June 17, 2020
The Winnipeg Roller Rink: Let the Good Times Roll!
Many people who grew up in Winnipeg have experienced sitting down to lace up their rented skates, the struggle to get up, followed by victoriously skating a lap or two around the roller rink. The thrill of going fast, the cool breeze washing over your face, skating to the music under the light of the disco ball, having fun with friends and family, it is a memory never forgotten. Birthday parties, field trips, date nights and more, an outing to the roller rink is a long-standing Winnipeg tradition.
You may not believe it, but roller skating has been with us longer than basketball, which was invented way back in 1891. In North America, the roller skates developed in 1863 in Massachusetts, sparking the first roller skating hype in the area, and eventually leading to roller skating facilities in Toronto and Montreal in the 1880s. By 1884, some were even speculating that roller skating rinks would soon be more common than ice skating rinks in the western United States. The popularity of roller skating increased up until the First World War when the hype died down during wartime. After the war, popularity for roller skating started to pick up again, especially in the 1930s. Roller skating in Winnipeg followed a similar trajectory.
Roller skating first gaining popularity in Winnipeg at the end of the 19th century. Despite this, during the early 1910s, roller skating enthusiasts were concerned about the lack of roller rinks in Winnipeg. Some speculated that because Winnipeg was blessed with several months of winter, many took up ice skating instead. These people then could not be bothered to try something perceived as so similar to ice skating, especially when there were so many other sports to try. But this was not the case. By the 1930s, roller skating was becoming one of Winnipeg’s leading leisure activities. Roller skating was not just about skating around the rink but people mingling, pairing up to dance, and having a good time together.
Of all the roller rinks that came and went in the city, one stands out in the minds of many Winnipeggers. Once located on the corner of Portage Avenue and Langside Street, the Winnipeg Roller Rink went by many names over the course of its existence. It was also known as the Winnipeg Roller Sports Centre, Dj’s Roller City, and finally Galaxy Skateland. The building itself has an even longer history as it was first listed in the 1906 Henderson’s Directory as a livery stable at Furby Place South Side. Around 1912, the space was divided and W.J. Holmes opened the Winnipeg Skating Rink in his portion of the building. Later, the portion of the building that contained the livery stable became a storage area. Eventually, the building solely functioned as the Winnipeg Skating Rink.
The roller skating rink is fast becoming a popular place of amusement. There was a large and fashionable assembly there last evening and those who did not try the rollers amused themselves by looking on. Then band was present and its sweet strains added greatly to the enjoyment of the evening.
Winnipeg Free Press, November 5, 1884, page 4
In the 1930s, the building was up for sale and a man named W. Dickson purchased it. For a few years, Dickson ran it as a skating rink, however, it was losing revenue as the building remained idle during the non-winter months. Thus, Dickson came up with the idea to install hardwood flooring and dedicate the non-winter months for roller skating. Along with the help of Al Riddell, Phil Del Bigio, and many others, Dickson took great care on the policing, promotion, and instruction of the facility. This bore fruit, as they were successful in reigniting the roller skating trend in Winnipeg. Eventually, the Winnipeg Skating Rink was renamed the Winnipeg Roller Rink, focusing the business on roller skating. Dickson was so successful with the roller rink business in Winnipeg, others persuaded him to create another successful roller skating venture in Toronto.
In 1936, the Winnipeg Roller Rink opened its doors as a permanent, year-round roller skating rink, no longer offering winter ice skating. This received positive reviews from the community attracting more than 1000 people in the duration of just one week. For Winnipeggers, the question was simple: would you rather skate outdoors in freezing weather or skate indoors with acceptable temperatures? As the activity increased in popularity, more people went. It eventually became a social space for all ages, especially youths, where they could hang out with friends and meet new people. For some Winnipeggers today, they owe their lives to the roller rinks as it was where their grandparents or parents met and fell in love.
After 1936, the Winnipeg Roller Rink was known as the “place to go” for roller skating. It was not just Winnipeggers that enjoyed the roller rink, but also people from places like Emerson and Morris came for a good time. On Sundays, the rink was open to members in the evening. During this time period, it was against the law to charge admission on Sundays so the roller rink sold memberships instead at 25 cents each.
The late 1930s and throughout the 1940s was the pinnacle of roller skating popularity in Winnipeg. The roller rink was always packed with an attendance of 1150-1300 being the lowest figures. Roller skating was so popular that it incorporated other activities like roller dancing and even roller hockey. Clubs also began to form such as the Winnipeg Roller Skating club. This club would showcase their skills at their annual carnival at the Winnipeg Roller Rink.
By the mid-1950s the roller skating craze decreased dramatically. As the regulars slowly stopped showing, the casual crowd followed suit. Furthermore, these rollers rinks were beginning to be seen as dirty, noisy, with ‘tough’ hangouts. Soon, the popular roller rinks in the city closed down. By 1967, many of the old rinks, such as the Pearl Street Arena, the Auditorium on Fort Street, and the River Park Roller Rink had vanished. Finally, only the Winnipeg Roller Rink was left standing.
Miraculously, roller skating made a revival sometime in the mid-1970s, remaining popular into the 1980s. In the late 1970s, a number of new Saint Roller Skating Centres chains emerged, priding themselves for their “cleanliness and strict supervision”. Roller skating became so popular during this time that it became a multi-million dollar industry in Canada.
As time passed by, the Winnipeg Roller Rink building was getting older, and harder to maintain. Slowly, sections of the building became unusable as it failed to meet the building standards imposed by the city. The third-floor catwalk became inaccessible due to safety issues and the second floor did not meet building code standards. This made the ground floor the only usable area during its final twenty years it was open. When news that the Winnipeg Roller Rink was closing its doors permanently after its last skate on June 4, 2007, it disheartened many of the locals. It also sparked the concern of a loss of a safe space for teenagers and people who needed a place to just go somewhere to hangout.
To many who grew up during the roller skating craze, the Winnipeg Roller Rink was like a second home, that brought enjoyment and everlasting friendships. ‘It was like all of us had two families — the one at home and the huge one at the roller rink. You could go skating by yourself because as soon as you entered the rink, your friends were right there, always to greet you and wanting to know how your week went,’ reminisced Bernie Lavalley during his interview with the Winnipeg Sun when the rink closed. Many, shared the same sentiments as a Facebook group was created to rekindle old friends that they lost touch with and most importantly facilitate periodic roller skating meet-ups.
To honour the memories created at the Winnipeg Roller Rink, a mural was made by artists Annie Bergen and Marcus Bauer, along with mosaic artist Ursula Neufeld. The mural is of the interior of the roller rink showing the various people of all ages having fun under a glass disco ball. Painted on the side of 581 Portage Avenue, home to the West End BIZ, it is right across the street from where the roller rink once stood.
With the Winnipeg Roller Rink’s long history taking place over the course of almost a century, it first handedly experienced Winnipeggers continuing support and love for roller skating. Before it was torn down, the Winnipeg Roller Rink held the title for oldest hardwood roller rink and presumably the largest roller rink in Canada. It is sad that the building could not be saved and adaptively reused in some way, but Winnipeggers’ memories live on. The new occupant of the lot is the University of Winnipeg’s Richardson College for the Environment and Science Complex. Not forgetting the history of the space, the Complex’s large atrium space features a wooden panelled wall made of the flooring from the Winnipeg Roller Rink. It is a subtle tribute to the roller rink that holds a special place in the heart of many Winnipeggers, where many happy hours were spent wheeling around the hardwood!
THANK YOU TO THE SPONSOR OF THIS BLOG POST:
Written by Kim Cielos on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg
Edited by Cheryl Mann
Winnipeg Free Press | "The Roller Skating Rink" October 6, 1884, page 4