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Godfather of skate

September 09, 2007|Rose Apodaca

IF the Z-Boys didn't party too late or too hard the night before, Tony Alva would be up with the first hint of sunlight in his Venice beach studio in 1977, "networking" by phone for the best spots to surf.

Although his legend is sealed in skateboarding -- as a dominating presence with rock star posturing and the hardest-core approach to the then-new terrain of empty swimming pools -- Alva's first love was always the waves. "That's always been the priority," he says now, en route on a recent Friday morning, from his Coldwater Canyon home toward Malibu.

"If the surf wasn't happening, we'd just hang out with friends and smoke weed and eat breakfast -- wake and bake -- then we'd go skate. Since we wouldn't have the adventure of surfing, we'd explore a forbidden zone, a reservoir or pipe."

It would be a year of firsts in a storied life. At 19, the rising star known as Mad Dog formed his namesake company -- making him the first skater to own and run his own brand, and one of the pioneers in what would become today's multibillion-dollar skate industry. Skateboarder Magazine would crown him "skateboarder of the year," and Guinness World Records ranked his barrel jump the highest.

Behind the lens this particular day was Wynn Miller, whom Alva admired and sought because of his photographs of Eastside gang members that ran in the Free Press. "He was this young Jewish guy, a surfer with a hard edge. He was the only white boy the gang let in their neighborhood."

Alva let him into his world too, a rough area near Pacific Ocean Park known then as Dogtown. Quiet moments such as these were not so much meant for publication but as a "warmup" before a day of shooting the board-riding motley crew. Alva's routine included tossing on his signature uniform: a T-shirt (this morning, his own), denim cut-offs or cords by Op or Lightning Bolt at lengths that seem scandalously short by modern standards, mirrored aviators and mussed hair kept at bay with one of the fedoras he'd scout out at the "old man section of thrift stores."

Alva turned 50 on Sept. 2. "The body has its good days and bad days," he says. "The fog has lifted. My lifestyle changed a lot. I don't use any chemicals anymore. I don't drink. I've got the wisdom and experience, and I work with kids giving them direction and support."

He still skates, of course, and his icon status is as firm as ever with a pro model high-top sneaker for Vans and sponsorships with Independent Truck Co. and Vestal watches. When he's not carving a bowl or a wave, he can sometimes be found behind the counters of his Alva Skate stores in Oceanside and on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles.

-- Rose Apodaca

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