Smell on wheels: Life, love and injury at the roller rink

This weekend, a group of roller-skating enthusiasts held a reunion at the Cortland Roller Rink to remember their days wheeling around the rink at the former Top O’ the Strip Roller Rink in Niles, which met an unfortunate end after a tornado ripped through the Valley in 1985.

At the risk of aging myself, I faintly recall the tornado. I was living in Warren, a toddler who saw her grandma opening the front door and windows to relieve pressure (Does that actually work? According to, nope).

I remember more about roller skating in the Valley, despite taking more than one hit to the head because of it.

It all began with a pair of bright yellow and blue plastic Fisher-Price adjustable skates on the sidewalk in Jamestown Village, gingerly scooting around on the orange wheels over bumpy cracked sidewalks and occasionally into mulch. Those things were a step above the metal adjustable skates of generation prior, because at least they wouldn’t cut the backs of your ankles.

I thought all skates came with keys, because Fozzie Bear on “Muppet Babies” once lost his skate key down the heating vent and had to travel to the center of the earth and fight the Morlocks to get it back. The episode actually ended with Nanny getting a spare key or something that didn’t involve Morlocks, but revisionist history is a wonderful thing. That’s the danger of getting the bulk of your world knowledge from TV.

As the Fisher-Price skates eventually wore down to uneven, chunky nubs, I received one of the most cherished of little-girl gifts: a pair of shining white leather skates with pink wheels. And pom-poms. Oh yes.

Those new skates were much too precious to touch rough cement, so I was introduced to the roller rink. Emerson Elementary – and later McGuffey and Turner Jr. High – often hosted skating parties at Champion Rollarena, where kids were set loose to glide around in circles for hours, hopped up on pizza, soda and Lik-M-Aid (or Fun Dip, if you’re not into the whole hyphenating thing).

Walking into the skating rink was an experience. You’re first greeted by the smell of old leather and musty feet, which mix to form an odor oddly comforting and familiar. I get the same waft at bowling alleys. Then, the feeling of freedom as your mom drives out of sight and knowing that the next two-and-a-half hours are YOURS.

Honing your skating technique is vital. First, on the smaller practice rink where younger kids build up their skate skills without older kids zooming past throwing off their game. And then, onto the big floor, gleaming with wax and reflecting all the colors of the laser rainbow. The big rink was a mini-city unto itself, complete with rules, rank and its own mayor (the guy with the whistle). A number of skate games separated the wheat from the chaff – Duck Duck Goose, Red Light Green Light and races rewarded the victors with spoils of free pizza. Theme skates like Crazy Trio and Reverse Skate really set off the WHOT-101 soundtrack.

The couple skate was the big one – a potentially life-changing skate where hearts were opened and broken. I vividly remember couple skating to Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” and picturing my wedding and picket-fence house already. If you could skate backward with your partner in that awkward arms-on-shoulders pose, you were practically crowned King and Queen of Skate Royalty.

The Crazy Trio also changed my life, in that the girl in the middle (three friends would skate holding hands, and then turn around without letting go when the whistle blew) let go of my hand I went flying into a wall, snapping my front tooth in half. I was led off the rink and ushered to the dentist by my worried mom. To this day, I get phantom tooth pain when I smell that musty roller skate foot odor.

I remember snagging my dad’s “Beavis & Butt-Head” T-shirt and being the envy of the other kids one night. I remember the man who skated every weekend wearing a T-shirt bragging about his record-setting rides on the roller coaster at Geauga Lake. I remember the snack bar and game room. I remember birthday parties and friends laughing and eating cake.

Though it was a source of heartbreak and concussions, the roller rink was a big part of growing up around here. I hope kids keep rolling into the next generation, because if skate-twerking becomes a thing, I want to be part of it.

Can you skate backwards? Let me know at