Modern Skate & Surf celebrates 40 years in Metro Detroit

Owner George Leichtweis has persevered through changes to the sport and the retail landscape, and now helps build outdoor skate parks in Metro Detroit communities

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Over the last several decades skateboarding has grown from something for West Coast rebels to an Olympic-worthy sport. For the past 40 of those years, Metro Detroit skaters have turned to George Leichtweis and Modern Skate and Surf.

This weekend the skateboarder, shop owner and teacher will celebrate the four-decade milestone with an event at the Royal Oak skate park Saturday with professional skaters, food, live music and an opportunity for kids to cut out and design their own decks to take home. 

Somewhat of a homecoming, the anniversary party will welcome back Detroit-born skaters like Bill Danforth, one of the first pro-skaters from Michigan, and will also host venerable athletes Bucky Lasek, Christian Hosoi, Andy Macdonald, Tony Magnusson and others. 

Steve Van Doren, whose father started Vans shoe company in 1966, is now known for barbecuing events like these, and he'll be on the grill Saturday, too. 

The original Modern Skate at 10 Mile and Woodward by the Detroit Zoo water tower, before I-696 was built.

Leichtweis opened the first Modern Skate shop at 10 Mile and Woodward in 1979. Since then he's had a few locations around the area, but now the home base is a sprawling indoor skate park and shop just south of 12 Mile on Stephenson. 

"There will be something for the whole family. We teach here down to 3 years old and the oldest person that's skated here is 65," he said, adding that he expects some of his former managers from throughout the decades to come back for the reunion. 

"It'll just be a fun gathering of people that have a common interest and like to roll around a skate park and just have fun and know all the benefits that skateboarding has taught them," said Leichtweis. 

He said one lesson young skateboarders learn is perseverance. 

"You have to fail a bunch of times in order to succeed," he said. "Get up and dust yourself off and try it again ... it builds character."

He said he's applied that tenacity to the business end of running Modern, too. 

"There's been some major ups and downs. Right when I started in '79, the early '80s there was a little bit of a recession and then in '85 skateboarding had a resurgence," he said. He went through a similar up and down in the 1990s. 

The 1990s also saw the surge of skateboard-adjacent sports like snowboarding and inline skating, which he embraced as part of his business. 

"Those were good times, prior to the internet and the big-box stores being able to react quickly to trends," he said. He also cites the post 9/11 world and the Great Recession as troubling times to get though as a retailer. 

This is why Leichtweis, who estimates that Modern has given at least 20,000 skateboard lessons in 40 years, doesn't just sell skateboarding equipment, but also offers a place for athletes to try out their skills no matter what the weather is like.

George Leichtweis, owner of Modern Skate and Surf in Royal Oak, skates down a ramp August 15, 2019.

Modern's Royal Oak facility, which Leichtweis says is the third-largest indoor skate park in the country, is also an event space where he's hosted everything from fashion shows to wrestling matches. 

Outside of his space, the 64-year-old skateboarder also championed the sport at parks around town. He built Wayfinding, a temporary art installation and skate park in Detroit that was designed by Tony Hawk and artist Ryan McGinness. He's also helped build other, more permanent public skate parks in the area even though these could be seen as competition to his business.

Detroit-area skater Tony Simmons first started skating around 30 years ago and says that's just George, always doing things to help out the community. 

"He is all about just supporting skateboarding. Period." Simmons said 

"Every skate park, especially now having grown up without skate parks, is just a breeding ground for young, amazing talent," he said. "I wish I had what these kids have now when I was growing up because I see kids that are one quarter my age doing tricks I've never even tried." 

Simmons says kids today have grown up seeing things he thought were impossible at skate parks like Modern. 

"I personally think people should be able to skate for free just like you can play basketball and tennis, and we're finding that a lot of the communities are providing a skate place for the local kids," said Leichtweis.

"But if you want to come indoors out of the rain, have some lights on, in the winter time when it's snowing," he says, come to Modern. "it costs a couple of bucks but we try to make it a fair price."

Twitter: @melodybaetens

Modern Skate and Surf 40th Anniversary Bash

2 p.m. Saturday

1500 N. Stephenson Highway, Royal Oak

Special guests Steve Van Doren and Bob Provost, Christian Hosoi, Bucky Lasek, Andy MacDonald, Bill Danforth, Tony Magnussen, Bill Tocco, Ron Allen and more.

Live music from the Hentchmen, the Cheetahs, Ron Allen aka MC Intelligence, Werewolf Jones and a "secret," unannounced headlining act.

$10 admission only, $25 for admission and skating

(248) 545-5700 or

Create-a-skate workshop with Paul Schmitt

11:30 a.m., 12:30, 2 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday

$35, sign up in advance on the website