It'd be tempting to call Glendale's Moonlight Rollerway one of the Southland's "best kept secrets" if not for the fact that it's so darn popular. On weekend days, it's thick with birthday parties, the skating floor awash in first-timers clutching the rink wall for balance. On weekend evenings, the veteran skaters come out, zipping around (often backwards) with precision flair. The day I arrive, there's a rep from Jamie Kennedy's camp, making arrangements to host a private wrap party and a few weeks earlier, an episode of "Modern Family" aired that included a scene shot at the Rollerway. Clearly, the word is out.
Yet even though the rink's been at the same corner -- San Fernando and Hawthorne -- for over 60 years, the Moonlight still has the feel of a neighborhood hangout that only locals know about. It's a cultural and community landmark; just not the kind you can easily share on a postcard. Some spaces, you just have to visit to understand their character though in the Moonlight's case, it also helps to strap on some skates and hit the floor.
The roller rink is a unique, living cultural artifact in American history. On the one hand, they invoke an aura of nostalgia for the past, both lived (i.e. visiting the rink you used to go to as a kid) and imagined (i.e. think of all the skating movies you've seen). However, skating itself is deeply pleasurable and that doesn't diminish with age, unlike, say, trying to ride your childhood carousel again. In other words, people may go skating to relive "the good old days" but mostly they go to skate; the kick of nostalgia is just a bonus.
Moreover, unlike other spaces weighted with pop cultural associations -- think a 1950s-styled diner, for example -- a rink like Moonlight isn't layered with the traces of any one era but several; the rink floor may as well be a palimpsest. Walking into the Moonlight is like stepping into a time warp except with every glance, you see a different period in cultural history: the interior architecture has literally remained the same since it opened in the rock n' roll mid-50s but the carpeting -- black with day-glo streaks -- is pure legwarmer 80s while the mirror balls hanging off the ceiling inevitably invoke the disco 70s (even though they were actually installed in the 50s). Some of this inevitably flirts with kitsch -- blame Hollywood's love affair with skating films -- yet the Moonlight never feels forced or faux. It's simply stood standing through so many eras of skating fads that it carries these traces like the shades of patina on its main floor.
The Rollerway's origins in Glendale date back to the booming aircraft industry that used to dominate this part of L.A. in the interwar wars; its building was originally a foundry for airplane parts. The end of WWII brought a downturn in the industry and in 1950, the factory's owners sold the space to Harry Dickerman who converted it into Harry's Roller Rink, one of several he ran across Southern California.
If you were to visit the Moonlight right this moment, much of it would still resemble what Harry's looked like when it first opened and that includes the 2.5" maple flooring. At a table next to the snack bar, the Moonlight's current owner, Dominic Cangelosi, pulls out a spare piece of flooring, points to the skate area and informs me, "the floor is original. It's solid maple, no nails," and shows me how the tongue-in-groove shaping of each floor piece keeps everything locked in and tight. "People come here because of the floor," he says. "There's a big difference between skating on this floor than skating on cork floor, which is like tiles, or particle board, or plywood floors that are coated. This floor is smooth and because of the subfloor, when there's a crowd on the floor, [it] sort of gives a little bit."
Cangelosi's owned Moonlight since 1985 but his history with the rink goes back far before that. He was the in-house organist here in the 1960s, after Dickerman had sold the rink to Mildred and Clifford Neschke, who already ran a rink in Pasadena, the original Moonlight Rollerway. Cangelosi had learned organ in high school but it was an early trip to Moonlight Pasadena where he got hooked on the style of organ playing he heard there. The Neschkes eventually hired him to work at both Moonlights.
You can still hear Cangelosi play, every Tuesday night, starting at 8 p.m. When he takes to the keys of the vintage Hammond B3, you're transported back to the heyday of when organists were the in-demand musical entertainers since they could create the big sound of a band on just a single instrument. However, organists themselves were eventually crowded out by the growing popularity of rock n' roll-era DJs and at this point, Cangelosi thinks he may be only one of two rink organists still playing on the entire west coast.
It's not just rink organists who've disappeared, it's rinks themselves. Skating has enjoyed incredible longevity -- well over 100 years in the U.S. -- but its mass popularity rises and wanes with the aforementioned fads in skating that seem to pop up at least once a generation. Ironically, the Neshke's sold off Moonlight Pasadena in 1977, months before the release of Saturday Night Fever created a boom in skating unseen since at least the 1950s. Cangelosi muses that if they had stayed open enough to benefit from the disco wave, "that rink would still be here today." (It's now a furniture store).
There's another irony in how rinks have gradually faded from the landscape; just as the Moonlight Rollerway got its start as a conversion from an airplane parts foundry, the physical space that rinks require made them lucrative properties during real estate bubbles. It's not that roller skating became unprofitable in many cases, Cangelosi explains, it's that, "investors who owned skating rinks thought their investment would be better off to convert it to a warehouse, storage unit, a carpeteria, anything other than a roller-skating rink. Inflated real estate prices did a number on a lot of roller rinks in the Los Angeles area." (Note: World of Wheels, in Venice, is reportedly on the verge of losing its lease this summer).
One impact of these closures is that it's driven the remaining skaters towards the Moonlight and they now have a weekly set of theme nights that accommodate different skating communities. Wednesdays is the LGBT-themed "Rainbow Night," drawing in skaters from Hollywood/West Hollywood. Sundays is set aside for the Savoy Skate Night, a 25-and-older party that brings in dozens of older African American skaters from South Los Angeles where they zip to R&B spun by DJ Johnny Pool. And Friday and Saturday nights, informally, are when local area teens come and hang out though just as likely, their parents are somewhere else in the rink, skating as well.
Tuesday nights is for the Moonlight regulars and old-timers. That includes Ron Johnston, who works the floor as one of the rink "referees." He first started skating at the Moonlight when he was 10, "I was here before Dom was here," he jokes, referring to Cangelosi, and tells me how he used to get thrown off the floor for rexing -- skating backwards -- too aggressively and then points to the ref who used to do the throwing-off, an older gentleman currently carving up the rink in pinstripe pants and a crisp dress shirt.
Johnston then calls over Lilian Tomasino, who turns 83 this summer, and has been coming to the Moonlight since the 1970s though her childhood rink was the old Skateland on Vernon and Vermont, just south of downtown. Tomasino is a veteran rexer and she gives me a crash course lesson in how rexing isn't just a skill but also an identity of sorts. "The rexers and dancers used to get into it with each other," she says, explaining how their different skating styles had a hard time co-existing on the same floor at the same time. As a result, the Moonlight's Tuesday nights became the informal rexing night, and though their numbers have dwindled over the years, the Moonlight still sets aside rexing sessions when only the veterans are on the floor, whipping around and around, scissor-kicking their way backwards.
There's still kids around on Tuesday night; there's almost always kids around (except on age-restricted theme nights) and it's always hard to tell whether they're bringing their parents or the other way around (the smart money is on the latter). I talk with Betty Palubeskie, usually the first person anyone meets at the Moonlight: she works the ticket booth and front counter. Unbelievably, four generations of women in her family have been coming here. Palubeskie's daughter loved skating so much that both Betty and her mother spent many hours a week at the rink with her. Cangelosi saw them around so often, he ended up hiring both of the older women: Palubeskie's mother worked the snack bar and Betty held down the front entrance. Betty now has an eight year old granddaughter who skates at the Moonlight and is about to enter her first skating competition this month.
This all goes back to the timeless qualities of skating as an activity, the fact that its basic pleasures are the same for a 6 year-old as they are for a 60 year old. Before I leave, I run into Melissa Alcorn, who originally began as a regular at Moonlight Pasadena. We discover that we both grew up in San Marino and I nodded knowingly when she spoke about the "San Marino bubble" and how skating, she says, "introduced me to people from different backgrounds and demographics that I wouldn't have met otherwise." She went away from skating for a long time because of work and parenting but a few years back, with two young daughters to entertain, Alcorn decided to bring them to Moonlight Glendale. Her eldest, Amanda, got so hooked, she ended up skating competitively and won gold modals at the U.S. National Roller Skating Competitions in 2009 and 2011. Melissa still comes on almost every Tuesday night and when asked what keeps bringing her back, she smiles and says, "I like the feeling of my feet, skating, after a long day. It's like relaxing with a glass of wine but better for me."