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ROLLING OVER : BUT NOT READY TO PLAY DEAD : Skate Ranch Has a Long Past and an Indefinite Future, to Which Caltrans Is Holding the Key

April 07, 1989|BOB SCHWARTZ | Times Staff Writer

A camper pulls into a parking lot already filled with station wagons, mini-vans and roomy old Ford Falcons. No sporty two-seaters here. These cars are built to carry kids, and sure enough, out of the back of the camper pop half a dozen school-age boys, shouting as they make a beeline for the front of the building, oblivious to the pleas of their mothers.

Yet another Saturday birthday party has arrived at Skate Ranch in Santa Ana, the site of thousands of such events since it opened its doors 33 years ago.

Back then, the Santa Ana Freeway, which almost comes through its doors, was a pleasant country highway, and Gordon (Budd) Van Roekel charged only 90 cents for admission and 35 cents to rent a pair of roller skates.

The freeway--Interstate 5--is a lot wider and busier now, and the prices are a little steeper ($3.50 during the daytime and $5 at night, including skates), but not much else has changed at the big old brick-red barn.

Chickens still cluck and crow in the bushes out front. Well-weathered signs at the entrance apprise skaters of the establishment's rules:

"No soiled jeans, white T-shirts, tank tops or soiled clothing, backless tops or bare midriffs. No bare feet, loitering or street skates at anytime. No shoulder-length hair for males."

Inside, 7-year-old Robert Hansen of Anaheim, one of the boys who emerged from the camper, is trying to negotiate the rink's maple floor, which repeatedly is getting the better of him.

"Robert, get closer to the edge," yells his mother, Ann Hansen.

A few minutes later, Robert has had enough of "breaking his knees," as he puts it, and ensconces himself before a less painful video game. For a moment, his mother can relax.

"It's about the same as I remembered," said Ann Hansen, 42. "I used to come here in the eighth grade on Saturday afternoons, when I was 12 years old. . . . It's been here forever, hasn't it?"

Not quite, but in any case, it won't be here a whole lot longer. The California Department of Transportation, whose freeway-widening plans finally will bring I-5 through the skating rink's doors, bought the property from Von Roekel in 1987 for about $3 million, ending years of haggling and legal battles.

Caltrans currently leases the rink to Dennis and Gail Collier, who took over its management from Van Roekel and his wife, Maurice, in 1984.

"I could be here another four to five, maybe 10 years," said Dennis Collier. "I really don't think they know when it's going to happen."

Caltrans' current plans call for demolition of the rink in 1991, but a deficit in the state's highway account could delay the widening project a year or more.

In the meantime, skaters continue to wheel around the 90- by 190-foot maple floor, always counterclockwise, interrupting their laps when the disc jockey calls out the hokeypokey or a couples number.

"It's quite an institution," Dennis Collier said. "It's been part of a lot of lives. We've had people get married who met here, then they bring their kids back years later. . . . It's been a lot of fun operating a rink this old."

Van Roekel, a Minnesota native, was operating a smaller skating rink next to the old Excelsior Creamery on East 1st Street in Santa Ana when he decided to expand his business.

Bekins Van & Storage agreed to build the rink on its land next to the freeway and lease it back to Van Roekel, giving him an option to buy it within the next few years, which is exactly what Van Roekel did 5 years later.

From the start, Van Roekel set out to build a roller rink better than his competition.

Rink operators throughout Southern California scoffed at his elaborate plan, which called for carpeting in the rink's lobby and windows along the sides--unusual amenities for roller rinks at the time.

"They thought I'd be closed in 6 months. . . . The others were all built in Quonset huts or in industrial complexes," Van Roekel said. "I thought, 'Why can they build beautiful supermarkets but not beautiful skating rinks?' "

What really set the rink apart, though, was its rustic theme inside and out. The rink was being built in an old cornfield, Van Roekel said, and he decided to keep the farm atmosphere.

Wagons from a Segerstrom sugar beet farm were used in a Main Street Parade to celebrate the rink's opening day in March, 1956. The wooden wheels were taken off the wagons, hung from the rink's ceiling and used for chandeliers. They still provide the only light over the rink's floor.

Roosters and ducks were painted on the inside rink walls, while live fowl quickly became an institution on the surrounding grounds.

"We started with a couple of banty roosters on an old manure wagon," Van Roekel said. Every Easter, the flock grew as families brought new birds to the ranch and left them there.

Once, in the early 1970s, Van Roekel received a telephone call late one night from someone who recited a rhyme about a white duck that was popular with children at the rink.

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