By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Launched with capital from Don and Elaine Singer, a pair of Dallas' first skater parents, the shop Coker ran was named simply The Skateboard Shop. Tucked into a triangular subterranean nook below the food court, it became a cultural anchor in the hip stoner haven of Valley View Mall. From 1975 to 1977, Coker and his co-manager David Derth ran not just the shop, but the Dallas skate culture that mushroomed out of it. Old skaters recall the shop as a place to score not just their boards, but T-shirts, Tiddies sandals and pot, along with tips on the latest spots to ride.
Sunday afternoon skate sessions in the mid-'70s drew hundreds of kids to the gold buildings on Northwest Highway at Central Expressway, where they'd ride around parking garages, showing off handstands and 360-degree spins. Coker was a ringleader then, a shirtless pied piper with long dark hair and a handlebar mustache. "Everybody completely had the fever. You had girls there, and you'd be riding two people on a board. It was just all kinds of wacky—it had a real fun innocence about it.
"We started skating drainage ditches, and that really felt like surfing. And then the next progression from there was like, we heard about people skating pools, so we just started going crazy trying to find swimming pools."
In land set aside for the D/FW Airport construction, behind a burned-out house off State Highway 114 and Belt Line Road, they discovered the pool that became legendary as the Rat Hole, a "a weird-looking pool," Coker says, with corners and rounded Roman ends that fired the imagination of the young skaters who begged to come along.
Craig Johnson was one of those kids, a young teenager with budding punk sensibilities who'd just discovered the Sex Pistols, and lugged his board to Valley View Mall hoping to fall in with the big-time skaters. "I just wanted to hang out," Johnson recalls. "But there was no 'hanging out.' You were nobody, you were a grommet." One day, Johnson says, "They were like, kid, you know how to roll a joint?" His best attempt, he says, became his ticket out to the Rat Hole.
It was also the era of the first wave of private skateparks in the late '70s—broad, undulating expanses of concrete like the park at Bachman Lake, Wizard skatepark in Garland and Freeflight in Carrollton. They became full-day summer camps where kids explored new possibilities on their boards, deconstructing tricks they'd seen in magazines.
Through the sport's early years, Skateboarder was the monthly record that spread the latest news from coast to coast, but as the magazine broadened its focus to include other street sports, skateboarding's fiercely devoted core calcified around a new magazine, Thrasher. From its first issue in 1981, Thrasher became the bible of the skate scene's bruised and bleeding edge, embracing the sense of rebellion that lured so many boarders to the sport.
A well-known freestyle boarder who worked at Freeflight, Jeff Newton would do more than anyone to trumpet Dallas' place on the global skateboarding scene, catching its budding stars in midair with his Canon T-90 camera, selling the photos to Thrasher beginning with the magazine's second issue. Newton wrote stories to go with the photos, too, building a mystique around Texas skate prodigies like Craig Johnson and Jeff Phillips, who often beat icons like Tony Hawk in competition.
Newton's biggest legacy, though, is the skateboard company he opened in 1976 in his mother's garage: Zorlac. Branded with dark, elaborate images of skulls and bats drawn by the punk artist Pushead (famous for his Metallica and Misfits album covers), Zorlac grew into one of the most respected brands in skateboarding and one of the largest outside California, sending top skaters like Johnson across the world on promotional tours.
In the lean years after the first private parks closed around 1980, Newton put 250,000 miles on his '76 Datsun pickup, towing a skate ramp across the state to meet-ups with star national skaters. "We would drive to San Antonio to skate the afternoon and drive home. That's stupid. But everybody wanted to skate so many things, all the time," Newton recalls. "A quarter-million miles with no air conditioning. But we didn't know any better."
Newton and Zorlac were in prime position to take advantage when skating took off again in the mid-'80s, endorsed by Jeff Phillips, who cemented a place as the top boarding talent in Dallas. He thrilled crowds of cheering kids at the Blue Ramp (later known, after a new paint job and an expansion, as the Clown Ramp) at Bachman Lake with his signature trick, the "Phillips 66," a 360-degree inversion with a blind backward approach. Stories spread about the contest Phillips won riding sky-high on acid—and he was one of the sport's good guys. Flying above the ramps in a helmet topped with a fake mohawk, Craig Johnson was the underground skate scene's dreadlocked cult hero.
The wave of popularity that Zorlac and the rest of local skate culture rode through the '80s, cresting at the end of that decade, crashed hard in the early '90s. In 1986, Newton partnered with a group of California businessmen hoping to keep Zorlac running and expand its reach, but the deal never panned out the way he'd hoped. After the brand reached its peak, Newton says the Californians shoved him aside and mismanaged the company finances in his absence. For years, Newton was left without control of the signature Texas brand he'd built. He and the investors are still locked up in a trademark dispute.