The circle of life: Roller skating in the Cities, from Skateville to the lakes

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Tim Houston says he comes to roller skate at the Roller Garden for the good music—and the good people. For the past three years, he has come to the St. Louis Park rink every week, usually on the adults-only R&B night. He likes the fact that it’s a social atmosphere without alcohol. “There’s no conflict,” he says. “It’s drama free.” He can just come and work on his moves. “I just like to be cool for the ladies.”

The Twin Cities’ lakes are crawling with skaters this time of year: crouched down and scantily clad, they whiz by the bikers and strollers. Numerous roller rinks offer a warm place in the winter and a cool place in the humid summer for kids and adults alike to get some exercise and socialize. Minnesota even has a claim to fame as the birthplace of Rollerblade Inc.—the company that popularized what are now known as in-line skates. Across the metro area, skating is very much alive and well.

Rolling at the Garden

twin cities roller rinks

cheap skate—coon rapids
3075 coon rapids blvd., coon rapids
(763) 427-8981

monticello roller rink
102 thomas park dr., monticello
(763) 295-3858

saints north maplewood inline and roller skating center
1818 gervais ct., maplewood
(651) 770-3848

skateville
201 s. rivers ridge circle, burnsville
(612) 890-0988

roller dome
5th st. and 11th ave., minneapolis
(612) 825-DOME

roller garden
5622 w. lake st., st. louis park
(952) 929-5518

wooddale fun zone
2122 wooddale dr., woodbury
(612) 735-6214

The Roller Garden is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and is the longest running roller rink in Minnesota’s history. The owner, Bill Sahly, said that the property had once been a horse hippodrome, with a stable next door. It was turned into a skating rink in 1944, and then became the first indoor tennis court in Minnesota, with portable nets and lines painted on the skating floor.

In 1969, Sahly talked his father-in-law Russ Johnson into buying the property, partnering with Sahly and his brother. They turned it back into a skating rink, and over the years made numerous renovations. “When we purchased it,” rememers Sahly, “it had wide open rafter ceilings and wide open walls. Bathrooms didn’t look anything like they do now.” Sahly also purchased the Wooddale Recreation Center, now called the Wooddale Fun Zone, which also offers skating.

When the Roller Garden first opened, Johnson played organ music to accompany the skaters. Eventually Sahly convinced his father-in-law to let them play 45s as well. “I managed,” says Sahly, “but he was controlling.” Sahly had to ask permission to try out new and different types of music. “He had final say.” By 1978, the Roller Garden stopped playing organ music altogether.
Over the years, the Roller Garden has played different styles of music to cater to changing tastes, but no matter whether they’ve played disco, rock, funk, R&B, or Christian music, the lyrics have always remained family-friendly. “Some people say ‘we want to hear this,’” says Sahly, but he responds: “Hey, it’s our place. We want to keep it clean.”

The Roller Garden held a few anniversary celebrations this spring, and plans at least one more in the fall. The reunions featured different kinds of music, to attract skating veterans from different eras. Meanwhile, the rink usually attracts anywhere from 50 to 200 people a night, according to Kim Swanson, Sahly’s daughter and manager of the Roller Garden. Judy Sternal and Kevin Williams, two regulars at the rink, said they sometimes come two or three times a week. Williams says that he likes skating because “it makes you feel like a kid.”

Skateville: The circle of life

Don Mackenzie has worked at Burnsville’s Skateville since 1976, and bought the place in 1984. Like Sahly, Mackenzie says that while he keeps the rink current with popular music, he tries to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere. Mackenzie says he uses dress codes and sticks to certain kinds of music. “We’ve been fortunate with the teenagers,” says Mackenzie. “We emphasize the family environment.”

Mackenzie’s favorite part of owning a skating rink is seeing kids grow up. “You see kids when they’re first learning how to skate,” he says, “when they’re just five or six. I’ve been around over 30 years. I’ve been able to see a generation of kids growing up. Pretty soon they are bringing their kids to skate. You see the complete circle of life. That’s the most rewarding part of it.”

When fun turns to fighting

Part of Mackenzie’s hesitation about catering to teenagers may be a desire to avoid some of the problems that go with being a popular teen hangout. Unti a few weeks ago, Cheap Skate in Coon Rapids held teen nights on Friday nights, a practice they have discontinued after a violent incident that happened earlier this month, says rink owner Sue Welter.

On May 9, two teenagers were shot during a dispute in the parking lot of the Coon Rapids rink. Deputy police chief Tim Snell says that the perpetrators have not been caught, since the teen community has been very silent about who is responsible. “We typically get one call a month,” says Snell of incidents at the Coon Rapids Rink. While many of the calls are for minor crimes such as bike theft, others are more serious, such as the violence on May 9 and also an incident in December when a heavily-promoted event filled the rink to capacity. Those who couldn’t enter the building were “rowdy and causing some trouble,” Snell says. Several fist fights broke out, both in the parking lot and in the rink, according to a Star Tribune report about the incident.

Sue Welter says she “could hazard a guess” that the incident on May 9 involved gangs, but that she doesn’t know for sure. “I’m just a white suburban Grandma,” says Welter. “I really don’t know much about it.” Welter says that in addition to discontinuing the Friday teen night, they have also ceased to play rap music and now close at 10, rather than 11, on weekends. “Teens are welcome to come, says Welter, “But they’re going to be disappointed if they are expecting a certain type of music.”

Around the lakes

While attendance at roller rinks tends to drop during the summer months (the Monticello Roller Rink closes the second week of June and opens again in September), skating and blading booms in the summer. With the cool breeze blowing off the water and people-watching opportunities abounding, summer is the perfect time for getting outside and rolling.

Erica Anderson is mostly a runner and biker, but once every couple of weeks she likes to get out and Rollerblade, which she says offers the best of both worlds. “I like being able to really cruise,” she says. She leans forward, getting below the wind, and just flies. She says she likes Rollerblading because as opposed to biking, she’s “more connected to the path and people.”

Nicole Johnson, another blader, bikes around Minneapolis lakes such as Lake Calhoun, or else the Midtown Greenway, several times a week during the summer. She likes how challenging it is; and that it’s fast, low-impact, and builds endurance. She says she can go about 19 miles when she works up to it. Johnson said the most challenging thing about skating is that when she’s listening to music on her iPod, she can’t hear people coming up behind her, but she has no problem weaving in and out of the bikers along the path as she speeds ahead.

Skating, according to Bill Sahly, is for people like to exercise but who “don’t care to sit in their spandex in front of a mirror on a machine.”

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

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