Venice's Rollerskating Craze

Now that it’s springtime again in Venice – finally! – and we’ve weathered the winter’s relentlous rain – hopefully! – it’s time to head out of our domiciles and catch up with all that the outdoors has to offer. And what better way to do it than by rollerskates.

Did you know that roller skating has been a part of Venice history for almost 99 years? Or that roller skates have been around for 300 years? I bet not.

In the early 1700s, an unknown Dutchman decided to go ice skating in the summer, which he accomplished by nailing wooden spools to strips of wood and attaching them to his shoes. 'Skeelers' was the nickname given to the new dry-land skaters.

Next, in 1760, a London instrument maker and inventor, Joseph Merlin, attended a masquerade party wearing one of his new inventions, metal-wheeled boots. Joseph, desiring to make a grand entrance, added the pizzazz of rolling in while playing the violin. Lining the huge ballroom was a very expensive wall-length mirror. The fiddling skater stood no chance and Merlin crashed solidly into the mirrored wall, as his roller skates crashed into society.

In France, the first patent for a roller skate was issued to a Monsieur Petibledin in 1819. The skate was made of a wood sole that attached to the bottom of a boot, fitted with two to four rollers made of copper, wood or ivory, and arranged in a straight single line.

Later, in 1863, American James Plimpton found a way to make a very useable pair of skates. Plimpton's skates had two parallel sets of wheels, one pair under the ball of the foot and the other pair under the heel. The four wheels were made of boxwood and worked on rubber springs. Plimpton's design was the first dry-land skate that could maneuver in a smooth curve. This is considered the birth of the modern four-wheeled roller skates, which allowed for turns and the ability to skate backwards.

Within the next 20 years, roller skating became a popular pastime for men and women. Wealthy men in Newport, R.I., played “roller polo,” a hockey game. Others held contests in dance and figure skating. Outdoors, men and women were racing in speed contests. The more the public saw of skating, the more they wanted to try it themselves. The roller skating industry started to prosper.

In 1902, the Coliseum in Chicago opened a public skating rink. Over 7,000 people attended the opening night. Due to its sudden popularity, hundreds of rink openings in the United States and Europe followed. The sport was becoming very widespread and various versions of roller skating developed: recreational skating on indoor and outdoor rinks, polo skating, ballroom roller dancing and competitive speed skating.

Venice's skating rink, located at Trolley Way (Pacific Avenue) and Loreli (17th Street, one block south of Windward), opened on May 11, 1906, and during the fall became the rage in Southern California. The Venice rink was jammed nightly. Admission was ten cents and skate rental was 25 cents. The rink began to be so overrun every evening with the skating-hungry public, it was decided the 210 x 90 foot floor would have to be enlarged. More land was acquired, including that on which the first city jail was located, and the rink was built all the way up to Speedway. It was the largest skating area in Southern California. The rink featured exhibitions of championship and professional skaters in fancy costumes, Friday night races, and the new sport of roller polo.

Venice quickly fielded a roller hockey team in the fledgling Southern California Roller Polo League. Seven hundred spectators watched Venice defeat Long Beach 2-0 in their first home game in October. Games were every Wednesday and Saturday nights and the local team made headlines by winning most of the time. But by Christmas, interest in the sport and roller skating in general waned. Venice’s first fad had ended.

But that sort of thing rarely kept Abbot Kinney down. He proceeded to invest in his pier, with all its rides and attractions, until Venice had become the finest amusement center on the west coast and was achieving fame as the ‘Coney Island of the Pacific’. The grand opening of the new circular roller rink on the Kinney Pier occurred in late June, 1913, and skating, again, became a fad among the young people. Several hundred pairs of Richardson ball-bearing skates came from Chicago to be used as rentals for those who did not own their own skates. A high-class orchestra was hired on a permanent basis and maple flooring was laid, sanded, and polished. The rink became a place where young people could congregate for a swell time.

Fast forward to the 60s. Roller skates were still the clunky old metal-wheeled clip-on variety, but thanks to Werner von Braun and his work on the space program, technology would once again change the skating industry. A friend of local resident Earl Tanchuck, Mark Rosenberg, had a younger brother Jeff who had the incredible idea, because one of the roller rinks was closing at this time, to buy up all their roller skates. Due to the latest technological development of polyurethane wheels, allowing skaters to glide easily over rough surfaces, Venice’s wide Ocean Front Walk and bike path made it the perfect outdoor roller rink. So he changed all the wheels on these roller skates, and early in 1977 took his van and parked it in a vacant lot at the end of Windward Ave. He painted on the side of it “Cheap Skates.” And as they say, the rest is history. He was the first guy to break in. Venice and the boardwalk soon became the popular spot to try out this latest craze, with Time magazine naming Venice “the outdoor rollerskating capital of the world.”

By spring 1978 the skate rental business was booming. Competitors such as Roller Skates of America, Roadskates, Horizon Skates, and Venice Precision Rollerworks, opened rival rental stands up and down the boardwalk and along Windward Avenue. With the media attention exposing this new fad, calling Venice the “mecca” of roller skaters, it wasn’t unusual to see thousands of skaters sharing the boardwalk with pedestrians on summer weekends. A slalom course was set up in front of the pavilion, kids jumped trashcans laid out five or six deep, and a disco skating area attracted large crowds on a daily basis.

But the fad peaked at the end of 1979 and was dying by the end of 1980. By early 1981, most of the rental shops had closed, leaving only the die-hard locals to continue rolling along. After the boom during the disco era, roller skating industry growth slowed down through the 80s.

However, in1979, Scott and Brennan Olson, brothers and hockey players from Minneapolis, Minnesota, found an antique pair of roller skates. It was one of the early skates that used the 'in-line' wheels rather than the four-wheeled parallel design of James Plimpton. Intrigued by the in-line design, the brothers began redesigning roller skates, taking design elements from the found skates and using modern materials.

By 1983, Scott Olson had founded Rollerblade, Inc. and the term ‘rollerblading’ became the generic term for the sport of in-line skating, because Rollerblade was the only manufacturer of in-line skates at that time. But soon other in-line skate companies appeared, and by 1986, manufacturers began offering in-line skates to fitness enthusiasts. When they began marketing in-line skates to the public in the 90s, people became excited about roller skating again. By the mid-90s, in-line skating and in-line hockey were once again two of the most popular sports in America.

And so it goes, still rolling along today. The original spirit of Venice of America, the carnival atmosphere not that far removed from the good old days, maintains its popularity due to the rise and fall and rise again of one of America’s favorite fads, the roller skate.