Roller Kings

BOIL THE WORD "nostalgia" down to its etymologies and you're left with a taut little haiku kicker that goes something like this: "The pain of returning home." And, man, isn't that the truth? you might think to yourself as you step inside St. Louis Park's Roller Garden and find yourself suddenly floundering in a swamp of the most viscous and almost unbearable nostalgia. Where I came from we had Del's United Skates, a squat little barn out in the country that drew kids from the small towns all around. There wasn't much to it, really; you drank a lot of pop, ate candy, and rolled around and around to loud music, stuff like "Bad Blood" or "I'm Not Lisa" if one of the squares was spinning records, "Low Rider" or "The No No Song" if a hipster was at the board. The sophisticates held hands and maybe went home with hickies. The geeks? We worked at speed, with fierce dreams of Roller Derby glory. Maybe one day the cheerleaders would throw toilet paper in our trees. Wouldn't a CB radio be so great? Go ask the DJ to play "Love Rollercoaster." No, you.

If there's not a roller rink in your past, well, that's sad, but everything you missed and then some can be found at the Roller Garden, where rink rats have been strapping on skates and doing the "hokey-pokey" and the "cab driver" since 1944. Owner Bill Sahly will probably want to know where you've been all his life, but he won't hold it against you; he's a one-man crash course in skate culture. The Roller Garden is so authentic that it almost feels like a re-creation: disco balls, clusters of balloons, pinball machines, banks of candy bubbles (Boston baked beans, jawbreakers), Ziggy the Talking Clown, The Love Tester and the Lightning Machine, cotton candy and sno-cones at the concession stand.

The place is huge, seriously huge, and lit like an aquarium. Sahly grew up skating in this building, and has owned it since 1969. The building itself dates from the 1930s, when it served as a hippodrome and was home to the Lilac Lanes Riding Academy. In the '40s there was a brief period when the horses and rollerskaters shared the building, and later the Garden was the site of the Twin Cities' first indoor tennis courts. These days Sahly presides over a carefully scheduled and orchestrated enterprise which draws from communities all over the Twin Cities. The Roller Garden always has a "live DJ on the side tower," and Sahly employs seven disc jockeys who--depending on the session--play everything from classic rock to modern gospel, funk to contemporary Christian. "You don't hear 'I want to lick you from your toes to your nose,'" Sahly shrugs, "but the beat's the same." The rink itself is big enough to accommodate a lot of different styles and skill levels. You'll see little kids jerking around like bad animation, sorority sisters doing slow laps, teenagers on rollerblades, and older folks. And then there are the rink rats, people like Charles Brewster, who gets down to the Garden three or four days a week and is part of a group of rhythmic skaters whose smooth routines are worth the price of admission just to watch.

Charles moved to Minneapolis from Chicago in 1981. "I've always felt comfortable on my skates," he says. "In Chicago I used to sweep the streets and skate outside. My very first question when I got to Minneapolis, I pulled into this place on Lake Street and I said 'Where do you people skate?'" The answer, of course, was the Roller Garden, and Charles and his family have been fixtures ever since. Thursday nights, when DJ Darrell Fischer spins the funk and R&B, Charles is generally making the rounds, usually in tandem with someone like friend and mentor Tony, from Gary, Indiana. Tony's an aloof Garden legend with a lot of legs, whose sinuous, gliding moves--numbered, synchronized, and much studied--virtually define the Chicago/Gary style.

"Guys like Tony are the people I admire," Charles says. "I picked up all these steps from him. Our thing is slow, smooth, and groovier. When you come up skating on the small rinks you can't go fast so you be cool, you work up the moves, do the routines. Some of these other guys, I can see the style and know where they're from." Detroit, for instance, or Cleveland. The Cleveland skaters--represented by a Thursday night contingent--are flashier, faster, and balletic. They spend a lot of time on their toes, spinning like tops, or down in the splits. It's apples and oranges, Charles says, depends on what you like. You can think of the Cleveland style as maybe James Brown, the Chicago/Gary guys as Al Green.

Bill Sahly makes the rounds, the Ambassador, proud of his place, making introductions, meeting new customers. Here's Janet, she went horseback riding here when she was 2 years old. And who are these little nippers? An older fellow from a church group announces that he last skated here 30 years ago. There's Bill's wife, Pat, working the concession stand, and meet Jay Silvernail, he's been a DJ here for 18 years. "Nineteen years the sixth of November," Jay says. And Ron's been working at the Garden for seven years, which makes him the low man on the totem pole. Still, he knows a few things. "I can tell a Coon Rapids skater from a Cheap Skates in Minnetonka skater from a Roller Garden skater," he says. "Easy. Every one of them has something different."

Up in the side tower Darrell launches into "Atomic Dog" and Charles leads a group around the outside of the rink, calling out the moves, the "Mixit Up" this time around; next might be the "Whole Thing," which Charles says, "is a conglomerate of a bunch of nice little steps mixed together." This is some seriously sexy rollerskating. You didn't see this sort of thing at Del's. In the parlance of the Roller Garden we were strictly "roundy-roundies." Still are. Am.

The Roller Garden makes poor Del's look like a closet, so there's plenty of room out there for even the lamest of the roundy-roundies, and you can lose yourself in the music, lose yourself in the wheels, in the crepuscular ambience. And when Darrell plays "Jungle Boogie," for just a queasy instant it could be 1974 and you could be 12 years old, scared to death.

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