Owners of SE Ohio skating rink celebrate 50 years

ARIAN SMEDLEY The Athens Messenger Published:

NELSONVILLE, Ohio (AP) -- On a Friday night at Dow's Rollarena, one of the only roller skating rinks left in the region, co-owner Roger Smith approached the microphone to announce the next activity.

"The next song is just for the birthday girl," he said, in a voice that boomed around the room.

The little girls squealed as they watched their friend, Jacie Osborne, who was celebrating her ninth birthday, take center rink to skate to the "Happy Birthday" song.

It's a scene that's played out countless times since 1964, all under the watchful eyes of Roger and Helen Smith, who recently celebrated their golden anniversary as owners of Dow's Rollarena.

"I've really enjoyed it; it doesn't seem like it's been 50 years," Helen said, from their small corner office where they rent skates and sell candy, snacks and drinks. "We've enjoyed being around the kids. It hasn't really been a job. It's just something I like to do."

Helen's been at it a little longer. Her first husband bought the place a few years earlier from his uncle, Dow, which is where the name comes from. They ran it together for two years until he died at the young age of 30 in a boating accident. It left Helen with three children and the arena.

"It was easier for me to continue running the rink than going out and getting a different job," Helen recalled. "It was the best thing for me. I didn't need to find a babysitter."

She ran the place, with the help of family, for a year and a half before she met Roger. They met at the rink, later married and had a baby. When Roger and Helen weren't with their four children in their home, which sits right behind the rink, they were together at the arena.

"I have met several friends at the rink," recalled their daughter Marlene Bartlett. "With your parents owning the rink and being there every night (it) was kinda awkward having a boyfriend."

Bartlett, of Nelsonville, met her husband Gary at Dow's. They've been married 31 years.

"We've had a lot of people meet here and then get engaged here," Roger said.

Before they took over, there was a wedding that actually took place on skates on the rink. Their grandson even popped the question there. Many others share those same fond memories at the rink.

"There wasn't a Thursday, Saturday or Sunday that I wasn't there," recalled Darrin Lawson, of Nelsonville. "When it was boys-only skate, it was like a NASCAR race with guys falling and wrecking all over the place. I would drag behind and try to jump over them and land on my feet."

"When I watch my kids skate on that floor, it takes me back (to) when I was young," recalled Kelly Sikorski. "And that puts a smile on my face."

It's those stories that Helen and Roger say they're most proud of. They've watched patrons grow up and come back with their own children, some who call Roger and Helen their Grandma and Grandpa.

Music preferences and skating styles are the biggest changes they have seen during their 50 years. In the 1960s, rock 'n' roll was the most requested music. When it changed to hard rock, "that about set us crazy," Roger recalled. After that, country songs were the hottest tunes to skate to. Nowadays, pop music is the genre of choice.

Kids today aren't into the dances that were once popular in the '60s, '70s and '80s, like the jitterbug, tango, circle waltz, schottische and the two-step. Today, skaters mainly roll around the rink or play one of the featured games, like the limbo.

Some regulations have changed over the years. Hats are no longer permitted on the rink for safety reasons. The rink now has to be licensed by the state. And the Smiths must pay fees to three different organizations for the rights to play their music.

While they weren't always a fan of the music requests, Helen and Roger were committed to giving their patrons what they wanted, so long as it was family friendly. It's those practices, they say, that kept them in business while nearby skating rinks, like ones in Millfield, Glouster, Athens, Haydenville and Logan, closed down.

Outside of the tunes and skating styles, most things about the place have stayed the same, another point of pride for the Smiths. The building has the original wood floors under the teal blue polyurethane layer. They even use their original 45 rpm records, something one of their younger patrons mistook for "a really big CD," Helen recalled with a laugh.

Even after 50 years at it, Roger and Helen say they have no plan of quitting or changing their home away from home.

"It's been here 61 years, and hardly anything has changed in it," Roger said. "So why change it now? We're getting along alright here the way it is. And the kids still like it."

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Information from: The Athens Messenger, http://www.athensmessenger.com/