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ROLLING 'ROUND AGAIN : Skating enjoys freewheeling days after boogieing off the scene with disco.

March 19, 1993|JEFF PRUGH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Meet Pat Hathaway of Reseda, Dave Schwam of Burbank, Thelma Sutton of Montrose, Lillian Fait of Garden Grove, Percy Moor man of Eagle Rock, Bill and Mary Chandler of Altadena, and Manny Dwork of Los Feliz.

They're well into their 60s and 70s, but each can be accused of impersonating a fun-loving minor.

At an age when many of their peers think of themselves as retired and not rewired, they converge every Tuesday night in Glendale to swerve, sway and swirl to the beat of live organ music.

On roller skates .

Here they come, on a roll at high speeds, weaving effortlessly and often backward through hordes of skaters at the Moonlight Rollerway--open since 1956 on the site of a World War II aircraft parts plant--and making it all look so outrageously easy that everyone seems 19 again.

Roller skating.

It's still ice skating's stepchild, a pastime born in 18th-Century Europe and first popularized in America in 1863 when a Massachusetts inventor named James Plimpton introduced a "rocking skate" that enabled skaters to maneuver in curves.

And it's an activity that stumbles and all but crash-lands every now and then, still trying to shed what one promoter calls its once tawdry image of "roller domes, resin on the floor and 12-year-old kids sneaking a smoke in the aisles."

Now, a dozen years after it toppled hand in hand with its partner-in-music, disco, roller skating scrambles to its feet again--tugged by the rise of in-line (or Rollerblade) skating among teen-agers but given even bigger nudges by upgrades in conventional four-wheeled skates and by the health and fitness revolution.

At Moonlight and San Fernando Valley area rinks such as Northridge Skateland and Holiday Skating Center in Lancaster (a Santa Clarita rink is scheduled to open late this summer), roller skating comes in assorted packages for kids ages 8 to 80 (not counting newborns pushed by "stroller-skating" parents): just for fun, private parties, dance and figure skating competition, and roller hockey, a demonstration sport in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona. (Sherman Square Roller Rink in Reseda offers no public skating, but opens for private groups and roller hockey.)

Why do they do it? What it is about roller skating that appeals to so many senior citizens (and, for that matter, youngsters and in-betweens)?

"At my age, it's the good-looking men!" Pat Hathaway, 63, a regular from Reseda, quips as her friends--all confirmed skaters she's cavorted with since they were teen-agers in the 1940s--dissolve into gales of laughter.

Hathaway describes herself as a "roller derby queen," 1947-vintage. She says she still has the combat medals to prove it--a chipped left elbow and a broken tailbone that she says never fully healed ("I can't sit too long")--along with mementos of her work as a stand-in actress in "The Fireball," a 1950 motion picture in which Mickey Rooney plays a hotshot roller skater who suffers from an economy-size ego.

One of Hathaway's longtime skating companions--Dave Schwam, 65, a Burbank carpenter--agrees that roller skating can keep you young at heart, if not help fight off Father Time.

"You see those older gals out there," he tells a visitor, "and you'll see that they don't have that wrinkly fat on the back of their legs."

Schwam, Hathaway and many other senior citizens at the Moonlight Rollerway trace their friendships to the 1940s when, as youngsters, they hung out at the Hollywood Roller Bowl, the Shrine Auditorium and other roller palaces.

Many have skated together through the decades, while others took time off to pursue careers and raise families before rediscovering roller skating--and each other--at the Moonlight Rollerway, a place stuck in a time warp.

On this Tuesday night, owner-operator Dominic Cangelosi plays live organ music--"Ain't Misbehavin'," "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "Boogie Woogie."

The fare is clearly tailored to the crowd of mostly svelte and remarkably supple seniors among the 150-odd skaters, along with a few younger couples and small children who glide counterclockwise atop a 17,000-square-foot hardwood floor, amid swirling lights from two reflecting-mirror balls overhead.

It's a place where the fun never sets, a world so distant from the headlines and cacophony of the Los Angeles riots and the Rodney G. King case that it's not unusual for black and white skaters to join hands as partners whenever Cangelosi uses the public address system to invite patrons onto the rink for a "couples only" set.

"What you see here is the most natural kind of integration," said Thelma Sutton, 74, of Montrose, who is white and took up skating last fall. "Skating makes us all feel happy."

A longtime skater, Lillian Fait, 63, of Garden Grove, who is also white, slumps onto a bench, clad in a skimpy costume held up by thin shoulder straps.

"I don't know of anyone who's prejudiced here," she said. "If there was, we wouldn't tolerate it."

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