(First of a Series)
I’m writing about Cleveland area roller rinks because there just isn’t much available as a critique or a review of the quality and atmosphere (past and present) of the rinks. My only qualification for making any commentary on the subject is that I consider myself a roller skating enthusiast (quad wheels, please, not roller blades). I’ve been skating off and on over the past 30 years, and have seen my share of roller rinks past and present. While some rinks were better than others, even the rinks that were in the “worst” condition was still one of the best places to lace up your skates and roll to the music. To be an enthusiast for roller skating usually means skating wherever you could find a rink, even when you were traveling. By my definition, a skating enthusiast rolls at least once a week or as many as three or more times a week. I’ve skated in Cleveland, Akron, Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Louisville KY. Others may tell you that they’ve been to many more places such as Youngstown, Pittsburgh, and even Charlotte. That’s what being a passionate skater is all about!
Personally, my fondest memories from the 80s occurred at Southgate Skates in Maple Heights, Ohio. I started in 1980 during the disco craze and I got hooked from then on. I learned to skate there (it took about a month), and it was in no time that I earned my nickname “Speedy” (which still has been revived from time to time even today!). I was even employed there as a skate guard for a season, and was a DJ for a couple of adult soul skate sessions! For all of those reasons Southgate was a special place for me, and I hated to learn when it was closing (about 1990) because it became too expensive for the owner to pay for the insurance costs to keep it open (at least that is what I was told). From there, I wound up attending the United Skates of America roller rink in Wickliffe. There were fewer choices for rinks in the 90s because it just became more expensive to own and operate a roller rink. The Roller Palace in Mayfield Heights also shut down after operating for many years under financial difficulty. United Skates was part of a larger company based in Columbus that had rinks in several cities, but even they were looking at ways to add profitability to their rink locations by adding laser tag, additional party sessions, and stuff like that to offset the liability insurance bubble. I remember having to sign the waivers for every session, and I believe they still require them today.
Southgate Skates was converted to a rink from an old A&P grocery store. It was a very inviting place when you walked in the door. The floor area was on the left as you came in and the DJ booth was on a platform not far from the entrance. On the right were the skate rental area and the concession stand. The rest of the area was made up of the customary orange uni-body tables and benches for eats and drinks, and some additional bench areas to change shoes and skates.
The lights and the music definitely set the mood for me and for the others there, and I enjoyed the jazz music early in the Thursday evening skating session (Searching by Roy Ayers and Knucklehead by Grover Washington, Jr.) to roll to, dance to, or skate backwards—much like a warm-up session before the soul music would play. A great skating song at the time was “Taking the Waterfront By Force,” an instrumental by Ian Darby, and we even rolled to a little of “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. There were many more great songs…just think back in the disco era for those great roller skating songs (which are much different than dance music songs). I loved the routine, and I always looked forward to every Thursday evening there.
Southgate had its detractors. It would always be labeled as a rink with a “small” floor area by its attendees. In comparison to the other area rinks at the time, the rink was definitely smaller than the Roller Palace in Mayfield Heights (now defunct), and was much smaller than the United Skates of America rink in Wickliffe. The advantage of Southgate, in spite of its size, was its location on the southeast side of town, which was very convenient as it was close to my home. What I would learn over time, however, is that people who love to skate (including me) would drive up to an hour or more for the love of skating, and would wrestle in the minds about attending the special holiday sessions, including the crazy sessions at Roller Palace or USA that would be all-nighters. Those were just as much events as they were for skating.
If you were to ask most people about the floor at Southgate, many would say that the floor was entirely too slippery. It was actually in very good condition—almost pristine. There was a large coat of varnish on the floor and it protected it from virtually any mars or scratches that would cause dips or divots. It was very smooth to roll on, and for me, it was where I was able to move very quickly as I picked up speed on the outside as I moved around the rink. If your skate wheels were in any way worn or too smooth, you would likely find the surface unnerving to skate on. I started on Chicago brand wheels and added a jump bar for jumping on the floor. Jumps did nothing to harm the floor (I wound up bending my jump bars a couple of times, though). I also learned to never use urethane wheels on that floor—I almost broke my neck. There would also sometimes be issues if there were a lot of people in the building. Humidity was not a friend of the skater. Skating at Southgate was an acquired taste, and it did take some getting used to if you were not a regular attendee. If you compared it to the floor to the latter days of the Roller Palace, you would know that the Roller Palace floor was best described as chippy and rough—in rather poor condition. There was virtually no varnish on the floor. I understand that this was not like its earlier days at all. The floor at USA was in good condition at that time, too, and was the largest in the area.
There were four poles in the middle of Southgate’s skating floor as building supports, which is often typical for converted use buildings. The poles were not a danger to the skaters moving around the floor, and they were wrapped with padding and carpeting. They were, however, a departure from other area rinks at the time that had no poles or obstructions. The other barrier that was on the outside area of the floor was a railing that resembled a banister rail that was secured to the floor. The rail, in retrospect, was a hazard in that there was no padding when you made contact with it. I had the unfortunate circumstance of falling and sliding into one of the metal screws on the post of one of these rails. I should have gotten stitches from the gash in my shin, but I still have it as a “marker” of remembrance to this day. It was not long after that experience where I made sure that I would continue to get better as a skater to avoid slipping and falling.
Every rink has its good points, quirky areas, and even their bad points, but all of them still produced great memories for all of the skating enthusiasts that attended them. Amazingly, I still see some of the people who attended Southgate Skates back in the 80s today at my new home rink, the Pla-Mor roller rink in Euclid, which was formerly the Euclid Rollerdrome. As we are still skating today, some thirty-plus years later, we are a testimony to the love of roller skating and of the unbridled passion of the roller skating enthusiast.
Copyright © Melvin Gaines. All rights reserved.