By Ky Plaskon
Skating back to the future with big cash infusion
On a Saturday morning Kelly McGlynn and Amy Hodgson lace up their roller skates and trudge across greasy carpet that is black, faded and threadbare. They roll into a scratched, bowing and purple rink. In a mist of 80’s music, they dreamily glide in unison, red lasers shining through their blowing hair and leave the present behind. Below black lights and a massive green whirling fan, they take a trip down memory lane.
“First loves. First heartbreaks. It all happened here,” McGlynn says, adding that her parents left her there. It was kind like a day-care. “I grew up here. We used to sneak out of here and go skate downtown in the parking garages.” She looks at Hodgson and says: “I can’t believe we are still alive.”
Hodgson chimes in, “This (the roller rink) was my first job.” She prepared the party rooms and worked behind the snack bars.
“Between skating and working, I was here at least 5 days a week,” Hodgson says adding that she made life-long friends here. Back then, the rink was called King’s Skate Country and, of all things, it was cowboy themed (as if cowboys ever roller skated).
“Oh it was hideous,” said Kelly McGlynn. “Everything was orange and brown.” It was another world back then. Adults skated past the cowboy and campfire murals to party room number four where kids and parents would inhale cigarette smoke (smoking room).
Out on the rink, employees wore costumes. “The owner didn’t force us to wear the costumes,” Kelly said, “But when you are little it’s fun to be a bunny mascot and then you would sweat. Sweaty, furry costumes! Ha ha!”
It’s memories like these that make Roller Kingdom a Reno institution, but the state of this institution today makes McGlynn and Hodgson sad.
“Trashed. This rink’s a mess,” Hodgson says. “I hate how it looks run down. Some of my best memories are here and I am hopeful that with improvements more people will want to come here.”
The owner agrees. It’s time to roll up his sleeves and put in some big-money and elbow grease into the old rink, so that patrons can so-to-speak: Skate back to the future.
So far it is, “non-glamorous stuff,” Roller Kingdom owner Brad Armstrong says. He’s put new stucco on the building and painted the front, repaired the roof, re-coated the parking lot, put in new entry doors and flashy LED lights outside. That’s just the start. When it is all said and done, it will be $300,000-worth of improvements. He will start the second round of improvements when he pays off the mortgage in May, improvements that he hopes will really grease the rinks wheels.
“We are upgrading and putting in carpet,” he said. “My garage looks like a scientific experiment right now to see what carpet will work best with skates and spilled drinks!”
The biggest improvement will be tearing out the old purple roller rink flooring and replacing it with a shiny new maple floor.
“So, it will be the floor that we always wanted, if you know what I mean,” Brad says. “Maple will perform better skating-wise. The floor will be flown in (on a plane) and will need to sit for a month-and-a-half so that it can ‘season.” That means the humidity will cure the wood, he explains.
He plans to install the new rink in mid-August and then open after Labor Day. “We have never closed for a period of time like that,” he says.
New snack bar tables are also on the way. “It is definitely going to have a facelift,” he says.
Even the music is going to be upgraded. “It is harder and harder to find music that is edited and clean (no swear words),” he says. “We will install a program that has 72,000 songs that are ‘on-demand.’ It is a subscription-type thing. It will give us access to certain songs played for certain age kids.”
The musical enhancements remind him of when he bought the place back in 1999. “One of the first thing I did 20 years ago was install a computer. There were turn-tables and tape decks and even then that wasn’t state-of-the-art. There were CD players. We went digital!”
“You gotta stay fresh,” Brad says. Despite the big money he will pour in, “I will try not to (raise prices). I don’t foresee us raising prices,” he says. But already the 10AM Saturday morning skate class prices have increased. Parents used to be free, but now they pay the same $5 as kids.
Still, the 5 bucks covers skate class, 4 hours of skating and rentals.
“It’s really cheap!” Amy Hodgson says, adding that she is willing to pay more for a better looking rink. She hopes that with the improvements more people will come, leading to a generation of kids making new childhood memories like hers.
“Some of my children’s best memories and friends will come from here,” she dreams as she watches her 9-year old daughter Audry rolling across the patched, purple and bowed floor.
Audry has been coming to Roller Kingdom for the Saturday morning classes. She has heard the rumors about the improvements. “Yeah, it will be better,” she says, but, when pressed to explain how it will be better, it becomes clear that she really doesn’t care what the rink looks like. “I like how it is,” Audry says. All she cares about is having a floor she can glide across.
“I usually don’t fall unless I am not thinking. Sometimes I think I want to do a trick and then I fall,” Audry says. “I can skate backward. I can do scissors. I can do backward scissors. I can do bunny hops!”
Her skill isn’t the result of a fancy environment with big-money expenditures. Her skill is the result of instructor Allen McKinley who has been teaching the Saturday morning classes for a decade. His classes keep new blood flowing to the rink. Standing on the old ragged, greasy carpet in the snack bar, he says he is excited about the investment too.
He isn’t exaggerating. The rink now caters to the school district with 3-4 bus-loads of kids a day.
He doesn’t just teach kids. He also offers private artistic dance, which is similar to ballroom dancing, except on skates.
“Tangos, foxtrots,” he excitedly rattles off the list of dances, eyes wide and moving his hands in dance moves. “You have to know exactly what degree to enter the floor and beats per minute. 94 beats per minute for the Canasta Tango!”
Like this old rink, artistic dancing is evolving too he says. He picks up an old book of dance routines on skates and flips through it’s dusty pages.
“It is like a dinosaur. Yesteryear stuff. Not that many people are interested in doing it,” he says.
“Now there is rhythm skating, big loops and turns, jam skating,” he says. With the artistic dancing less popular than it once was, he has turned his focus to the Saturday kids classes.
“My favorite is Saturday morning skate class. Seeing the kids grow as skaters and keep coming back and brining their kids.” He recalls a phrase he hears all the time from his students: “Remember how you taught me how to skate 20 years ago?”
He says that Reno is unique in keeping skating alive.
“It is better than being steady. It is on the upswing. Most of all the rinks have closed down in other cities.”
Rink owner Brad sees the value in Allen’s kid’s classes. He has a present for Allen that will upgrade the class, make it more exciting for kids and turn Allen into a virtual rock star. “But don’t tell Allen what it is,” Brad says “It’s a surprise!”
Brad has thought about selling the rink (a prime location near the university with freeway visibility) and moving the rink, but this loan payoff and big investment is a milestone in Reno and he’s betting that youth and parents will keep on rolling in. While the youth are keeping Roller Kingdom alive, the youth are also posing the biggest challenge for Brad. “Hiring can be difficult. Kids today aren’t like kids 20 years ago.”
While the kids have changed, skating has changed and now the rink will change, one thing hasn’t changed. Just like 20 years ago, kids are still strapping wheels on their feet and rolling to the beat. With the cash infusion that strikes at the heart of Roller Kingdom, it’s a beat that’s sure to get stronger.
Kyril Plaskon is author of Silent Heroes of the Cold War: Declassified, was the first Sierra Reporter for Capital Public Radio & implemented the award-winning Reno Youth Radio partnership between WCSD, KUNR and UNR. The program is now in its second year.