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Still on a roll

Forty years ago they were devoted to the Savoy Skating Rink in South L.A. Now the old-school plays as the wheels hit the wood floor in Glendale.

June 25, 2004|Cynthia Daniels | Times Staff Writer

The children and teenagers flocked from all directions to the corner of 78th and Central, waiting impatiently to enter the one place they felt belonged to them. Some begged their parents for just one more dime so they could be a part of the fun, while others clutched their $13 roller skates in one hand and 50 cents in another.

Beyond those doors, their doors, stood the Savoy Skating Rink -- one place where violence disappeared, racism had no command and music ruled.

After the three-hour skate session, the crowd would walk down the block to Foster Freeze for ice cream, but for now all eyes and minds were focused on the roller-skating.

The younger children gawked at the teenagers who circled the wooden rink, dancing their own versions of the cha-cha and a popular neighborhood dance -- the Slauson shuffle -- on skates. Their arms moved, their feet glided and their bodies swayed to the rhythm of the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas and Smokey Robinson.

None of the teens knew that what they did would last longer than the rink, its music and the sport. They were "skating Savoy."

Forty years later the scene has returned -- only this time the rink is in Glendale, the skates cost a lot more than $13 and the children are adults.

For the last few years, Sunday night at Moonlight Rollerway is Savoy Skate Night, named after the Savoy 50-60's roller-skating club -- a group of African American skaters in their 40s and 50s from South Los Angeles who decided to keep rolling long after roller-skating lost its appeal to many in the community.

"We're trying to bring it back to what we used to be," said Dexter Wilkins, 53, founder of Savoy 50-60's. "I wanted to keep the same kind of era going with the wood floor -- not concrete -- and oldies but goodies."

On a recent warm Sunday night, skaters rotated around the large Glendale rink. Although the floor is crowded, the 12 members of Savoy 50-60's stand out. As DJ Johnny Pool played tunes from Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Savoy skaters commanded the floor, separating from their partners and meeting back up in the center with large, forceful movements.

Skating close together, the members would sometimes link arms, kick their knees high and crisscross their legs while still bopping to the beat.

"They have developed a way of skating that is unique," said Wanda Smith, a member of another vintage skating club, the Rolling 20s, which frequents Savoy Skate Night to enjoy the music and the company. "Their style is their style.... It's an experience."

Savoy members sum up that style in one sentence: "We don't skate; we roll."

About 100 people attend Savoy Skate Night every week, according to Dominic Cangelosi, owner of Moonlight Rollerway on San Fernando Road. He said the themed night draws lovers of old-school music and a timeless sport.

"This is a great thing they're doing because it reminds me of growing up as a teenager and times I'd like to remember," said Diane Markham, 51, who grew up roller-skating in Hollywood and is now a Savoy Skate Night regular. "You can come here and go back to a place and time where you didn't have a worry in the world."

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Uniting a neighborhood

Back in the day, the members of Savoy 50-60's were living in what was called Slauson Village, the segment of South Los Angeles that stretched between Slauson and Manchester avenues and reached from the Harbor Freeway to Hooper Avenue.

"[Savoy] was something to do," said Bird, a member of the old Slauson club, composed of local teenagers, and co-founder of the Slauson Village Society. He is known in the community by only that moniker. "You would see white kids doing things on television, but it was never nothing for black kids. The Savoy Rink was essential because it was the center of activity."

Savoy brought the kids from Slauson Village together. For only 50 cents if you were under 12, and 70 cents if you were older, you could hang out with friends and learn how to "skate Savoy."

Bird recalled young people from other neighborhoods enjoying the rink as long as they respected the Slausons.

In 1964, the Caravans from Compton arrived at the Savoy, sporting club jackets and a disrespectful attitude, Bird said. A fight erupted outside the rink, with members from both groups breaking windows and cutting faces. The Caravans never returned.

Although the outside of the Savoy witnessed many small skirmishes, its owners never allowed violence inside the rink.

Even today, those who skated at the Savoy smile when they remember the Crenshaws, the elderly black owners. The pair ran a tight ship -- smoking, fighting and cursing were not allowed inside the Savoy. And if younger children entered the floor during a time slotted for their older colleagues, they were kindly escorted off by Mrs. Crenshaw.

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