Disco and dinosaurs stayin’ alive at St. Louis Park’s Roller Garden

If K.C. of the Sunshine Band was your American Idol and “Disco Inferno” your theme song, then I’d be willing to bet you’re someone who can appreciate the hefty dose of nostalgia staying alive at the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park.

I recently went for a spin on the same massive high-density particle-board rink I rolled around as a teenager. Back then, the Roller Garden was the place to be on Saturday nights — and I didn’t miss many. My family and I were regulars. Three of my four brothers actually worked the DJ booth. I won a contest or two and wore out a few pair of roller skates. I was addicted to disco.

Now, as I circled the rink long after Donna Summer’s last dance, it felt as though time had stood still.

The very mushroom-shaped benches I sat on as a teenager to lace up my skates are still there. Only then the benches were covered with lime green shag carpet — or was it orange?

The same huge mirrored disco ball still hangs in the center of the rink, and the big green dinosaur once anchored atop the building’s roof is now on display inside (having been rescued a few years back from some local high-school pranksters). There’s the arcade and concession stand — and you can still store your stuff in a locker for 50 cents.

Owner Bill Sahly, (rhymes with holly) or Big Bill as we called him, is, at 67, a little grayer and rounder, but still rules the roost — only now with the help of his daughter, Kim.

“My mom was pregnant with me when they bought the place,” says Kim Swenson, 40. “My dad turned the reins over to me about 10 years ago.  My grandfather and my father and now myself, and I have a 20-year-old son who’s in it as well.”

When disco was king
Bill Sahly and his late father-in-law, Russ Johnson, bought the rink back in 1969, and in honor of the Roller Garden’s 40th anniversary, Bill and his wife, Pat, threw a skating party a few weeks ago, inviting those who remember what it was like back in the day — folks like me — to come and take another turn for old times’ sake. (The Sahlys donated all of the party’s ticket sales, more than $1,700, to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare.)

Bill Sahly knows the rink’s storied history well.

Ask him and he’ll get to talking about how long before he owned it, the Roller Garden was once a hippodrome, serving as host to horseback riding, smelt fries, rock and roll revues and tennis matches.

The rink met its heyday when disco became king and disco skating reigned supreme as a social activity.

“Once upon a time in 1976 we had a thousand and two on Friday night and a thousand and three on Saturday night,” said Sahly. “And now there might be a couple hundred.”

 By the mid ’80s, disco’s pulse had been pushed aside by the strains of rock guitars and R and B.

“Rock groups like Foreigner, and AC-DC came out at the same time,” says longtime employee Jay Silvernail. He’s worked the DJ booth part-time for the past 32 years.

“Groups like the Commodores and Earth Wind and Fire were not as popular anymore. I really missed them,” he says, with a laugh and hint of bittersweet “remember when” that we both seemed to share. I mean, who can forget “That’s the Way of the World?”

In 1983, the end of the disco craze, combined with the opening of a competing roller rink across town, just about did the Roller Garden in.

“My whole Saturday night went out the door and went there and then I had an empty night,” says Bill Sahly. ” So I started a Christian music night at the suggestion of a youth pastor. It was a successful night. We built it up. It took a long time. People would say ‘skate to what?!’ And I’d say, well the truth is it’s just like regular music, except without the ‘I want to lick you from toes to nose’ words.”

Christian music and old school funk nights have kept the Roller Garden afloat these past 20 or so years. That, and birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and family fun nights.

“On a really busy Saturday we might do 16 to 18 birthday parties,” says Sahly.

Then and now
Ironically, what were once the Roller Garden’s bread and butter — teen nights — are no more. The rink canceled them about five years ago.

“It got to be too many problems,” says Kim Swenson. “It was just a few bad apples but it really snowballed and it made it to the point where we just weren’t able to do it anymore. There was a lot of fighting and things like that. It was really a sad thing, but unfortunately with the number of teenagers without parent supervisors it became too much of a problem, and then at that point it scared off the families.”

Kim’s brother Kevin Sahly, 37, manages the family’s other rink, the Wooddale Fun Zone in Woodbury. Kevin, like me, remembers the old days and says both the kids and the music have changed.

“At my Woodbury location we’ve got a great big video screen in the back and you might want to put on a song,” he says. “And it could even be a top 10 country song, but if you put the video on the wall, all of a sudden you realize that’s not appropriate for my 9-year-old to see. It’s a completely different kind of music,” says Kevin.

Like the Roller Garden, the Wooddale Fun Zone has also moved away from teen-only skating events, focusing more on families.

Who says you can’t go home again?
And so the beat goes on.

When I showed up for Roller Garden’s anniversary party, DJ Jay Silvernail met me at the door and said I couldn’t leave until I skated to my favorite disco song. I hadn’t seen Jay in years, if not decades, and told him there was no way he still remembered my song.

He just smiled and headed to the DJ tower. When I stepped out onto the rink in a pair of rented rollers skates, I was a little wobbly at first, but soon the muscle memory kicked in. Once I was sure of myself, I looked up at Jay and gave him a thumbs up.

And then came the sound of staccato horns followed by disco’s classic, incessantly pulsating rhythm.
 
“What you find … what you feeeel … to be reeaaaal.”

I got a little teary-eyed, corny as it sounds. Jay remembered me and Cheryl Lynn’s “Got to Be Real.”

The music may have changed, but for just that one moment, I got to go home … again.

In celebration of its 40th anniversary, the Roller Garden, 5622 W. Lake St., St. Louis Park, is having a bunch of reunion skate parties. Here’s a few of them:

Tuesday, Feb. 24, “Super ’70s.” 18 and over
(If you go, think Chuck Norris.)

Tuesday, March 31, ” Disco Daze.” 18 and over.  (If you wore spandex once, don’t even think about it.)

Thursday, April 23, “R and B rollers.” 25 and older. 

All skates are 8-11 p.m. Admission is $7.

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