Richland skating rink still rollin' after 60 years

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 1, 2014 

— Alan Bacon can't remember a time when he didn't know how to roller skate. His parents, Howard and Grace, opened Rollarena Skating Center in Richland in 1953, the year he was born.

It was his second home growing up, which had its perks — like a snack bar stocked with treats.

Bacon also got lessons in work and responsibility at the center on Stevens Drive. In middle school, he was in charge of the coat check stand for dances, and the money he earned helped pay for college.

Bacon took over Rollarena in 1977. He and his wife, Judy, have guided it through the fads and trends of the ensuing decades — from the roller disco heyday to the inline skating boom.

Now, they're celebrating a milestone for the family operation: 60 years in business.

An anniversary party and open house starts today at 6 p.m. Jeff Jacobs, a local radio station owner who DJ'd at Rollarena in the 1990s, is scheduled to play music of the last six decades.

Special games also are planned, and the Bacons hope people bring stories about spins on the floor through the years.

"We want it to be an opportunity for people to come in and share memories," Judy Bacon said. "We want to open it to the community and say, 'Thank you for being here with us.'"

For the first years of Rollarena's long life, the center — like many other roller rinks — used organ music as the skating soundtrack.

The center drew many young adults back then, people in their 20s looking to socialize. The skating area would transform into a dance floor on Saturday nights.

At that time, "people wanted to listen to rock music. But they wanted to dance also. So roller rinks were a perfect venue to do that," Alan Bacon told the Herald. "A lot of roller rinks — a half-dozen rinks in the state of Washington were on a dance circuit, where you had the best of the national and Northwest bands."

Musical acts from Paul Revere and the Raiders to Fats Domino played to crowds at Rollarena.

In the 70s, the roller disco craze started. It was a boom time in the Tri-Cities and in roller skating, and "the place would be packed out 15 minutes after you opened," Alan Bacon said.

In the 90s, another skating trend erupted, one that's still popular today — inline skating.

Through the years, the skates and music have changed, but Rollarena has remained a constant for some local families.

"My parents skated here. When I was not much older than (my son), I skated here," said Ryan Dudley of Richland on a recent afternoon, pointing to his boy John Paul, almost 5, who was making a loop in a pair of inline skates.

A few feet away, Gay Fitzgibbon of Richland reminisced about bringing her daughter to Rollarena when the girl was around 12.

That was years ago; the daughter just turned 43.

"It's a generational thing," Fitzgibbon said of the center. She'd brought a new generation of skaters that day — some children from her church.

The skating center, with its rounded barrel roof, is a business, with taxes to pay and plans to make.

But it also seems to be something more.

There are the moments of triumph, when a child still learning to skate finally makes a full loop without falling.

And sometimes, "we'll see children, and this is maybe their first experience in having total control of spending money. Mom may give them $2 and say, go buy a toy or go buy something in the snack bar, and they have total control of that decision. And it is a very weighty decision. They don't take it lightly," Judy Bacon said with a laugh. "This is a big deal for them, because this is a first experience. We do a lot of first experiences, I think."

The Bacons have been married for 27 years. Their daughters, Joy and Kelsey, now in their 20s, grew up at Rollarena just like their dad.

Kelsey, 24, the youngest, was there during the Herald's visit, sharing memories and later helping out during the afternoon public skate. The place was packed, mostly with young families.

As music pumped — everything from Elvis to Katy Perry — dozens of kids and a few adults made loops around the floor.

Although skate technology has changed over the years and fads have come and gone, the core elements of skating that make it unique and fun are the same, the Bacons said.

It's a truly physical activity, and a social one.

"Learning to roller skate is kind of like learning to ride a bike," Alan Bacon said. "It's one of those transitions in life. You miss out on something if you don't do both of those."

None of the kids at Rollarena were missing out that day. Bacon got on the microphone and announced it was time for the limbo. A line of skaters — some on traditional quad skates and others on inline skates — quickly formed.

Kelsey was in the middle of the floor, holding the limbo stick. She gradually dropped it closer and closer to the ground, as the skaters shot underneath.

There were a few tumbles, but lots of smiles from kids having fun, in a place that's seen a lot of that during 60 years.

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