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Four on the Floor

At Roll-O-Rama, roller-skating is confined to precise, two-hour sessions. If you arrive early, clutching your brushed aluminum roller-skate case--the one that contains actual four-cornered skates, as opposed to in-lines--you will just have to cool your heels. In the foyer, the ticket window has a plywood panel shoved across its opening, and there is nothing to see but a sternly worded sign: NO MIDRIFF TOPS. NO VULGAR OR ABUSIVE LANGUAGE. NO CUT-OFF SHORTS. THE MANAGEMENT RESERVES THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE.

But at 6:30 p.m. sharp on this Thursday, management lets everyone in. All thirteen of them. The music begins with a Beach Boys song; someone switches on the mirrored balls overhead. The sixteen-year-old floor guard, with slicked-back hair, a striped ref shirt and a whistle around his neck, skates effortlessly around the rink, hands in pockets, striking the aloofly cool note that has distinguished floor guards for four decades.

Here at Roll-O-Rama, there is not much to guard, anyway. Not a bare midriff in the place.

"I don't remember when there was, actually," says 38-year-old Wayne Barrows, who has been coming here since he was fourteen. "I did not wear midriffs myself. I was a hippie. A disco hippie. I could have shown John Travolta a thing or two."

Tonight, Barrows has not even bothered to put on skates. After a fall in the shower, he is sidelined with a sprained thumb and a big forehead bruise covered with a Snoopy Band-Aid. His six-year-old daughter, her friend and his ex-wife are out on the floor.

"They enjoy it," he says. "It's something we can still do together. I have a couple of teenage kids, too," he adds. "I don't know if they would like this or not. I don't know how square this would be to them."

Probably pretty square. Roller-skating, even during its late Seventies Cher/disco phase, has always been a squarely square activity. As if to illustrate this point, the Roll-O-Rama DJ breaks onto the PA with a public-service message. "Let's get you out onto the skating floor," he says, as lite rap pulsates in the background. "And please make sure your laces are tied around your ankles, not hanging on the floor. Moms and dads, no carrying your kids in your arms while on skates."

"Maybe skating is the thing that bridges the gap," Barrows decides. "It's what we did before we found out what partying was."

And what you do twenty years later, when you're sick of partying. At the moment, the small group of skaters on the floor consists of moms who have rediscovered good clean fun, kids who are young enough to consider this wild nightlife, and members of extended families who have always skated, coached skating teams, maybe even produced a few floor guards.

For Barrows, the whole scene is stuck in some kind of cultural limbo. But, hey! In fact, it is time to limbo. Floor guards, take your places.

"It's the exact same routine, every time," says Kay Ambrose, whose eleven-year-old daughter, Eris, is a skating limbo specialist. "There's the couples' skate, the backward skate, the limbo, the shoot-the-duck contest, the hokey pokey. It's the same every time, and I'm addicted."

Ambrose, a Park Hill piano teacher, took up roller-skating four years ago for reasons that were mildly fitness-oriented. But the social aspect of the sport soon outweighed any cardiovascular benefit.

"I started at US on Wheels in Westminster," Ambrose recalls, "and their floor is cement or something, and everyone kept talking about the great wooden floor at Roll-O-Rama, but Roll-O-Rama was in Welby, which I thought was closer to Greeley."

In reality, the small farming town of Welby, located on what were once the plains northeast of Denver, has been absorbed by Commerce City from the south and Westminster from the north. The rink, as it turned out, is only three miles from Ambrose's house, even though Roll-O-Rama's location at the end of a dirt road across from a farm keeps it looking quite rural. Ambrose makes the trip several times every week, as much for the company as for the skating. The friendships that develop here are not what you would call deep, but they are comfortable, and they seem to last forever.

"There's Anthony," Ambrose says, "and that's his son--they've both coached speed-skating teams." It looks as though Anthony has a new wife and also a toddler. "That woman with the skate covers, that's Joy. She's a very good skater. She can skate backwards. That kid with the long hair is Alex Diaz. He does a mean hokey pokey, with hip action. I've gotten to know his mother."

You get the sense that Kay Ambrose and her skating buddies have simply rolled into their rightful places in the history of Roll-O-Rama, the particulars of which are legendary among the regulars. They like to say that this is the oldest skating rink in Colorado. (It is not.) They talk about how the Ventures played here in the early Sixties. Or maybe it was Herman's Hermits. It could have been Paul Revere and the Raiders. Definitely, there was once a house band, but no one remembers its name.  

Colorado has more than its share of great moments in roller-skating history--the turn-of-the-century Mammoth rink on East Colfax Avenue; a native of this state who skated his way across the country in the Fifties; even a street brawl involving youth gangs throwing roller skates at each other. But none of these august events appears to have been connected with Roll-O-Rama, where business just quietly rolls on.

The rink was built in 1960 by a partnership that included Welby businessman Peter Ritkouski; its construction came at the end of a Fifties roller-skating fad that saw rinks pop up across Colorado.

"But we didn't have one up here," Ritkouski points out, "and for the first year, business was great. After that, I don't know what happened."

In 1963 Ritkouski and company sold out to a second partnership, which included a pair of local kiddie-TV-show hosts: Fred and Fay Taylor. Already in their twelfth year of broadcasting, the Taylors may have been casting about for alternative opportunities.

"They gave up their show in December of '66," says the Taylors' longtime producer, Ken Custer, whose wife, Noelle, took over the show when the Taylors quit. "After fifteen years, anyone would get tired of it." Custer remembers the Taylors' show as a one-hour ball of energy featuring a live studio audience, a birthday party for anyone in that audience who qualified, treats for all, cartoons and "Tum Tum Time," during which everyone on the set cleaned up the mess to the strains of martial music. "I don't remember hearing about any roller rink," Custer says, "but I know that Fred got interested in scuba diving and that he passed away in Texas, where they'd moved so he could dive."

In the Seventies, Fay Taylor returned to Denver, where she ran a dress shop and became a fixture in the Metro Denver Dinosaurs, a group of old-time broadcasters. She suffered a stroke ten years ago. "She's pretty much confined to a wheelchair, but she gets around," Custer says. "She is sharp and still has a great sense of humor."

(That much is clear from Fay Taylor's home voice-mail message, which includes this: "If this is an obscene or harassing phone call, hold on while we get our coffee and cigarettes." Sadly, she did not return calls.)

While regulars like to trade stories about Roll-O-Rama's past, its current owner does not. "I wouldn't know about any of that," says Mary Smith, who bought the rink with her late husband, Jack, in 1980. The Smiths had both worked at Coors for years when their son convinced them that roller-skating was the wave of the future. "He had worked at rinks and thought it was the thing," Smith recalls, "but let me tell you: You don't ever own a rink. It owns you."

It is hard to get a moment with Smith when she does not claim that she is about to be overwhelmed by the excess work. She hasn't had a week off in many years, she says, and relies on volunteers rather than regular employees to help keep the place going. She hasn't had time to skate in three years. Right now she is working the refreshment stand, waiting patiently while a six-year-old debates the merits of Laffy Taffy versus Almond Joy.

"Do you know what you want yet?" Smith finally asks him. "No? Well, I know what I want. A vacation. There is no rhyme or reason to this business. If I don't schedule help, we're inundated. Or it's a night like this. I guess this is tonight's mad rush."

Out on the floor, a half-dozen skaters crouch with one foot extended in front of them. "Oh, we have some good duck-shooters out here tonight," the DJ crows. "Some very good duck-shooters."

Among the expert duck-shooters who flocked to Roll-O-Rama was Smith's husband, Jack. "He was a live wire," she recalls. "He had skates made for a Saint Bernard who lived across the street. The skaters liked it. The dog liked it."

The time for that sort of thing, however, is past. Smith keeps afloat by leasing the rink out to roller-hockey leagues, which feature the infamous in-line skates. "The blades are here," Smith concedes. "They're not going to go away." Some skaters even wear them to regular sessions at Roll-O-Rama, although Smith reserves the right to inspect the skates first for brakes that might damage her wooden floor.  

And if high-tech skates are bad, high-tech music is worse.
"I certainly do not care for the music that's been coming out in the past two or three years," Smith confirms. "I'm referring to the rap, yes. You have to monitor the language, and even some of the good stuff--well, how to put this?--there isn't any good stuff. It's just not roller-skateable."

What is and is not roller-skateable is "cut and dried," Smith insists. "If you do not program your music correctly, you could have utter chaos."

Tonight the man who stands between chaos and an orderly crowd is Tom the DJ, an older man who arrives with his own cart of CDs and tapes, faithfully plays such standards as "YMCA" and "The Chicken Dance" and is known to some regulars as "the rocket scientist."

"He's quiet and secretive," says Ambrose. "We think he used to be a high-up at Martin Marietta and gave it all up for this. Sometimes he quits, but he always comes back."

Would Tom, now spinning J. Geils' "Centerfold," care to comment on any of this?

"No."
Maybe that's because it's now time for fast skating, ages fourteen and over. Joy Davidson, the woman in skate covers, takes a spot on the floor and digs in. She wins the race, but everyone knew she would.

"Well, it's because I've been skating once a week since I was eight," she says modestly. "My husband works second shift, so I brought my sons down with me."

All three Davidson sons--ages six to ten--are now accomplished skaters. They also know all the words to The Lion King theme song, which they sing without embarrassment while skating. Looking at them, Davidson remembers the wonders of learning to skate when she was a kid.

"Like skating backward," she says. "You learn the basic movement, and then you practice over and over again until you can cross over on the corners. Then you think, hey, how about the straightaways? As a teenager, I never felt socially adept. This was the one place I did. I never felt like a pariah out there."

She's back out there in time for the hokey pokey. Her youngest son, Micah, joins her, screaming the chorus ("Hot dog!") with abandon. When the song is over, he races across the floor, his legs barely keeping up with the rest of him.

"My chest hurts," he complains to bystander Barrows, who is still watching his ex-wife and daughter circle past. "I think I shook my bootie too hard."

"That's your solar plexus, boy," Barrows laughs. "You'll get over it. Get back on the floor.


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