A camper pulls into a parking lot already filled with station wagons, mini-vans and roomy old Ford Falcons. No sporty two-seaters here. These cars are built to carry kids, and sure enough, out of the back of the camper pop half a dozen school-age boys, shouting as they make a beeline for the front of the building, oblivious to the pleas of their mothers.
Yet another Saturday birthday party has arrived at Skate Ranch in Santa Ana, the site of thousands of such events since it opened its doors 33 years ago.
Back then, the Santa Ana Freeway, which almost comes through its doors, was a pleasant country highway, and Gordon (Budd) Van Roekel charged only 90 cents for admission and 35 cents to rent a pair of roller skates.
The freeway--Interstate 5--is a lot wider and busier now, and the prices are a little steeper ($3.50 during the daytime and $5 at night, including skates), but not much else has changed at the big old brick-red barn.
Chickens still cluck and crow in the bushes out front. Well-weathered signs at the entrance apprise skaters of the establishment’s rules:
“No soiled jeans, white T-shirts, tank tops or soiled clothing, backless tops or bare midriffs. No bare feet, loitering or street skates at anytime. No shoulder-length hair for males.”
Inside, 7-year-old Robert Hansen of Anaheim, one of the boys who emerged from the camper, is trying to negotiate the rink’s maple floor, which repeatedly is getting the better of him.
“Robert, get closer to the edge,” yells his mother, Ann Hansen.
A few minutes later, Robert has had enough of “breaking his knees,” as he puts it, and ensconces himself before a less painful video game. For a moment, his mother can relax.
“It’s about the same as I remembered,” said Ann Hansen, 42. “I used to come here in the eighth grade on Saturday afternoons, when I was 12 years old. . . . It’s been here forever, hasn’t it?”
Not quite, but in any case, it won’t be here a whole lot longer. The California Department of Transportation, whose freeway-widening plans finally will bring I-5 through the skating rink’s doors, bought the property from Von Roekel in 1987 for about $3 million, ending years of haggling and legal battles.
Caltrans currently leases the rink to Dennis and Gail Collier, who took over its management from Van Roekel and his wife, Maurice, in 1984.
“I could be here another four to five, maybe 10 years,” said Dennis Collier. “I really don’t think they know when it’s going to happen.”
Caltrans’ current plans call for demolition of the rink in 1991, but a deficit in the state’s highway account could delay the widening project a year or more.
In the meantime, skaters continue to wheel around the 90- by 190-foot maple floor, always counterclockwise, interrupting their laps when the disc jockey calls out the hokeypokey or a couples number.
“It’s quite an institution,” Dennis Collier said. “It’s been part of a lot of lives. We’ve had people get married who met here, then they bring their kids back years later. . . . It’s been a lot of fun operating a rink this old.”
Van Roekel, a Minnesota native, was operating a smaller skating rink next to the old Excelsior Creamery on East 1st Street in Santa Ana when he decided to expand his business.
Bekins Van & Storage agreed to build the rink on its land next to the freeway and lease it back to Van Roekel, giving him an option to buy it within the next few years, which is exactly what Van Roekel did 5 years later.
From the start, Van Roekel set out to build a roller rink better than his competition.
Rink operators throughout Southern California scoffed at his elaborate plan, which called for carpeting in the rink’s lobby and windows along the sides--unusual amenities for roller rinks at the time.
“They thought I’d be closed in 6 months. . . . The others were all built in Quonset huts or in industrial complexes,” Van Roekel said. “I thought, ‘Why can they build beautiful supermarkets but not beautiful skating rinks?’ ”
What really set the rink apart, though, was its rustic theme inside and out. The rink was being built in an old cornfield, Van Roekel said, and he decided to keep the farm atmosphere.
Wagons from a Segerstrom sugar beet farm were used in a Main Street Parade to celebrate the rink’s opening day in March, 1956. The wooden wheels were taken off the wagons, hung from the rink’s ceiling and used for chandeliers. They still provide the only light over the rink’s floor.
Roosters and ducks were painted on the inside rink walls, while live fowl quickly became an institution on the surrounding grounds.
“We started with a couple of banty roosters on an old manure wagon,” Van Roekel said. Every Easter, the flock grew as families brought new birds to the ranch and left them there.
Once, in the early 1970s, Van Roekel received a telephone call late one night from someone who recited a rhyme about a white duck that was popular with children at the rink.
“We figured out from the rhyme that the duck must be over at the Plaza in Orange,” he said. “Sure enough, it was swimming around in the middle of the pond at 1 a.m. It was just some prank.”
Van Roekel and his wife raised their three children in a house he had built--with swimming pool--attached to the rink.
“I would do the same thing again,” he said. “We could always be there with the children, even with the long hours.”
Van Roekel waited up until 3 a.m.--long after the rink had closed--many a night until parents came to pick up their kids. “It was usually after the bars had closed,” he said.
The rink was a success from the beginning, said Van Roekel.
“We had 1,300 people there at a preview opening on Thursday,” he said. “And there were 1,500 the next night. It was quite a big deal in town.”
Business grew each year and boomed in the late 1970s, when disco music and the outdoor skating craze combined to make roller skating an acceptable activity for those who might not have been caught dead in a rink a few years earlier.
But the boom was actually bad for business, Van Roekel says. When disco music took a nose dive in the early ‘80s, so did roller skating. Rinks that had sprouted all over Southern California suddenly shut their doors.
“We weren’t hurt so badly,” he said, “but the others sure were.”
Today, Van Roekel and wife Maurice own and operate the Maurice Carrie winery in Rancho California. But Van Roekel is still involved in roller skating as the president of the Federation Internationale de Roller Skating and chairman of the finance committee of the United States Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating.
His duties recently took him to Cuba, the site of the next Pan American Games at which roller skating is a sport. This year he will go to Barcelona, the site of the next Olympic Games, which will include roller skating as a demonstration sport for the first time.
Competitive roller skating is similar to ice skating, with artistic and speed disciplines. Competitors also demonstrate their skills in a game called roller hockey. Roller skaters perform most of the same axels, camels and flips that ice skaters do. In fact, says Dennis Collier, athletes and coaches in each sport study videotapes of the other to learn new techniques and maneuvers.
Van Roekel met Collier in China in 1984 during an exhibition tour of some of the world’s champion skaters. Collier was coaching the Hong Kong national skating team that year.
Van Roekel wanted to lease Skate Ranch and move to the Temecula area, and Collier, a former national roller skating champion from Sacramento, jumped at the chance.
Since then, he and his wife have turned the rink into one of the top centers for competitive roller skaters in the world. U.S. national singles champion David DeMotte trains there, as do several other top-ranked skaters, coming from as far as San Diego and San Francisco. Skate Ranch skaters won seven gold medals at last year’s national championships, more than any other club.
The house where Van Roekel raised his children now serves as a dormitory for foreign skaters who come to train with the Colliers for several weeks or months at a time.
“In my country, there is nowhere like this to train,” says Rodolfo Spejer, 21, Uruguay’s top skater. His current visit to Skate Ranch is his second in 2 years. “Here, the coaches are excellent, and the track is good. It’s a great place to train.”
Collier says roller skaters must constantly fight against the public’s perception that their sport is related to roller derby.
“Once the public sees what we (roller skaters) do, they’ll be amazed,” said Dennis Collier during a recent practice session. “We have to fight the impression that ice skating is beautiful, flowing and quiet and we’re noisy and rough. . . . Anything they can do, we can do, too.”
Collier says he will hate to see Skate Ranch close, and not only because it has been a lucrative business.
“We hate to see any roller rink go out of business,” Collier said. “It’s not good for the sport.”