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Hippodrome--Where Lovers Fell Head Over Wheels

Times Staff Writer

On Nov. 8, 1935, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was in his first term as President and “Mutiny on the Bounty” was a hit motion picture, Hazel Smith and Bill Williams fell in love on the hardwood floor of the old Hippodrome roller skating rink in Long Beach.

She was 15. He was 19, an older man. Someone whose name has long since faded into obscurity introduced them, and they both knew then that it was love. He asked her to skate, and they did, holding hands for the rest of the night. Two years later, they married.

Neither of them had been to the Hippodrome before that night, and Bill Williams says there was never a need to return: “I found what I wanted.”

Sunday--51 years, two children and one grandchild after they married--Bill and Hazel Williams went back to the place where they met.

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The occasion was Hippodrome Nostalgia Day, sponsored by the new occupants of the building: the FHP Long Beach Seniors Center. The Hip, as it was called in its golden days, went out of business in 1976. The FHP center, which provides health care for senior citizens, restored the 1929 Art Deco building and opened for business there four years ago.

Several hundred people, mostly senior citizens, turned out for the gala, which was scheduled to coincide with Valentine’s Day, in honor of couples like Bill and Hazel Williams, who owe their matrimonial bliss--or at least some fond memories of romance--to the nights they spent gliding and twirling across the floor of the Hippodrome.

It was, said 80-year-old Maurice Renfro, who frequented the Hippodrome as a sailor in the 1920s, a place where sailors went “to meet a different type of girl--nice ones, like you’d meet in church.”

Of course, the rink is much different now. The cavernous main room, barn-like with its vaulted ceiling, is gone, having been divided into a pharmacy and examining rooms and offices with sophisticated medical equipment. The old hardwood floor has been mostly covered with carpet, although where it remains exposed, the pockmarks left behind by the skates provide clues to the building’s history.

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The pipe organ that once serenaded young lovers is gone as well, although a Hammond organ was brought in for Sunday’s party, and its owner--health center member and retired opera singer Fernand Martel--crooned love songs all afternoon. His repertoire included “I Love You Truly,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and “My Funny Valentine.”

The reception desk, where clerks preside over computers during the week, was festooned with red and white streamers and converted into a soda fountain, where patrons could get an ice cream sundae and a cherry Coke--with a maraschino cherry--just for the asking. In the lobby, a tuxedoed caterer dished out popcorn, in white paper bags, from an old-fashioned popping machine.

The idea for the nostalgia day began with the seniors who, during medical checkups, would regale the doctors and nurses with stories of their skating days at the old Hippodrome. Last fall, the center held an essay contest in an attempt to put the memories in writing.

First-place winner Betty Hazlet Rasp, who died shortly after the contest ended, frequented the Hip in the 1940s. “As the overhead lights dimmed from the whitest to subtle blues,” she wrote, “each girl was confident that her skating partner was the only Fred Astaire on wheels! (and I do believe some weren’t far from wrong!)”

The former Janice Jensen certainly felt that way about her skating partner, Don Hale.

Hale and his buddies were floor guards at the Hippodrome in the 1950s. They earned $3.20 a night, and the job had its advantages: The floor guards could blow their whistles at will, and their uniforms--black pants, white shirt, black bow tie--went a long way toward attracting the prettiest girls.

In 1951, Don thought Janice looked rather fetching in her black skating skirt, and Janice “just fell immediately in love with this good looking guy in his guard uniform.” He asked her to skate a couples-only dance (offending another suitor, Janice’s skating teacher, in the process) and the rest is, as they say, history. They will celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary this year.

Several of Don’s floor guard buddies also met their wives on the skating rink floor. Four of them returned Sunday, each with his whistle and his memories. Don even brought back his old skates, the metal kind that strapped onto regular shoes.

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