INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
INTRODUCTION BY JIM MURPHY
PHOTOS BY BRYAN LATHROP
Philadelphia has bred some cool skaters, the kind of guys that just skate for fun and are down for the scene. Bryan Lathrop grew up in the Philly scene skating and playing music and then traveled the world and came back to Philly and became involved with the emergence of the FDR park. The Pennsylvania crew put it together and got some concrete going in their own town in their own way. The photos and words in Bryan’s story are a tribute to the East Coast do it yourself skate ethic. Read on.“SKATEBOARDING WAS WHAT GOT ME INTO PHOTOGRAPHY. I WOULD SEE FRIEDMAN’S PHOTOS IN THE SKATE MAGAZINES. I REMEMBER ONE DAY, GLEN WAS THERE SHOOTING PICTURES OF ALAN GELFAND, MIKE JEZ AND THOSE GUYS. HIS PHOTOS BLEW ME AWAY AND THAT SOWED THE SEEDS.”
Let’s start with name, rank and serial number.
[Laughs] I’m a big, bald 43-year-old, and skating is what keeps me sane.
When and where were you born?
I was born in 1964 in Willingboro, NJ. It’s where Carl Lewis is from, and WWF Hall of Famer Gorilla Monsoon lived there. Apart from that it’s pretty unremarkable. In 1974, I moved to California.
Why did you move there?
My parents divorced and I went with my dad to live in Torrance, California. That’s when I started skating. It was right after the urethane wheel came out. Those were the days of putting individual ball bearings in one at a time.
When were you first exposed to skateboarding?
This guy hooked me up with a free set-up for my first board. It was a laminated wood board with Cadillac wheels, Chicago trucks and the whole nine. That was before grip tape, so I used those adhesive bathtub feet instead.
[Laughs] What were you skating out there?
I was carving around the streets and doing stuff we saw in Skateboarder. The parks hadn’t really started getting built at that point. This was when Gregg Weaver was on the cover of the magazine before Dogtown took off.
Did you have a crew you skated with?
No, not really. I was pretty much a loner. I lived there for a year and then ended up coming back to Pennsylvania.
What year did you come back?
I came back to PA in ’76. I was only in Cali for a year and a half, but I’d go spend summers with my dad. Then he moved to a place that was only ten miles from Upland, so I was skating Upland every summer, which was like heaven for me.
Were you there when it first opened?
Yeah, I found reels of Super 8 footage of when it first opened. There was a big freestyle area there, before they put in the combi. It was a big reservoir freestyle area, where guys would actually pay to go skate freestyle. It was pretty funny.
No way. What heavy hitters did you see there?
I never crossed paths with Salba back then, but Tay Hunt was there. He was a local Badlander. We’d go and check out the sessions at night and it was crazy. Those guys were tearing it up. I was in awe of anybody that could get over vert in that full pipe. They were my heroes. This was when you had to qualify to skate certain areas of the park. If you couldn’t do three kickturns over a certain line in a certain bowl, you weren’t even allowed to go into the full pipe or the big bowl.
Were the boys policing it?
No, it was the park people.
So you were going back and forth from PA to Upland?
I was in PA when Cherry Hill was here, too, so I had the best of both worlds.
Where did you live in PA?
I lived in Havertown, which is about 15 minutes outside of Philly.
Did you go to Cherry Hill when it first opened?
Yeah, it was in ’79. I was able to get there once a week by taking the bus and two trains to get there. It was an hour-and-a-half trip one way. Then we’d skate a session. My mom was taking care of four of us, so it was up to me to get there.
Describe what Cherry Hill was like. I try to describe it to people.
That place made such an impression on me. I still drive by the old warehouse and I’m sure that parts of the pools, if not some of the full pools, are still buried under there.
It was a huge warehouse, with four pools. It had a crazy 90-foot long halfpipe with no flat that went into a 3/4 that was bowled off and that connected to the 13-foot egg bowl. It was paradise for a kid. It was all pools. The keyhole was a little bit kinked, but that’s where I learned frontside airs. There was a local there named Jim Fisk that was totally rad. He took the time to teach a young kid, who was still learning, how to progress. I’ll never forget that. He was really cool and made a big impression.
What was it like when you first started riding pools at Cherry Hill, like the egg bowl?
I was scared shitless. I wasn’t all that good. I figured out how to carve and grind and then I learned frontside airs and axle stalls. It made a big difference to have an older skater as a mentor. That really helped my skating progress. After I got over the initial fear, it was straight up addiction.
It was so strong that here I am, almost 30 years later, and that place still has magnetism for me. It left a huge impression. I used to daydream about Cherry Hill. I was waiting for Friday to get there, so I could go skate. My first trip there, I went with some Havertown guys and my kingpin broke in the first ten minutes I was there.
Who were you riding with back then?
I was just doing the loner thing. I rode the bus to get there. Matt Munz was a guy from Havertown. He was a ripper. I remember Victor Perez, who was unreal. He’s still skating. He’s been back around, on the scene, here in Philly.
Jamie Godfrey and his little brother Dean were around. Then you’d see the crews roll through, like the Bones Brigade. That was right after Alan Gelfand invented the ollie. The other big one was our local Mike Jesiolowski.
Oh, yeah. Rock n roll slides, babe.
Mike was going three-fourths of the way around that end kidney bowl and it sounded like a meteoric train from hell. It was a crazy sound at crazy speed. I skated with him more after I moved in to the city. By eleventh grade, I was done with school. I was over it when a teacher told me that I asked too many questions. I was like, “All right. I’m done.” That’s when I started getting into music. I started a band called Sadistic Exploits with my friend Peddrick Calder. I moved to Philadelphia and skated with a crew of guys from South Philly. There was a skate punk house we used to hang out at where the band Autistic Behavior lived. The guys from Seeds of Terror, “Small” and “Tall” were brothers that used to skate at Cherry Hill. They were always there too.
Who were the big bands back then?
At first it was The Clash, Sex Pistols, 999, Devo, The Buzzcocks and all the classic punk rock. Then the U.S. scene blew up. There are too many bands to mention, but a few of my all-time favorites are Agent Orange and Husker Du.
What about the Philly scene for music?
Early on, there were a handful of bands like DeControl, Informed Sources, Autistic Behavior, Seeds of Terror, McRad, F.O.D., the Stickmen and later on Y DI. You had the thing going on with New Wave at the time. It was a mishmash of bands. We organized the first all-ages shows in Philly. We rented out the Elks Lodge and put on several Punk Fests. Kids under 21 were able to get in so it was pretty cool. Steve Eye started doing productions. We had a really solid music scene going on. We still do.
When Cherry Hill closed, how did that hit you?
I was heartbroken. It was like losing a family member. It was this incredible place and then it was gone. It still stings every time I drive by it. I run into guys all the time that used to skate there. I see some of the guys at the Mapleshade Park. It’s fun. I see a lot of heads from Cherry Hill coming out of the woodwork over there. The park closing that hurt me the most was Upland. When I went back there and saw all the rubble, it was nauseating. It made me sick.
What did you do after Cherry Hill shut down?
There wasn’t a lot to skate and I never had a street skater mentality. I learned how to ollie up on ledges, but that didn’t do it for me. It just wasn’t my thing. If you were lucky, you ran into someone that had a backyard vert ramp or makeshift ramp. Bender from Cherry Hill had a cool, funky little ramp in Burlington, NJ. I didn’t have a car, so I was doing the band thing for five or six years. I realized how I’d limited my options by dropping out of school, so I took my GED. In ’84, I started getting into photography. By ’86, the band had disintegrated, and I was getting into photography really heavy.
Were you into photography when you were skating Cherry Hill?
No, I wish. It was hard enough to get decent photos of skating at Cherry Hill, let alone afford a camera. I still have a few Cherry Hill photos and I treasure those things. Skateboarding was what got me into photography. I would see Friedman’s photos in the skate magazines. I remember one day, Glen was there shooting pictures of Alan Gelfand, Mike Jez and those guys. His photos blew me away and that sowed the seeds. In ’86, I had no money. I was a poor punk rocker. I didn’t have enough to buy a camera, so I borrowed one. And I realized I had an eye for it. Then a guy at the office I was working in bought me a camera and that got me started.
Did you ever get out to Reading?
I have pictures of Reading when you actually had to pay to skate there.
[Laughs] Oh, yeah.
The last time I was there, it was all abandoned and crazy. Reading was definitely a spot. The nice burly asphalt, like ten grit sandpaper that would rip your legs apart if you fell on it.
It made a man of you. Did you ride the Kink Sink?
That thing took me out a couple of times. A few years back, TZ and a few of us were out there, took out three inches of ice and threw a pump in. We were desperate. I don’t know what we were thinking. There was no way it was going to dry in time for us to skate, but we emptied out the ice.
[Laughs] What kind of weed were you smoking?
I wasn’t! That’s what was even scarier. The snake runs were dry, though.
How did your photography progress from there?
I took a trip to Central America – Nicaragua and Guatemala.
What took you down there?
After the band broke up, I got into doing spoken word and poetry. A friend of mine was going down to Central America with a delegation of writers and poets. I told him that he was nuts. I was like, “There’s a war going on down there. You’re going to die.” Two weeks later, the switch in my head went off and I was like, “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to go with him.” I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel with these heavy hitter writers. I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish, but it was a group thing, so I knew I’d be okay. I ended up going back there three years in a row. I took a lot of pictures. I started off my third trip with six weeks of language boot camp, so that I could speak the language. Now I’m good.
You’re a Spanish speaker now?
Yeah, and my wife is from Ecuador.
[Laughs] The Spanish is flowing.
That works. So there you are, a punk rocker, in Nicaragua, speaking Spanish. Did you feel out of your element?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t. I was 22 on my first trip. I saw everything in black and white. My politics are way left of center. I’m no Republican by a long shot. I’m pretty fed up with the whole system. I’d prefer not to align myself with any political party whatsoever, so I was in my element there. These guys overthrew the bullshit regime the U.S. had in place. I was very idealistic the first time I went down, but I didn’t speak the language either. I was relying on translators. My last trip, I stayed for six months, traveling to orphanages and taking pictures of kids for a photo exhibit featuring war orphans. These kids were victims of both sides. After being there six months, I started to see the gray. It wasn’t black and white anymore. It wasn’t so clear-cut to me anymore who was the bad guy and the good guy. There are extreme assholes on the right and left. Ninety percent of the population just wants to put food on the table and they’re caught in the middle. It was a hell of an education. I had a close call once. I foolishly walked 25 kilometers alone through the mountains with 60 pounds of gear and no water. When I got to the village these guys said, “You’re lucky you weren’t here two days ago. There was a major blow out between the Sandinistas and the Contras.”
It was hardcore, but it was an amazing education. No university could give you that education. Through photography, I’d gotten a grant to go there and shoot photos for this exhibit about the child’s perspective of war, but I was going whether I got the grant or not. I gave up my apartment and moved home with my parents for six months. I worked two jobs and banked everything. The Painted Bride Arts Center in Philly knew about my photography, so they gave me a $2,000 grant to help with film and developing. That was a huge endorsement for my photography. So I got back and then I got into the activism thing for a while.
What year are we talking now?
I returned in 1990. I was going to apply to the Peace Corps, but they pretty much laughed me out.
They were like, “What can you do?” I was like, “I’m a good artist. I can take photos.” I didn’t speak Spanish then. If you don’t speak two languages or have a trade to teach somebody, you’re out of luck. So that inspired me to go back to school. I didn’t want to be strapped into some dead-end job because I was a high school drop-out, so I took some classes here and there. I applied to the University of Penn and got in on a provisional basis. I was working full-time and going to night school for six years. I had to prove to all these people that had written me off as a total loser that I was going to kick ass. I graduated Magna Cum Laude.
Nice. How did you get back into skateboarding?
In ’96, I was reborn into skateboarding. My wife and I were on our honeymoon up in Nantucket, and there was a little mini ramp there. That was the first skate ramp I’d seen in a long time. I was like a junkie seeing a big bag of dope. I had to get some of it. This was when the wheels were little mini things. There was a skate shop in Nantucket, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy some Popsicle stick board with miniature wheels, but seeing that ramp got the juices flowing again. I have to thank my nephew for getting me back into skating. One day in ’97, he asked, “Have you heard about FDR? It’s this skatepark these skaters are building.” I didn’t know anything about it. I thought, “It’s probably some piece of shit plywood ramp that’s all rotted out.” So I drove him down there. I still had my own Schmitt Stix Monty Nolder board, so I was ready for anything.
That was a killer board. Good wood.
Yeah. My nephew was all into the street stuff, so I didn’t know what to expect. When we drove up to FDR, I saw the back of the bunker wall and how big the dome rose. It was like rediscovering Cherry Hill. It was that same rush. I was so stoked. I’ve been hardcore into it ever since. I wanted to get involved and help make the place happen. I';d seen Cherry Hill and Upland go down; two of the best skateparks in the country. I was like, “I have to be part of this. I have to help.” FDR started in ’94, and ’97 is when I got in the mix, so it was already well established. Little by little, I learned more, and the guys started to include me in the construction. Ultimately, I saw a way to contribute as a graphic designer: by designing a t-shirt for the park. That contributed several thousand dollars to help keep the park growing. We built the big bowl last fall, and I was able to put a grand of t-shirt money towards that. It’s a good tool to have.
Who were the first skaters that you saw there?
The first locals that I met were TZ, Treece, Bill Rodgers, Carlos Biaza, Pat Boder, Trout, Joey P, Faas, Hippy Wes and Clive. The other original guys were Rick Charnoski, Dan Tag, George Draguns, Alex Baker and all those guys. That’s the core. And there was Tim Glomb, when he was still skating. He’s been pretty wrapped up in Bam’s productions lately. He was skating pretty hardcore back then. The first time I saw him, he was doing four or five foot airs out of the vert ramp.