The Beachcomber

BC Days of Four-Wheel Fury in Beach Haven

A Retrospective of the Free Spirit Skatepark in the 1970s
By JON COEN | Jun 17, 2015
Photo by: Courtesy Dicesare Mario Dicesare, part of the Free Spirt Skatepark Skate Team in the 1970s, on top of "the wave."

It was the summer of 1976. While much of the country was celebrating the United States’ Bicentennial, a certain youth subculture was committed to finding new ways of enjoying the America of concrete and asphalt. Skateboarding, which had grown in the 1960s as a way to mimic surfing, was enjoying a revolution of its own. Urethane wheels had elevated the skateboard from a toy to an essential part of aggressive boardriding that would become the foundation of action sports.

And that summer, much to the delight of the Island’s youth, the Hartmann brothers of Beach Haven decided to open a park specifically for skateboarding at the corner of Seventh Street and the Boulevard. Combining the patriotic vibe of that year with the ideals of personal independence, they called it Free Spirit Skatepark.

“It was a sweltering summer. I was working for Joe Floon Masonry out of Ship Bottom, when he said we were going down to Beach Haven to build a skateboard park for the Hartmann brothers, right where the Sea Dragon and Ferris wheel (of Fantasy Island) are now,” remembers Michael Baytoff, a young surfer at the time who summered on LBI and eventually moved here. “I was humping wheelbarrows of concrete, setting up forms, and troweling.”

The plans for the skatepark were already drawn up, but Baytoff remembers mentioning that he was a skater and he offered to help improve the plan.

“I told my boss that I was a skateboarder and could help them with some of the designs that seemed a bit awkward, that we could improve the transitions for better skating. So over a period of one to two months, we worked and made a few changes. They eventually let me design and build the back bowl, that at the time was the most radical bowl, being oververt,” said Baytoff, now a Realtor in Oldwick, NJ.

For Baytoff, it wasn’t just a construction project but a new career. He approached the Hartmann brothers for a job and they made him the manager.

While the park was being built, word got around the Island. It was of particular interest to surfers.

“I was skateboarding before my mom would let me surf. But then surfing became everything, and that led to hardcore skateboarding. We never skated when there were waves, but when it was flat, we were skateboarding to push our surfing,” recalled Mario Dicesare, who grew up on 14th Street in Ship Bottom. Today, Dicesare is a barber in Manahawkin. As a youngster, the best surfers and lifeguards he knew on the Island would leave their boards against a fence next to his yard. He recalls that he and his brother Steve looked up to Chip Hunt, Kevin Thomas and Billy Crowley.

“Jay Mann (longtime columnist and managing editor of The SandPaper and Beachcomber) was the first person I ever saw do a 360 in the water and I wanted to take it to the next level, practicing on my skateboard. We were doing laybacks, hitting the lip, and Bert slides,” Dicesare explained. A ‘Bert’ was a skateboard move referencing the stylish surfing of Hawaiian Larry Bertlemann. Dicesare and his friends had skated the LBI Grade School, a few shoddy ramps and a drainage ditch in North Jersey called the Spillway, but they had never ridden a proper skatepark. Free Spirit was the biggest thing to ever happen.

“As the word initially spread while we were building the park, most surfers couldn’t believe it was actually happening in Beach Haven. There were a few parks around: in Vineland, Cherry Hill, ‘The Monster Bowl’ in Toms River. Skateparks were the new thing, and in New Jersey it was a pretty hot topic amongst surfers and skaters. So to have one being built in Beach Haven was way cool,” added Baytoff, who assumed the duties of overseeing the operations, running the shop, maintaining the park and ordering supplies. “It was like having a little Hawaii in your own back yard.”

That summer, Free Spirit took off. Pro riders came through. By that August, crowds were forming around the 15-foot cyclone fence, watching the action inside. It was a sprawling, white park with rounded features and varied transitions. The highlight was Baytoff’s oververt wall, dubbed “The Wave.” As revelers headed off to the bars, kids hung around the park all night.

“People would stare in amazement at all the kids and teens as they wreaked havoc inside the park, getting major axle grinds and spewing blood on the concrete in fashionable wipeouts. Weekends, it was the place to be … and be seen,” Baytoff reminisced.

“It was the first time in my life that someone was like, ‘Do whatever you like.’ I wasn’t the best skater there, but I was riding up the fence to get more vertical, and doing big turns. Baytoff hooked me up. They would let me ride for free so that people would watch and figure it out,” said Dicesare.

By September, when the crowds were gone, Baytoff gathered the best locals and formed the Free Spirit Skatepark Team of Dicesare, Joe Roberts, George Ambrose and Mike Wolfer. They traveled around the state to different parks. By November, the Beach Haven park would shut down until the next summer.

It opened the next summer, now established. Among the hottest locals was Ernie Martin, a guy remembered as “Radical Ray”; and the Bentley brothers, Bob and Dave, from the south end of Beach Haven, sponsored skaters who were already traveling to different areas to skate. Skaters would practice so long and hard they would tear their shoes apart. They wore striped tube sox, knee-pads, and even gardening gloves for when they dragged their hands on the rough concrete. And while there were women skating on the West Coast, no one has any recollection of females ever trying to skate Free Spirit.

Dicesare remembers doing his first photo shoot – an ad for Land Jammer Skateboards – with John Ker, who would go on to become one of the most prolific mountain bike photographers in the world. “I was doing this frontside kick turn and the ad ran in Skateboarder Magazine,” Dicesare remembered proudly. He also rode for Freedom Surf Shop in Brant Beach and later Y-Knot Surf Shop in Surf City, as well as with the Sims Skateboards East Coast team.

“It was bumpy, but it was the greatest thing in the world. I don’t even think we realized how rough it really was at the time,” explained Dicesare. “It was kind of like our waves. I’ve surfed everywhere and LBI is as challenging as anywhere in the world. The fact that the park wasn’t perfect made us skate better. And that made us better surfers.”

Those bumps claimed a lot of skin and a few bones. And as on the bodies of the skaters, the injuries took their toll on the park.

“I imagine one of those kids that got hurt was the son of a lawyer,” Dicesare remarked.

The park shut down in 1978 after just three seasons, citing the rising cost of insurance. It became Hartmann’s Amusement Park and is now the site of Fantasy Island Amusement Park.

Baytoff was already traveling every winter – Tortolla, Mexico and beyond. He started getting photos published in Surfer magazine, while also shooting with Super 8 and 16mm film. He eventually became photo editor for the Beach Haven Times and later a stringer for the Associated Press.

Guys like Dicesare continued to push their skating. He moved to California, returning home each summer from 1980-83, living in Encinitas, Calif. and Cardiff, NJ, surfing, skating and working in a restaurant. When he returned, he set up shop as a barber. Sadly, his barbershop in Haven Beach took in several feet of water during Superstorm Sandy. In addition to not getting a cent in insurance money, the flood destroyed the boxes of photos he had from Free Spirit Skatepark as well as old skate decks. Now 53, he is thriving at his new barbershop on Bay Avenue in Manahawkin.

“I can’t skate anymore,” he admitted. “I learned that business interruption insurance doesn’t really work after Sandy. I can’t take a chance of getting hurt. I have customers depending on me for every haircut. But surfing is less impact. I still surf.”

Recently, recovered 8 mm film footage of the park has been transferred to video and has made the rounds on social media. It has reunited skaters from the ’70s and brought back amazing memories. The real spirit of that park is his true north, and helps Dicesare to remember his brother Steven, whom he lost in 2000.

“Pumping that bowl, using those leg muscles, learning to ‘ollie’ and mimicking cutbacks – that pushed my surfing from mediocre to a local standout. I think it pushed a lot of people’s surfing.”

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