“You sad to see it close?” asks a man whose scuffed roller skates are thrown over one shoulder. The round-faced woman pushes his ticket between the iron bars guarding the Palisade Gardens box office. “Can’t you see the tears?” she says, her fingertip tracing the wet trail down her cheek.
A hot Sunday afternoon, three o’clock, July 7. Inside the two-story skating rink, the lightboard flashes: ‘TODAY IS THE END-ALL SKATE.” Sixty-six-year-old Johnnie Wright, Palisade Gardens Roller Skating Rink manager and executive vice president of his family’s corporation, which owns the rink, is retiring. “Going fishing,” he says.
A half-block line snakes across unshaded sidewalk along University Avenue in North Park: teenagers, gray-haired couples, mothers and fathers gripping toddlers by the wrists and sunsuit straps. In the line are youngsters whose grandparents, as young married couples, skated here to “I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “Rum and Coca-Cola,” “Green Eyes,” and “Sentimental Journey” swelling down from the Hammond in the rink’s loft. There are teenagers whose parents slow danced, skates tip to tip, around the walnut floor to the first pop records permitted here in the mid-Sixties.
Palisade Gardens opened in 1946, the first post-World War II commercial structure completed in San Diego. The rink has been open to the public every day of the last thirty-nine years. Only in 1978, on the day of the PSA jet crash, did the rink close, to make the building available for possible survivors. “As it turned out there weren’t any,” says Wright, adding, “I never closed for anything else. The kid on the street, he didn’t care about Kennedy being shot, stuff like that. On Thanksgiving and Christmas I ran allday skates. Christmas was a big day for us. Let’s face it, by noon on Christmas, for most families, it’s all over.”
Gathered in twos and threes along the line this final day, graying men and women recall when “the streetcar cost a dime and matinee admission to Palisade Gardens was twenty-five cents.” (By closing day, matinee admission had risen to three dollars.) The older people recall the late Thirties when roller-skating moved off the sidewalks into indoor rinks and became a national craze. One woman attending the Palisade’s finale remembers that, as junior high kids in 1933, she and her friends “skated out at a little rink on Menlo and University, a place called Betty's — it burned down before the war." Says a balding man who swipes at his sweating forehead with a handkerchief, “The Silverado Ballroom upstairs at Euclid and University. Christ, was that some place!" The woman with him recalls that rinks stayed open almost around the clock during World War II. Along with workers from defense factories, and sailors and marines, she says that during the war, she “skated swing shift" until three and four in the morning at the Trocadero on University and Marlboro. Still another woman speaks of “pulling off our detachable skates and jitterbugging in the middle of rinks." The old South Studio is mentioned, as are rinks in Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and the Palace on lower Broadway, downtown.
To go from the sunlight and heat along University Avenue to the cool, dark, throbbing pandemonium inside Palisade Gardens is “like being dropped in another world," the bald man sighs. Whitney Houston’s lush “You Give Good Love to Me, Baby" soars down from speakers set around the balcony above the floor. Skate wheels thunder. The floor guard, sweating through his white-and-black striped referee shirt, skates the floor’s perimeter. His screeching whistle repeatedly percolates up through the collective roar of hundreds of turning skate wheels, through high-pitched laughter and nonstop music. No one appears to pay him any mind.
Mounted in the ceiling, pink and blue neon stars glimmer across a hundred faces — black. Oriental, Hispanic, and white. Swooping, swirling, wheeling, or just lazily rolling across the floor in duos, as trios, or alone, skaters circle in the conventional counterclockwise direction. Some skate forward and others, three and four together, lightly clasping hands, skate rapidly backward. A lurching toddler grabs his father’s hand. He cries out, but his shriek cannot be heard in the din. Grasping the railing, a stiff-legged Vietnamese teenager, not trusting himself to glide, lifts first one foot and then another, working his way, hand over hand, around the rink.
Three tall and muscular black men in their late teens, shoulders hunched, an expression of fierce intensity gripping their faces, blur by along the rink’s outermost edges at twenty miles per hour. Between these extremes of skill, groups of three and four junior high school girls in pastel jump suits, eyes on their male counterparts, skate decorously on one foot. Older dance skaters, in couples, describe formal patterns across the floor. When the deejay in the balcony switches from Whitney Houston’s current hit to the livelier “Meet You in the Ladies’ Room,” by the funk-punk Mary Jane Girls, older couples and novices trek to the safety of benches that surround the rink. Cheering teenagers and fleet, hard-muscled twenty-year-olds then swarm onto the floor, their features setting into cameos as their speed increases.
A cafe sits at one side of the rink. By six o’clock skaters are dribbling hot dogs with mustard and dipping French fries in catsup. They crowd onto benches around the cafe tables. “Do you remember when the organist sat up there,” says a rusty-voiced, red-haired woman, pointing toward the rink’s northwest corner, “up over the exit sign, behind glass?” As people around the table nod that, yes, they remember, and begin to name organists, all dead now or moved far away, the redhead tells the nonskater at the table, “The vibrations from the organ were just altogether different from the records.”
“And the rink floors didn’t have plastic coating,” says a second woman, explaining to the nonskater. “Twenty years ago they sprinkled rosin on the floor so your wheels would grip good. They powdered those floors! You went in with brown hair. You came out with white hair — from the rosin.”
At the time the older couples began to skate, wheels were fiber or wood. The new wheels, they complain, grip the floor too tightly. “There’s no slip to them,” says one. “They don’t have the roll,” says another. “I grew up with the old fiber wheels,” puts in a third. “I could take my wheels off and spin them, go to the rest room and do my business, come back, and they’d still be going around. Today they’re packed in so much grease they don’t spin.”
The redhead asks if anyone recalls “the hot nights when kids used to take Limburger cheese and spread it down on all four corners of the rink and then roll through it? Or when we’d put chewing gum on other rinks? And they’d get gum in their wheels?” Listening to this group, respectable men and women now in their fifties and sixties, most of whom have continued to skate regularly at Palisade Gardens’s “over thirties” nights, a picture emerges of skating society from the late Thirties into the early Fifties, an era when local skating rinks were called “hangouts,” and those who gathered at rinks, “deadend kids” or “reformatory material.” Each rink had its own gang. After school they met at the rink and skated until suppertime. On Friday nights they went stag, and on Saturdays they took dates. In summer they passed days at the beach and nights at the rink.
“There was no TV to watch, and hell, we had no money,” says a man in his late fifties. “After the rink at Mission Beach closed for the night, everyone piled into a car, if there was one, or jumped onto an old Indian Scout or a Harley, and took off for Sheldon’s, on old Highway 101 and Balboa, and stayed there until one or two o’clock in the morning, drinking Cokes and smoking cigarettes. There were no narcotics like these guys have today. One or two kids were experts with marijuana, but they were outcasts; they were cut off cold. We felt we were living high if we got a bottle of cheap red wine. We’d mix that burgundy with 7-Up and it would be fine sparkling burgundy.”
Skaters kept to their own turf. If you were in a beach-area rink, you did not go, except as a group, to the Palace or Trocadero. “You would get wiped up on the floor,” says one old-time skater. And the Mission Beach skater recalls, “I went to school with one guy who skated the Palace. At school we were friends. At our rink I would have run him into the wall.”
Within local skating culture, subcultures emerged; each rink developed a distinctive skating style. The Palace downtown, with the largest floor area, was home to speed skaters. The Mission Beach rink at Belmont Park, which sponsored a tough and successful roller hockey team, was tops for a form of backward figure skating called rexing.
Rexing developed in San Diego and Los Angeles rinks in the late Thirties. To rex is to skate backward. One can rex solo or as a couple. Rexing could be slow or fast. The veteran Mission Beach skater, an ardent rexer, suggests, however, that the object of rexing was speed. Rexers, whose motions, ideally, are loose and relaxed as they describe looping figure eights across a rink, have always leaned toward down-and-dirty blues tunes, but this veteran remembers that “we would scream for the organist to play ‘Sabre Dance,' because of the speed. One rexer, if he put his heart to it, cutting in and out across a rink, he could dominate the floor.”
Male rexers used to cut tops off boots to free the ankle for movement. Women would either not lace their boots at all or would run laces through only two or three eyes and wrap the extra shoelace around the instep. The wooden skate wheels were ground down, explains the veteran rexer. “With the wooden wheels and wooden floors, you could get such speed going you would think you couldn't negotiate the corners. Which is why the rexers always had little wheels — the only way you could get around the corners ”
Local rexers, in the service during World War II, carried their detachable, ground-down wooden wheels into skating rinks around America. Rexing San Diegans at out-of-town rinks would either be kicked off the floor for cutting in and out at high speeds, or the rink would be cleared to permit the rexer to demonstrate his skills. No one outside San Diego had seen anything like it.
No one is certain of the origin of the term. In Latin the word “rex” means king, and rexers certainly believed themselves to be skating’s royalty. Some old-timers, in recollection, suspect that bit of arrogance led to the name. There is no doubt that rexers were considered tough. Occasionally a group of rexers from the beach would make a raid on the Roller Dome in Hollywood or on a rink in Long Beach. “You had to have those detachable skates,” the rexer from Mission Beach says, “so you could get your skates off right away when the fights started!”
On Palisade Gardens's first night thirty-nine years ago, regulars from every rink in the area showed up to try to dominate the new floor. But no one succeeded. The Mission Beach rexer attended the opening night and recalls that “Wright was trying to promote a dance-oriented rink. He didn't want it taken over by rexing gangs. We were made to feel our style was not all that welcome in that neighborhood.” But during Palisade Gardens's first years, rexers continued to try to put their stamp on the North Park rink. By the Fifties, the Rebel Rexers, a rexing club whose members wore Confederate Army caps, had unfurled a Confederate flag on Palisade Gardens's walls and made the rink their home.
A tall, slender, sixty-two-year-old woman is at Palisade Gardens on closing night. She has skated in San Diego for fifty years and still has her club card from the old Silverado. She skated at the Trocadero when Morty Zellinoff opened it in 1938. “I was first out on the floor,” she says. It was at the Trocadero, where skaters did the jitterbug and the fleahop wearing skates, that the stately woman learned Pearl Harbor had been bombed. After Pearl Harbor, they raced at the Trocadero for war bond stamps. “If you won a race, you got a dollar’s worth of stamps to paste in your book.” She and Wright, of whom she has a photograph wearing a zoot suit, met in 1940 when Wright went to work as a floor manager for Zellinoff. “Johnnie and I have been friends for longer than either of us have been married to anyone,” she laughs. “But Johnnie, back then, thought I skated too rough. He would announce a men’s-only skate and send me in, too.” This woman, who on Palisade Gardens’s last night is a challenge for the toughest eighteen-year-old male skaters, “the jammers,” remembers that in 1941 Wright tossed her bodily out of the Trocadero because of her fast, aggressive skating style. (Wright claims that he threw the woman out of the Trocadero for wearing trousers. “I remember physically throwing her out of the old Trocadero because she was wearing pants. And I think she’s still wearing them — the same pair of pants! She’s a nice woman,” says Wright, insisting he is teasing about the pants.)
The box office manager on closing day began skating at Palisade Gardens in 1946. Her four children and grandchildren have skated regularly at the rink. She remembers nights when 800 people lined up outside, recalls the Halloween costume parties, decorating the rink with tinsel and greenery for Christmas, “sweet sixteen” birthday parties to which mothers brought rosebud-frosted cake for the self-conscious girls and nervous boys. She recalls hundred-mile skate-athons for charities, “Live Deejay Broadcast and Roller” parties, to which girls in ponytails wore circle skirts embroidered with poodles and crinoline petticoats under the skirts. She remembers the neighborhood’s smiling families, with wide Pepsodent grins, skating together. The families looked for all the world like the Cleavers: mother in an angora sweater and shorts; father in cardigan sweater, white shirt, slacks, and tie; three little towheads, the girls in print cotton dresses, the crew-cut son in cords and a plaid flannel shirt. Today’s parents both work. They are tired on weekends. They hand a kid ten bucks and say, “Go have a good time.” She says she hates to lose the kids. A lot of them are pretty tough. And she has had to tell her share of would-be fighters, “Take it on outside to Fist City.” But they don’t curse in front of her. Some of them tell her their troubles; she worries about where they will go. She will miss Johnnie, she says. He was more a friend than a boss. Her daughter, a petite woman carrying a small son, also worked for Wright. The daughter says, “Everybody has depended on Johnnie. He has been the daddy of the neighborhood.”
Wright, who organized the North Park Crime Prevention Association, is also known to many as “the North Park sheriff.” Friends point out that Madeline, the night clerk at Glenn’s Market, across the street, always called Johnnie if someone suspicious came around. The story is told of the night two years ago when a holdup man entered the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise across the street and held its manager at gunpoint. A terrified KFC customer ran to the rink for Wright. Telling an employee to call the police, Wright then grabbed his shotgun, and outside KFC, fired into the air. The holdup man, responding to Wright’s shouted warning to release the manager, threw his hostage aside and his gun down, and ran. Wright, to keep the man from escaping, peppered him in the buttocks.
By final closing time, the crowd downstairs numbers more than 300. Wright has insisted on no ceremony. You can hear sobs and see tears in the rows of eyes looking toward up Wright as he stands on the balcony, huskily thanking the skaters for being his customers. “It’s the end of an era,” one sighs. “Like the death of a president,” says another. By midnight everyone is out. The rink lights have been turned off. Wright locks the doors and heads home.
It cannot be easy to carry gracefully the name Johnnie into your sixties, but it fits Wright. A boy’s quizzical good nature pushes through the face’s deep lines. When Wright smiles, age lines fold and disappear into the ear-to-ear grin. Only when he frowns, in perplexity as he describes the change in contemporary youth, or pain when he mentions the recent deaths of his wife and his mother, do the sixty-six years add up on his features. His body never shows its age. The firm jaw line juts. Wright never stoops. Nothing jiggles. His stomach lies flat under a polo shirt. Nor is any wear apparent from fifty years on roller skates as a rexer, racer, and spinner. He has survived his addiction to high-speed thrill sports: motorcycling, water-skiing, sports car racing. Wright describes himself as “somebody just always wired up and needing an outlet,” and when he drags on his cigarette, or restlessly runs his fingers, sparkling with diamonds, through his gray pompadour, the muscles in his arms jump.
What was he thinking last night? “That it’s nice to go out with my head up,” says Wright from behind his desk the morning after the closing. In the last twenty-four hours, Wright’s office walls have been stripped of his framed awards — Rink Operator of the Year, citations from Muscular Dystrophy, the Heart Association, the Girl Scouts, the North Park Lions Club — and this morning it is possible to see on the bare walls the pale rectangles where frames once hung. “I am not forced out, not in trouble, not going broke, don’t need money,” he declares. Even in the worst years the rink turned a profit, grossing from $400,000 in the good years to a low of $275,000. Not that he is rich, Wright emphasizes. “But I’m comfortable. I won't be able to spend it all. My kids are going to get something.”
On the last day, Wright decided to turn loose his young employees, “let them get it all out of their hair. My floor guards, everything I ever yelled at them about, they were doing. They even took off their shirts and threw them in the middle of the floor and stepped on them just because I was so emphatic with them about not getting their shirts dirty.”
Wright’s former boss, Morty Zellinoff, who owned the Trocadero rink, was building Palisade Gardens just after World War II ended, when the Trocadero burned. When Palisade Gardens opened, Wright became its manager, and eventually he and his family bought the rink from Zellinoff. Talking about the rink’s early days, Wright says, “We had rules. Until the late Fifties, girls wore skirts here. The skirts had to be finger tip length — you stand up, put your hands down, and your skirts could be no shorter than where your finger tips came, which was just above the knee. So if you had real short arms,” says Wright, “I guess you could wear shorter skirts” Wright did not permit jeans. “That was a way of keeping out the so-called rougher element. We always felt if a kid had to put on a decent pair of pants, he’d be more likely to behave himself. That was the rule for many years until jeans became the dress.”
Until 1958 the music came from the Hammond. For the dance skating popular through the Fifties, strict tempo was so important, explains Wright, that rink organists used a metronome. “A good dance skater can tell you if your music is off two beats a minute,” says Wright. During the organ’s reign, “Rickety-Rickshaw Man” was the rink’s most requested tune. “It was the fastest,” Wright smiles, adding that until the Seventies no fast skating was permitted at his rink. Among other popular tunes through the Fifties were Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie,” The Breeze and I,” “String of Pearls,” “Moonglow,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” and “Cow Cow Boogie.” Wright recalls that “tangos were good, all the marches, the waltzes. For couples only, the organist played a waltz, fox trot, or a hundred-beat boogie.” When Elvis Presley emerged in 1956, Wright would not play his records. “We were against that stuff,” he says with vehemence.
Over the years, Wright learned to discern the precise moment “music goes sour” on a crowd. “If you put the wrong tune on, they will start playing tag or just sit down and talk.” By the late Fifties, Wright winces, “The kids weren’t going for organ music anymore. They wanted rock and roll. But you couldn’t get that from an organist/' Wright confesses that he did not know what to do at that point and continued to use an organist part-time and recordings of organ music made especially for skating when the organist was not there. Then in the mid-Sixties at a Roller Skating Rink Operators Association meeting, a Texas rink owner told Wright, “I gathered up all my old rink music, dropped it in the river, and bought the Top 40. Now the only thing that bothers me is going to the bank. The moneybag is too heavy.”
“That stuck in my mind,” says Wright. “Then one day one of the Girl Scouts came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Wright, when are you going to play some music we can understand?’ That is when we started gradually changing over.”
When disco came along in the mid-Seventies, Wright liked it. “It was great for skating,” he says. “Just the old swing beat coming around forty years later with a higher tempo.” But he has not liked much music that has come along since. Heavy metal and punk rock he calls “impossible.”
In the last few years, Wright developed a successful adult skate-for-health program. Skating, he would tell prospective customers, “exercises more muscles than swimming, burns off 600 calories per hour for moderate skating, not fast, not hard, and has a better cardiovascular reaction than jogging, with less damage than jogging. And it gives a great psychological high.” For this program, Wright says, “I would play all the old music we were just talking about. Some Presley, that era of rock, which in retrospect I realize is mellow rock.”
On closing night, Wright mentioned that if he could stay in business with only what he calls “over thirties” skaters, he might not have closed. Older skaters speculate that Wright shut down because the new music drives him crazy. Others suggest that he was uncomfortable with the changing racial and ethnic make-up of his young customers. “We were never segregated,” Wright says of the years prior to the mid-Seventies, “but the blacks that did skate here then were usually what they would call now the ‘Toms.’ They associated with white people. I had two floor guards at the time that were black and they were often the only blacks in the building. They were good skaters, good workers. We always had one or two blacks, and quite a few Mexicans that skated — always.
“At the end of the disco period, skating suddenly became the in thing for blacks to do. They packed the place, turned me completely around from white to black. There for a while it was almost a hundred percent black. The last three or four years it’s just started to blend.” But, no, he says, he does not have anything against blacks. “And I certainly never had to have a dress code for them,” he says. “They dressed up to come here. It was a big deal to them.”
Wright does, however, complain angrily that “kids today lack interest in good skating. Ten years ago we would not have allowed in the building one of those kids who were here yesterday. They skate too fast. The last five or six years it's been a matter of just doing a funny little shuffle step around the outside and then go as fast as you can. The kids are not interested in the programming we used to have — whistle chains, trios, grand marches.
“And it used to be a boy-meets-girl atmosphere. We used to turn the lights down low and play a waltz. There was a lot of romance in roller-skating, just like dancing. I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of couples met here and got married. I got a lot of requests for weddings. We never had one because I didn’t quite believe in a wedding in a skating rink." Now, Wright says, “The romance is gone. It’s girl-grab-boy.’’
Over the years, Wright has lectured many a young skater in his office. Being sent to the office, says Wright, “that was considered almost as bad as going to court. It could have been for anything from tripping people to dope. Most of those with dope I just threw out. But I turned many, many kids around from being bad kids to respectable citizens. A lot of them have come back up here years later and thanked me, have said, if it hadn’t been for you. I'd have been in trouble.' ’’
Kids, generally, however, have simply changed, Wright suspects. In the late Forties and through the Fifties, he remembers only a few gangs in San Diego: the Jim Town gang, the Encanto gang, a gang from Linda Vista. “But there was nothing like a gang in Southeast San Diego or Golden Hill,” he says, adding that in those days, “the gangs were not the best of the population, but they weren't like today's. They would get in fights once in a while but never what they do now, with a whole bunch of guys jumping one guy. It was one-on-one and it had to be fair. There wasn't dope. Some drinking." Not until the Seventies, Wright notes, did they have to search rink customers for drugs and weapons.
In 1760 in London, an inventor demonstrated the first roller skates. By 1790 skating had become popular all across Europe, but the wheels — made of ivory, wood, or metal — had rollers all of the same size, and only forward skating was possible. When an American invented what he called the “rocking skate" in 1863, it became possible for the first time to skate in curves. By the Thirties, Wright says, “it was a matter of taking a clamp skate and putting it on a pair of football shoes. We had shoe skates at the Troc before the war, but not many. When we opened here, because of shortages from the war, we couldn't get shoes. By 1947 or '48,we began to be able to rent shoe skates. In the middle Fifties, we stopped using the clamp-on skates. Now anyone who has a pair of those old rink clamp-ons has a collector’s item. I sold mine, one skate at a time for skateboards. Because, of course, we invented the skateboard here in San Diego! So I sold all I could get my hands on." During the months before closing, skaters bought up the rink’s several thousand pairs of rental skates.
It was in the late 1890s, according to Wright, that the first skating rinks were built. The U.S. skating boom hit in the Thirties. “At one time there were 5000 skating rinks in America, and now there are about 3000,’’ he says. In San Diego County, after the war, the Trocadero burned down and the Ocean Beach rink at the foot of Newport closed, as did Ups and Downs off Midway Drive, and the Pacific (renamed Skateland right after the war) at the corner of Front and G streets downtown. “Then television came in 1949, and everybody stayed home,” says Wright. During that era the downtown Palace closed. Then, Wright continues, “TV got old and skating came up again.” New rinks were built at Mission Beach, in El Cajon, Chula Vista, Santee, La Mesa. There was even an open-air rink on the Convair parking lot. Some hung in. Others failed. Wright has seen another big drop during the last few years, brought on, he believes, by home movies and VCRs.
Although fewer than a dozen roller rinks are still open around the county, skating is on its way back up again, says Wright, who theorizes that rink skating has decade-long cycles, going up gradually over ten years, and then plummeting. He attributes his success, in part, to paying special attention to getting junior high groups involved in afternoon skating. “We got them trapped in the disease of skating,” says Wright. “Then they became our Friday night skaters. In high school they become too sophisticated for skating and you lose them. But your college kids, you get them back. And adults, the over-thirty group, that’s the biggest market there is. They have the money”
Now that he is retiring, Wright says, “It will take me a while to get used to Saturday night free and holidays. When everyone else has been playing. I’ve been working. As few as six, and as many as twenty-four, hours a day. It’s been like giving a party. But basically, all we were was babysitters.” Wright laughs. “It’s always been that way. And I am not a bit sad to stop. I am going to miss some of the people. Not all, but some.”