Z-Boys, Cool Losers


The convoluted saga behind the 11th hour rescue of the Horizons West Surf Shop in sunsoaked Santa Monica, California, spiritual home to a group of skating legends called the Z-Boys, raises important philosophical questions. For instance, if life imitates art far more than art imitates life, as Oscar Wilde once asserted, what happens if life imitates art that is in turn imitating semi-biographical art that once imitated life? Secondly, and maybe most importantly, Can a bitchin’ Heath Ledger movie get a surf shop designated a historic landmark?

These are the million-dollar postmodern questions at the heart of a story that at times reads like a screenplay for a bad ’80s movie written by metafiction guru, Charlie Kaufman. But let’s start from the beginning.

For a majority of the time during the ’70s and ’80s, the south Santa Monica area bore an unsavory reputation as a beachside slum locals affectionately nicknamed “Dogtown”. It’s an appropriate name, because it was a dog-eared place full of gutter punks, cracked sidewalks, graffiti-strewn storefronts, and rowdy hardcore shows. But like the rest of west Los Angeles, the gentrification of today’s Dogtown is increasingly palpable. Much of Main Street, where Horizon West sits, is awash with $1,500-a-month studio apartments, upscale boutiques, cool vegan restaurants and the Prius-driving, latte drinking, liberal upper class predominately connected to the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, the homegrown locals, artists, and bohemian types that once embraced Dogtown have either been priced out or are clinging desperately to rent-controlled apartments as the city around them grows into a Beverly Hills for Ralph Nader voters.

In stark contrast, the beat-up, ramshackle Horizons West building stands out as a tacky relic from the not-so-distant past. It’s of little surprise then, considering skyrocketing property values, that Juli Doar, the owner of the lot containing Horizons West, which also houses a pair of rundown artist studios and a parking lot, last year announced her intentions to demolish all of the structures to construct a 14-unit apartment complex in its stead. It would be a happy, environment-friendly apartment complex, yes, but an apartment complex nonetheless.

Now, had Doar acted earlier, say five years ago, Horizons West would probably be a pile of pastel-colored rubble by now. But little did she know that Stacy Peralta, one of the former store’s patrons and a former Z-boy himself, would make two films waxing nostalgic for the place as if it were the skateboarding equivalent of Monticello.

Curiously enough, it was a feature article published in Spin Magazine in 1999 that first started the fetishizing of the mid-70’s heyday of a ragtag bunch of skateboarding teens known as the Z-boys and their favorite hangout, the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Productions Surf Shop. (see “The Lords of Dogtown”, by G. Beato, March 1999)Written with unflinching hyperbole, (the author of the piece describes a wave as “almost pornographic in its perfect, arcing glassiness”) the Z-boys were coronated as “Lords of Dogtown”, and credited with everything from birthing modern skateboarding techniques and its rebellious, non-comformist image to embodying the spirit and image of the punk rocker a full year before the Sex Pistols struck it big.

As the legend goes, Z-boys like Peralta, Tony Alva, and Jay Adams invaded the in-ground swimming pools of rich Los Angelinos during a summer drought and, using moves they learned while surfing near the Pacific Pier, spontaneously invented aerial skating. In the summer of 1975 the Z-boys unveiled their newfangled style at a national competition held in Del Mar, California, instantly transforming the boring, static world of skateboarding on its head and becoming rock star-like icons in the process. Like real rock stars, unfortunately, the Z-boys broke up by the next year in grand VH1 Behind the Music fashion as they fell prey to drugs, crime, or the trappings of their newfound fame.

The Spin article inspired Peralta, a filmmaker who had made popular skate videos in the past, to make a self-congratulatory documentary in 2001 called Dogtown and the Z-Boys, a film funded by the Vans shoe company (presumably to sell a few canvas high-tops to skateboarders.) Four years later, its dramatized companion piece, Lords of Dogtown, arrived in theaters starring a well-coifed Heath Ledger as Skip Engblom, one of the shop’s owners, who chews scenery by channeling Val Kilmer channeling Jim Morrison . (On a side note, Peralta takes the term “vanity project” to a new level by writing a movie in which he portrays himself as the responsible, saint-like protagonist and also makes a gratuitous cameo appearance.)

About the time Lords of Dogtown was released, Randy Wright, another owner of Horizons West, reinvented a wing of the shop as a shrine to the Dogtown and Z-boy crew – filling it with old pictures and T-shirts, skateboards and surfboards for sale bearing the official Zephyr team logo. This despite the fact that Horizons West hadn’t had official ties with the Z-Boys since the days of disco. Tony Alva opened his own skate shop near Hollywood, Peralta had his own line of boards, and most of the others were scattered elsewhere. Wright had owned the shop since 1987, after original Z-Boy Nathan Pratt sold it to him. Pratt had run the shop since 1977 after Zephyr and Jeff Ho Productions closed its doors. It made sense though, as the Z-Boy museum became a marketing tool to lure people from around the world to visit as a kind of pilgrimage and buy a surfboard or Dogtown T-shirt. As the guys at Horizons will admit, few cared about the building or knew who the Z-Boys were before the movies were released. Even the family that had owned the property for 60 years didn’t know.

Arguably, through the power of cinema, Horizons emerged as a strong source of countercultural civic pride. And so in October 2006, the demolition permit that hung on the steel gate outside of Horizons became the Santa Monica version of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. It didn’t take long for aging Dogtownies and local extreme sports enthusiasts to begin rattling their proverbial sabers (longboards?) for the sake of saving the shop from destruction. Some passed out petitions, others cried out at public meetings, flyers were stuck on car windshields, and most appropriately, a rock concert benefit was held to save the shop.

To me the Kaufman-like element of this story is that so many of the surf shop’s proponents, many of whom either appeared as themselves in a documentary or had quasi-fictionalized characters based on them in a movie, acted as if they were trapped in a real-life snobs versus slobs movie from the ’80s – the kind of irreverent, heartwarming comedy typical of the era in which the ragtag band of kids or the free-thinking, individualistic iconoclasts rise up and band together to save their personal sanctuaries / clubhouses / camps from the clutches of evil, mustache-twirling businessmen hellbent on turning their favorite places into soulless parking lots or strip malls. (See: The Goonies, Ernest Goes to Camp, Revenge of the Nerds, and countless others).

In the case of Dogtown, it was the middle-aged locals who pictured themselves as skate-or-die rebels that fought to preserve this symbol of their glorious youth. Peralta embraced this role completely. When a radio station asked him if he thought Horizons would be saved he remarked: “Not when you’re dealing with affluent people. This is all about money. This is about making the city shine for the rich and super rich. The Zephyr shop represents a rogue activity, rogue people, in their minds. They don’t want to be associated with people like that.”

In other words, the fight to save Horizons West was more than just a grass roots effort to save a surf shop. The underlying motivation was also about Sticking It to The Man. Us versus Them. Punk culture versus conformist culture. Poor against rich. All, interestingly enough, attitudes heavy in the subtext of the Z-Boys movies.

But this is a strange, almost hypocritical position to embrace because the fact is that the Z-Boys and their ilk, like skating culture at large, are no longer the lovable, scrappy underdog. The X-Games and skateboarding are now a harmless part of the pop-culture zeitgeist. Tony Hawk is a multimillionaire entrepreneur who just had a ride at Six Flags named after him. The Z-Boys are no longer unappreciated footnotes in the sands of time. Many of the men and women themselves are now older, middle class, successful and comfortable.

And as often is the case in real life, there was no bogeyman in Santa Monica, no evil force other than the dog-eat-dog realities of capitalism. Doar wanted to build a sustainable, enviro-friendly apartment complex, not a monolithic apartment lot. When she discovered the history of the place, Doar held an olive branch out in the form of a series of public meetings seeking input on how best to commemorate the Z-Boys’ legacy. The City’s Landmarks Commission, meanwhile, began exploring a way to preserve the shop by designating it a landmark. There was certainly no evil cackling involved. (See “Zephyr Rally Cry” by Mary Buckheit, EXPN.com, 14 March 2007)

Up until the last moment, however, Jeff Ho and other Dogtown devotees remained skeptical, Ho was still expecting that something wasn’t going to work out. But it did. In the end, a compromise was struck. The owner and architect agreed to preserve the surf shop and incorporate it into the new development, and the Landmarks Commission decided the shop was “culturally significant” enough to designate. It was a ‘win-win-win-win’ situation, remarked one commissioner.

They say history is written by the winners, and suddenly there is a lot of it documented about these self-proclaimed outcasts and rebels. In recognizing that truth, though, the Z-Boys would be going off script and defying roles they wrote for themselves to let the whole world see what cool losers they really were.