New Documentary Captures A Time When 'The Kids Went Crazy' Skateboarding In Kansas City

Mar 20, 2017

Start at Barney Allis Plaza.

Then the slabs at Gillham Park Pool.

Finish at the stairs in front of the abandoned Westport Middle School.

The Line, Richie Wolfe’s documentary about the history of skateboarding in Kansas City, is as much a love letter to the city and its iconic skateboarding spots as a record of the highs and lows of skateboarding industries and subcultures in the region.

Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and '80s have memories of attempting to build ramps in our driveways and front yards to try to imitate Stacy Peralta and Tony Hawk. The plywood contraptions were deathtraps and, as aging skater Quentin Manske acknowledges early in the film, “it was more fun building the ramps than riding on them, half the time.”

Wolfe, who moved to Kansas City after graduating from high school in Salina and says he's been making skateboard videos since he was 10, devotes much of his documentary to a small community of (mostly) boys discovering a shared love and how their interest directs and shapes some of their lives.

"I’d been considering doing some kind of a story about local skate shops in Kansas City, specifically Escapist," Wolfe says. When he approached the shop's owner, Dan Askew, "he as like, 'There are a lot more stories in Kansas City  that would be cool to tell.' So I started going down the rabbit trail and came up with this big story of our skateboarding culture over the last forty years."

The earliest skaters built their own boards, ripping apart roller skates to attach to homemade decks, and Wolfe has delightful pictures and Super 8 film footage of young skaters in the 1970s attempting tricks on their battered homemade boards. He adds footage taken from early privately owned skate parks with charming names like Banzai Pipeline and Rolling Magic. In the pre-social media era, parties and competitions were announced with homemade, hand-drawn fliers and leaflets, many of which fortunately have survived and are shown in the film.

Those interviewed in the film who skated in the 1970s and '80s recall a spirit of generosity and kindness, when “no one made fun of anyone for not knowing how to skate” and “everyone helped everyone else learn.”

As with any counterculture that becomes commercialized, the skate parks and shops bloomed and competed with each other, instilling rivalries in the skaters based on style and – inevitably – on the titular “Line” between the states.

The boom of skateboarding’s mainstream was relatively short-lived and styles shifted again in the 1990s. As one former skater sneers, wheels got tiny and “the pants were giant.”

An interest in the history of skateboarding surged in the early 2000s with Peralta’s documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys (and Catherine Hardwicke’s fictionalized response The Lords of Dogtown in 2005) but those outside of this region – even those fully immersed in skateboarding culture – tend to be unaware of Kansas City’s rich legacy of skateboarding community. The community has become more visible in recent years with the success locally-born pro skater Sean Malto, whose trick videos and interviews frequently highlight Kansas City people and places.

Part of Wolfe's goal, he says, is to educate newer generations of skaters in Kansas City. 

"They get into it – maybe they get a board at Walmart, go to the skatepark down the street – they don’t know they have a skatepark because these guys in the early '90s saw there were no skateparks and talked to the city until they got one. So I'm trying to bring the generations together and educate everybody."

Wolfe, who now works in the video services department at Johnson County Community College, closes on an idealistic note, with the current generation claiming the generosity and community of their earliest counterparts, eschewing the 816/913 rivalries that dominated the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Wolfe and his interview subjects sometimes roam into the weeds of skateboarding terminology and deeply specific points of reference, but The Line will resonate for anyone who's ever skinned their knees attempting a basic trick, wasted an afternoon playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or marveled at a 14-year-old backside nosegrinding.

A screening on Tuesday at Johnson County Community College will be the last time Kansas City audiences will be able to see it for a while. After a showing at the Kansas City Public Library in February and at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art earlier this month, Wolfe will screen it in San Diego at the end of March before beginning a 7,000-mile bike ride to benefit Restoration House, a residential recovery program for victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

When he gets back, Wolfe says, he'll begin submitting The Line to film festivals.

"We'll see how it does in that realm," he says.

The Line screens at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, in the CoLab (OCB 100) at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Boulevard, Overland Park, Kansas, 66210, 913-469-8500.

Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture.  She can be reached at melissalenos@gmail.com