Accounts of entrepreneurial success inevitably focus on the "aha" moment, and Larry Stevenson, father of the skateboard, certainly had his: A lifeguard in Southern California in the years after the Korean War, he witnessed surfers doing their thing on land, with a rectangular piece of wood bolted to old metal roller skates. After a little sketching and a few meetings, Stevenson's Makaha-brand skateboards (named for a famous surfing beach) were selling out in stores across the country.
"Larry was the California guy," says Shawn Bryant, director of the in-the-works documentary Makaha, the Story of the Originator. "He graduated from Venice High School, went into the Navy, saw the world, came back, and married Miss Venice."
Easy, right? But it's the rest of the Larry Stevenson story that's of value. For skateboarding quickly died in the mid-1960s. Safety concerns and a glut of cheap and hard-to-ride boards killed the fad. Stevenson would have to reinvent the skateboard and himself, and it is in those humble moments that he best demonstrated his mettle.
Stevenson's son, Curt, says that after setbacks, his father would assure him, "I'll come up with an idea or two, and in a year or two we'll be back where we were. Don't ever feel bad if you have to move into a little apartment."
Stevenson died March 25 from complications of Parkinson's. He was 81 and had spent a fair amount of time in little apartments.
By the late 1960s, Stevenson came up with a new skateboard design, with a kicktail, or turned-up end, that allowed riders to launch the board into the air. "The business was phenomenal for a few years in the '70s," says John Strahl, who helped Stevenson relaunch Makaha. "Multimillions of dollars." Then skateboarding died again.
Stevenson had patented the kicktail design, and a few gentlemanly competitors paid a royalty. But most wouldn't, and Stevenson would spend all his money on patent litigation. In the end, Stevenson's patent was ruled invalid.
No matter. He came up with more ideas. He started a modular-home business. Formulated a sunblock. Designed a moped-like vehicle. Over the years, there was a surf magazine and a skateboard magazine. And he had personal adventures, including searches for Amelia Earhart. Stevenson favored safari clothing and read Hemingway.
"He'd always spend his money on the next invention or adventure," Curt says. "He did all kinds of crazy stuff."
How crazy? Stevenson had a sailboat that he took out locally. In the late 1960s, he decided that a solo round-the-world voyage was his destiny. "It was all over the papers," says Curt. "He left from Marina Del Rey, by himself. Terrible. He got so seasick. He made it to the tip of Baja. He had his friends come down, and they sailed it back."
Then it was on to the next thing.