility I hopped out of the car with my new axe under my arm and confidentally—I should mention here that, while I was a man, I was not a very smart man as I had only strode upon this earth for ten short years and was still not well-versed in the art of language—I CONFIDENTLY marched across Winchester’s parking lot to the entrance. Something, however, was amiss. There were no other cars in the parking lot besides my mother’s. It was silent. The entrance to the pro shop was boarded up. There was a fence around the perimeter of the park. As I peered through the fence, I could see a man sitting in a bulldozer.

Suddenly a man wearing a construction helmet appeared from around the corner. He stopped short when he saw me. At first he seemed a little surprised to see me. He looked me over, saw my sweet axe, chuckled softly, and said, “Sorry kid, park’s closed.”

I said nothing because the man was obviously insane.

“You didn’t hear?” he continued. “Yesterday was the last day.”

It was July 31, 1981. Winchester closed on July 30, 1981.

That didn’t really happen, but it may as well have because that’s what it felt like when I learned what a “skatepark” was. “There’s a whole park for skateboarding? Where?” NOPE. Apparently no one sent us the memo because by the time me and my dumb lil buddies heard about skateparks, there were only three left in the US: Del Mar, Upland, and Kona. We would eventually skate all three, but for many years the closest thing we had to a skatepark was a sad little ditch in Santa Cruz known as, Derby (see first photo). It was nothing more than a crumb to our insatiable appetite for terrain. Denied a facility to practice our craft (???), we searched high and low for anything that would slake our thirst for tranny. We skated loading docks, parking garages, banks, curbs, ditches, pools, anything we could find because no sooner had we found something than we were chased away. It didn’t take us long to realize: if we wanted something to skate we were going to have to build it ourselves.

So while the great skatepark boom of the late '70s gave birth to vert/transition, and ultimately the Modern Era of skateboarding, it was assassinated almost immediately after it assumed power. When the skateparks disappeared, most of the skateboarders disappeared with them, along with most of what had been the industry. Skateboarding DIED. Again. What was that, its third or fourth death at that point? Skateboarding is a cat. There were, however, small pockets of skaters around the country who had been seduced by the magical powers of the landsled. They were addicted and refused to abandon their newfound high. Hungry for vert and starving for transition there was no other option but to rebuild everything with their own bare hands. What emerged was an underground network of giant wooden megaliths hidden in backyards, back lots, back alleys, and backcountry backwoods.

 ***************************

In the next installment of TRANNY we continue our look at the evolution of transition as it transitions from cement parks to the backyard ramp scene of the 1980s—a period that represents one of the earliest and most significant demonstrations of what has become a hallmark of the skateboarder’s character, DYI: Do. Yourself. It.


Older Post Newer Post


  • Charlie Don't Skate! on

    I was a reservist in the JFA. I love the smell of urethane in the morning.

  • Robert on

    Your story about missing out on your first trip to a real skatepark reminds me of my quest for The Turf in the mid-90’s. By the time I had learned of it in the Yellow Pages phone directory, it was already gone. Still, I had to go see for myself that my dreams had been shattered before they were even conceived. Unlike your massive childhood let-down, however, I was involved in unearthing the remains of The Turf back in 2010, and will be one of the first people to shred the resurrected, legendary facility upon its re-birth within the coming year.

  • Betsy girdin on

    The Smithsonian loves skateboarding and I loved Part One of your saga. Can’t wait for Part Two.

    Signed,
    A Smithsonian Skateboard Historian ( it’s true- we exist!)


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published