Summer Means Happy Birthday, Roller Rinks!

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

John Joseph Merlin, the Belgian-born inventor of the roller skate.

Did you know that today, August 11th, in 1866, the world’s first roller rink opened? (Because that happy event occurred in Newport, Rhode Island, I expect that our own Anne-Marie Sutton knows a lot more about it than I do.) But roller skating must’ve been a great way to manufacture your own breeze before electric fans and A/C, so opening in the dog days of summer makes perfect sense!

Did you also know that there’s a National Museum of Roller Skating in Nebraska? Well, there is, and from it, I learned that the first roller skate in recorded history was invented way back in the 1760s by this dignified-looking gent here. We’re also told:

Merlin wore a pair of his new skates to a masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London. Though he was a well-known inventor, he was not a good skater. He could not control his speed or direction and crashed into a large mirror, severely injuring himself and possibly setting back the sport of roller skating for years.

All the early skates were in-line, and the father of the modern, 4-wheel, easier to manuever skate is James L. Plimpton, who, I gathered from The Pandora Society, also founded the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) and, on its behalf, rented the dining room of the Atlantic House, a resort hotel in Newport, to convert for open skating. And that, as they say, is history.

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The image below is an engraving of Victorians skating indoors, and came from Curbed‘s interesting history of the roller rink, its attendant immoralities (!), and its growth with the nation, by Scott Garner.

Interior of a Victorian roller skating rinkPerhaps coincidentally, or not, this week is also the 35th anniversary of when the roller-skating-disco cinematic awesomeness that is Xanadu opened at the box office. It was about an artist who’s bored with his work and stuck in a rut until he meets one of the Muses. (Couldn’t we all use that kind of assistance?) People‘s Drew Mackie says:

Roller skating. Greek mythology. Hollywood. Olivia Newton-John. Gene Kelly. Electric Light Orchestra. By some measures, Xanadu should have been a hit.

It wasn’t, however. Upon its release in theaters on Aug. 8, 1980 – 35 years ago this week – the disco musical Xanadu was met with negative reviews and middling box office returns. That didn’t stop it, however, and this hypercolor fantasy has persisted, becoming a cult favorite in spite of its inauspicious beginnings.

XanaduIf you’re a glutton, as I am, you can read lots of little known facts about the production and the talented people involved, many of whom went on to do things better-received, though, to be fair, the soundtrack album was a mega-monster international hit. I also didn’t know the fact the film is kind of a sequel of a sequel and also, sadly, was Gene Kelly’s last, for which he choreographed the number he performed with Olivia Newton-John.

So yeah, having a dull day? Take yourself and you various pads and braces and helmets and grandchildren out to have some fun on wheels. After all, the Hickory Record tells me there’s a man who skates every week and just turned 89! Gene Elliott says, “I don’t feel old. When I get out there on that floor, it takes me a while to get loosened up but once I do, I’m back in my 60s and 70s.” I admit it, I have no excuse.

Skating Around the law by Joelle CharbonneauAnd because it’s Women of Mystery, I must also shout-out to Joelle Charbonneau, who’s since become hugely popular with her cool sff/dystopian adventures for younger readers, but who’s also written the Skating Series of mysteries, Book 1 being Skating Around the Law. Description: Rebecca Robbins is a woman on a mission–to sell the roller rink she inherited in her rural hometown and get back to her life in Chicago. Fast. What she didn’t count on was discovering a dead body head-first in a rink toilet. Now Rebecca is stuck in a small town where her former neighbors think she’s a city slicker who doesn’t belong, relying on a police department that’s better at gardening than solving crimes. With the help of a handsome veterinarian, a former circus camel, and her scarily frisky grandfather, Rebecca must discover the identity of the murderer before she becomes the next victim.

So, whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, hope you’re rolling on with summer fun!

4 thoughts on “Summer Means Happy Birthday, Roller Rinks!

  1. Love this, Clare, it gave me a chuckle. Wonderful post.
    When I was a kid living in West New York, NJ, having a pair of skates was a big deal. They didn’t cost much, unlike a bike, and you could go sailing along the wides sidewalks.

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