A handful of nerdy high schoolers lurch off the floor at the Fountain Valley Skating Center. It’s a Thursday night and for the entire day, the planet has been dealing with the passing of their Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
Silence falls over the dated building tucked away in a western Orange County parking lot and for a second, one can start to reflect on just what her existence meant to both music and an entire population of marginalized people who cling to entertainment for figurative and literal escapes from their situations.
Opposite the teens in the rink is growing swath of mostly older Black people lacing up to let loose on the rink like they do every Thursday night in Fountain Valley, sliding their feet into the worn beige rentals, but mostly into custom skates that come in the form of Stacy Adams, Jordans, and traditional looks donning their initials or representing their hometown.
One fellow in the building on this special Thursday night is wearing a 50-year-old pair of skates. So says Marilyn “Socks” Coleman, the 67-year-old Detroit native, who earned her nickname when she started skating over 50 years ago. Socks distinguished herself from other skaters by lacing up over sometimes eight pairs of socks at a time.
Socks also points out to me the top skater from her section during their pirouetting prime. His name was Rockin’ Richard Houston and his skills took him from the D to LA where he took first place at the Gong Show during its first run in the 70s.
Rockin’ Richard was back in the Southland auditioning for a judge spot on the new Gong Show and promoting an upcoming autobiography, detailing his time as the best on the floor.
Detroit’s presence in the building couldn’t have felt any stronger on the day their First Lady passed on. That is until Franklin’s 1976 Curtis Mayfield-penned track “Sparkle” kicks off, marking the first song of the night.
Skaters mosey onto the floor and across the way, in the back corner posts DJ Big Bert — the man responsible for delivering this unicorn of an event to skaters weekly for the last four years.
Big Bert is nothing short of a Southern California legend. Prior to lugging his talents down into the Orange Curtain, Bert, 55, ran LA’s World on Wheels for about 18 years, curating the velvety smooth vibes that keep skaters on the floor for years and used the rink as a community resource. That included raising money for kids to visit the White House and offering jobs to previously incarcerated men.
In 2013 though, Bert and rollers from Mid-City, South Central, and surrounding areas lost the centerpiece of their community when World on Wheels shuttered, displacing them and leaving the skaters to hit floors in cities like Glendale, Northridge, Chino, and Cerritos.
But where the attendees found new homes in LA’s surrounding counties and valleys, Bert did not. He turned down chances to assume a similar role at remaining rinks. Instead, he booked the occasional private gig across the country and DJed at non-skating events throughout the city.
Bert even rejected the first offer he got to take over a night at Fountain Valley until a trusted, longtime friend and skater recommended he consider the opportunity and help patch some of the skating rink-sized hole caused by World on Wheels’ loss. He reluctantly accepted but it ended up working out swimmingly.
“Those business owners are the best business owners, bruh, that I’ve ever met in my life,” says Bert. “When you come to the rink, the manager greets you, the skate attendant greets you. They make you feel you coming home and you family.”
Before he would take the job, though, Bert made sure the Fountain Valley Skating Center met the specs needed to create a successful experience for the community he’d served for so long and those who’d encounter such a night for the first time. It ended up working out swimmingly.
The floor would have to be redone, shedding its blue finish for the traditional parquet surface and the sound system required a tune-up to play his choice tracks that range from Freddie Jackson’s “Jam Tonight” to 03 Greedo’s “Rude”.
I quiz the Baby Boomer on his knowledge of Greedo to which he quips, “I’ve been knowing Greedo since he was a little boy running around.”
He’s Rolodex goes a bit deeper than that I learn as he starts citing relationships with legendary producers Battlecat and DJ Mustard. It’s rare you’ll find Bert talking about himself and past accolades though. In fact, I had to learn how deep his roots in LA’s Black Music scene go through other people in the building. The New Orleans native co-founded the LA Dream Team in the ‘80s, one of the first West Coast Hip-Hop acts to gain traction.
Bert in many ways is the throughline in the fragmented sections of Southern California’s Black Experience creating a gestalt. He makes sure of it by choices made about the night like hiring LA’s Trap Kitchen to cater the night instead of the usual skating rink concessions. On Thursdays, skaters travel from as far as San Diego or Las Vegas and in my experience, across the country from Detroit.
Bert, who hasn’t given an interview in decades is somewhat reluctant to talk at length about his place in the culture, which has extended to raising money for medical expenses upwards of $10,000 and receiving plaques from the city for his role in community improvement to hosting weekend-long, family-friendly events like the West Coast Back to Cali Jam.
“I think if you were to ask most Los Angeles skaters who their favorite DJ is they would say ‘Big Bert’. He tries to cater to all skaters. He always shows love to visitors and acknowledges me and my Detroit skate family by playing the music we like to roll to when he sees us,” says Socks Coleman
Not only communities but families build stronger bonds at Fountain Valley Skating Center. Tee a 21-year-old rink employee from Paramount testifies that his cousins, sister, mom, dad, and stepmom were all in attendance on Thursday. And his newfound hobby has taken him from a video game obsession to traveling to Vegas and looking forward to an upcoming Atlanta trip.
“I know I wanted to skate,” he says acknowledging his family’s involvement. On the passion that’s overcome him he adds, “I didn’t think it was gonna be like this. It’s like my happy place.”
“Young people like to skate with the elders to learn rhythm,” says Big Bert, a tribal leader of sorts in this realm.
A small group of 20-somethings in the building spent the night in each other’s company, laughing and fraternizing, only skating a bit throughout the evening. The group said they don’t know a life without rolling and referred to their group as “skate fam” — the sentiment is apparent.
Minutes later, back in the DJ booth, a middle-aged man pulls up on Bert to exclaim “you on yo’ shit tonight!” as he plays Nellie Tiger Travis’ “Mr. Sexy Man”
It’s one of several pop-ins made by the attendees who look at Bert with wonder. I am beginning to see why. Each time they stop, Bert checks in on them:
“How was your birthday?”
“When you leaving town again?”
“How was your trip?”
This lifestyle is an adhesive, binding otherwise individual experiences to an overarching powerful cadre of culture. And Big Bert is the bridge, connecting children to parents, Blacks to Whites, and the future to the past creating a Utopia that thrives on trust, respect, and, of course, music — it’s the only way he knows how to roll.
I listen to music. I write about it. I like hot sauce on my chicken.