Saga of a star riding for a fall

Special to The Times

In the pivotal scene of Helen Stickler's new documentary, "Stoked: The Rise and Fall of Gator," skateboard legend Mark "Gator" Rogowski lounges in a lawn chair in the mid-1980s, looking like a "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" cliche in his Vision Street Wear duds, beret and Ray-Bans. He's the epitome of teen success: a six-figure income, blond girlfriend -- and all he has to do all day is skate. But it's not enough. In what were clearly meant to be ironic remarks to an off-screen videographer, the teen star reveals his utterly non-ironic relationship with bad behavior.

"Not only am I one of the most unique, dynamic ... and versatile skaters on the circuit," he says, "but also I am one of the most blatant and outspoken jerks in the industry." It's a statement spoken with the clarity and charismatic flourish for which he was famous.

Right from the start of "Stoked," with Gator's voice crackling over the phone from a state prison in California, you know this is not an upbeat reprise of Stacy Peralta's 2001 big-budget documentary hit, "Dogtown and Z-Boys." Stickler's film, which debuted at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, has a theme never tried before in the skating genre, where every film has to stack up to the heroic antics in popular skate videos: It's a murder story, told by a murderer who was the public persona of skateboarding. In it, the world's most famous skaters talk about something bigger than themselves, something bad for their image that they'd rather not confront. The results are gripping, and this video sequence in the lawn chair is where the tone first turns dark.

"It's really easy to say what's on your mind and get away with it when you work for a company like Vision," Gator says smugly. "You can always get a bad write-up in the gossip columns ... and receive some kind of promotion or exposure from it. I love getting arrested. I'm one of the most illegal skaters in the circuit, too."

From its earliest days as a culture and an industry, skateboarding has celebrated the outlaw. Peralta detailed the genesis of this mythic ethos with "Dogtown," in which a bunch of punk rockers and surf locals in Venice turn to skating in the late '60s as means of artistic and spiritual redemption. "Stoked," however, plays against that myth, using it as a foil for a probing psychological investigation of one man's complete submission to the dark side of fame. As skateboarding is embraced by the mainstream in the 1980s, Gator ultimately finds his validation not in the skating, at which he is unsurpassed, but in the accolades it brings.

Unlike the Z-Boys, who have each other and their street roots, he has no other identity. And when he snaps, it has nothing to do with skateboarding, yet takes the whole sport -- and Stickler's film -- down an ugly, lonely path where the ego is unleashed as pure id.

A grisly urban legend

On March 20, 1991, six years after he boasted of his bad-boy image on video, Gator Rogowski brutally murdered his ex-girlfriend's best friend, 21-year-old Jessica Bergsten, in his Carlsbad apartment. He beat her over the head with a steering-wheel lock called the Club, raped her for three hours while she lay half-conscious and bleeding, then put her inside a surfboard bag and strangled her. He then buried her naked in the desert 100 miles away, outside San Diego. He confessed to the killing, and is now doing 25-to-life.

For years, rumors circulated that seemed to defend Gator's reputation. The most common version said the crime had been the result of kinky sex, initiated by Bergsten, that got out of control. Gator helped fuel this story, even after he confessed. But, as he later admitted, it wasn't true. For Stickler, now 30, a filmmaker and longtime skateboarding fan, Gator's real story demanded telling.

"My number-one motivation wasn't that I wanted to do a story about the '80s, or that it was a cautionary tale," says Stickler. "It was really that this was an urban legend that I heard over and over in skating. And I'm really attracted to those types of stories."

The story Stickler found, and the skateboard community's reaction to it, was a stark portrait of fame gone sour. She began researching in 1996, and immediately met resistance. It wasn't so much that she was an outsider, and a woman, though that did contribute. Skaters simply adhere to a loose, unwritten code that prohibits talking dirt about one another in the media. For years she doggedly sought interviews.

Feelings about Gator ranged from pity to hatred to disbelief, and that was uncomfortable territory. Trickiest for Stickler, however, was keeping easy conclusions from impinging on a complex story. Gator's personal struggle with his talent, identity and, as it turned out, severe and undiagnosed bipolar disorder was inextricably entwined with a mass culture phenomenon of the '80s that made his story hard to isolate: the full-blown marketing of skate and surf culture to mainstream America.

Newspapers and tabloid TV show "Hard Copy" had reported on his crime and suggested that skateboarding's outlaw image and big money for creating a monster. This was something that Stickler set out to avoid.

"I don't like to be moralistic or didactic in my work," she says. "It could be interpreted as a cautionary tale. But I feel the film is really objective -- for instance, there's no narrator in there."

Instead, with "Stoked" she builds a sympathetic view of skateboarding's almost accidental success in the '80s. Once skaters realized she was taking this approach, they began to come forward. In the film, Stickler mixes interviews with top skate stars like Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Peralta, Christian Hosoi and iconic skate journalist Mofo with hot skate footage and period TV advertisements and programs to address the '80s transition, as skaters became punk or New Wave rebels ripe for MTV. Against a Warholian backdrop of pure celebrity -- and a party atmosphere where skaters mixed with actors, rock musicians and artists, an environment in which Gator thrived -- his own manic and even desperate responses begin to stand out. He really was different, and it wasn't skateboarding that made him that way.

What takes shape is a classic rise to fame -- and a fall from its heights -- but set in a community so unskilled in celebrity that it simply didn't know how to handle it.

"It was just so '80s," says Stickler. "There have been a lot of boom-and-bust stories with child actors, or even other people in skateboarding who didn't fare so well. But his was such an extreme personality that it makes a very vivid story."

A skateboard pro at 14

The arc of Gator Rogowski's love affair with fame was hard and vicious. Dominating the Del Mar Skate Ranch in north San Diego County, the Escondido transplant turned pro at 14 in 1981. He emerged during a rebirth of contest skating that had died out in the early '70s, and most of it was centered around "vert" -- vertical moves born in the '70s in empty swimming pools and since evolved into aerial maneuvers launched off giant ramps and skate park bowls. Along with Hawk and Hosoi, Gator became one of the three biggest names in the sport, creating moves like a 360-degree aerial spin called a "Gait-air."

"Skateboarding represented freedom, independence and self-definition," Gator says in the film. "And just getting away from the humdrum that was my life. And chicks dug it, too." Though he could not film an interview for "Stoked" because of California Department of Corrections regulations, his voice haunts the piece in taped phone conversations.

Gator's biggest influence, in the long run, would be on skateboarding's image. More than Hosoi or Hawk, Gator was charismatic. He dressed cool, and he had a wicked tongue and a mischievous streak a mile wide to go with his dark good looks. He wanted validation beyond being a good skater. He was perfect for taking skating mainstream.

Around 1984, Gator signed with a little-known company called Vision Sport. Owner Brad Dorfman, who appears in the film, took Gator's everyday look -- a mix of Vans shoes, Hawaiian surf wear and torn thrift store chic -- and turned it into a line of clothes for non-skaters. As demonstrated by '80s skate footage and videos, Vision's bold, angular graphics and bright colors became the look of the period. Gator's Vision boards were top sellers, and kids across America were coughing up millions to buy in. At 17, he was making well over $100,000 a year.

With Vision, Hang Ten, Vans, Ocean Pacific and other clothing brands out front, skateboarding exploded into the mass culture. Mainstream America wasn't skating like this, living like this or listening to the period music that drives the film, from Black Flag to Dead Kennedys, but kids could participate by wearing the clothes. Gator was part of the 1987 Swatch Impact Tour, which drew up to 10,000 fans at its stops and was the real multi-sport predecessor to the X-Games and Tony Hawk's recent Boom Boom HuckJam, an extreme-sports meets rock music extravaganza. Skaters appeared on MTV and in Hollywood movies. They got huge paychecks. Groupies -- "skate Bettys" -- were ready to party with them in every town. This had never happened before.

"As far as the prominence that it has in American culture now, skateboarding is youth culture," says Stickler. "But it's a really young sport. It's only been culturally recognized for a little over 30 years. And there's going to be fallout from stuff like that."

The fallout had begun even back in the Dogtown days. Jay Adams, the blond god of the Z-Boys, fell into drugs and crime. Gator's Vision teammate Hosoi also got into drugs and is currently serving time for drug offenses. Another Vision teammate, Jeff Phillips, later committed suicide. These tragedies have long been attributed more to the allure of the outlaw culture or to personal demons than to fame.

But Gator, say friends and colleagues, was undone by garden-variety celebrity.

"If anything, the skateboarding culture kept him grounded," says Ken Park, former Vision teammate and once Gator's best friend. "What screwed up Gator was the mainstream adaptation of the culture. It's the pop culture part that screws it all up for everyone."

Scant help for troubled star

In its second act, Stickler's film becomes a fascinating confessional as pro skaters talk about how Gator broke from them, how they couldn't save him, how, as he left friends behind, only fame remained. This is the most sensitive material in the film, as the industry measures its own culpability, and Stickler treads lightly. She clearly identifies ways that the industry could have helped Gator -- for one thing, he didn't have a real mentor like Peralta and her partner George Powell, who gave guidance to skaters like Hawk and Lance Mountain on Powell-Peralta's Bones Brigade -- but she doesn't excuse any of his behavior.

Few people try to help Gator as he grows more violent, punching a cop in front of thousands of kids at a contest in 1986, drinking heavily, beating up hotel staff and convenience store clerks. But it's clear he's not listening anyway. He gets more press. He changes his name to Mark Anthony to pursue an acting career. He begins lashing out at fans.

When he first heard that Gator had killed Bergsten, former Vision and Swatch tour team manager John Brinton Hogan says what quite a few people now say: "My gut reaction was: That doesn't surprise me. I know he had it in him, somewhere, to be violent, and I had witnessed it before."

Gator's fall was hellish. Vert skating was pushed out by a new street skating scene, based on technical flip tricks and fueled by small indie companies reacting against the bigness and glitz that Gator helped create. Vision went bankrupt. Sick of his arrogance, Gator's friends abandoned him. His girlfriend, Brandi McClain, left him for a good-looking surfer then fled to New York City after Gator threatened to kill her.

After a hideous accident at a German skate contest in 1990, in which Gator fell or jumped out of a hotel window while in a drunken blackout and impaled himself through the hand and neck on a wrought-iron fence, he converted to Christianity. But even his old best friends dismissed the conversion as another bid for attention or superiority.

When McClain's best friend Jessica Bergsten rang up Gator in Carlsbad on March 20, 1991, she found a 24-year-old man who had no identity left at all. As the film displays his letters and airs testimonials about that time, it seems he was a near-psychotic mess. When Bergsten, an aspiring actress and model, prepared to leave his house at about 2:30 a.m., he felt overcome by what he calls in the film a "sudden, terrible urge." It was revenge for all the anger he felt toward McClain.

As "Stoked" makes the transition to a crime scene investigation and courtroom drama, cops and authority figures appear in the film for the first time. The viewer is reminded suddenly that this whole world, Gator's entire universe, is made up of kids.

"I liked the lack of parental presence in the film," says Stickler, who interviewed Gator's mother but ended up not using the footage. "Because to me it felt more authentic to what skateboarding is really like."

After working on the film for six years, Stickler says she's happy to be out from under its depressing subject matter. Having financed the film herself, she's also eager to get some commercial directing jobs to replenish her credit cards. But it hasn't put her off skateboarding, and she says she has "two other stories that I'd like to do that are skateboarding stories." She stays in contact with Gator, who will become eligible for parole in 2011, and some of the skaters in the film, who planned to come out for her instantly sold-out Sundance premiere. Stickler didn't plan a party like the "Dogtown" premiere's -- she didn't have big-money sponsors like Vans backing her. Plus, "Stoked" is just not that kind of film.

"People are going to say, 'Why give him more fame? Why turn a murderer into the focal point of the '80s?' " says Park, who had yet to see the film. "But if she captures the genius that was Mark Rogowski, and captures how fame corrupted him, it's a very intriguing story."

In the end, Stickler thinks part of the film's value is as a wake-up call for other skateboarders.

"Whatever cautionary aspects there are to Gator's story, I see that as being part of the growing pains of the industry. Maybe they'll all learn to look out for each other a little better as it goes on."

John Brinton Hogan sees one other lasting effect. "The story's not over," he says. "There's a man alive in prison. We tend to see the credits roll and walk away. But he has to play this over and over every day. I try not to forget that."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 527 words Type of Material: Correction Skater's gender -- An article in Sunday's Calendar about the skateboarding movie "Stoked" referred incorrectly to skating star Stacy Peralta with the pronoun "her." Peralta is male. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 02, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction Skater's gender -- An article last Sunday about the skateboarding movie "Stoked" referred incorrectly to skating star Stacy Peralta with the pronoun "her." Peralta is male.
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