Photo by John Brinton Hogan,
courtesy of Palm PicturesIf someone could be tagged a "megastar" of skateboarding in the '80s, Mark "Gator" Rogowski was certainly one, dazzling crowds with monster leaps and spins off vertical ramps—including his signature move, the "gait-air"—garnering rock star-like exposure on MTV and raising the fortunes of previously unknown brands by simply getting his cocky mug photographed in the same frame as their products.
But by the time Gator was 24, his nickname may as well have been T-Rex. Vert ramps were old school. Like the attention spans of its practitioners, skateboarding had rapidly moved on to the new: street skating, the mostly illegal use of pavement, stairs, railings and other urban fixtures to perform tricks. The kids who were coming up after Rogowski were into the street skating, as evidenced by the expanding number of street-skating videos competing for space alongside wheels, bearings and stickers in skate shop display cases nationwide. Gator was aware enough of the trend—and the damage it was doing to his carefully crafted image—to know he'd better step up or step off the board.
So there Gator was one sunny Southern California day, in front of a shaky, hand-held camera, attempting the same moves the groms were doing in those videos—only Gator was failing miserably. He had a violent outburst (something he was by then known for), and the tape fades out with his head hung low.
It was the beginning of a very fast ride downhill. Gator now sits in state prison, serving out a 25-years-to-life sentence in the bludgeoning death of a 21-year-old party girl from Arizona. He's eligible for parole in 2010.
Helen Stickler does not slam the skate industry in her excellent 2003 documentary Stoked:TheRiseandFallofGator. She obviously loves the sport. But she takes an unflinching enough look that her 80-minute film can't help but take dead aim at the dark sides of fame, skate culture and fractured family upbringings—the very forces that led to Rogowski's downfall.
Against a soundtrack peppered with Black Flag and Bad Religion, Stokedtouches on the drugs and groupies and outlaw attitudes that accompany pro boarding. Stickler draws candid, on-screen remarks from the era's other famous skaters, including Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero and Lance Mountain. Meanwhile, due to the Pete Wilson-signed California law that forbids filming prisoners, there are only haunting recorded comments from now husky-voiced Rogowski via his cell block's pay phone.
Stickler has said in interviews that she began the project to confirm rumors she'd heard about what was then a relatively little-publicized case. She grabbed all the court files, skate magazines and video about Gator she could find. She also interviewed 100 people, 30 of whom wound up on camera in Stoked, which took six years to bring to the big screen.
Gator struggles in the street.
Photo by Mofo, courtesy of
Thrasher and Palm Pictures
What emerged from her study was a damaged kid who desperately wanted the goodies that came with fame. He was among the first to cash in on his bad boy skater image, hawking Gator skateboards, T-shirts and clothing for Vision Street Wear. What Princess Di was (and, bizarrely, still is) to People, Gator was to Thrashermagazine. After earning $100,000 a year by the time he was 17, Rogowski bought a huge house near Hawk's in the hills of San Diego County. He tried to cross over into TV and film (Stickler includes a hilarious clip of a permed Gator guest-spotting on ClubMTV). And he got the requisite model girlfriend, Brandi McClain.
Some fans did call him a corporate sellout, but there was an even more troubling side to Rogowski. He was a control freak. He was very insecure. He'd throw violent temper tantrums. Some blamed it on his growing up without a father. An undiagnosed mental condition is mentioned. Kids who approached him for autographs said he acted like an egotistical jerk. He got popped for assaulting a police officer at one event. He beat up a kid at another in Australia.
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His mood swings caused the sponsors, event organizers and McClain to ultimately run away. Gator tried to reinvent himself, first by changing sponsors, then his name, then announcing he was a born-again Christian. As Stokedshows, he was billing himself as a new man by the spring of 1991, when McClain's best friend Jessica Bergsten arrived in town. After a couple of weeks, she disappeared. Then Gator contacted police to say he'd beat her over the head with a Club steering-wheel lock, raped her for nearly three hours, strangled her in a surfboard bag and buried her naked in the desert 100 miles away. He'd blamed her for introducing McClain to other men and "partying."
Bad timing plagued Stoked's initial Orange County release. Arriving immediately after the hit surf film StepIntoLiquidfilled seats for weeks at Newport Beach's Lido, Stokedcame and went from the same theater so fast it's obvious filmgoers were too stoked by Stepto go to Stoked. It's a shame, because Stickler's film provides the complete picture of celebrity-skate culture that skate vids, Jackass, VivalaBam, documentaries like DogtownandZ-boysor its upcoming fictional bastard cousin Lords of Dogtown do not.
The Orange County Museum of Art rectifies the situation by screening Stokedto accompany its critically lauded skate-culture exhibit "Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture." When it comes to Gator, they certainly got the loser part right.
STOKED: THE RISE AND FALL OF GATOR SCREENS AS PART OF THE ORANGE CRUSH MULTIMEDIA EVENT AT ORANGE COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, 850 SAN CLEMENTE DR., NEWPORT BEACH, (949) 759-1122. THURS., MAY 12. STOKED SCREENS AT 6:30 P.M., FOLLOWED BY A Q&A WITH DIRECTOR HELEN STICKLER; LIVE MUSIC BY SILVER SUNSHINE AT 8 P.M. FREE.