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Stacy Peralta's Next Wave

Following the Success of His 'Dogtown' Documentary, He's Planning a Dramatic Feature That Will Return Him to His First Love: Surfing.

February 02, 2003|Howard Libes | Howard Libes last wrote for the magazine about the popularity of skateboarding and punk music in Europe.

1970, Santa Monica Civic Auditorium: Stacy Peralta, a 12-year-old boy with sun-bleached hair, sits in the audience waiting for the surf film "Cosmic Children" to start. He watches in disbelief as people file in, hundreds upon hundreds of them, filling the seats. They all have the markings of surfers: flip-flops, Pendleton shirts, straw-blond matted hair.

Frisbees fly around the room until the lights go low and the film begins. On screen are the images of surf luminaries Jeff Hackman and Barry Kanaiaupuni riding the swells, painting the canvas of the wave with their boards' contrails. The crowd whoops like a pack of howling dogs--in tribute to the magnificent maneuvers--and the aroma of marijuana fills the air.

Stacy is thrilled. For the past couple of years he has felt like an outcast in his ardent pursuit of surfing. But here are all of these people, adults no less, who share his passion. He feels for the first time as if he belongs to something bigger than himself, a community of surfing brethren.

Thirty-two years later in a Santa Monica diner, Stacy Peralta sits at a table wearing a gray baseball cap and a Sundance Film Festival fleece sweatshirt, his face creased with age. He relates this moment as if it happened yesterday, a tone of boyish wonder in his voice. "It was a culture shock that left an indelible print on me," Peralta says. "As if you're in sub-Saharan Africa and you've never seen anyone outside your own tribe, but once a year all the tribes from hundreds of miles around come together. We all look the same and we're all sharing this similar interest. That made me feel like I belonged to something."

Now, after his directorial success with the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," about the '70s skateboarding scene in the Venice-Santa Monica area, Peralta is planning on making his dramatic directing debut with an adaptation of "In Search of Captain Zero" by Allan C. Weisbecker--a surfing-themed book that is a cross between "On the Road" and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." He also is working on a documentary about big wave surfing.

These newest ventures seem to make sense considering Peralta's past. Yet, when pieced together, his career has been a strange and unlikely trip that has led him full circle, back to his childhood passion.

Stacy Peralta began surfing when he was 11. By 13, it was his obsession. He followed the weather reports. He kept tabs on the wind and constantly monitored the tides so he would know whether he should go to the beach before or after school. Life revolved around catching that next wave, thinking about what he would do next in the water. Surfing was considered antisocial behavior and frowned upon by his teachers at Venice High School. But while hanging out at the Jeff Ho & Zephyr Production Surf Shop in the heart of Dogtown, he found a sense of belonging that reinforced his notion to learn a trade that would provide the time and freedom to surf.

"I thought that I was only qualified to be a plumber," Peralta says. "If you were a surfer and skateboarder back then, it was accepted that you're not gonna go to college, that you don't really show any specific talent that fit in the mainstream. So I was just looking for a way to make a living." At 16, Peralta became a sponsored member of the Zephyr surf team, a significant event that meant he received discounts on boards and a team T-shirt. The Zephyr skateboarding team was a secondary activity: taking to wheels was originally done on days when the waves weren't adequate.

As destiny should have it, the unthinkable happened and skateboarding, thought of as a child's pastime, exploded in popularity, with the Zephyr team's surf-influenced style at the cutting edge. Peralta took advantage of the opportunity. A skateboarding sensation at 18, his sponsorships earned him more money than both of his middle-class parents made. He traveled the world performing skateboarding exhibitions; at stops in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and the Virgin Islands, he made sure that he took time out to surf at the hottest spots.

In 1978, Peralta left Gordon & Smith, one of the biggest skateboard companies of the time and the manufacturer of his pro-signature boards, and partnered with engineer-turned-skateboard designer George Powell. Peralta took a massive pay cut, living at a subsistence level to construct his own vision of a skateboard company--from creating the boards to advertising. Powell-Peralta's revolutionary "Bones Brigade" videos wove action sequences with a loose storyline, breaking new ground for marketing in the fledgling industry, and Peralta discovered new skills in the process, directing and producing the videos himself.

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