Watch a Carolina Man Skip His Way into History

Slate's Culture Blog
April 4 2012 3:01 PM

The Amazing History of "The Skipper"

Bill Martinelli aka "The Skipper"
Bill Martinelli, aka "The Skipper," explains his unique skipping technique.

Still from YouTube.

Back around New York Fashion Week we brought you a brief history of fashionable walks, a rundown that spanned everything from the 1881 contortionist amble “The Aesthetic,” to the “Newmarket March,” “Saratoga,” and “Picadilly Walk.” Now here’s one walk that didn’t quite catch on, no matter how hard one trendsetter may have tried: the skip. In the video below, which began going viral today on Reddit, a local news outlet in Charlotte, N.C., profiles one man who simply loved skipping.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

As the report details, “The Skipper” skipped all over town spreading his message, zealous that skipping, with its many beneficial qualities for the body and spirit, should become the new walking. “It’s unusual,” he concedes. “There’s been a lot of unusual people in history. They’ve all made history. And I’ll be another one of them.” His enthusiasm is infectious enough that you almost believe him—at least until you remember that the report was filmed decades ago, and you haven’t seen anyone skipping lately.

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But the Skipper’s story doesn’t end there. The Skipper’s new fans are ravenous for more information. The top comment on YouTube reads: “WE MUST FIND THE SKIPPER NOW, AND SEE IF HE IS STILL SKIPPING.” One Redditor posted an Ask Me Anything request for “The Skipper.”

The true story of the Skipper, aka Bill Martinelli, was reported by journalist T.M. Shine in his 1988 Miami Herald story “A Leap of Faith.” (The 4,000-word feature doesn’t appear online.) Shine’s profile reveals that while the years after the local news report were hard for Martinelli, he never lost the bounce in his step.

If anything, the Martinelli of Shine’s profile is even more grandiose than the one we met on “Carolina Camera.” “I think by perfecting skipping I have discovered a better way to move across the Earth,” he says, comparing his breakthrough to “the discovery of walking by Homo erectus.” (He also compares his skipping to the footwork of his idol, Muhammad Ali.) Before perfecting his method, he tried to set a distance record by skipping a marathon, but “his socks were filled with blood from the abrasions caused by the friction of skipping.” He began to refer to non-skippers as “the humans.”

Martinelli was not alone in his enthusiasm. He skipped all over the East Coast, making headline after headline, and appearing on The Today Show. He was invited to skip with Richard Simmons. His spirit—if not necessarily his message—was catching on.

Sadly, however, his quest was not without adversity. The Skipper faced homophobia, as many assumed that only gay people skipped, and “in one instance a gang became violent, stomping him into the ground.” The incident seemed to scar him: He refused to appear on Richard Simmons’ show without his girlfriend Susan, because of what he described as “the faggot factor.” Susan, who was once his skipping partner—locals in their town of Newport, Rhode Island called them Skipper I and Skipper II—eventually left him, and, by 1988, six years after he started skipping, he was living alone in an apartment owned by his parents. By August of that same year, the Sunrise City Council voted to ban the Skipper from skipping—at least as long as he was carrying billboards (which he used to turn skipping into a potentially profitable endeavor)—because he was violating the city’s sign ordinances.

Still, Martinelli was undaunted. Even after losing his girlfriend, suffering a possibly homophobic beatdown, and losing his fight with Sunrise City, The Skipper pressed on. Fully dedicated to the quest (and perhaps to his love for Susan), he even became celibate. He began writing an autobiographical screenplay about his story. At the end of Shine’s profile—which seems to have been Martinelli’s last appearance in the news—he stands firm in his dedication. “Me, I’ll be skipping and will continue to skip until I take my final trip. As for the humans—it’s up to them.”