INTERVIEW: The God-father of Skateboarding- LARRY STEVENSON OF MAKAHA SKATEBOARDS
By Valerie Ong for www.lioncityskaters.com Edited by T.Combs
(We are extremely honored to have Larry Stevenson grant us an interview, direct from the USA. As Larry suffers from Parkinson's Disease, he was assisted in this interview by his son, Curt Stevenson.)
For those new to skateboarding or don’t know who Larry Stevenson is, he is the creator of “kicktails” or what today’s skaters call the “nose” and “tail” of a skateboard. His ingenious invention paved the way for tricks like the “ollie” and revolutionized skateboarding. Larry also organised the world’s first skateboarding contest, set up the first skateboarding exhibition team and created the first longboard.
How does it feel to be called the God-father of Skateboarding and did you really start out in a garage?
I have always felt strange about being called the father of skateboarding because there were skateboards before I made them. I did not build the first skateboard but was just lucky enough to hook up with the big name surfers in 1961 through Surf Guide Magazine, and put skateboarding in with surfing. When there was no surf, the surfers had a "rainy day surfboard". I simply took the homemade boards, which were so prevalent then, and turned them into something better, created a skateboard team, and put on contests. They say I was the first to do that, so I guess that's why I am considered by some as the father of skateboarding. As far as building skateboards in the garage is concerned, I mostly built prototypes of the boards I wanted to put on the market, but I also built and stored my boards there as well, until we moved the operation into a bigger warehouse on 26th and Colorado St. in Santa Monica.
How did you come up with the idea of creating the kicktail and double kicktail?
In 1965 through 1969, the skateboarding market crashed due to the dangerous nature of the sport. Kids were slipping off the front and back of their boards, so we started bending the front and back of the boards up so they wouldn't slip off. It was something of a safety issue more than anything, but for Makaha, it was also about making skateboarding easier for the kids. Having kicktails also allowed for new tricks to be created.
Do you still receive royalties on the kicktail patent?
No, patents are only valid for 17 years. Many companies honored my patent on the kicktail and did pay a small royalty on each board they sold, but that ended 30 years ago.
How did you come up with the idea of creating long boards?
We simply made bigger decks so kids could have more room for their feet, and they could do mock surf moves easier. For the last 15 years, it's been a completely separate market from the mainstream popsicle board street skating thing. In fact, some are saying that the longboard, cruiser board markets are bigger than the street skating market because more people can do it. It's similar to the way skateboarding was in the 60's, 70's, and 80's because it is not so segmented.
Have you tried skateboarding before?
Yes, I would skate around a bit on each new design, purely for the fun of it, but mostly I really enjoyed developing new products and making boards.
What gave you the idea of creating the world’s first skateboarding contest and the first skateboarding exhibition team?
I wanted to help build the sport so having contests and putting teams together was the logical way to do that. We did a lot of contests and demos, but I think you are speaking of the first ones in Hermosa Beach, and in Santa Monica, at Bay St. Those took place in 1963.
Why do you like the word “Makaha”?
I first became aware of the famous surfing beach Makaha, in Hawaii, when I was in the Navy back in the early 1950's. Later, I thought it would be a very good name for a skateboard company. Makaha was a place where surf games took place by Hawaiian royalty for hundreds of years, and the waves were very good. Surfers could easily relate "Makaha" to something good.
Was it difficult to get the first skateboards into the big departmental stores?
In the very beginning, I was selling boards to local surf shops etc. to get the boards into the hands of skaters. Soon thereafter, I met Joe Hammond a sporting goods sales rep who took a few Makaha boards to the National Sporting Goods Show in Chicago, where he took orders for a lot of Makaha Skateboards. He later called me and said, "How many skateboards do you have?", "can you go into production for a certain amount of boards?" All in all, the sale of boards into May Company, Sears, and sporting goods stores is what really launched Makaha Skateboards.
Skateboarding has evolved so much since 1963, but yet today Makaha skateboards are still in the industry, what have you done to keep up with the times?
We kind of do our own thing. We've been making skateboards on and off for the last 50 years. For the last 10 or 15 years, we've been making replicas of our 60's boards and some newer styled pool boards and cruiser boards. We don't keep up with the times because we are on our own timeline. We just signed a licensing arrangement with i.e. distribution to make a new line of Makaha boards, so we are very happy about that.
Since 1963, you have witnessed the unravelling of skateboarding to become the industry that it is today, what are your thoughts about this?
In the beginning- the 60's and 70's, I knew it was going to be big, but I never imagined it would be the way it is today. We all dreamt that it would be what it is today, but it is truly amazing the sport is as big as it is.
What do you think the future of skateboarding is?
I don't really know, probably more growth and market segmentation. In terms of skateboarding and skateboarding skills, I think skaters who skate just one style will start skating all styles very well - possibly breaking down the different market segments and taking skateboarding back to what it originally was.
Today, we have many active skateboarders in Singapore with about 16 skate parks, did you expect skateboarding to spread to the rest of the world?
I never thought skateboarding would grow the way it has, though I had an idea that it would, and hoped it would. But then again, in the 70's and 80's, Makaha was selling skateboards to many different countries around the world, so I'm not that surprised. The first efforts we made to get skateboarding seen in other countries was during the 60's, when Jim Fitzpatrick took a bunch of Makaha Skateboards to give away in Europe, but he tells the story better than I do.
The skateboard scene in America is obviously more advanced than Singapore, if we wanted to progress towards becoming like the U.S.A. is today, what advice would you offer?
Just keep doing what you're doing, the evolution of skateboarding in Singapore is on it’s own path, as it is in many other countries. I've seen your website (www.lioncityskaters.com) and some of the things on there. It looks like you are doing very well with growing the sport.
How does it feel knowing that you created history and that you are a legend? What advice would you like to share with us?
It's a nice feeling to be thought of in that way, however I'm uncomfortable with being called a legend or anything else. I was happy to help create a sport and feel very lucky. As far as advice to share, just do what you love and follow your dreams, you only live once! It's cliché, but clichés are usually clichés for a reason; there is some truth, or a lot of truth, in them.
What was the inspiration behind your magazine Poweredge?
Surf Guide Magazine which I published in the early 1960's was the inspiration. At the time when we first started publishing POWEREDGE, 1987, there were only Thrasher and Transworld magazines on the stands. With POWEREDGE I wanted to create a new magazine. I always loved publishing so we just started another skateboarding magazine. We stopped printing the 80's and 90's POWEREDGE in 1991 after 36 issues. I suppose I started POWEREDGE for another reason back then, and that was to promote Makaha Skateboards. It never really worked out that way, and POWEREDGE became popular on it's own. It was produced by skateboarders and still is to this day. In POWEREDGE, we could do things that the much larger magazines couldn't editorially. We liked to showcase skaters you'd never hear of again, but we also featured some of the best skaters to walk the face of earth, like Danny Way and Tony Hawk, just to name a couple. The new POWEREDGE, which we re-launched in 2009, is a whole new ball game due to the competition and condition of the publishing industry today. We print several magazines a year for the newsstand and intend on doing an extensive special edition photo annual for the first part of 2012. People will still find great photos and articles like always, but skateboarding has changed a lot in 20 years, and so has the skateboarding audience. It's just a tricky thing. People are loyal to this magazine or that magazine, and won't read the ones they aren't loyal to - POWEREDGE has a large fan base which makes it much easier than starting a new title, which is essentially what we did. Digital publishing has also been a game changer making it easy for anyone to make a magazine. However with our history, our new print editions coming out, and new website, we look forward to a really good year next year.
We understand that a documentary is being filmed about your life, what can we expect and would it be available to the Asia market? If not, how can we get our hands on a copy of the film?
The documentary of my life, as it pertains to skateboarding, is what they've been working on for 8 years now. We've shown some rough cuts and are now in the process of taking it to post to be ready for world-wide release. The documentary really has two stories, my story, and the skateboarders who were involved with Makaha Skateboards. You can expect to see those elements in the movie (s). There is talk of splitting the documentary into my life, and then a second documentary of the skateboarders who made Makaha look so good. We should be screening a new documentary in about 3 months!
Is it true that you tried to sail across the world in 1968? What spurred you to do that?
I was a swimmer in college, a beach lifeguard on Venice Beach, and always liked the ocean, so I bought a wooden sailboat in 1967 to go back and forth to Catalina with. At that time I would take my wife Helen and son Curtis to Catalina for vacations, so I had heard about an around the world race and thought I would give it a try. It's a long story, but yes I entered the race and left a couple of weeks behind the others due to mechanical problems. I had my little boat, "The American Spirit", filled with a year’s worth of water and rations, and set sail to fulfill some type of dream I had. After a week or so, off the pacific coast of Mexico my motoring engine seized taking me out of the race. I was happy because I didn't want to leave my family for a year but disappointed that I made a big deal out of the adventure and didn't complete it. You could say it was a failure. In my mind I let a lot of family and friends down, many of whom invested heavily in the voyage that was never meant to be.
During your days in the navy, where did you go?
I did two trips from California to Japan during the Korean war, with a final destination of the Korean coast. It took me through the Hawaiian Islands, the Philippines and I was able to see a lot of Japan.
Have you ever been to Singapore before?
Yes, during my many trips to the Orient during the 70's and 80's for Makaha Skateboards. I stopped off in Singapore - my memory is fuzzy, but I know I liked it.
In the future, what kind of developments do you foresee for skateboarding, in terms of the shape and technology that forms a skateboard and the structure of the sports?
I think you might see some new development in materials making the boards lighter. I have had an idea in the back of my head for some time now about mini-hydraulics for skateboard trucks, but for the most part, the skateboard and all of it's parts have been perfected.
From your early days, it is obvious that you succeeded in almost everything that you ever tried, what do you think is your secret of success?
My secret of success was to dream big, and then do anything I could to make that dream come true. There is no secret, just come up with an idea and work as hard as you can to make it reality. And believe that you can do it. I always believed I could do what I came up with. I failed many times, but failing is a part of learning how to succeed.
Larry Stevenson's Makaha Skateboards Collector Video
Thank you Larry Stevenson and Curt Stevenson for agreeing to this interview. It has been a real honour learning more about you and your impact on the evolution of skateboarding.
Check out Makaha Skateboards and PowerEdge Magazine.