To the honeyed tones of Judas Priest's "Turbo Lover," the skaters skate. Round and round they go, moving as one yet separately, like the paramecia you see in school science films: one organism, many moving parts, some of which really dig Judas Priest.
"Sweeeet!" says one feather-maned man as he scoots from the lobby onto the rink's hardwood and is quickly enveloped by the newcomers in their rented boots—marked by their bright orange wheels and a tendency to pitty-pat instead of glide—and the regulars, who zip in and around them as if they've been avoiding such obstacles for years, which they have. There's Michelle, who has endured injury to skate; Paul, who has endured relationships; and Tommy, who has overcome shame. And then there is the ubiquitous, somewhat mysterious Kenny, who simply is.
It's Thursday night at the Fountain Valley Skating Center, which means it's adult skate night. And if it's adult skate night, that means it's quad skating night, quad skates being those old four-wheeled skates—two in the front, two in the back—you wore a few times in the late '70s and early '80s and then consigned to the back of a closet along with those thin leather neckties.
But quads have seen a resurgence over the past year, and this summer promises to be the summer of the quad. Not only are they skating in Fountain Valley, but they're also skating at the Buena Park Skating Center and the Holiday Roller Rink in Orange. Both Puma and Skechers are aggressively marketing lines of quad skates, Skechers most especially. The company has Britney Spears pushing skates this summer and, just a few weeks ago, held a celebrity-laden launch for its "4 Wheelers" that included Fred Durst and Christina Ricci. There are currently rent-a-car ads featuring roller disco dudes, and one of the summer's most eagerly awaited blockbusters, the Austin Powers installment Goldmember, will reportedly feature a roller disco sequence.
Why all this is happening now people can only guess.
"Maybe it's just that 20-year rule" says Dennis Owens, who, along with partners Rodi Delgadillo and Riley More, puts on a once-monthly roller disco at World on Wheels in Los Angeles. "You know, putting some nice new clothes on an old idea."
"I think it's the kitsch factor," More says. "The '70s are very kitsch, and there was nothing more kitsch from the '70s than roller disco."
Kathy May, who along with husband Barry runs the Buena Park Skating Center, says she believes there's a much more basic reason. "It's one of the least expensive things you can do," she says. "You can bring your family and skate for, like, 10 bucks. So it's really affordable, and I notice that its popularity goes up many times when the economy is in a bit of trouble. I think one of the best times skating had was in the late '70s, when the economy was really doing poorly."
The '70s apparently never left the Fountain Valley Skating Center. Its carpeted, racing-stripe walls; colored lights; and hanging mirrored balls give that through-the-looking-glass feel that could only be made more complete if the girls were wearing sky-blue Dittos and the boys had long blond hair, mustaches and T-shirts, big plastic combs sticking out of the back pocket of their jeans.
"This place is straight out of 1978," says Tommy Wish, who owns Tommy's Gym in Costa Mesa. "I'm waiting for someone to show up with a 'Disco Sucks' T-shirt."
Straight outta 1978
Photo by Jack Gould
Paul Ewing of Fullerton doesn't have the comb, but check, check and check on everything else. Paul is what you might call a throwback, right down to his Shaun Cassidy-esque hair and his 26-year-old quad skates complete with original urethane wheels.
"They don't make 'em like these anymore," says Paul. In fact, Paul has made 'em just as he wants 'em, having removed the bolts on the front of his skates' plates to allow for an even greater range of motion for dance moves, including his signature move: skating backward, his arms around and his body in sync with a very special lady.
"I've met all my girlfriends through skating," Paul says.
This is why quad skaters skate quad. No, not for the ladies: for the freedom and the fun.
"From what I can see, inline skates are more about getting from one point to another. Very A to B," says Tommy Wish. "Quad skates are more artistic. They allow you to be a lot more creative."
Oh, and if you were wondering, the ladies love to skate. Just look at Michelle Brebrick of Huntington Beach spinning and jumping over there. She got started back in the '70s because skating was something she could do as well as anyone.
"I wasn't a great athlete; I was always the last person chosen to be on teams. But when I put on skates, I was really good," she says. So good that she got into dance competitions where male partners would fling her up on their shoulders. She loved it so much that even crashing down on the rink floor and splitting her chin open didn't stop her.
Eventually, though, the rigors and ruts of life did stop her skating. She hadn't skated for years when someone asked her to come down to Fountain Valley and she met someone from her past who inspired her to take it up again. Who was this muse? You guessed it—Kenny.
She had known Kenny more than 20 years ago. He was always a bit different from the pack, but he always loved to skate, to skate his way. When she saw him making his way around the rink, with his heavy eyelids, his seeming obliviousness yet his utter awareness, the inner conversation indicated by his moving lips, and his tendency to express his thoughts with his hands in a manner that was part martial arts and part David Byrne, she recalled it all.
"When I saw Kenny, I remembered how much I loved skating," Michelle says, watching Kenny glide by backward. She kinda nods at him, and he kinda nods back. Or maybe he's just nodding, or maybe he doesn't see her, or maybe he's just ignoring her. . . . Hey, it's Kenny; it's best not to think too much about it.
"When I saw Kenny," she continues, "I remembered how much fun it was."
Such is the history of roller skating, entrenched in a seemingly endless cycle of being discovered and discarded by the American public. "If you're going to be in [the roller skating business] you had better get used to riding the good times and weathering the bad ones," says Kathy May. She and Barry have run the Harbor Roller Rink in Costa Mesa, now a record store. They had Fiesta Roller Rink in San Gabriel (gone) and the Garden Grove Skate Co. (gone).
"That's just the way of the business," she says. "All those rinks did well, but because of the size of the building, the land they were on wasn't generating as much money as the owners wanted. That's just the way it's always been."
Invented in 1770 by some Belgian guy, roller skating hit America hard in the late 19th century with the advent of not just skating but roller racing, roller dancing and something called roller polo. By the early 1900s, hundreds of rinks had opened, including ones located in the Chicago Coliseum and Madison Square Garden.
It remained popular until the 1920s, then died, then was resurrected—per Kathy May's theory—during the Great Depression.
It died after World War II—boom times and all—then came back in the aforementioned days of Jimmy Carter and Rollerball, Roller Boogie and Kansas City Bomber.
The '70s were when Michelle took up skating, and when she got back into it, she went back unashamedly. The same cannot be said for Tommy, who was a kickass skater in his younger days. But then he went on to own this gym where people kickbox and work out, and he was a well-respected trainer and businessman. What would people think? Yet a year ago, he couldn't deny the pull of the rink any longer.
"At first, I couldn't bring myself to tell people what I was actually doing," he says. "I'd be leaving work, and I'd tell people I was going out for a beer, but really, I had my skates stashed in my car." Tommy would then make his way to the Skate Center. He says he skated "without talking to anyone for months."
But over time, he became more comfortable with his inner skater. He made friends with Paul and Michelle. As he polished his skills, many will tell you that he became the best all-around skater—speed, creativity, technical merit—at the rink. He not only started telling people where he was going but invited them along as well. On this particular night, he has brought Ramona Caouette, a novice he had brought a few times before. Ramona didn't think she'd like the roller-dancing scene, and then something clicked.
"I was just standing here watching everyone else doing it, you know, thinking I wouldn't be into it, and then I saw this guy dressed up in, like, this old guy in a leprechaun suit," she says. "Or maybe it was a green ski suit—I don't know. It was green, and he was wearing a top hat, and he just looked like he was having a lot of fun."
Photo by Jack Gould
And who was that green-tinted, top-hatted man? You guessed it—Kenny. Kenny, who at this moment is orbiting his own solar system dressed in a purple turtleneck and a black bowler, giving off a Xanadu-meets-A Clockwork Orange kind of vibe.
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"Kenny . . ." says some guy, his voice trailing off, a smile across his face. It's hard to watch Kenny fly around the rink and not smile. It's hard to watch anyone roller skate and not smile.
"The thing about roller skating is that when people go out to a club, there's always those cool people who think they're too cool and they stare down at the floor with their arms crossed and their bodies all closed off," More says. "Put those same people in a roller rink, and they're grinning from ear to ear. It's impossible to close yourself off while you're skating. You're opened up."
So you might try opening up yourself this summer, whether it's at the Fountain Valley Skating Center or the Holiday Skate Center in Orange or the Buena Park Skating Center. It's fun and easy to pick up, and who knows, you might meet a new friend or two. Why, according to Tommy, any new women who come to Fountain Valley can count on being met on the hardwood by one friendly gentleman who swoops down on them and tends to stick close by.
And who is this genial chap? You guessed it. . . .