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Letting the good times roll.

The Elm Skating Club, a roller rink in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, is situated virtually at the cross hairs of two main thoroughfares. Passersby know the place by the big brown sign out front depicting a roller-skate shoe; the building's brick exterior is otherwise rather plain.

Not so the Elm's innards. The floor is composed of 20,000 square feet of hard rock maple, the end pieces bent so skaters never encounter a seam. Underneath lie two subfloors of yellow pine, followed by a vapor barrier, an insulating layer of Homasote, a coating of tar, a slab of concrete, and finally, several inches of sand. If you can't gain support on the Elm floor, there is probably nowhere in America for you to stand.

It took the best parts of five old theater pipe organs to create the 28-rank instrument that swells the Elm with music. The organ, played via a keyboard accented by Italian lights, is centered in two lofts rambling across the Elm's second level. The organ can imitate 20 instruments, from a tuba to tinkling bells. When a march is called for, the Elm organ complies with a sound duplicating a full band. Mostly, though, the two rink organists stick to standards from the 1920s to the '40s: "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and Tommy Dorsey's "Boogie Woogie" are ever popular.

They are popular, that is, three nights a week, when the Elm Regulars congregate at the club. The Regulars are 200 or so rink devotees who love not only the floor and the pipe organ but also the chance to skate-dance. The men wear chinos, the women tights and frilly short skirts, and, holding hands, they whirl around the floor with the spots of fight sprayed by a mirror ball hung from the ceiling. As the organist on duty progresses through a never-changing repertoire, the Regulars execute the steps they know so well-the conga, the fox trot, the siesta tango, the Denver shuffle, and the "romp," a swing-swing-swing motion with three steps backward and a crisp turnaround.

"These are skaters' skaters," remarks the Elm's owner, Bill Fuchs. "Can you think of anything more entertaining than coming to a rink like this and being proficient?" Annabelle Hough, a photographer in her 5Os, returned to skating six years ago after being widowed. "This is good exercise," coos Hough, 40 pounds lighter from dancing, "but besides that it's good clean fun. No smoking, no drinking. And nice people." Common wisdom is that the wholesome pastime of roller skating is dead and gone in this age of video games and R-rated movies. Skating has been on the decline, at least since the late 1970s. Still, there remain 24 million skaters in the United States, according to the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association (RSROA). Some industry cognoscenti smell a return to popularity in the wind, if only because of the success of Starlight Express, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with an entire cast on roller skates.

Roller skating is thought to have had anonymous beginnings in Holland around 1700, but it took a Belgian-born inventor named Joseph Merlin to popularize the diversion in London sometime after 1760. The sport became a craze again in the 1860s, next in the 1880s, and finally as the 20th century cleared its teens. Charlie Chaplin bowed on wheels in the silent film "The Rink" in 1916. There were vaudeville acts on rollers, and for a time speed skating turned into quite the rage. The top racers, with such rococo names as Rollie Birkhimer and Howarth Beaumont, hotfooted it around rinks in Madison Square Garden in New York and at White City, a glitzy amusement park on Chicago's South Side.

Then there was the Sonja Henie of rollers-Gloria Nord. Nord, a short, blonde pistol of a girl, emerged as the star of a road show called "Skating Vanities" in 1942. And what a show it was. In 1947, one of its bigger seasons, "Skating Vanities" toured 28 cities in the United States and Canada with a supporting cast of 140. By the time "Vanities" folded in 1951, Gloria had performed every feat on skates, from a hula to a Chopin ballet.

The image of roller skating propagated by "Skating Vanities"-grand and fancifully romantic-was undercut by the Roller Derby. The Derby, which played at various arenas beginning in 1935, was patterned by its founder, Leo Seltzer, after a dance marathon, but its key attractions were "jams," or mad-scrambling tieups heavy with roughhousing. In 1948 the Derby went on television,

which pleased and enriched Seltzer (now dead) but has always rankled those who favor a more refined posture for roller skating. "The Derby is terrible," sniffs Gloria Nord, still galled at how the public used to confuse "Skating Vanities" with Seltzer's fisticuffs-laden events.

Whatever- with the exception of the Derby, roller skating did decline in the years following World War II. The great urban rinks were already dead or dying. "People moved to the suburbs," relates Gordon Ware, president of the Chicago Roller Skate Company, "and they didn't have any side-walks out there. The young sidewalk skater, who had been a big base of the business, started to disappear." Soon, so did the teenage skater, lured away by "the dirty movie and the age of permissiveness," Ware says.

No one was prepared for what happened next. On June 5, 1976, Jeff Rosenberg, a part-time college student and skating aficionado, rented space in a parking lot adjoining the boardwalk at Venice, California. Leasing skates from the back of his van, Rosenberg reaped $100 that first day, and he was in business; his van turned into a store- called Cheapskates, and there were countless competitors. One of them helped the Chicago Roller Skate Company adapt a high-rebound polyurethane wheel, perfected by the Upjohn Company for skateboards, to roller skates. Soon every city worth its cement sidewalks was awash in outdoor skating.

In addition, the excitement over rinks revived, especially when skating was combined with disco music. A warehouse in the Chelsea section of Manhattan became the Roxy, which its manager grandly termed "the Studio 54 of rinks," not without reason: the Roxy featured an 85-foot-long mirrored cutout of the New York skyline. A one-time garage in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn blossomed as the Empire Roller Disco, complete with rainbow mural, neon skates, and a center island sporting lighted palm trees that flased on and off. Here Casablanca Records hosted a tribute to the singer Cher in 1979, and 2,000 guests showed up to skate, talk under makeshift tents, and eat from a giant buffet. Here John F. Kennedy Jr., retreated to tool around.

In general, celebrities embraced roller skating enthusiastically. "Steve McQueen would always call me up ahead of time and say he was coming in," Jeff Rosenberg reports. "I'd have his skates ready for him. Linda Rosnstadt sometimes arrived with her guitar player and sort of blended in. Cher was seeing Gene Simmons [of the rock group Kiss] at the time, and they'd show up all dressed in black leather." Cher purchased dozens of skates from the Chicago Roller Skate Company "just for her hriends to skate around her backyard at parties," Gordon Ware says.

More than anything, press reports of this celebrity infatuation helped transform skating into a phenomenon. By 1980, 45 million Americans were on rollers, according to a survey conducted by the RSROA. "All of a sudden skating was you and me and the guy next door," recollects Lee Cole, the owner of the heavily trafficked Skates, on Haight off Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Onto the market flooded indoor and outdoor skates, plus one kind featuring fa jogging shoe for a boot. The Roller Derby Skate Corporation, founded by Leo Seltzer's brother Oscar and the world's largest skate manufacturer, experienced a threefold increase in sales. The number of U.S. rinks swelled by an estimated 500.

And then, as with any mania, "it was like one minute the public had discovered skating," reflects George Pickard, RSROA's former executive director," and then they were back on their polo ponies, or whatever," Skate sales plummeted. The Empire rink managed to stay solvent, but the Roxy went belly up after a change to a break-dance format. Jeff Rosenber, the man who started the craze, closed up his last Cheapskates five years ago, and now he indulges infrequently in the sidewalk art he spread so far.

Plenty of Americans do continue to skate, even if they constitute a segmented market. "The basic skate customers are 7 to 16 years old, 'cause once they start to drive, forget it today, "Gordon Ware observes. "Then video games and movies become the main attractions. Otherwise, our people - the adult- want good clean fun, boy meets girl on a supervised basis, with some exercise thrown in," In other words, in this jaded age, roller skating is no longer for everybody.

Yet for those who love skating, there exists a range of meccas. The oldest roller facility still operating in America is the former Braddock Heights rink in Frederick Maryland, now called Stargaze Skateways. The small, gable-roofed affair with gingerbread latticework was constructed in 1902. The pacesetter rink is the Bonaventure outside Detroit, housed in a round-cornered cement building (cost to construct in 1977: $1.65 million) that is all Formica, carpet, and plants inside. During the height of the fad, a Los Angeles councilwoman, Pat Russell, engineered a 900-foot skate path along the Venice boardwalk, and open-air enthusiasts swear by the stretch of asphalt.

Still, the best places are those where hokeyness reigns supreme, as at the Elm near Chicago. Bill Fuchs built the establishment in 1956, and in the interim he has kept the club just the way he likes it. The George Gobel lookalike (who as a fashion designer created the "zoot suit" in 1940) is at his rink most evenings, catering to the "I keep saying hello all night" is how he puts it. Fuchs has never installed bright lights, and only when the demand was overpowering did he dispense with the organ music for a couple of nights a week and start spinning top-40 records. To date, Fuchs, now in his early 70s, and his staff have helped 14,114 young women earn the Girl Scout merit badge in roller skating.

The rink at Oaks Park, in Portland, Oregon, sits on the banks of the Willamette River; the floor rides on nearly 500 55-gallon drums so that it can be cut free and saved in case of flooding. Yet what distinguishes the Oaks Park rink, besides its age (it dates from 1905), is its cornball atmosphere. There is a wavy section to scoot over, and the management at Oaks Park loves games, such as Lucky Number or an event in which you mummify your partner with toilet paper.

Oaks Park draws its share of families, and so does RollLand, a rink situated in Norwood, a suburb southwest of Boston. "It's like a small town inside here," comments John Maddocks, a partner in the place with his uncle. "We all feel comfortable with one another. For instance, we've had a baby explosion among our customers the last few years, and now you will often see playpens tucked in the corners."

Whether roller skating will soon regain fad proportions remains at issue"It won't be big again, because there isn't anyone to look up to or copy," says Gloria Nord, now 65 ("most people think I'm 40") and living in retirement in Costa Mesa, California. "The era has passed." What lends some credence to Nord's feeling is the recent inability of many rink operators to secure affordable liability insurance, which has forced some closings.

But other observers, pointing to new factors, predict a return to craze status. Bill Fuchs thinks many baby boomers are raising their offspring with greater care, and when those kids are teenagers, mom-and-applepie activities like skating will hold more allure than "the garbage of pornographic movies." The theater has also taken inspiration from skating-at first unsuccessfully (anyone remember a short-lived Liza Minnelli-Chita Rivera musical called The Rink, about a fading Atlantic City establishment?), but recently with a bang.

The bang comes with the arrival in this country of Starlight Express, the musical by the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Cats, The Phantom of the Opera). Some years ago Webber was searching for a way to locomote actors in a musical he was fashioning on trains. He and his director, Trevor Nunn, espied roller skaters in New York's Central Park. "Andrew knew he had a way to get his trains moving," reports Starlight's lyricist, Richard Stilgoe. Soon, the cast's 27 players, portraying steam, diesel, and electric trains, were gliding around London's Apollo Victoria Theatre on specially designed tracks strung over three levels.

Starlight, with its rock-music score, opened in London in March 1984 to mixed reviews that proved kind compared to those for its March 1987 debut on Broadway. Frank Rich of the New York Times called the musical "a confusing jamboree of piercing noise, routine roller skating, misogyny, and Orwellian special effects." No matter, because Starlight collected advance sales of $5.6 million before it even opened. The show quickly went on to reap the largest weekly box-office gross in Broadway history ($606,081 for Easter week 1987); the show is now taking reservations well into late 1988.

Some predict that Starlight is resurrecting roller skating. Michael Fraley, the musical's skating coach, regularly "jams" with other cast members to dance-club music at a Long Island rink on Monday evenings, their night off. "Skating's becoming more and more popular in the East and [will] soon, I think, in the rest of the country," Fraley remarks. "Starlight has something to do with that-I hear people in the lobby after the show saying, 'I gotta get a pair of skates.' Then they do and find out what fun and good exercise skating is."
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Title Annotation:new surge in popularity for roller skating
Author:Pick, Grant
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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