Other segments from the episode on May 27, 2005
DATE May 27, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Richard Russo discusses his writing
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest, Richard Russo, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his
best-selling novel "Empire Falls." This weekend HBO presents a two-part
miniseries adaptation of that novel written by Russo himself. In a moment,
we'll listen to Terry's 2002 interview with Russo.
Like most of Russo's fiction, "Empire Falls" is set in a small, working-class
town that's a shadow of what it was when its factories were open and vital.
Those fictional towns are inspired by Gloversville, New York, where Russo grew
up. His other novels include "Mohawk," "The Risk Pool" and "Nobody's Fool,"
which was made into a well-received movie starring Paul Newman. Newman is
such a fan of Russo's stories and sensibilities that he became an executive
producer and the chief champion of a dramatic adaptation of "Empire Falls."
His instinct, his insistence was that the novel with its many characters and
complex relationships demanded to be told as a TV miniseries. He went to HBO
and HBO lapped it up.
"Empire Falls," directed by Fred Schepisi, was shot completely on location in
Maine and every river view, every weathered building, every overcast sky adds
to the story's quiet credibility. So does its cast. There are over a dozen
leading and supporting roles worthy of individual mention because the actors
portraying them do such a rich and textured job. Paul Newman has one of those
roles playing Max Roby, the irresponsible, grizzled father of Miles Roby.
Miles, played by Ed Harris, is the star and central figures of "Empire Falls."
Miles is a shy, inwardly haunted man who runs the local grill. His dreams are
modest. He wants to turn it into a more upscale bar and grill by getting a
liquor license. But even those dreams are constantly and ruthlessly thwarted
by the town matriarch, Francine Whiting, who owns the grill and has reasons
for being so vindictive. Francine is played by Paul Newman's real-life wife,
Joanne Woodward, who does a wonderful job. But so does everyone in "Empire
Falls." From Helen Hunt, as Miles Roby's ex-wife, to Aidan Quinn as his
brother. And that extends to Robin Wright Penn and Philip Seymour Hoffman as
key characters in flashbacks.
Other familiar faces such as Dennis Farina and Estelle Parsons share screen
time with lesser known but equally impressive performers, like William
Fichtner and Danielle Panabaker. It sounds like a laundry list, I know. But
if you tune into "Empire Falls" and spend time with these actors and
characters, you'll come to know and care about them all. The town may be run
down, but for actors and for viewers, it's a small slice of paradise.
Here's Paul Newman and Ed Harris as father and son sharing a meal at the son's
diner. The son is afraid of heights. The father is afraid of commitment, and
has just returned from one of his impulsive trips to Key West.
(Soundbite of "Empire Falls")
Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: You should have let me help you paint that church. I was a
house painter for 40 years, you know.
Mr. ED HARRIS: You keep forgetting, Dad. I'm painting the church for free.
Mr. NEWMAN: That don't mean you can't pay me.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, it does, Dad. That's precisely what it means.
Mr. NEWMAN: How am I supposed to get down to the Keys with no money?
Mr. HARRIS: You always managed when I was a kid. You disappeared every
Mr. NEWMAN: That's where the money was.
Mr. HARRIS: How come we never saw any of it?
Mr. NEWMAN: Hire me to paint that church I wouldn't have to feel worthless.
Ain't no law that says old people gotta feel worthless. If you paid me I
might have some dignity.
Mr. HARRIS: The dignity ship sailed years ago, Dad. Decades.
Mr. NEWMAN: Trying to hurt my feelings, but you can't.
Mr. HARRIS: Besides, anytime you feel like an infusion of dignity, come on
down to the restaurant and wash dishes for a while.
Mr. NEWMAN: That's your idea of dignity? Cooped up in a back room no
windows, minimum wage, half of it goes to the government? Now I would let you
hire me if you let me work the grill. Ain't nothing to flipping burgers and I
like to talk to people.
Mr. HARRIS: I'd have to run you through the Hobart first. Wash some of that
stuff out of your beard.
Mr. NEWMAN: I may be 70, but I can still climb like a monkey. I don't get
scared up on a ladder like a little girl.
Mr. HARRIS: It works both ways, Dad. You can't hurt my feelings either.
BIANCULLI: "Empire Falls," the TV miniseries, moves at its own pace and
speaks in its own voice. Some critics have found it slow and meandering. I
found it increasingly involving, and thought Richard Russo had adapted his
novel thoughtfully and passionately. Terry spoke with Russo after he won his
Pulitzer Prize for writing the novel "Empire Falls."
TERRY GROSS, host:
"Empire Falls" is about a man in his 40s who has returned to his hometown and
there he runs a restaurant. It's not the work that he really wanted to do,
it's not really where he wants to be living, but it's because basically of
family commitments and wanting to bring up his daughter there that keeps him
there. Do you want to read the opening paragraph for us?
Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Author, "Empire Falls"): Sure. `The Empire Grill was
long and low-slung with windows that ran its entire length. And since the
building next door, a Rexell drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was
now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue
all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory. Both had
been abandoned now for the better part of two decades, though their dark,
looming shapes at the foot of the avenue's gentle incline continued to draw
the eye. Of course, nothing prevented the person from looking up Empire
Avenue in the other direction, but Miles Roby, the proprietor of the
restaurant, and its eventual owner, he hoped, had long noted that his
customers rarely did.'
GROSS: That's the opening paragraph of Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning
novel "Empire Falls." Why did you want your main character to run a
Mr. RUSSO: Well, he had to do something. I'm not sure. I wanted--you know,
it could have been a restaurant. He could have been an insurance agent. He
could have been doing anything, I suppose, that contrasted with the way that
he had seen himself when he was young, which was, perhaps, as a college
professor. He is a young man who went away from a small town to college and
found out that it was really his world, and had looked forward to living the
life of the mind. And so I just wanted some sort of profession for him that
would contrast with that.
But, as you know, probably from reading other novels of mine, I'm very fond of
restaurants and diners, especially in small towns, because of my interest in
GROSS: Why don't you describe the town you grew up in?
Mr. RUSSO: Oh, the town that I grew up in was Gloversville in upstate New
York, and it was, as you would expect, a tannery town. My grandfather was a
glove cutter. My father cut leather from time to time, among myriad other
jobs that he performed, and that I performed with him when I was growing up.
But at the time when I was growing up, it was a one-industry town that had
already pretty much bottomed out in terms of that industry. It was like a lot
of my towns, unlucky, in that after World War II women stopped wearing gloves
at about the same time men stopped wearing hats. And when you're a town that
doesn't do much besides glove cutting and a whole generation of women stop
wearing gloves, you're in a little bit of trouble.
And also, of course, the other thing that was happening, too, was that where
gloves used to actually be cut in Gloversville, a lot of them now were being
made overseas, and in some cases actually shipped to Gloversville all made,
except for maybe a button or something to be stitched on, and once that was
done they could claim that the glove was made in Gloversville. So it was the
tag end of, you know, an era for a town. And once that industry began to go
south, there wasn't an awful lot to replace it, and what did come in to
replace it certainly wasn't of the same sort of jobs that had left.
GROSS: Now you left home--you went to college and you left home, so you
didn't make your professional life in that kind of small town, at
least not--you've taught in several places; probably some of those were small
towns, but it wasn't the post-industrial small town that you grew up in.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, right. Right.
GROSS: But yet your characters always are there, or usually are there. Why
have you kept your characters in that kind of town through the years?
Mr. RUSSO: Well, I'm not sure how many writers out there are giving voice to
the kinds of people that I write about. When I was going to college and doing
a lot of various kinds of construction work with my father, I think it was
probably in between my junior and senior year, I was a laborer, but I was
working with carpenters. And if you're a college kid and you're working with,
you know, laborers, carpenters, people like that, in the summer, they ridicule
and berate in a very good-natured way because, you know, they know that you're
going away. You're going back to a world of books and ideas, and they're
going to continue doing this very hard work that they've been doing for a long
time. I liked these men a lot.
And one of them that summer, I remember saying to me--I said, `Well, I'll see
you next year,' or something like that--`I'll see you soon.' And he looked at
me--because, of course, that was a lie, and it was just a way of saying
goodbye--and he looked at me and said, `No. No, I'm never going to see you
again. You're never going to see me again. You're going to become educated
and you're going to get a job somewhere teaching kids and you're going to have
a good, easy life and you're going to forget about me and all the guys like
me, and that'll be that.'
And he didn't say it in such a way that he thought that that was a bad thing.
He said it in a way that suggested that that was what it was about; that that
was what he hoped would happen. And in a way, I mean, what he said was partly
true, because I did--you know, I finished that degree and then did another and
then did another after that and educated myself out of the kind of very hard,
back-breaking work that I used to do in the summers with my dad. But he was
wrong about forgetting these people. And I find myself, in my imagination,
for reasons that I don't entirely understand myself, going back into this
world and giving voice to the kinds of people who I still have an enormous
amount of respect for, and also understanding of. I sometimes suspect that I
understand the people in places like "Empire Falls" probably better than, you
know, any other world that I have inhabited since then, and I've inhabited,
you know, the world of academe and some other worlds. But this the one that I
know kind of way below the skin.
BIANCULLI: Richard Russo, speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He's
adapted his own novel, "Empire Fall," into a TV miniseries that premiers
this weekend on HBO. Paul Newman and Ed Harris star.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with author Richard
Russo. When she spoke with him, he had just won the Pulitzer Prize for
"Empire Falls" and released a new collection of short stories called "The
Whore's Child." The title story in "The Whore's Child" is set at a college,
drawing in part on Russo's experiences teaching fiction writing at a series of
universities. The story is told from the point of view of a professor who is
surprised to find an elderly nun has gate-crashed his creative writing
seminar. Her name is Sister Ursala. And here's Richard Russo reading from
Mr. RUSSO: `She appeared in class that first night and saddled herself at
the very center of the seminar, despite the fact that her name did not appear
on my computer printout. Fiction writing classes are popular and invariably
oversubscribed at most universities, and never more so than when the writer
teaching it has recently published a book, as I had done the past spring. I'd
gotten quite a lot of press on my recent book, my first in over a decade, and
my fleeting celebrity might have explained Sister Ursula's presence in my
classroom the first chilly evening of the fall semester, though she gave no
indication of this or that she recognized me as her neighbor.
`After class I did explain why it would be highly unprofessional of me to
allow her to remain in the advanced fiction workshop. After all, she freely
admitted that she'd never attempted to write a story before, which I explained
put her at an extreme disadvantage. My mistake was in not leaving the matter
there. Instead I went on. "This is a storytelling class, Sister. We're all
liars here. The whole purpose of our enterprise is to become skilled in
making things up, of substituting our own truth for the truth. In this class
we actually prefer a well-told lie," I concluded, certain that this would
`She patted my hand as you might the hand of a child. "Never you mind," she
assured me, adjusting her wimple for the journey home, "my whole life has been
a lie." "I'm sure you don't mean that," I told her.'
GROSS: That's Richard Russo reading from his new collection of short stories
"The Whore's Child."
One of the interesting things about this story is that the nun who comes to
the writing class has a truly terrible story to tell. She's been a nun her
whole adult life, but she is the daughter of a prostitute. She never really
knew her father, and there's a lot of mystery tied up in her feelings about
her father and in who her father really was. She feels, in some ways, her
whole life has been a lie. And she's trying to get this all down, but she's
actually a terrible storyteller as a writer. You write in the story, `Her
story seemed to be moving forward without exactly getting anywhere. It
reminded the students of stories they'd heard other elderly people tell, tales
that even the tellers eventually managed to forget the point of, narratives
that would eventually peter out with the weak insistence that all these events
really did happen.'
So I'm wondering what it's like as a teacher, as a former teacher now, to deal
with students who have these really urgent stories to tell and can't quite
express it in writing.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. I mean, it can be excruciating for both them and the
teacher. It can also be very funny. Despite the fact that Sister Ursula's
story that she has to tell is a brutal and cruel one, the story, as related in
"The Whore's Child," is also very funny, because of the ways in which the
students try to come to terms with the story that she is telling them. And
it's much like that between teacher and student, because the student has, very
often, a series of true things, a series of true events, and so the first
thing that the teacher has to do is honor the material by suggesting that,
`Yes, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the material, and yes, a story can
be made out of this. But you're going to have to turn this into something
artful, which means that at some point or other in the story, what actually
happened is going to fail you, because all that will ever be is a sequence of
events, but it won't be a sequence of events that is, as in the section that
you read, actually going anywhere. It's proceeding without getting anywhere.'
And the teacher is really at this kind of ground zero of storytelling and
getting students to understand that what happened will not be sufficient to
GROSS: Did you ever feel that you inadvertently seriously wounded a student
through your critique of their writing?
Mr. RUSSO: Oh, I'm sure of it. I mean, I can't think so much of a particular
instance. I remember one case, I suppose, at Colby College, it was a very,
very smart young woman who had turned in a story that just wasn't very good
and it wasn't very good in a way that was approachable. I mean, you could
explain to her at what level it was failing, but there was no way to do it
with as much--well, you just kind of had to say it, `Here's what's wrong.'
And I know that she was terribly wounded by that. She was on the verge of
tears leaving the class. And as often happens, those tears turned to rage the
very next day in my office. And, you know, we went through the whole thing
again, after she finished telling me what was wrong with me. But by the end
of that office hour, we had managed to go back to the story and get it on
track in a way that would work for her without compromising the thing that was
most important to her in telling the story to begin with.
So I--yeah, these--and I'm not really sure from a student's point of view
whether the serious work that a real writer is going to do can be done without
that kind of criticism and sometimes even without that kind of, you know, pain
that you have to come through.
GROSS: Did you go through that kind of pain yourself from critiques when you
were a student?
Mr. RUSSO: Oh, you bet.
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. I know that from first-hand experience. I was not a quick
study as a writing student. I had come to--I had been reading literature
seriously as a PhD student through what is the opposite end of the telescope,
and when it came time for me to write, I had a lot of bad habits, a lot of bad
expository habits. I wanted to both write the story and write the Cliff Notes
of the story at the same time.
GROSS: To tell what it all meant...
Mr. RUSSO: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...what it symbolized?
Mr. RUSSO: It was pretty ugly. And, you know, I had to be told that not
just once, but repeatedly. And, yeah, it was very wounding, but absolutely
necessary. So yeah, as I said, I was not a quick study at all, and so I
recognize the problems, many of them, when I see them in students because most
of the mistakes that are out there to be made I made as an apprentice myself.
GROSS: Well, Richard Russo, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. RUSSO: I enjoyed it, Terry, as always.
BIANCULLI: Richard Russo, speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. His
best-selling novel, "Empire Falls," is being dramatized this weekend as an
HBO miniseries. Ed Harris, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Helen Hunt star,
and Russo wrote the script.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Coming up, preteen cha-cha--a review of the new documentary "Mad
Hot Ballroom." Also, extreme skateboarding on the big screen. We'll meet
skater and filmmaker Stacy Peralta. He wrote the new feature film "Lords
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Stacy Peralta on his documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
In the '70s, the Z-Boys, a team of skateboarders from Santa Monica, invented
the moves that turned skateboarding into a phenomenon. Stacy Peralta was one
of them. The Z-Boys got their name from the Zephyr skate shop which sponsored
the team. In 2001, Peralta's documentary about these pioneers of
skateboarding, "Dogtown and Z-Boys," won the Audience Award and Directors
Award at Sundance.
Now Peralta has written a film dramatizing the Z-Boys story called "Lords of
Dogtown." It premieres next week. In this scene from the upcoming film, not
the documentary, the Z-Boys have begun to hit it big. Skater Tony Alva is
approached by Beverly Hills playboy Topper Burks about cashing in.
(Soundbite of "Lords of Dogtown")
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Topper Burks) Hey, Tony. I'm Topper Burks.
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Tony Alva) I know who you are, dude.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Topper Burks) Skip warned me about you.
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Tony Alva) I bet he did. How much are these?
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Topper Burks) More than your car.
Unidentified Actor #2: (As Tony Alva) I don't own a car, dude.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Topper Burks) Exactly. With your talent and my
money, I can make you a star.
BIANCULLI: Terry Gross spoke to Stacy Peralta in 2002.
TERRY GROSS: Stacy Peralta, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. STACY PERALTA (Director): Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Describe your part of the ocean when you are surfing. Let's talk
about the surfing, and then we'll get to the skateboarding.
Mr. PERALTA: Well, we grew up in West Los Angeles in an area which is
basically South Santa Monica, Ocean Park and North Venice, and it was given
the nickname back in the '70s of DogTown. At that time, it was pretty much a
rundown piece of coastline, what we used to refer to as, you know, the seaside
slum or where the debris meets the sea. And it was not a world-class surf
break, so to become a good surfer there you had to work very, very hard
because the waves were not as good as, say, like in Hawaii or, say, up in
Malibu or down in Mexico or something like that, and as a result of that, we
kind of had an underdog mentality.
And there was one specific break in town that you were not allowed to surf
unless you were a really, really good surfer and that was at the side of what
was called the Pacific Ocean Park Pier and it was an abandoned amusement park
built on this pier. And in that pier there was kind of this little horseshoe
bay that was hidden from sight, and the break was basically run by a surf
mafia, and it was very Darwinian. If you were good enough, you could get in
there and surf, but if you weren't and you went in there without their
permission, you might not come out completely whole, because they were very,
very serious about it, and very territorial about what they were doing...
GROSS: Did you ever...
Mr. PERALTA: ...because...
GROSS: Did you ever get in?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, I went in there as a 14-year-old kid one time--I snuck in
there with some friends--and I had my life threatened. This guy that ran it
said--he goes, `If I ever catch you here again, I'll kill you and I'll bury
you under the pier.' Now I don't think he would have done that, but when
you're a 14-year-old kid and you're told that that's going to happen to you by
a pretty mean-looking 21-year-old, you take it every seriously. And so we
basically left skid marks in the sand and never came back until we got older
and became good surfers and finally were let in.
GROSS: Now what about surfing applies to skateboarding? What did you learn
surfing that applies when you're on a skateboard?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, number one, you're standing up on a moving board, on a
moving object. You're not bolted into the board, you're not on, like, roller
skates or, like, snowboarding or something like that or snow skis. You're
standing free. You can fall off of it. And the motion of it, the type of
turns that you do are very similar.
GROSS: I'd like you to compare falling on a surfboard in the ocean to falling
off a skateboard on the concrete.
Mr. PERALTA: There really is no comparison. When you fall off of a
surfboard, you land in water and it's usually kind of enjoyable, unless
you're, you know, of course, surfing on top of a coral reef which you can land
on, of course. But when you fall on a skateboard, you hit concrete; and
you're not only falling on concrete, you're falling on concrete very, very
fast. You're going 20 miles an hour and you normally slam body first right
onto it, so it doesn't feel good and the bones don't like it as well, nor does
the skin. And as a result of that, we had to learn at a very, very early
age--we had to learn to fall. Because when we were skateboarding back in the
'60s and '70s, there was no such thing as knee pads and elbow pads and helmets
for skateboards. And so after falling a number of times and bruising up your
elbows and wrists, you start learning that you have to roll and your roll
dissipates the impact, and so that's what would happen. And that's not to say
that we didn't have our slams on top of that, because we did, and, boy, we
But, you know, it's one of those things when you love doing something so much
you're willing to pay it whatever price there is to pay, so if it meant
slamming into concrete, we were willing to do that. And many of us to this
day have places on our hips that are completely dead. The nerves have been
smashed so many times that they're just gone, the feeling's gone.
GROSS: What about you?
Mr. PERALTA: Yeah, feeling's gone. There's places on my hip, the hip
pointers, there are no more nerve endings.
GROSS: What was skateboarding like when you guys started; not what did you
do, but what was done before you, so that we can see the difference between
what you were doing and what your predecessors did?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, skateboarding had a very, very brief boom in the '60s--I
think it was in '64, '65--and the kids back then were riding very, very small,
little, teeny skateboards, very thin, with clay wheels. And clay wheels, if
you don't know what a clay wheel is, is basically a wheel made of rock, and it
was, for the most part, what you would call "Flintstone" technology. They
were actually quite dangerous. And so there was quite a limit to what you
could do on a skateboard back then. You could do handstands, you could do
nose wheelies and basic tic tacs and 180s and things like that, but you really
couldn't ride bank walls and ride swimming pools.
And what happened in 1974 is the urethane wheel was developed, and the
urethane wheel was basically like a rubber wheel, but it was urethane, very
soft and it gripped the ground. So for the first time on a skateboard you
could ride terrain that had never been ridden before. And as a result of that
being invented in '74 and as a result of Los Angeles experiencing probably the
worst drought in 100 years in the years of '74 and '75, all of these swimming
pools in Los Angeles were lying empty because the government would not allow
you to fill your pool with water because of the drought; you weren't even
allowed to water your lawn; you weren't even allowed to serve water in
restaurants, and so as a result of that, we were able to ride this new type of
terrain, which was vertical skateboarding, which had never been done before.
It had been attempted briefly in the '60s, but the kids couldn't do anything
with it because it was so dangerous on those clay wheels. And so...
GROSS: When you say `vertical skateboarding,' you mean like going up the side
of a wall.
Mr. PERALTA: Yeah, like the pools that are in Beverly Hills and Malibu and
Bel Air, the rich neighborhoods in Los Angeles. They have these very deep,
10-foot deep pools shaped like peanuts or kidneys, and they were beautiful,
perfect skate parks for us, in a sense, and we started riding on these. You
know, there was a couple of abandoned homes that someone had discovered a pool
in and we went into that abandoned home, started riding this pool and in a
sense started developing vertical skateboarding, which I guess many people are
starting to say was the beginning of extreme sports.
And we absolutely fell in love with this and at the time realized that we had
to keep finding empty pools, and so we would do whatever it took to find them.
GROSS: Now one of the things you liked about the pools was that the walls
weren't at a right angle, it was a kind of sloping wall so you could skate up
it pretty easily--well, not easy for me but, I mean, relatively easily.
Mr. PERALTA: Well, no. What's unusual is California, especially Los Angeles
has an indigenous type of swimming pool that I'm assuming comes from kind of
the movie-star pools.
Mr. PERALTA: They're these beautiful, voluptuous bowls, very sensuous in
their shapes and the transitions, like you were saying, are very, very smooth
going up to vertical; whereas opposed to like on the East Coast where a lot of
the pools are square...
Mr. PERALTA: ...and, you know, they're actually very unridable. Well, Los
Angeles was filled with these things. In fact, I believe it's the swimming
pool capital of the world. So we would go from back yard to back yard looking
for all the different shapes of pools we could ride, because each pool offered
a different possibility, a different way to expand your abilities, your
GROSS: Were you caught?
Mr. PERALTA: Yeah, we were caught a few times; yes, we were. I talk about
this in the film. There was one time we were caught in what was called the
Canyon Pool and it was right across the street from the actor Peter Graves'
house, and he didn't like us skateboarding there because he felt, you know, we
were bringing in too much of a bad element into a really nice neighborhood, so
they were constantly calling the police on us.
And we were actually skateboarding in an abandoned home. It was the home of
this kind of California cultural guy named Leo Korio(ph), and it was a big
estate in the Santa Monica Canyon. And so this one time the cops came we all
hid in the trees and the cops were looking for us below us, you know, in the
trees, not knowing we were hiding up above. And at the time I remember being
afraid, thinking, `I'm going to get nervous. I'm going to probably drop by
skateboard and I'm going to knock one of these guys in the head, and then
there's going to be real problems,' but, of course, that didn't happen.
But they eventually found us. They put us into the back of the car. And they
scared us, said, `Look, you know, we're going to take you down to, you know,
the police station. You're going to be in big trouble.' And then all of a
sudden they let us go, because they realized that what we were doing was
pretty absurd. We weren't hurting anybody.
GROSS: Well, did you worry about the physical consequences a lot?
Mr. PERALTA: No. We didn't worry about that. We were aware of it, but we
didn't worry about it, because we were so hungry to be good at this. I mean,
you know, we weren't the guys that were, you know, playing Little League
baseball and we weren't necessarily the guys, you know, getting straight A's
in school, and so finally, you know, some of us were good at something in our
lives and we desperately chased it, I mean, because we wanted to be good at
this and we really embraced the act of discovery. We each wanted to be first
at doing something, and so all of us had our firsts at certain aspects of it.
GROSS: What was yours?
Mr. PERALTA: I was the first guy to be able to sustain going back and forth,
hitting coping to coping back and forth one after the other. Instead of just
going up the pool and coming back down and heading to the shallow end, I would
hit the left wall and then go to the right wall and literally go back and
forth like a pendulum. And if you see skateboarders like Tony Hawk today,
that's what they do now, they go back and forth on the ramps trick to trick.
And so I was probably the first guy to be able to do that.
And again, we just didn't know if the body could get in these positions and if
gravity would allow us to do it.
BIANCULLI: Stacy Peralta speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's conversation with writer-director and
shredder Stacey Peralta.
GROSS: The first big skateboard competition that the Z-Boys, the Zephyr team,
participated in was in 1975. What was your team doing compared to the other
Mr. PERALTA: Well, first of all, that was the first contest that initiated
the new, au modern era of modern skateboarding, and we went. It was in Del
Mar, California. We came from Los Angeles. We didn't have any idea if
actually people skateboarded outside Los Angeles, so it was a bit of shock
when we got there, you know, to see 600 other skateboarders from around the
And our skateboarding was based on banked walls, you know, riding banked walls
and riding swimming pools, and also it was based on the influence of this
surfer in Hawaii who at the time was probably one of the best surfers in the
world, Larry Bertlemann, and he had a very low approach to surfing and an
extraordinarily aggressive approach to surfing. So he was...
GROSS: By low you mean like crouching.
Mr. PERALTA: Yeah, crouching and using his hands, like digging his hands into
the wave and pivoting around his hands, like doing what's called a cutback,
where his board completely does a 180 on the wave and his board is shooting a
gigantic rooster tail. Well, that's the kind of skateboarding that we were
doing, which was very low to the ground and screeching all over the place and
using our hand as pivot points.
Well, when we got to Del Mar we found that most of the competitors were doing
the maneuvers that had been done 10 years prior to that, which were the
handstands and the nose wheelies, and it was very much the upright approach to
skateboarding, and so we came in there with a different approach. And, you
know, people said we looked more like a gang, you know, than a skateboard team
because, you know, we had long hair, we were kind of ratty looking; the back
pockets on our pants were all torn off because we were getting so low on our
skateboards that were always scraping kind of the left butt of our pants; as
well, our tennis shoes were torn up.
So I think we kind of had the look, from what I understand, as like, you know,
where "Endless Summer" meets "Mean Streets." You know, it was no longer Brian
Wilson anymore; you know, this was a different story, and that had to do with
where we grew up, because we grew up in such a kind of a multicultural, you
know, environment and stuff like that. It wasn't rosy sunsets and clean
beaches. This is where, you know, the smog and the soot, you know, landed in
the parking lot, where you rarely ever saw a sunset that wasn't, you know,
tainted with a deep band of smog.
GROSS: You were used to skating in pools and on hilly concrete. When you got
to this competition, you had like a flat, wooden surface. So what were the
things that you couldn't do in this competition and what did you do instead?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, we couldn't do the type of riding that we were used to
doing, which was, you know, the tricks that we were doing on banked walls,
which were turning up and down like surfing, in a sense surfing on banked
walls and doing what's called 180 slides and, you know, pivoting around on
our hands. So what we had to do is we had to apply that to flat ground, and
we did the best we could.
You know, a lot of the people didn't quite understand what we were doing
because they had never seen that style of skateboarding before, and there was
a lot of protest about it, but nonetheless we did fairly well. You know, Tony
Alva and Jay Adams got third and fourth place. Nathan Pratt got first in the
slalom. And Peggy Oki, the only girl on our team, got first place in the
So it was basically a matter of trying to somehow transfer that aggressive,
low style to just flat ground, and it was skidding around our hands and
pumping the board and kind of skidding the wheels out and things like that.
It's a little hard to describe because I've actually never described it
before, so I guess it was just a very low approach, an aggressive approach, as
opposed to standing up and doing more like gymnastic tricks.
GROSS: So what was it like when the skateboarders that you teamed up with
started becoming well-known?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, first of all, none of us ever had a conception that this
would ever lead to anything. So when it finally did blow up after the Del Mar
contest, we were all being asked to ride for other manufacturers and being
offered quite a bit of money. And at the time, I went from making--you know,
being like a busboy in a restaurant making probably $30 a week to making 10
grand a month as a skateboarder. And this was in the '70s. I mean, I was
making more money than both my parents were. And...
GROSS: So this was--What?--skateboard manufacturers sponsoring you in
Mr. PERALTA: Yeah. What happened is skateboard manufacturers came up to us
and they instantly saw the value of associating with us. And so they decided
that the best way to make money, you know, in their skateboarding products was
to put our names on skateboards. And so each of us went to a different
sponsor. I went to a company called Gordon & Smith, which, at the time, was
the number-one company in skateboarding. And they put my name on four
different skateboard models, very much like, you know, the sporting good
companies putting, you know, Mickey Mantle's name on a mitt or Michael
Jordan's name on a shoe. It was the same type of thing; it was sponsorship.
And so they were selling 100,000 of those boards of mine, you know, a year.
As well, I was touring all over the world and introducing the sport to kids
all over the world, who had never seen modern skateboarding other than through
these magazines. So we were going to Australia and France and Germany and
England. And these kids were just so hungry for this because it was so
different, and it was a piece of America that they were finally able to grasp
and bring to their country.
GROSS: So you were basically, you know, neighborhood kids who didn't have
money skateboarding, and then a bunch of you became pretty wealthy very
suddenly. What did that do to your relationships and to the sense that you
were a team?
Mr. PERALTA: Well, number one, it destroyed the sense of a team because we
were no longer a team. We had all left the original Zephyr team and went off
on our own to pursue our own careers. And it was an unfortunate thing that
that happened, but at the same time, it probably would have been inevitable
because there were so many good guys on that team. It's like having the
Lakers and the Bulls all in one team. It just isn't going to work. There's
too many mouths to feed.
And so at first, there was tension because some of us made more money than
others; some of us got more opportunities than others, and it just created
unnecessary tension. But in the end, we all became friends again and we were
all--you know, we all became tight.
But, I mean, I must admit to you, you know, like I said, it was so unusual
that this happened, and it happened so fast. I mean, when I was in high
school, I was assuming that I was going to be a plumber when I grew up because
I figured that would be the only thing I could figure out to do because, you
know, there was no future in skateboarding. And so this caught a lot of us
off guard. And, of course, it was the '70s, so some of the guys, you know,
got a little bit into the rock star thing, and there was drugs involved, and,
you know, it was very difficult, I think, for some of the guys to handle.
They weren't used to making that kind of money, and they weren't used to the
fame and attention that came along with it. And it sped up everybody's lives
a little too fast at times.
GROSS: Do you skate at all anymore?
Mr. PERALTA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I'm more relaxed on the skateboard than I
am walking and far more relaxed skateboarding than I am sleeping. And I have
an 11-year-old boy, and we have a little ramp at the house, and we skateboard
together. It's something I'll always do. It's just part of my DNA.
GROSS: Well, Stacy Peralta, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PERALTA: Thanks, Terry. Thank you very much for having me.
BIANCULLI: Stacy Peralta speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He's one of the
skateboard pioneers featured in the documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys." He's
also the screenwriter of a new movie based on the early days of skateboarding
called the "Lords of Dogtown." It opens next week nationwide.
Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Mad Hot Ballroom." This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The new documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom" focuses on fifth-grade students in New
York public schools who learn ballroom dancing. At the end of the program,
they compete. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
The spelling bee documentary "Spellbound" was hugely popular and deservedly
so. It was a real masterpiece of pop sociology. Now in its wake, we have
distribution companies snapping up docs that climax with big competitions.
They have narrative hooks and built-in suspense. And unlike those vacuous TV
reality contests, they weave themes of class and culture all the way through.
One of the more charming new competition documentaries is "Mad Hot Ballroom"
in which New York fifth-graders learn ballroom dancing, going cheek to cheek
and then against other schools head to head. The director, Marilyn Agrelo,
and the writer, Amy Sewell, had chosen to follow three elementary schools:
one in Brooklyn's middle-class Bensonhurst, one in more affluent TriBeCa and
one in primarily Dominican and impoverished Washington Heights.
The movie never stays long in one place. It gives us glimpses of rehearsals,
fleeting interviews with kids and teachers and nothing in the way of
narration. And frankly, I had to work pretty hard to keep all the teachers
and fifth-graders straight. But Agrelo clearly wants to de-emphasize the
individual portraits in favor of the panorama. And once you relax and go with
it, you get swept up, and almost every shot carries a new revelation.
The first thing you'll notice is that 10 and 11 are nebulous ages. You can
still see the first-graders in these kids, but they're right on the brink of
puberty, and they know it. The boys are embarrassed to be dancing with girls,
but they sort of like them and don't want to admit it. And the girls have
little crushes, too. Here's what they sound like, kids from all three
neighborhoods, as Agrelo cuts among them.
(Soundbite of "Mad Hot Ballroom")
Unidentified Child #1: Do you like Michael as a partner?
Unidentified Child #2: Well, I wasn't...
Unidentified Child #1: He's a little smaller than you, right?
Unidentified Child #2: I wasn't comfortable around him first.
Unidentified Child #1: What about you?
Unidentified Child #3: I had to dance with Daniel(ph). I don't like him.
Unidentified Child #1: Why?
Unidentified Child #3: Because...
Unidentified Child #2: He's so sloppy, sloppy chicken wings?
Unidentified Child #3: Yeah, and then he tried to bite my neck.
(Soundbite of girls giggling)
Unidentified Child #4: Sometimes people don't like dancing with Johnny(ph).
Just because he's chubby, well, that don't matter. He's just a person.
Unidentified Child #5: Some people don't--like, from the group of dance,
they're better than me, so I don't know if they'll pick me. I'm trying hard
for I could be in there, but I don't know if they'll pick me.
Unidentified Child #6: Like, the most important thing is just, like, learning
the dances and learning how to do them, so I'm not that psyched about the
Unidentified Child #7: I always think about it. And sometimes, if I don't do
the steps, I just go over them in my mind, even if I'm not doing them, 'cause
I always want to--I really want to be in this competition, so I'm trying my
hardest to get in.
EDELSTEIN: These are kids playing dress-up, and so vulnerable that they can
break your heart. Take Tara from TriBeCa, a delightful little actress who
can't fully come to grips with the idea that she might not win. Tara's
teacher becomes broken up over the harshness of competition, and it turns out
for her kids with good reason.
But up in Dominican Washington Heights, there are fewer illusions to be
dashed. With the housing projects in back of them, the girls talk
matter-of-factly about dodging drug dealers and growing up in one-parent
homes. They're not afraid of competition. It's their shot at a better life.
They vow that the boys they'll end up with will be responsible, maybe like
Kelvin, the quiet kid who emerges a leader in rehearsals, and maybe not like
Jonathan, the cute but too proud kid who doesn't like being told what to do,
and who slinks off to play basketball instead. He comes off as a lost soul.
"Mad Hot Ballroom" is not as tidy as "Spellbound," but for this milieu, maybe
it's better not to spell things out. There are so many funny yet wrenching
moments that the film's lack of focus can seem like a gift. A chubby boy
dances alone with his arms out, whirling and beseeching as he looks for a
partner, while a teachers says, `Take a partner. Take a partner,' and finally
he grabs someone, and the moment is saved, along with presumably his
As the fifth-graders learn to stand up straight, tuck in their shirts, make
eye contact with their partners, win and lose, they're doing more than finding
their inner strength. They're becoming socialized. Merengue, Cuban, rumba,
swing, tango, it's fun to watch the kids strut their stuff, especially in the
finals, at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden for judges who include
But "Mad Hot Ballroom" is not a movie about dance. Over shots of the winning
students, a teacher says that one of the girls was incorrigible. And now
after a year of rehearsals, she has poise and self-control and hasn't gotten
into trouble. Maybe Agrelo, with that final bit of underscoring, tips her
hand too much. All along, we've known that the contest was a metaphor for
getting your act together before taking it on the road.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. TITO RODRIGUEZ (Band Leader): (Singing in foreign language)
BIANCULLI: That's band leader Tito Rodriguez recorded in 1953.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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