Venice Epicenter of the Outdoor Roller-Quake
by Jamie Budge
RollerSkating Magazine April 1979
The fault line starts Just north of the Santa Monica Pier and runs down the beach south to Washington Street. The epicenter is Windward Avenue. where the Venice Roller Quake rumbles most intensely. The rumbles are not in the earth, but on top of it. The season lasts all year round. with intense seismic activity centering around hot summer days and four-day holiday weekends. Like most earth-shaking ideas. it started in California first.
It is on these days that the roller-skate phenomenon cannot be overlooked. It is Venice on parade. Venice on eight wheels. Among the usual demonstrations are the Hare Krishnas chanting and the street musicians mimicking a host of famous folk singers. Standing comedians raise their voices to broadcast their one-liners above the drum beats of a Congo troupe in the background. There is a fashion show, a snake charmer, street concessions, jewelry for sale, health foods, junk foods, scantily dressed ladies and oddly clad men. What used to be a nude beach is now the longest running costume party in Los Angeles.
But this all just sets the stage for the main attraction. because the audience (and performers) are all on eight wheels. Flowing in and out of the crowd of otherwise remarkable events, is a never-ending stream of roller-skates . If you are there, you can’t miss them. And half the time. the unskilled ones won’t miss you. Near misses around the strollers and bicycles can end in collisions with the pedestrians! One big collage of roller confusion. Girls in bikinis, tourists in Bermuda shorts, hippies in flower garb and normal business people all share one thing in common: Wheels on their feet !
” Right here. folks, before your very eyes. is where it all started !” Would you believe that people also skate around In circles on a wooden rink? Without the stimulation of salt air or smog to breathe, or bare feet or litter to roll over? Roller skating isn’t complete until you’ve experienced an eight wheel side-slip through some soft-frozen yogurt into some sun-soft bubble gum. It is all right here in Venice. the beginning of a phenomenon that is transforming roller-skating around the world . It is a great form of transportation, a way to get sun tan without having your heart stop, and it will re-shape your lady’s legs. You can do it to disco, wear all the clothes your Mom never threw out, and learn to dance (or rex) right on the spot. The hard-core enthusiasts can race, slalom, hockey, or park it. And the outdoor skaters can take it all indoors at night and disco rock to the music of the Fifties .
And it is spreading outwards. The main roller quake may be in Venice, but the after shocks are being felt all over the world. In an aisle in a crowded supermarket, shoppers bounce and bump into each other with packed shopping carts : but a lone figure glides effortlessly through the maze with almost unnoticed slalom techniques. In the morning the motorists crowd the streets, the bicyclers fight for their slot by the curb and the pedestrians jam into buses. But the roller-skater has fun, exercise and relaxation on his way to work. No place is safe from the roller invasion . Parks, schools, the bank or the post office are all more fun on wheels . Sightseeing on foot is left to the unimaginative. Roller touring is in.
Bands of skaters weave their way down multi-level parking structures and slalom along the inviting boulevards. A curb is for jumping, a corner is for freestyle, a driveway makes an excellent “get off” ramp. You can grab a quick burger or cruise into your favorite restaurant. If you are real discreet. the maitre d’ will be too polite to mention the aberration on your feet. The cycle is complete. If man was meant to walk. he wouldn’t have been given urethane.
Emerging from the masses of the hot crowded weekends are the skaters who take their sport and fun very seriously.
They were there in the beginning (before Linda Ronstadt graced her album cover with recognition of another great American pastime coming into its own again). At Windward Avenue late on a Sunday afternoon, they are the ones who are making a slalom run for the hundredth time, or practicing a freestyle maneuver before returning to work at Cheapskates or Venice Precision Roller Works. They will be out again after work long into the night, practicing for a competition or exhibition or party or down at the Marina Skate Park “getting vertical ” in the empty pools that make it a skatepark and not a hot springs.
Music makes the wheels roll faster and puts a number of disjointed bodies into choreographed unison. The rexers take the stage with pre-recorded tapes playing from battery-powered tape players. The crowd gathers in tight to watch the “New Horizons,” a team of four rexers who demonstrate a series of grapevines and cross-steps. These are designed to look like a 20-mile-per-hour drill team. while they actually dance side-by-side in one spot. Sort of a state of suspended roller motion.
For those individuals who don’t want to participate en-masse, there are headphones with radio or backpack tape recorders for your own private trip into the roller music of your choice.
One of the early veterans of the Venice roller-skating phenomenon is Terry Caccia. Terry’s earliest exposure to roller-skating came from his father back in Rockford. Illinois, when Terry was just seven years old. Dad used to have a vaudeville type routine that he did on skates, and would twirl Terry around in a roller spin. Looking down, Terry must have noticed that Dad was skating heel to heel, or what has now become known as ” side-surfing. ” Terry adopted that style and became the one to introduce side-surfing to the street skaters of Venice. Not that Terry was the one and only in this pursuit. Well known Kenny Means was ripping it up side-surfing the reservoirs and skate hills of early skateboarding with the same position. But it was Terry who packed a jivey, gyrating side-skate scissor style that propelled him along paths of Venice like a giant King Crab. sideways, with all eight legs going at once. Or at least it appears that way to the untrained eye.
Soon. however, many trained eyes were following Terry’s example, and side-surfing became a standard in street skating and disco dance routines. In parks, many consider it the only way to ride the bowls and vertical walls. In dance routines , it adds a mysterious means of propulsion that only the skater can fully understand.
Caccia got into skating in Venice in September of 1976, about four months after the openings of the skate rental shops (or vans) in the area. Back then , roller-skating wasn’t considered much of an out-and-out craze, but sort of a low-key entertainment for a summer afternoon and a way to watch the street entertainers without having to listen too long . Things were pretty low-key at that time. but there was a charge in the air and a lot of talk about what could happen when roller-skating caught on. If it ever did. At that time, it was still considered an awkward off-shoot of the skateboard craze, even if roller-skating had been around for a hundred years. mostly in rinks.
Terry feels that the main difference between outdoor roller-skating and rink skating is speed and freedom. The rink skaters go round and round in a specified circle , which is bound to be somewhat limiting. The rink is flat , round, and, if you go too fast, the monitor blows the whistle. There are none of these restrictions outdoors. If you get going too fast in Venice, the bicyclers only complain that you are making them look bad. They occasionally succeed in getting the roller skaters to move off the bike path and onto the Promenade or other skate areas.
With the outdoors comes the freedom and spontaneity of unrestricted movement. You can go as fast as you want and as far as you want. But the outdoor roller-skater has to be as adaptable to cracked , bumpy asphalt as he is to the smooth concrete surfaces. Pedestrians are for weaving in and out of. beer cans are for making slalom courses, curbs are for jumping, walls are for building ramps against. The outdoors is for skating any way it comes at you. The style you choose may be whatever you feel suits you.
The influence on Venice roller-skating is as varied and unpredictable as the average inhabitant. You have actors, artists , singers. dancers, show people, clothing people, writers, poets, decorators from all walks of life. Put them all on wheels and you have the Venice Outdoor Rollerskating Style. Anything goes, as long as it keeps moving.
As 27-year-old Fred Dagher says, ” I’d rather have good form on a simple move than bad form on a radical move. I’m striving for form .” Fred is another of the Venice regulars who finds skating, “A way to make my living with toys. That’s all it is, toys. Plus, I get approached by skate companies, wheels companies, the media. And my name gets out. Basically, it’s just looking good when I skate. I guess that’s everybody’s idea.”
Although, ” Looking good when he skates” is everybody’s idea, the varieties are as numerous as the list of locals that make up the core of the Venice Skate Quake. Colin Courtman gives a slightly different aspect to all that goes on with a little different heritage, being from London, England. He’s called , “The Man with the Electric Knees.” To see him come down the street, he is a ball of motion with legs scissoring at impossible angles, fingers snapping, arms jiving and head bobbing – all to the beat of his self-contained sound system. The headphones top it off for the total impression of a Mork in motion. Ticia Stucklen and Beth Graham are both totally committed to skating in parks as well as the paths of Venice and on the stages of roller disco. As 16-year-old Ticia says, “When I see a wall , I just want to skate on it. ” And she does, with her own unique parallel style of getting vertical in the most difficult of pools and bowls, like the 17″ bowl at the Runway and the vertical pool walls of the Marina Skate Park.
The “Who’s Who” of Venice roller-skating could go on forever. There is Jetpack Debbie with her two friends who make regular high speed runs of the Venice Freestyle area while totally immersed in music of their own choice coming from tape recorders mounted on their chests. Jerry Bregman learned to jump over his sister Cindy because school regulation wouldn’t allow him to jump over trash cans. Cindy does a back bend and can feel him when he goes over. “Sometimes his skates scrape my stomach.” Benjy Conn, at the ripe old age of 16, has been skating for two and a half years, a Venice veteran. Benjy was one of the first to go at it with any real consistency and modestly admits to inspiring many of the regulars to greatness with his ramp jumps and freestyle maneuvering.
Terry also causes some commotion when he windskates with his sail and roller-skates on the Venice Promenade. Terry is responsible for developing windskating with roller-skates, which was previously limited to use on skateboards. Terry with his “windblown dances,” as described in the local papers, has been openly accepted by the Venice crowd. Terry can get going as fast as 35 miles per hour down the smoother sections of the pathways and is starting to draw a band of followers who want to borrow the sail . . . “Which is all right, but I’ve only got one.” Which indicates that he doesn’t always cooperate..
Perhaps it is the show business appeal that keeps the Venice Roller Quake rumbling at full volume. It can be very bizarre, as when “Terrible Toni” streaked the sidewalk cafe. Or, it can be more organized, as when Hawaiian Punch staged “The World’s First Outdoor Disco Rollerskating Championship” and 2,000 spectators gathered to watch the action last July. Sometimes it is genuine and spontaneous, as when the skateboarders allowed the roller regulars to share their skate ramp at the Pavilion because they thought the skaters were “cool. ” The ramp became the center of Venice show biz for weeks until the city dismantled it. But, the crowd’s response was not overlooked, and soon creative entrepreneurs were re-staging such exhibitions for their own commercial promotions.
So, it seems that the Venice Skate Quake is rumbling off the end of the ” Roller Scale” both indoors and out, not only in Venice, but in all the coastal areas of the United States and in select areas around the world. But where were those first rumblings of outdoor roller-skates? Whose feet was it that put it all in motion, so to speak? Obviously, we all had a pair of skates when we were mere tykes .. . a set of metal plates with metal wheels that clamped onto our best pair of street shoes and crimped our toes while we stumbled over curbs. Where was the missing link between our innocent childhood playthings and the spreading outdoor Roller Quake?
Back in the early 70’s, a young student at Santa Monica College was accumulating a stack of parking tickets because there were no parking places at the college. He decided that the way around it was to get up a little earlier and roller-skate to school. This was a little unusual at the time, as his school was several miles away and he was the only adult person known to do this. As he stood 6’7″ in his skates, he was quite a spectacle. ” People would see me coming down the sidewalk and either walk to the other side of the street or politely stand to one side.” Jeff Rosenberg was looking, “To do something that was a make up of everything I’ve always wanted: an athletic activity, being my own boss and making money at it, and having it be special, something that hasn’t been done before.” Then one day while skating for fun on the Venice Promenade, it hit him. People were coming up to him and saying, “Gosh, that looks like fun , where can I rent a pair of those?” This was about three months after he got the “crazy idea” to buy a pair of skates for the fun of it. In June of 1976, he purchased 25 pair of skates and started renting out of a van parked on a lot in Venice next to the Promenade. At that time, the only skaters were Jeff and a few friends of his. A photographer who did the first piece of publicity on his new business, “Cheapskates,” researched it and found that his was the only outdoor roller-skate rental then in existence. Jeff was the first one, and he ” prides himself on that one,” saying, ” It’s an ego trip of mine. I believe that I was the first one to do it, and it is now growing into an international phenomenon.”
At that time, Jeff envisioned the rollerskating craze to reach the proportions that it has today, because the public was in a state of transition and looking for a healthier way to live. Rollerskating seemed to be a way that people could get exercise and have fun at the same time. Not only that, but it was a sport that could fit into anybody’s lifestyle, no matter who they were or where they lived, whether as a mode of transportation or a physical fitness exercise.
Still, in the beginning, the public had some apprehensions. “They would walk by and sniff at it the first time, come back a week later and talk about it, and around the third weekend they would come back with an adventurous friend and talk them into renting a pair of skates.” Jeff rented skates out of the van until about September 1976, then he moved into the current “Cheapskates” shop on the Promenade. At that time, roller-skating was becoming so popular that customers were waiting 2 and 3 hours to get a pair of skates. Jeff’s skates all had hard indoor wheels with loose ball bearings.
Around October 1976 another skate rental opened up. They called themselves “Venice Precision Roller Works,” featuring sealed precision bearings and large urethane wheels. Venice Precision Roller Works soon moved from the Promenade into the best spot on Windward Avenue. There they have established one of the two most successful skate rentals in Venice. Somewhere along the line both Cheapskates and Venice Precision Roller Works have found that the skate boom is bigger than both of them, and there seems to be plenty of room for the two companies. And that is just on one stretch of boardwalk in Venice. Seeing the potential of outdoor roller-skating, Phil Lacy set out to develop (with Chicago Roller Skate Company) the ideal skate, which he calls “Road Skates,” using the latest technology. Suzanne Thomas has set out to assist the outdoor roller-skating cause around the world with an association for shop owners. Both Cheapskates and Venice Precision Roller Works have become distributors for major skate manufacturers and have designed products specifically for street skating. Both companies are setting examples of how to promote outdoor roller-skating and are offering franchise-type arrangements along with consultations to new budding skate rentals.
Plans for the future of roller-skating seem to be unlimited. Suzanne Thomas recently took a tour of the United States to see how the opportunities were shaping up. The coast of California has already been well indoctrinated with rental shops opening or operating in San Diego, Oceanside, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach and San Francisco (to name a few of the direct after-shocks of the Venice Roller Quake). The entire state of Arizona is already very receptive, as are most coastal areas of the eastern United States, New York being an eastern epicenter at Central Park. Only the Texans seemed a little slow to respond with a drawl to, ” Rollahskates?” as if “What for ?” Transportation is one answer that Suzanne is using to motivate college programs of roller-skating as a quick efficient means of getting from one distant class to another. Hawaii and Europe are close behind with their own programs of rentals and sales.
Skate centers and roller discos are coming back in a flurry never dreamed of during the mid-fifties (a theme that many of them portray). Space-age skate centers are now being planned for Midtown New York and the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Cher is opening her own ” Hell on Wheels” roller rink for semi-exclusive roller parties in the L.A. area. Linda Ronstadt has brought credit back where credit is due by gracing the cover of her new album, “Back in the U.S.A.,” with a picture of her skating on the Venice Promenade.
How could it all happen? “We just started with $2,000 in 1976,” Suzanne explained to an incredulous reporter for the Wall Street Journal. “And we expect to do $3,000,000 in 1979.” Obviously, this has been a lot of motivation for many people to get into the business. Suzanne conceded, “We still don’t have a penny, it is like a game.” In order to keep their perspective in the middle of all this rapid growth and reinvestment of immediate profits, Phil and Suzanne have just completed their EST training, and approach their new projects (including a skate-a-thon for the EST Hunger Project) with eager enthusiasm.
Amid Venice Precision Roller Works’ and Cheapskates’ efforts to stay on top of the phenomenon by forming distributorships, opening new shops and forming skatepark and disco teams, other major organizations are also joining the roller craze. Mattel has come out with their own version of the roller-skate after a study that led them to believe that roller-skating will continue to grow in popularity for at least five years. Several motion pictures are already in the works.
So what is the final outcome of the Venice Outdoor Roller Quake? Nobody really knows what the future may bring … or leave behind, for that matter. Walking may just become another obsolete form of transportation, like the horse. Or maybe the foot will just disappear from the human anatomy, like the tail bone that has all but disappeared from the base of all our spines. What will replace the foot? Like Maureen Marcellino, a sage Venice regular says, “We were sitting at the table the other night and I bumped into my sister; she said, ‘Move your skate,’ as if everybody knows by now that what you find at the end of the human leg is the roller-skate!”