Dave Rochlen was instrumental in organizing the Makaha skateboard team and later leading the Hobie team. As such, he was skateboarding’s first coach.
Author: So you began as a surfer in Malibu and as we all know, surfing is a gateway drug to other things. How did you get into skateboarding?
Dave Rochlon [DR]: I got close to skateboarding in the late 1940s and early 1950s when my brother and I got caught up in the orange-crate box scooter. You know, a 2×4 with nails that were too long securing the cut-in-half roller skate steel wheels. Add the box, and another piece of wood across the top of the box, and hit the road. And I mean hit the road. Went down hard every time we tried to turn the darn thing—never mastered that.
Author: So like a lot of others, you went from roller skates and/ or scooters to skateboards.
DR: Well, right at the beginning of me learning how to skateboard, I was totally blown away by how similar grinding a turn on a skateboard was like doing a bottom turn in surfing. So, when it was the wrong swell direction, or too windy, you could always do a lot of bottom turns and still get that feeling. You can really do a lot of bottom turns on a nice hill.
The first skateboards I saw were in the early 1960s, and they were short, painted red, and had steel wheels. They didn’t work either.
Author: That sounds like a Roller Derby model
DR: One day, when we were in town, a friend of mine suggested we go to a local school where he said kids were skateboarding and that they were hot. We went to Bellagio Elementary and, sure enough, there were a bunch of kids skating and they were hot. Along the fence line was a hill, just like a four- to five-foot wave. The gremlins were “surfing” this asphalt wave doing the latest hot-dog moves. At the end of the run they had placed a bench, which they jumped over and landed on their boards on the other side.
On this occasion I saw future legends Torger Johnson, George Trafton, John Freis, and Scotty Archer. I think Danny Schaefer was in the mix, also. These guys would skate different schools just like surfers surfed different spots.
We had nothing like this in Malibu. I learned that some of these guys actually surfed, but being so young they had to deal with a serious lack of transportation. So, they went surfing every day on their skateboards. They all had clay wheels and mostly homemade boards shaped like a surfboard. Roller Derby wheels were king. A couple of the guys were riding Makaha skateboards. We asked some of the kids if we could try their boards. Some of the grems recognized us and they said, “Sure!” We were not very good, fell a lot, much to the glee of the troops.
This led to visits to Pacific Palisades High School, [which] had a huge hill from the road down to the campus. This was a large venue in 1964, 1965. Many of our surfing buddies often showed up, as did an increasing number of young skaters. The surfers wanted to see these hot-rod skaters, and the skaters liked meeting some of the current surf heroes. I believe this is where the Hilton brothers— Davey and Steve—showed up, along with Danny Bearer. The Hilton brothers were already pretty good surfers, they lived at Sorrento Beach in Santa Monica—so no transportation problem. Really, the Hilton boys were great. They were well mannered, polite, and very nice guys. I was very impressed with this, and understood that this was a result of super parenting by Barron and his wife. My uncle Dave also knew the Hiltons, as he sort of gave them surfing lessons back in the day. Getting to know the Hilton Family, knowing what quality people they all were, was a primary factor in my switching from Makaha to Hobie.
As you must know, Barron Hilton also owned Vita-Pakt Orange Juice, the company that bought the Hobie Skateboard brand. My first skateboard was a Makaha. Larry Stevenson owned Makaha Skateboards, and he also owned Surf Guide magazine. Larry was just a super-great guy. And he still is. He wanted these hot-rod kids to ride his Makaha skateboards just like surfboard companies wanted hot riders to ride their surfboards. He wanted these kids totally equipped at all times. He even gave them some of his glass Makaha prototypes to ride. This board was way ahead of the curve, thought by some to be one of the best skateboards ever made. I learned how to do some kickturns and other simple maneuvers. Author: George Trafton said he went for a tryout for the Makaha team and you were the team captain. How did that come about? DR: Well, the Makaha time period is sort of a blur, it went by pretty fast. Larry, editor Bill Cleary, and staff wanted to promote the skateboards. They wanted some hot riders to do this. We couldn’t get going right away because of skateboard production problems—they just weren’t ready to go at that time. So, I pretty much spent time cruising around the magazine offices until we had the equipment for the team guys and the resulting sales. I knew who the hot riders were and where they were riding. We just went there, said we were having tryouts, and picked these hot rods. Of course, I felt it was important that the boys also knew how to be Emily Post’s sons when they had to be.
Author: How influential were you in organizing the skateboard team and promoting Makaha skateboards?
DR: I had the scene totally scoped out. I got the guys together, interfaced with the parents, and had the boys ready to go. I made certain that there was an overwhelming amount of skateboards and skateboard products available to the team at all times. I didn’t have any responsibilities regarding lining up exhibitions or shows. Larry Stevenson and his staff took care of all of that. I was very good at following orders, having the guys ready to go and being there on time.
Hobie super surfer Author: How did you pick the Makaha team members, and what were their duties?
DR: First of all the candidate had to be one of the best skaters. Equally important, they had to be able to represent Makaha and the other Stevenson businesses in a positive fashion. Those two things were “their duties”: Represent the product, be gentlemen, and be willing to share their abilities with the interested kids who came to watch them perform.
If they pulled this off correctly, I would make certain that they were well rewarded. The AAU was a very big deal at this time, and the parents didn’t want to jeopardize any participation in other sports their kids might want to pursue in the future. So we couldn’t pay them any money. The team knew how much I understood what a sacrifice it was to give up a weekend day to go out to the Valley in 100-degree weather and skateboard in a department store parking lot. My plan was to utilize any and all days when they were off to do things they wanted to do. Mostly it was going surfing somewhere, and that is what they did.
Unlimited skate equipment and surfing safaris to anywhere they wanted to go, lunch on me (the company). Their duty was to have a good, fun time.
Author: Were you surprised by how popular skateboarding became?
DR: No, I was not surprised. I mean, I couldn’t believe how many kids would show up at the demos to watch the Makaha guys do their thing. And, at this time, “their thing” was really simple stuff: kickturning, doing the coffin, doing wheelies, some nose wheelies, walking the board and jumping over a limbo-stick type of prop. The crowds went nuts for this stuff.
Author: How old were you when you were the chaperone for the team?
DR: I was about 20 years old.
Author: George Trafton says he was one of a rowdy bunch of kids who drove you crazy. How rowdy where they?
DR: You know, looking back on it all, they were just being kids. Oh yes, they could be rowdy. I think what they enjoyed most was learning what my buttons were and pushing them when they thought they could get away with it. Which kid do you know that doesn’t try and push the limits to being a rascal sometimes? Especially when there is a group of them all trying to out-do each other. I only “got serious” with them when we were driving and our safety might be put at risk. Also, no swearing, no pottymouths. And don’t think you are going to have a food fight and not clean it all up afterwards.
Author: Any good stories from traveling with the Makaha team?
DR: I don’t know if they are good stories, but I can reflect on a few occasions. Mostly it was dealing with the lack of challenge—like what they were grading a contest on—or a sponsor at a demo location expecting the guys to do their thing on gravel or a surface [that] could only result in mutable disasters. I quickly learned to always bring a broom with us, and sometimes we just refused to a show unless a better surface area was provided. Contest grading criteria was a problem all through the early days of skateboarding. Some times the guys just didn’t want to do such waste-time things. Like, let’s have a slalom race for time on the polished concrete floor of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, with steel or clay wheels. Make ass or what? Crash and burn no matter how good you really were. There was never any rivalry between the Makaha team and the Hobie team. The guys who made up the initial Hobie team were all from the Makaha team except the guys who didn’t want to make the switch for one reason or another. Then we added Steve and Davey Hilton, and a lad of Mexican descent whose name I cannot remember at this time. The guys who came on over to the “other side” were George Trafton, Torger Johnson, John Freis, and Danny Bearer. Danny’s sister, Wendy I think, often went with us on local trips and skated in some competitions.
Author: How did Hobie lure you away from Makaha?
DR: Here’s how it was. I am the new captain of the Hobie skateboard team. However, I am on the Dewey Weber surf team: the Red Coats. Hobie was so cool, he insisted that all of the team members have any kind of Hobie board they wanted. Then, at this time of transition, Hobie wanted to open a surf shop in Santa Monica. His partner Dick Metz—the sub rosa, behind-the-scenes guy of all time for all things retail—set the shop up and gave me my first real job in the surfing world: manager of the Hobie Surfboard Shop in Santa Monica.
Part of my job requirement was to set up a Hobie surf team made up of the hot local guys in the area. Needless to say, I think we ended up with the hottest guys in the area. The deal closer for a number of new team members was that they could order any kind of Hobie surfboard with any kind of design in the finished glass job. I learned years later that all profits made in our first year of operation were cancelled out by the outrageous costs involved in providing exactly what Hobie had offered. The boards just about busted us! There was also the fact that I got to meet Hobie and his wife Sharon when I was a young gremmie. My mom let me cut school whenever my uncle, Big Dave Rochlen, came over to visit from the Islands. He would always take me with him down to San Onofre. Two stops we always made on the way down was to Joe and Aggie Quigg, who [were] living, shaping, and body surfing at the Newport Wedge—and the Hobie family in the Dana Point area. So when Hobie and Dick Metz came to visit me, they told me how they thought it should be: the Hobie Shop manager, the Hobie surf team member and the Hobie skateboard team manager should be riding a Hobie board, and I have ever since.
Author: Were the Stevensons disappointed, or was it one big happy, fighting family?
DR: I am sure that Larry was disappointed, but Larry Stevenson, being the total gentleman that he is, understood all of these factors better than I did. He understood exactly why it was best for me to move totally and completely into my new situation. I left with his blessings. And then the fun began. I was especially stoked to learn that I had the complete support and understanding from Hobie, Dick Metz, and Vita-Pakt [of] why it was so important to take complete care of the Hobie skateboard team members. I tried to supply nothing but the absolute best. They were in need of nothing.
Author: How well did you know the Hilton family?
DR: I really didn’t get to know the Hilton family until after Davey and Steve got on the Hobie team. I had known their big brother, Barry, but we didn’t “hang” together. After we got the team complete, I visited the Hilton’s at their Sorrento Beach home. Marilyn and Barron couldn’t be a nicer couple, and great parents. Mr. Hilton expressed his satisfaction with having acquired the Hobie Super Surfer skateboard and the team. He assured me that anything and everything we needed would be taken care of. I was there a few times other than to pick up the boys for a surf trip or to go to a show. To my knowledge, the Hilton’s didn’t have anything to do with my being chosen to be the manager of the Hobie team. It was totally a Hobie [and] Uncle Dick Metz decision. However, I know there was positive Rochlen name recognition because of the fact that Hobie was recommending me, the Hilton association with my uncle, Dave Rochlen, and I am pretty sure that Barry, Davey, and Steve gave me good reports.
Author: Why did Vita-Pakt make the deal with Hobie.
DR: Here was the deal, and it all made sense: At the time, Vita-Pakt operated the second largest orange company in the world, behind SunKist. Vita-Pakt was owned by Barron Hilton. Part of the promotional and marketing plan was to offer “rewards” or “prizes” to kids who sent in a certain amount of proof-of-purchase labels. Among the ten or so items offered were a pair of roller skates. They were totally plastic, but seemed to be popular. The powers that be could see the possibilities of selling more orange juice should they offer the latest and greatest toy the kids were beginning to clamor for.
Author: Did Hobie and the Hiltons spend more money on the team than Makaha did?
Hobie trophy DR: It was night and day. Everything improved or got better for the guys on the team. How could it go any other way? Now the team is backed by the number one surfboard manufacturer in the world and the number two orange juice company in the world. The number one, way ahead of the curve, marketing surfing retail operation. Endless supply of any and all kinds of Hobie equipment— skateboards, wheels, trucks, models, surfboards, team apparel.
I had a team vehicle. My company car was a 1964 Ford Galaxy 500 four-door cruiser that had a giant trunk to hold vast amounts of skateboards and repair parts. Promotions and sales were being done at a national level. Like, Montgomery Ward across the nation was putting in a buy for skateboards. And it didn’t hurt that the team members were really super-neat kids that were the hottest at the time at what they did. Hobie got to know them and really made sure that they were in need of nothing. The National Tour involved a lot of flying, because the massive Winnebago we got for the trip kept breaking down and we had to keep on schedule.
Author: Do you remember how long the National Tour lasted, and where you went?
DR: During the National Tour there were many adventures, including witnessing crime pulling into Chicago, the World’s Fair, problems with the police at the World’s Fair, skipping demos in the South due to race riots, police escorts in Texas and not staying in our regular Holiday Inn, but taking over the Shamrock Hilton (thank you Uncle Mike Hilton). And George Trafton being the smartest team member by passing on the tour and staying home and surfing all summer long.
Author: At what point did you and the people you were involved with realize that skateboarding had become a major craze?
DR: I first realized the direction that the sport was taking when I did some math. Montgomery Ward had about eighteen hundred to two thousand stores at the time, and each one of them was going to order six dozen boards to have on hand when the team showed up to do demos. Also, the fact that Mr. Hilton and Hobie were charting the course let me know that all systems were go.
Author: Do you think Barron Hilton got involved to make money, or just because his kids were involved?
DR: Both. Talk about a win-win situation to be involved with: use your existing business model to grow a fun function for kids (including your own), increase sales of your orange juice product, and put a good face on a questionable new sport (at the time)
Author: The Hobie team did very well at the 1965 Anaheim skateboard contest. Were you behind the scenes for that success?
DR: I was there, trying to chum up the troops to do their best in awkward situations. I have enjoyed viewing some of the footage available. I enjoy watching the kids perform. And now, at this older age, I really enjoy checking out the background scans, trying to recognize various people who were involved at the beginning.
Author: Do you think Hobie and Vita-Pak lost money when skateboarding collapsed?
DR: Knowing what I know now, I would have to think that money was lost. If you are buying resources to build thousands of skateboards for national distribution and all of a sudden those orders are canceled—that calls for a total regroup.