Roller skating rinks still feelin’ groovy despite changing times

Roller skating rinks still feelin’ groovy despite changing times

Elisabeth Butler

Most people file roller rinks in their early ’80s time capsule with rip-and-tear jeans, the Bee Gees and Xanadu. But blinking colored lights, brightly painted cinderblock walls and four-wheeled skates still have the bubble-gum crowd doing the hokey-pokey, albeit in smaller numbers.

Like a snapshot, rinks remain as most adults remember them. Disc jockeys still sit in plastic perches, introducing the limbo, couples songs and, of course, the backward skate. Newbies still have trouble stopping gracefully as they leave the floor. The concession guy will still mix a suicide drink for anyone who asks. (For those who don’t remember, it’s a splash of each drink in the soda fountain.)

Without changing the business formula, or many of the decorations, the four remaining skating rinks in the New Orleans area still ring up strong sales from pre-teens and teenagers out to have a good time.

“It’s an institution. When you’re younger, you go roller skating (until) you get a car. But there’s always a fresh batch of kids coming along, ready to go skating,” said Wendy King, director of marketing for Indianapolis-based Roller Skating Association, a national trade group.

At the height of the disco-skate frenzy, there were 3,500 rinks in America. Now there are about 1,600, according to skate association estimates. King said it’s rare for new skating rinks to start from scratch because it’s so expensive. Building an average-size rink costs about $2 million.

Jean Campagna and her husband Warren, own Skate World in Chalmette. Every year, Skate World takes in $400,000 to $500,000 in revenue: half from admissions, 10% from concessions and 40% from birthday parties.

“(Warren) thought I was crazy when I said we should open a skating rink,” she said. She’d spent endless hours skating when she was little, and there wasn’t a rink in St. Bernard Parish. So nearly eight years ago, the couple renovated a former bowling alley for their skate center.


As many as 250 children and teens crowd the rink Friday nights. Parents trust the center enough to drop them off at the front door alone.

Strict rules keep the crowd from getting too wild, and Campagna will call down an unruly child without thinking twice.

“I am a baby-sitting service and that’s fine,” she said.

Airline Skate Center General Manager Leon Faulkner knows that’s part of the business.

“There have been many nights when I’ve stayed with kids for hours after we close until they get picked up by their parents,” Faulkner said.

King said roller rinks tend to take more responsibility for its patrons than does a movie theater or mall. “Parents drop their 7- year-old off alone. (Rink owners) do a lot to keep that going.”

Rink size usually determines the age of its skaters. Skate World has a 9,000-square-foot rink that draws mostly children.

The rinks at Skate Country on the West Bank and Airline Skate Center are at least 50% bigger, which attracts more teenagers and adults.

On small rinks, adults can only take four or five skating steps before having to turn again. But on Skate Country’s and Airline Skate Center’s massive floors, patrons can gather speed with 10 or 12 strokes between one end and the other.

Airline uses the extra space to sell roller-hockey business. Skate Country uses the floor to promote a growing adult dance skating trend called jam skating.

Faulkner said the roller-hockey leagues attract 400 people, mostly children, for weekly game practices and competitions.

During Airline’s busiest summer season, 300 to 400 people fill the rink on weekend nights. Teenage activities such as prom and football practice take away from Airline’s spring and fall business, Faulkner said. He would not disclose the center’s annual revenue.

A Michigan native, Faulkner grew up skating on a tiny indoor rink and huge frozen ponds near his home. He moved here in 1982 after a stint in California and worked part time at Airline before becoming full-time general manager in 1995.

Skate Country’s jam skaters meet Thursday nights for adults-only, hip-hop nights, which usually draw crowds of about 300.

Skaters dance to the music on traditional two-by-two skates, or quads, spinning and bobbing as they speed around the rink. Most jam skaters blend break-dancing and fancy footwork as they zip around the floor.

Some moves resemble swing dancing as partners twirl each other around; others recall the choreographed and practiced routines of fraternity step shows.

Skate Country managers didn’t answer CityBusiness requests for comment, but 20-year roller-skating veteran L.T. Otis rarely misses a Thursday night session. He has watched the dancing crowds come and go through the years.

He is one of many skaters who attend hip-hop night at Skate Country. The crowd used to meet for Thursday night dances at the now- closed Skate Country in New Orleans East. Crowds were heavier and faster back then, Otis said.

When out-of-towners flood the city for events such as the coming National Collegiate Athletic Association Final Four mens basketball tournament, Skate Country fills up quickly, Otis said. Skaters vacationing from around the nation look for local hip-hop sessions and that’s when practice pays off.

Faulkner said Airline tried to sell a hip-hop night at the rink but it didn’t go over well.

Jam skating — like its polyester clad predecessor, disco skating – – is bringing more people into the sport, King said.

“It’s certainly bringing people back to the rinks, if not in the staggering numbers that disco did in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” King said.

Party in a box

Hip-hop night and roller-hockey games join other promotions such as the all-night skate, day-camp discounts or Skate World’s upcoming “American Idol Chalmette” tryouts to bolster attendance.

Because of their size, most skating rinks sit in durable and washable warehouse-style buildings, perfect for children’s parties.

Skate World can produce up to 10 parties at once, and the rink’s private party schedule is booked through June. There are three weekly slots for private parties, which cost $175 for two hours. It’s still mostly children who want private parties at the rink.

Parties make up a significant portion of Airline’s sales, too. It books up to 36 parties per weekend.

At Skate World, not all patrons at the parties don skates. Some just hang out with friends, eating nachos and playing games like skee ball. Gaming companies lease the space from Campagna. She keeps 60% of the profits.

The games are part of a $175,000 remodeling overhaul the Campagnas gave the rink two summers ago. They closed Skate World for three months to repaint the old red-and-blue scheme with purple and yellow. The couple paid $60,000 to refinish the 9,000-square-foot polyurethane skating floor, Campagna said.

About 95% of the nation’s rinks are independently owned, King said.

Campagna’s ongoing costs include $10,000 for rent and bank payments, $25,000 a year for liability insurance and $17,500 for building and worker’s compensation insurance.

The insurance helps protect the rinks from lawsuits, but “skate at your own risk” signs are stapled at every roller rink.

Children suffer their share of injuries — mostly broken wrists, rolled-over fingers and twisted ankles — but adults receive most of the fractures. Campagna’s own mother broke her wrist at the rink during a family member’s birthday party.

Children bounce back, she said, but adults tend to crunch when they hit the floor.

Copyright 2003 Dolan Media Newswires

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