Both Donnie “Don Ho” Crist and Steve Shelton are pushing 60, though you’d never know it to look at them. The lanky Shelton is a punk rocker with a lengthy resume, having played in bands like Glass Heroes, Van Buren Wheels, and most recently, The Brand. Crist is a veteran of the Phoenix hair metal scene and a former bartender at Bootleggers Bar.
They’re also both local skateboarding legends. They’ve just made a documentary film about the sport in Arizona during the late ’70s and early ’80s. High Rollers: The Golden Age of Arizona Skateboarding, which premieres Friday, March 6, started as a labor of love for Crist, who started interviewing longtime Arizona skateboarders back in 2015. (Full disclosure: A song by the author’s band appears in the film.) Crist’s dedication to that project morphed into a film that “has some of the gnarliest [skateboarding] footage anyone has ever seen,” he says. “Way gnarlier than Dogtown and Z-Boys.”
That’s a bold claim — Dogtown and Z-Boys, the 2001 Stacy Peralta film about the golden days of Southern California skateboarding in the mid- and late-’70s — is widely regarded as the finest skateboarding documentary of all time. To be clear, Crist isn’t disrespecting the film. In fact, Crist overlapped with Peralta back in the day; he rode for Powell Peralta, a skateboard company Peralta cofounded in 1978, as an amateur. Peralta dismissed Crist from the skate team for what Crist calls “youthful indiscretion” sometime in the late ’70s.
Like Peralta’s film, High Rollers is about more than skateboarding. It’s about the personalities that populated the Arizona skate scene, and how those people influenced other aspects of Phoenix, like the music scene and the look of the city. And it’s about how skating changed the direction of kids’ lives — including kids like Crist and Shelton.
“I played Pop Warner and all that,” says Crist. “I went to football practice at Maryvale High School on the first day of freshman year, and it was like 110 degrees outside. That was enough. I had started skateboarding that summer, and that was that.”
“I was an introverted kid, and skateboarding just spoke to me,” Shelton adds. “We had the best (skateboarding) terrain in the world (in Phoenix). We were like the Hawaiians, in a way, who had the best surf in the world. Most of the terrain for skateboarding back then was natural terrain. We had the pipes that were made of cast concrete, the smoothest concrete you ever felt in your life, and they were downhill. Then we had all the pools here.”
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In High Rollers, we learn about a fabled skate spot known as the Dead Cat, an empty swimming pool on the city’s west side. It’s possible you’ve driven past the old High Roller Skatepark on Cave Creek Road, just north of Dunlap in Sunnyslope; a long-ago skating hotspot, it inspired the documentary’s name. Having been a part of the scene in the old days of 1978 to about 1985, Crist and Shelton had access to, or relationships with, many of those responsible for building it up. That made the task of putting together a documentary considerably more manageable.
“I knew which guys could paint a picture [of the Phoenix scene],” Crist says, “and then we also had great pictures and footage to make it work.”
Ultimately, what Crist and Shelton have created is a vessel to ride along in, accompanied by a cast of skaters and musicians, cruising into a slice of underground Arizona history that might otherwise have been lost to time.
The premiere of High Rollers: The Golden Age of Arizona Skateboarding is scheduled on Friday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at Super Savers Cinema 8. Tickets are available at the door.