A RINK ROLLS INTO HISTORY REPRINTED FROM NEWSDAY 9/18/86
By Joan Kelly
Even in Nebraska, they’ve heard of the Levittown roller rink. The Rink of world champions. The rink where Gladys and George Werner danced the Werner Tango, and Robert Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller held political rallies. The rink where Fleurette Arseneault Jeffers and Dan Little practiced the form that would win them niches in the Amateur Athletes Roller Skating Hall of Fame.
The rink where three decades people met and married and then brought their children because it was safe to leave them there. The place where untidy long hair and dirty dungarees were never allowed. The place where even now on Friday nights, hundreds of teenagers dance on roller skates to the rhythms of disco rock, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, hundreds of adults swing to the sweet sounds of live organ music.
But all that is rolling to a stop. After 31 years, the rink of world champions has been bought by a discount drugstore chain.
“Its like closing Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds,” said 68-year-old Ernest Palm of West Babylon, moments after he skated to “The American Waltz “with his wife, Janet, last week. It was at the rink that the Palms ran meets for the Levittown Skating Club and trained their daughters, who now teach roller skating in Austin, Texas. “It’s like tearing down Yankee Stadium.”
The America on Wheels roller rink chain, which opened the rink on Hempstead Turnpike in East Meadow in 1955, sold out this summer to the Rockbottom drug store chain. And in spite of petitions, even poems, of protest from heart broken skaters, the chain will close its operation there in the next few weeks. It was a victim, the company said of the high value of Long Island real estate and the high cost of liability insurance.
“The rink did well, don’t misunderstand me,” said Marvin Facher, executive vice president of New Jersey-based America on Wheels, noting that he understood the feelings of roller-skating aficionados about the rink.
But he said that the liability-insurance premium on the rink nearly quadrupled in the past three years, although he would not cite figures, and the offer for the property, which he also would not disclose, was just too enticing. Rockbottom officials would not comment.
“Real estate should be put to its best and highest economic use,” Facher said. “That site was not being put to its best and highest economic use.”
There are people who would say it was being put to its best and brightest use, attracting the best coaches and the best skaters. A use that makes everyone look when Levittown’s name comes over the loudspeaker at competitions.
“Nationally, it has been viewed as producing a lot of national champions in the sport of roller skating,” said Michael Brooslin, director of the National Roller Skating Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“It’s the home of the champion and everyone know it,” said Gladys Werner of Albertson, who came to the rink as a teacher when it first opened, the 1941, 1942 and 1946 U.S. Seniors Dance Championships already behind her. “That’s why it’s so pitiful it’s closing.
Throughout an evening last week, she would dance at 60 as gracefully as ever to the “Werner Tango,” of course, and “Thanks for the Memories.” Nearby, George Petrone sat in an office surrounded by trophies and photographs of the skaters who won them in his nearly 30 years of managing the Levittown rink.
He pointed out the faces staring from the photos. “Debbie’s in Texas, Rickie’s in Florida,” he said beaming. “Janes in Ohio, Bobby’s in California.” And the he couldn’t go on. “Oh God,” he said with an audible sigh.
“I’ve seen kids grow up, meet their girlfriends and come back with their children,” he told a visitor. “I feel it was a place that the majority of people in the community felt it was a safe place for children to go.”
So said the Palms, who called their eldest daughter recently to tell her that her childhood rink was closing. “Send me a piece of the floor,” came the response from Debbie in Texas.