LOS ANGELES — Larry Stevenson, a skateboard maker who helped take the sport from an early 1960s kid’s gimmick often compared to the hula hoop to a respectable and eventually professional sport on par with surfing, has died.
Stevenson died at age 81 on Sunday at Ronald Reagan-UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, his son Curt Stevenson told The Associated Press.
The elder Stevenson had dealt with Parkinson’s Disease since the early 1970s, and he’d been in a nursing home for much of the past decade. His death was first reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Larry Stevenson was a design innovator who developed features still found on skateboards 50 years later and a businessman who was among the first to make professional and mass-produced boards.
But many skaters say his greatest achievement was getting the public to accept skateboards by permanently linking it to surfing, a sport that had become a national craze and was inspiring movies and music.
“That freedom of being in the waves, he wanted to transfer that to land,” said Michael Brooke, author of the 1999 history of skateboarding “The Concrete Wave” who often interviewed Stevenson.
“He basically was the godfather of skate culture. Before him, skateboards were toys.”
A Southern California native, Stevenson was working as a lifeguard in Venice Beach in 1959 when he saw kids tooling around on mostly homemade boards with clay or metal wheels.
Before he started manufacturing, he became a pioneer in promoting the sport through magazine pictures and stories, an element that would be almost as essential to skate culture as the boards themselves.
He pushed skateboarding in Surf Guide, a magazine he founded with a friend, showing pictures of skaters carving up sidewalks alongside surfers riding waves.
Stevenson then began designing and selling boards with his wife out of their garage.
His first commercially produced board was known as the “Makaha Surf & Ski Skateboard,” in an attempt to link the sport to the slopes as well as the waves.
He used the Makaha name, taken from a Hawaiian surf spot, for the company he’d run for the next several decades.
By 1965, the company had sold $4 million worth of skateboards, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The sport would go through a horrible dropoff by the end of 1965, with police and politicians spreading fear about the dangerous skateboard menace on city streets. Manufacturers and skaters disappeared almost overnight.
“Everyone in the skateboard industry at the time was wondering if skateboarding was the next hula hoop,” Stevenson said in the 2011 book “The Skateboard: The Good, the Rad and the Gnarly.” “I still had the feeling that skateboarding would come back, and it did.”
Stevenson kept making boards, and amid the drought in 1969, he left his most lasting mark on design with the kicktail, an upward curve at the end of the previously flat board that is used to do nearly every modern trick. He had to fight in court for years to keep fellow board makers from violating his patent.
When the sport revived, more or less permanently, in the 1970s, he and Makaha were perfectly poised to thrive again.