Looking Back On...Skate-O-Rama

DOWNEY - Remember the 1970s?If so, you probably weren't really there. At least that's what some of those who survived the psychedelic era believe. Bellbottom pants, Farrah Fawcett hair, and platform shoes were all the rage. KC and the Sunshine Band had two number one hits on the pop charts and a new late-night comedy show known as Saturday Night Live began airing every weekend on NBC. From 8-track players and lava lamps to bean bag chairs and station wagons, the decade of disco was full of groovy fads that lasted far more than a generation. For Dale Lendrum, however, what epitomized the 1970s was another cultural phenomenon that not only mesmerized teenagers in Downey, but ultimately, young people across the nation: roller skating. As a kid, growing up near the corner of Imperial and Woodruff, Lendrum remembers the skating craze, and the 20,000-square-foot roller rink that introduced him to it. "Growing up a block from Skate-O-Rama in the late 60s and 70s was a most memorable time for me," said Lendrum, now 48. "At the time we didn't have a city park nearby ‚àí Skate-O-Rama was a place to go for some fun and recreation. "Back then it wasn't much to look at inside, a brown, worn hardwood floor, half-circle ceiling, and a few mood lights for effect. The DJ booth was an old janitorial closet about the size of two phone booths combined with a record player inside plugged into the P.A. system. "In the mid 70s my sister Sheila and I took lessons there for awhile...Stake-O-Rama was the Disneyland of Downey and a lot of us practically grew up in that rink. It was a good place to have fun, hang out, and meet new people." Advertised as Downey's "family fun roller rink," Skate-O-Rama, located at 12310 Woodruff Ave., opened its doors on Wednesday, April 23, 1957. Built at a cost of $250,000, the modern roller rink provided local residents a unique alternative for recreation. Following a large grand opening, members of the community responded positively to Skate-O-Rama, coming out weekly to both skate and participate in the classes taught by the rink's owner and manager, Jerry Nista. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Nista started skating at the age of 13, eventually becoming a professional skater and U.S. champion in freestyle skating. After spending several years traveling around the country hosting skating exhibitions, Nista partnered with roller skate company Sure-Grip Skates, owned by Downey residents, Mr. and Mrs. Harry C. Ball. By the mid-50s, Nista, who had traveled to all 50 states with his exhibitions, decided to open his own roller rink, which would offer Sure-Grip Skates exclusively. "He moved to Downey and opened Skate-O-Rama," said Taira Nista, daughter of Jerry Nista. "Everyone that knew him knows he was so involved. He was very athletic, but he was also very sensitive. He had a huge heart and would bend over backwards for anyone." With soft organ music playing in the background during skating sessions, Downey residents of all ages patronized the local rink, which operated Tuesday through Friday, from 7:30 - 10:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 1:30 - 4:30 p.m. On Mondays, the rink was closed, open only for private parties. In addition to an 80-by-160 maple floor, the roller rink also featured a deluxe lobby, snack bar, nursery room, party room, and spectator section on the outer rim of the rink. Taira Nista, 28, said only three words can describe Skate-O-Rama during its heyday. "Busy, busy, busy," she said with a laugh. "There were classes, private, individual lessons, choreographing, birthday parties, couple skate nights, and tournaments held there too." By the late 60s and early 70s, however, roller skating began taking on new life as improved plastic material led to better wheels and a smoother ride for skaters. A new generation soon took to the floor, using its own music as the soundtrack. Skate-O-Rama quickly became a new haven for Downey teenagers and young adults looking to embrace pop culture. The organ music faded away and Nista started piping in the area's most popular radio station, 102.7 KKDJ (now KIIS FM). Nista even hosted his own sock-hops, inviting the station to broadcast live from the rink every weekend. Nista also began courting live bands to perform inside the rink. By the late 1960s, Skate-O-Rama had welcomed several well-known acts including The Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and The Righteous Brothers. "The crowd pushed through the glass one of the nights The Beach Boys were there," Taira Nista recounted. "There was a duo that wanted to perform at the rink, but Dad had never heard of them and thought they were asking for too much money. They were then going by the name of 'Anthony and Cleopatra.' A week or two later they came out with a hit record, 'I Got You, Babe,' and changed their name to 'Sonny and Cher.'" By 1975, Nista decided to remodel Skate-O-Rama to better reflect the roller rink's new demographic. Lendrum, who graduated from Warren High School in 1981, remembers the night the rink reopened. "The theme was to be that of, ironically, a park," he said. "With 15 feet tall, faux willow trees lining the inside north and south walls, blinking lights blanketing the limbs and leaves, and new green turf carpeting, you did get a park feeling. "The staff wore 'Park Ranger' type uniforms to add to the theme. Other improvements included a modernized snack bar, a complete game room, a newly-built DJ booth, a dropped ceiling with mirrored ball and lighting effects, and a new, blue-coated floor which offered greater traction." Now playing disco, new wave, and hard rock, Skate-O-Rama became a hot spot on the weekends, welcoming high school students from several neighboring cities. By 1979, a group of Skate-O-Rama regulars decided to form an unofficial skate club called Bad Co. Skate-O-Rama Locals, named after the English rock group Bad Company whose music was often played at the rink. Made up of freestyle, formal, figure and speed skaters, as well as regular skate aficionados, Bad Co. grew to boast over one hundred members. On Friday and Saturday nights, skaters would arrive to a barrage of Bad Co. shirts, worn only by club members. "We weren't so much of an official club as we were a social club," said Lendrum, one of the group's premier members. "There were no meetings or dues and I don't recall us having any officers other than a president. Other than skating, we often had bonfire nights at the beach, BBQ's in the park, we would do social things together." However, despite the initial success of Skate-O-Rama and the resurgence of roller skating during the 1970s, Nista was unable to sustain the rink's popularity throughout the 1980s. "Dad decided to sell the rink because popular skating was moving to the outdoors - especially the beach, with the advent of in-line skates," said Taira Nista. "Business was slowing down and he was getting tired at 58. He was ready to retire and focus on the kids." The rink was ultimately sold to a long-time patron, Hans Oertel, who skated at the rink throughout his childhood and always hoped to own Skate-O-Rama one day. In 1988, Oertel purchased the rink from Nista for more than $1 million. Margarete Oertel, daughter of Hans Oertel, remembers when her family took over the rink, which became a popular location for parties during the 1990s. "We had family entertainment such as birthday parties as well as social entertainment which consisted of private parties for many schools and churches. We really enjoyed the people and families that came to skate," said Margarete Oertel. "Of course, throughout the years, the business did decline and our family decided to sell the rink," she said. "However, we never forgot how much fun it was to have a business that brought so much joy and entertainment to so many people." After more than 40 years of business in Downey, Skate-O-Rama shut down in the early 2000s and was eventually sold to Hoffmeyer Company Inc., an industrial manufacturer and distributor. In 2004, the property was bought by Providence Pipe Products, Inc., a steel pipe manufacturer. Today, the building is still intact, but the entry way of the rink has been renovated to incorporate office space. The large room once used as the rink itself is now being used to store the company's steel products. Nonetheless, the memory of Skate-O-Rama remains alive and well - online. In 2009, a former Skate-O-Rama "alumni," who grew up at the rink, started a Facebook group, dedicated to the now defunct roller rink. With 487 members and counting, the Facebook page is filled with memories, stories and recollections written by adults reflecting on their childhood experiences at Skate-O-Rama. For 1992 Downey High alumni Tony Waller, just seeing the former Skate-O-Rama building makes him smile. "I had my first kiss there and met some great friends there that I still talk to…Thanks for the memories Skate-O-Rama," he wrote. Sheri Prather praised the roller rink as a much needed social environment for teenagers. "Really miss this place. It was a great hangout on Friday and Saturday," she wrote. "I so wish it was still open. Kids today need a great hangout like Skate-O-Rama…Like others I would probably break a hip if I tried to skate today, but it would be well worth it. Thanks for all the great childhood memories." Lily Rosas summed up an evening at Skate-O-Rama in just one sentence. "Skating with someone to some Journey, lights dim, and the disco ball going was it," she exclaimed. But Sheila Burkhart, who graduated from Downey High School in 1983, believes it was something else that made Skate-O-Rama stand out. "I think the real reason that Skate-O-Rama was so special was because of a man named Jerry Nista who had a dream to build a place where young people could go and have fun and enjoy themselves," said Burkhart. "Most of us spent all of our spare time there and we became one big huge family. It was a place where we could go locally, a place where we could stay out of trouble." What started as a small Downey venture for family fun, evolved into so much more as pop culture collided to create a unique community of youth and young adults who spent their early years gliding, twirling, and rolling to the sounds of the day.

********** Published: August 11, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 17