Party on Wheels : Venice Roller Skaters Will Serve as Boardwalk Ambassadors to Japan

Times Staff Writer

A flash of hair, a glimpse of a sweat-beaded torso and the frenetic motion of limbs to a disco-funk beat. It’s not a workout room, the latest dance movie or an advertisement for an athletic shoe.

It’s Venice Beach, and it’s the weekend.

Spend 15 minutes at this seaside bazaar and you’ll see the world, a television documentary once declared. But this summer, a band of roller-skating disco dancers is turning that saying on its head, leaving their sun-soaked boardwalk circus today for a six-week tour of Japan--as ambassadors for the city of Los Angeles.

As part of Mayor Tom Bradley’s coming visit to Nagoya, Japan, a sister city of Los Angeles, three Venice regulars will put on a song-and-skate routine in Nagoya and three other cities as guests of the Japanese government.


Popular With Foreigners

Southland natives may have begun turning a jaded eye toward these boardwalk performers since the disco craze passed with the 1970s, but to foreigners the hot-weather sport still adds up to more than boom boxes, Day-Glo bikinis and pumped-up bodies.

Practitioners describe it as America’s melting pot on wheels, an inhibition-free arena where bonds defy barriers of race, age or wealth.

“Venice Beach is like the melting pot. . . . It’s as fun as the entire world,” says Demeryst Upshaw, 24, actor, entertainer and now, skate-dancing choreographer. “On a given day I meet (people) from all over the world.”

For the dozens of skate-dance regulars who gather each week at Venice Beach’s main thoroughfare along Windward Avenue, there are as many reasons for dancing as there are gyrating bodies.

“There’s nothing else like it. You have the beach, you have the sun, you can get something to eat, nice weather, everything is here,” says Upshaw, a former electrician who now arranges and performs skate routines for television commercials and stage shows.

“I wanted to go to college here for hotel management but right now this is going on instead,” says Laura Von Bergman, 24, an Austrian who came to America at the suggestion of her older brother. Upshaw and Von Bergman are two of the skaters who leave for Nagoya today.

“It’s just a party on wheels,” says Roeshell Logan, 38, a Los Angeles native who works with the city Department of Water and Power while writing songs and lyrics on the side.

However, the scene is also uniquely “Venice,” and its attraction extends far beyond young Californians. Well, at least to young-at-heart Californians.

“The media tells America that when you reach 35, you’re dead. That’s baloney. I’m just a kid,” says Clemens Arthur, a genial, graying 57-year-old telephone installer who skates evenings after work and every weekend.

“I have just as much fun here as I would if I spent $2,000 . . . going to some island” for a vacation, he says.

It doesn’t cost much to roller-skate, adds a friend.

“I can do this if I’m poor, I can do this if I’m rich,” says John R. Holtz, 48, an investment banker and skating enthusiast. “But who cares?”

Besides, says Holtz, who took up skate-dancing two years ago for exercise and is usually accompanied by his wife, “I’m bored with people I talk to all week long (and) it beats going to a therapist.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the beach, the sun is warm, the water sparkling and a crowd of about 80 has already left the boardwalk’s T-shirt boutiques and Tarot card-reading stands to watch Upshaw doing a routine he calls “Crazy Legs.”

Behind him Von Bergman and Kathy A. Hogan flair-kick and dance.

“I kind of like this circus-like atmosphere,” says Hogan, 33, a construction worker and graphic designer. Hogan’s optic orange bikini matches Von Bergman’s fluorescent yellow swimsuit.

“I love to dance, I love being at the beach and I don’t like the night club scene too much,” Hogan explains, smiling at the crowd.

Hogan will join Upshaw and Von Bergman on their trip to Japan. They will split the $20,000 that the host government will pay the trio.

Von Bergman and Hogan have also won skating appearances on the television series “Night Court” and in a Charles Bronson film. Von Bergman, who learned how to skate on the beach only two years ago, says she just likes being able to perform the sport well.

“I like dancing but I like (roller-skating) better because it’s harder, more challenging,” Von Bergman says.

The group’s international exposure extends beyond Japan, however. On a recent Saturday, an English television documentary team has just finished filming the group, and the Europeans can be seen leaving the boardwalk in their white shorts and black socks and carrying a camera.

Two weeks ago, a Moscow film team visited the beach, and before that, crews from Berlin and Italy.

A foreign visitor says variety is the key to Venice’s magnetic attraction abroad.

“It’s just incredible the mixture of people having fun,” says Bob Riviere, a Swiss drummer, over the din of the music at the concrete pavilion that serves as the dancers’ stage.

Riviere says he’ll come back to Venice at some point, perhaps with friends--after all, he has packed a videotape of the beach to show in Europe.

Ben Gibson, a general contractor and Los Angeles director of a drug treatment program run by the Church of Scientology, has staked out a part of the beach with a $3,000 homemade sound system so he can teach newcomers how to skate dance. He discovered skating six years ago when, after working long days, he came to the beach to relax.

“You know you can come here,” says Gibson, who plans to write a skating manual, “and let go of your problems. A lot of them feel that in common, letting go, flying on roller skates. . . . That’s a wonderful sensation.”

“When I roller-skate, I don’t really think about anything, I just emphasize the energy I’m giving out,” says Upshaw, a natural performer who only began skating seriously in January when he was laid off his electrician’s job at Hughes Aircraft Corp. in El Segundo.

“When I get a smile from someone, that’s good enough inside,” Upshaw says.

As far as Logan is concerned, skating--and Venice--is just plain fun.

“You can have good things to say or bad things to say about Venice,” Logan says, “but it’s just a smorgasbord of people.”

Would he go skating anywhere else?

“Nah, you gotta always go with the original. L.A.'s the place.”