The Cage Photo Credit: Skye Chalmers, Shem Roose, Hubert Schriebl
As the competitors eventually got more serious about the sport, the revelry transferred to the spectators. The 1996 US Open was known as “The Year of the Cage.” Mark Sullivan and Pat Bridges wanted to make the halfpipe final a legendary experience. “One night, over a couple of cold beers, Pat Bridges and I formulated the idea for The Cage”, Sullivan explained, “We wanted to replicate the scene in the movie the Blues Brothers where they were playing a gig behind a chicken wire fence while the crowd shelled them with beer bottles. Only for us, the idea was to keep the beer bottles from hitting the riders.” Prior to the final, the East Infection took their van on a detour to New Hampshire to buy some tax-free alcohol in the form of approximately 40 cases of Country Club Malt Liquor tall boys.
The East Infection crew rose early, dragging chicken wire and 2 x 4s to the pipe. Their plan almost ended early on, as an employee approached them. Instead of being told to turn around, the quick-thinking Pat Bridges said “we're creating a private viewing area for Burton employees. And the guy's like, ‘Oh, really? Can we get you anything? You guys need some trash barrels? Some chairs? Some tables?’ And we were like, ‘we need all of the above.’” Soon thereafter, they built their own chicken wire encased beer garden/viewing area on the deck. With a firm early beachhead at the pipe established, the cage evolved into a full blown rager. It was almost as if the partying that defined the US Open had migrated from the Hayes basement, and planted itself firmly in the spotlight. The denizens of the cage spent the day imbibing heavily and, cheering on the riders. Even the riders participated in the revelry. Someone handed Seth Miller “a beer every time I hiked up the pipeline. So, I switched to the other side.” For others like Jason Ford,they stayed clear away: "Any of the partying that went on during the day, I was immune to it, because we were there to compete and try to do well."
Unlike the event that provided the context for their revelry, the cage was not an open event. There apparently was a bouncer keeping the newbs out. “By the time the finals rolled around, the Cage was totally out of control,” The revelry leaked out beyond the chicken wire. Sullivan continued, “- and it was time for phase 2 - to bust out the mascot uniforms. When Pat and I got back with the mascot uniforms on - it all broke loose.”Bridges put on his show, heading down the pipe in a tiger uniform doing “eggplants and his weird hand plant variations in that pipe, trashed ... And It's hard enough to walk down the road wearing a tiger costume drunk, and he was rolling in from the deck, doing inverts in that costume. And that's just mind-boggling.”
Eventually, the makeshift beer garden did not survive the amateurish carpentry skills and the sheer volume. If there was a building code for chicken wire, halfpipe beer gardens, this one did not meet it. Finally succumbing to the chaos, the cage broke and people fell off the back of the halfpipe. Miraculously, nobody got hurt as the revelers tumbled into the crowds below. Mark Sullivan: “The cage collapsed, empties skittered down the walls of the pipe, bodies spilled out in every direction and the finals got put on hold until some semblance of order was restored.” The whole event transpired with little oversight which was a reflection of where the US Open was at the time. It was still a blip on the radar. Dennis Healy commented, that Stratton "definitely didn't have any clue as to what was going on. I wonder what Stratton's perspective on the whole thing was at that point anyway. They probably weren't making that much money off of that. They were probably just like ‘Alright you guys, you &**%$ delinquents, go over there and do your thing.’ When Burton got way more involved, and it started to get corporate sponsorship and it became this big to do. They sort of prairie dogged out of their hole and started to pay attention." While there may be many indicators that signified when the US Open jumped the shark, to Dennis Healy it was right around 1996 as "there was sort of an innocence lost, it can never be as fun as it was especially after the Cage. That was a U.S. Open spectator apex moment."