“You sad to see it close?” asks a man whose scuffed roller skates are thrown over one shoulder. The round-faced woman pushes his ticket between the iron bars guarding the Palisade Gardens box office. “Can’t you see the tears?” she says, her fingertip tracing the wet trail down her cheek.
A hot Sunday afternoon, three o’clock, July 7. Inside the two-story skating rink, the lightboard flashes: ‘TODAY IS THE END-ALL SKATE.” Sixty-six-year-old Johnnie Wright, Palisade Gardens Roller Skating Rink manager and executive vice president of his family’s corporation, which owns the rink, is retiring. “Going fishing,” he says.
A half-block line snakes across unshaded sidewalk along University Avenue in North Park: teenagers, gray-haired couples, mothers and fathers gripping toddlers by the wrists and sunsuit straps. In the line are youngsters whose grandparents, as young married couples, skated here to “I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “Rum and Coca-Cola,” “Green Eyes,” and “Sentimental Journey” swelling down from the Hammond in the rink’s loft. There are teenagers whose parents slow danced, skates tip to tip, around the walnut floor to the first pop records permitted here in the mid-Sixties.
Palisade Gardens opened in 1946, the first post-World War II commercial structure completed in San Diego. The rink has been open to the public every day of the last thirty-nine years. Only in 1978, on the day of the PSA jet crash, did the rink close, to make the building available for possible survivors. “As it turned out there weren’t any,” says Wright, adding, “I never closed for anything else. The kid on the street, he didn’t care about Kennedy being shot, stuff like that. On Thanksgiving and Christmas I ran allday skates. Christmas was a big day for us. Let’s face it, by noon on Christmas, for most families, it’s all over.”
Gathered in twos and threes along the line this final day, graying men and women recall when “the streetcar cost a dime and matinee admission to Palisade Gardens was twenty-five cents.” (By closing day, matinee admission had risen to three dollars.) The older people recall the late Thirties when roller-skating moved off the sidewalks into indoor rinks and became a national craze. One woman attending the Palisade’s finale remembers that, as junior high kids in 1933, she and her friends “skated out at a little rink on Menlo and University, a place called Betty's — it burned down before the war." Says a balding man who swipes at his sweating forehead with a handkerchief, “The Silverado Ballroom upstairs at Euclid and University. Christ, was that some place!" The woman with him recalls that rinks stayed open almost around the clock during World War II. Along with workers from defense factories, and sailors and marines, she says that during the war, she “skated swing shift" until three and four in the morning at the Trocadero on University and Marlboro. Still another woman speaks of “pulling off our detachable skates and jitterbugging in the middle of rinks." The old South Studio is mentioned, as are rinks in Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, and the Palace on lower Broadway, downtown.
To go from the sunlight and heat along University Avenue to the cool, dark, throbbing pandemonium inside Palisade Gardens is “like being dropped in another world," the bald man sighs. Whitney Houston’s lush “You Give Good Love to Me, Baby" soars down from speakers set around the balcony above the floor. Skate wheels thunder. The floor guard, sweating through his white-and-black striped referee shirt, skates the floor’s perimeter. His screeching whistle repeatedly percolates up through the collective roar of hundreds of turning skate wheels, through high-pitched laughter and nonstop music. No one appears to pay him any mind.
Mounted in the ceiling, pink and blue neon stars glimmer across a hundred faces — black. Oriental, Hispanic, and white. Swooping, swirling, wheeling, or just lazily rolling across the floor in duos, as trios, or alone, skaters circle in the conventional counterclockwise direction. Some skate forward and others, three and four together, lightly clasping hands, skate rapidly backward. A lurching toddler grabs his father’s hand. He cries out, but his shriek cannot be heard in the din. Grasping the railing, a stiff-legged Vietnamese teenager, not trusting himself to glide, lifts first one foot and then another, working his way, hand over hand, around the rink.
Three tall and muscular black men in their late teens, shoulders hunched, an expression of fierce intensity gripping their faces, blur by along the rink’s outermost edges at twenty miles per hour. Between these extremes of skill, groups of three and four junior high school girls in pastel jump suits, eyes on their male counterparts, skate decorously on one foot. Older dance skaters, in couples, describe formal patterns across the floor. When the deejay in the balcony switches from Whitney Houston’s current hit to the livelier “Meet You in the Ladies’ Room,” by the funk-punk Mary Jane Girls, older couples and novices trek to the safety of benches that surround the rink. Cheering teenagers and fleet, hard-muscled twenty-year-olds then swarm onto the floor, their features setting into cameos as their speed increases.
A cafe sits at one side of the rink. By six o’clock skaters are dribbling hot dogs with mustard and dipping French fries in catsup. They crowd onto benches around the cafe tables. “Do you remember when the organist sat up there,” says a rusty-voiced, red-haired woman, pointing toward the rink’s northwest corner, “up over the exit sign, behind glass?” As people around the table nod that, yes, they remember, and begin to name organists, all dead now or moved far away, the redhead tells the nonskater at the table, “The vibrations from the organ were just altogether different from the records.”
“And the rink floors didn’t have plastic coating,” says a second woman, explaining to the nonskater. “Twenty years ago they sprinkled rosin on the floor so your wheels would grip good. They powdered those floors! You went in with brown hair. You came out with white hair — from the rosin.”