A Secret History
Interview with Craig Snyder
Why should everyone that skates know Alan Gelfand?
Alan’s nickname is Ollie. That says it all right there.
Why do you think so few people know about him and his contribution to skateboarding?
From the 1980s forward, it seemed every new generation of skaters cared less and less about skateboarding’s history. Those who had lived through those early years of innovation knew the history or experienced it, but those that came after it became more and more distanced from it as time went on. The thing is every new generation of skaters is focused on living in the moment, just as skateboarding itself is about being in the present. History, from that perspective, is irrelevant. By the time the 2000s arrived, it was pretty clear the origins and history was getting lost. By then, the Ollie had become the most important move of the day but its origins had either been forgotten, or in some cases, misconstrued with inaccurate information. The skate media did not care either. When the 30th anniversary came around in the late 2000s I didn’t see one magazine pay tribute. My response was to develop a website celebrating 30 years of the Ollie but it never launched. After my editor refined my 12-page manuscript for the site, I realized this could actually be a book and I abandoned the website. This is what lead to the creation of A Secret History of the Ollie.
Where would skateboarding be without the Ollie?
That is a really interesting question. Considering that 80% to 90% of today’s street moves begin with an Ollie, skateboarding would be quite different. That said, I would love to see a parallel universe where the Ollie is non-existent and observe this alternate universe from the sidelines as it progressed. Skaters are so creative that I think a universe without the Ollie could be just as fascinating, but we will never know that world or experience it.
‘Skaters are so creative that I think a Universe without a Ollie could be just fascinating, but we will never know that world or experience it.’
Do you think the Ollie is the biggest single invention in skateboard history?
I don’t think there is any one thing that could ever be claimed as the single biggest invention, just as no one skater is the greatest skater. But the Ollie is most definitely is one of the biggest single inventions. The other invention I consider significant is the Road Rider wheel. This was the first precision- bearing skateboard wheel, created by Tony Roderick in Rhode Island in 1975. That was another game changer. It could be said that without that wheel (as well as other technological inventions from that time period), the Ollie might have never been created.
If so, which trick is right up there too?
Besides the Ollie, the other move that could be regarded as singularly significant might be the kickturn. You have to remember it was a trick at one time in history, and it is the basis for so many skateboarding maneuvers and this includes the frontside Ollie!
Can you give us a brief summary how Alan ended up inventing the Ollie?
It all began with Alan’s attempts to do a lipslide in the snake run at a skatepark called Skateboard USA in Hollywood, Florida in the summer of 1977. He was so skinny and light, and his trucks were so tight, he would catch a little air, flying above the lip instead of sliding across it. This became known an Ollie Pop, a combination of this nickname and this airborne ‘pop’ his board was getting. Aerials in many forms were still being discovered by skateboarding at this time in history, and all of that is covered in my book. The Ollie Pop lead to further exploration of no-handed air and consequently the Ollie in 1978. Two other noteworthy names are Jeff Duerr and Pat Love, and they are also in the book.
‘It all began with Alan’s attempts to do a lipslide in the snake run at a skatepark
called Skateboard USA in Hollywood, Florida in the summer of 1977.’
Which skater does the most complete execution of the ollie you have seen so far?
It has always been Alan Gelfand and it will always be him. He was poetry in motion. He had mind blowing style at a time when the move was new and unseen; he made it look like magic. Alan had the greatest style of all time when it comes to this maneuver, at least on vertical.
Tell us something about yourself?
My relationship with skateboarding began when I was about 8 years old. I bought my first skateboard with my allowance money after I saw one in the local department store. I knew nothing about skateboarding. I had no friends that skateboarded. There was nobody in my neighborhood that skated. But I was attracted to this thing and I wanted to learn to ride it. So I taught myself on the sidewalk in front of my parent’s house in Hollywood, Florida. It was truly a solitary activity. It should be noted that my parents were kind of protective and safety-minded, so I am surprised to this day that they actually let me have a skateboard. After I got that first board, I began making them myself. I enjoyed the process of working with wood, but more importantly, I needed to save my money for wheels and trucks. Boards cost almost nothing to make—there was free wood in my father’s garage—so it was just good economics. After I had been making boards for awhile I met a kid in my neighborhood named Bobby Little. His father basically had a little wood shop set up in their garage, so I began to spend all my time at Bobby’s house making boards with him. We explored all kinds of materials and designs in the process, and his father was the go-to guy for technical issues. It was a real learning laboratory. We launched a brand under his name, Little Skates, and also put together what became one of the best skate teams in Florida for a short time.
What triggered you to come up with the book?
As we discussed, history was being forgotten, but also there was history that was being overwritten by the telling of the same stories over and over again through the media and film. My goal for the book was to add some balance to skateboarding’s legacy, and I think it does that very well. And the book is not just about the Ollie, but so much more.
What were the main challenges in getting it done?
With everything being so interconnected in skateboarding, historically and otherwise, it was difficult to write about one thing without talking about ten other things. That was the biggest challenge. It was a massive undertaking. The original text for Volume One was 750 pages, but we cut it down to 450 pages after we walked it through two full edits. Volume One in total is roughly 900 pages, so the other 450 pages contain over 1200 images and photographs. And the art in the book is actually only about 25% of the images I wanted to show—there was so much more—but space was limited.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have taken a 9-to-5 job, got married, bought a house, and had five kids. Instead, I worked on the book.
‘I would have taken a 9-to-5 job, got married, bought a house, and had five
kids. Instead, I worked on the book.’
What are the main differences between Vol 1 and Vol 2?
Volume 1 is focused on the 1970s, and Volume 2 is, of course, the 1980s. Originally Volume 2 was going to cover the 1980s to 2000s, but I think we are going to keep each volume focused on a single decade now. I drafted the entire book at the same time, and then after we saw the size of my manuscript we broke it down into decades. Volume 1 then became our focus for refinement and completion. Volume 2 needs some rewrites before it goes into edit and design. Volume 2 has been stalled until it can be financed and produced with the same passion and care as Volume 1. I have very high standards, so I am not going to do something sub-par just to get it out.
Last question: If you could interview one person, who would it be and why? What would you ask?
I think that would be the person who invented the wheel—and I am not talking about the skateboard wheel—but we don’t know who that person is, nor if it was a simultaneous invention. My question would be: “What made you do it?”
‘It has always been Alan Gelfand and it will always be him. He was poetry in motion.’