Owner and many Lexingtonians fondly recall longtime roller rink

ssloan@herald-leader.comDecember 23, 2012 

  • Congratulate Scotty

    If you'd like to wish Gilbert Scott a happy 94th birthday, send cards to him at P.O. Box 910415, Lexington, Ky. 40591.

    Share your memories: If you would like to share your stories about Scott's Roll-Arena, email a brief version of them to ssloan@herald-leader.com along with your first and last names, age and city of residence. They might be included in a future story.

Gilbert Scott has just two children, but he's been told he raised half of Lexington's kids.

Before there was Champs, the city's mainstay rollerdrome, there was Scott's Roll-Arena, a rink that, until the 1970s, was a destination for Lexington youth for more than 35 years.

Through his skating rink, Scott, who turned 94 on Christmas Eve, had a hand in memories, as well as marriages, for generations of Lexingtonians.

"Lexington has been good to me, and I think I've been good to Lexington," said Scott, who was affectionately called "Scotty" over the years. "I really feel that way."

Finding a life in skating

It was just happenstance that led Scott to his love of skating and then Lexington.

He grew up in the Central Illinois town of Havana. When he was 5, his sister lucked into a pair of secondhand skates, the kind that attached to your shoes, from a friend.

"I kept pestering mom to let me wear those skates," Scott said. "I worried my mom so much about it that ... she tied them on there with rags."

He later became acquainted with a family who skated at a nearby park and dance hall. Scott gradually learned how to roll with the best of them.

"I learned from everybody," he said. "If a good skater came, I would pick up on their tricks.

"Not bragging or boasting, but I got pretty good on skates."

With the Great Depression making work hard to come by, Scott and a high school friend hatched a plan to create their own jobs by renting the dance hall for skating events. The friend backed out, but Scott was determined and bought skates from a rink farther north that went out of business. He opened the rented hall in February 1938 and "made a mint," he said.

With success spurring him on, Scott worked with various partners over the next year to hold skating events around Illinois with a portable floor and tent set up in hay and alfalfa fields and even an airplane hangar.

"I was making money hand over fist by now," he said. "I decided to go out on my own."

But where to go?

A former business partner solved that conundrum. He and his new wife passed through Lexington on their way to a honeymoon in New Orleans and noticed Lexington's skating rink had closed.

So at age 20, the burgeoning businessman packed up and moved to Lexington.

"I was a go-getter," Scott said. "I wanted to be a success."

Starting in Lexington

His first Lexington rink was above the old Baehr's Giant Market on West Main Street downtown. It opened Nov. 1, 1939. During the next few years, he also would operate at times under tents on Versailles Road and National Avenue.

"I bought a used tent, but it was more like a sieve," he said. "It leaked so much. You probably never heard of anybody giving rain passes, but I had rain passes printed up."

While Scott was running his rinks, the nation was at war, and it would catch him, too.

In 1943, customers found a sign on his portable building at National Avenue: "Gone to the Army."

But he said he knew he would be back. Indeed he was after a stint as an air traffic controller.

His plans to grow didn't stop. He soon moved back to Main Street, then to Sixth Street and then, in 1958, to the location that would be etched in the minds of many of his customers: East New Circle Road between Bryan Station Road and Old Paris Pike.

On the site of what's now a Salvation Army Thrift Store, Scott brought in five truckloads of building materials, bolted them together and had a building with sides that came off in the summertime.

Over the next 17 years, Scott and his family would run the rink that defined area entertainment in the era. The skating rink was a frequent site for birthday parties, church group outings and the like.

"What was cool about Scotty's is it gave you a legitimate reason to hold a girl's hand when you were doing the couples' skate," said Lexington resident Roger Singleton, 55, who frequented the rink in the 1970s.

During the "lady's choice" skates, "the girls would come ask you if you wanted to skate," he said. "It was pretty cool."

As dates and relationships came and went, Scott offered ways to memorialize them with a metal-typing machine that printed words on trinkets.

"If you were dating somebody, you would put her name on it," Singleton said.

Soon the dates turned to something more. Joyce Davis' marriage has its roots in her late husband Bill's 18th birthday party at Scott's rink in 1947.

Bill was dating her best girlfriend at the time, but Joyce wound up riding with him on a friend's motor scooter that day.

"He rode about two or three blocks and then he turned around and gave me a whopper of a kiss," said Davis, 82. "I said, 'What is Mary Elizabeth going to think?' He said it doesn't matter.

"We were married 62 years when he died."

Scott's Roll-Arena became a family destination for them as they took their children and other youth from Broadway Christian Church.

"I broke my arm there once showing off," Davis said. "The kids could just put one foot in front of the other, and I said, 'Let's show them how to really skate, Bill."

Moments later, though, the couple got tangled up, and "I went forward and broke my left arm," she said.

At the center of all the excitement each weekend was Scott, whose voice would boom through the PA to encourage everyone to get on the floor.

"All skate, everyone skate," Singleton recalled. "It was almost like an order."

Follow the rules

If Scott's skating call seemed almost like an order, it was appropriate. He ran a tight ship. The rules were hard and fast, unlike the skating, at Scotty's.

Unless it was the designated "fast skate," kids weren't to skate fast for safety reasons. Scott himself often skated as a floor guard to keep everyone in check.

"If you didn't behave, you didn't skate," he said. "You'd be surprised how unruly some kids were, but we tamed them down.

"If they wouldn't follow the rules, a lot of times I'd give them a week's vacation or two weeks' vacation."

Diane Coleman, 70, of Lexington recalled how she learned the hard way about Scott's warnings of the perils of fast skating.

"I was whizzing around there one time, and I had to go the bathroom," she said, describing the double doors girls would skate through. "I went flying through there, and my feet went flying underneath me, and it took my breath away it hurt so bad.

"I learned my lesson not to go fast when I wasn't supposed to be."

Then-contemporary music like The Monkees was the norm at the skating rink, Scott's daughter, Peggy Wilson, 63, recalls how her father would tame an unruly crowd.

"When things got rowdy, he'd put on the organ music," she said. "That slowed them down."

Wilson's husband, T.L., noted Scott also ran a strict dress code, which banned jeans.

"He wouldn't let me in," he said, chuckling.

While the kids didn't always take kindly to the rules, the parents loved them.

"A lady introduced me once and said, 'This is Mr. Scott, and he helped raise my children,'" Scott said. "I tell people I helped raise half the kids in Lexington.

"When parents dropped them off, they knew they were going to be in safe hands."

If kids weren't picked up after the midnight closing time, Scott's daughter, Peggy, said he would take them to their homes.

"He would never leave them there by themselves," she said.

Family affair

Peggy saw it all firsthand because the family ran the rink together. She and her mom, Bertie, often worked concessions, with Bertie making gallons upon gallons of chili for the footlong hot dogs that were sold. Also on the menu were giant pickles.

Scott was the ever-present businessman, though. When kids asked for pickle juice, they got it for free but only after paying for the cup and ice, Peggy said.

"He told me just how much ice to put in the cup," she said.

Her brother, Jerry, was a jack-of-all-trades: He worked at the skate rentals, ran the soda counter and skated as a floor guard.

In the end, the family bond formed by the skating rink led to its closing in 1975.

"My wife told me near the end of one season, 'Scotty, you can go on and do this as long as you want, but this is my last year,'" Scott said. "I said, 'Honey, if that's the way it's going to be, that's the way it's going to be.'"

Soon after, Scott, who was 56 at the time, met with the late Armand Champa, who owned Champs skating rinks in Louisville and had recently opened another there.

"I said, "Champ, you need to build another one just like this in Lexington,'" Scott said. "He said, 'You know what'll happen to you if I do.'

"I said, 'That's why I'm inviting you. I don't want to leave all those kids that bought skates from me without a place to skate.'"

And so Champs came to town and opened on Clays Mill Road. Scott later held his 80th birthday party at the company's Palumbo Drive location, said Nick Champa, Armand's grandson and owner of the current Champs Entertainment Center off Reynolds Road.

"People have very fond memories of Gilbert," he said, noting patrons still come in from time to time with copies of old Scott's Roll-Arena advertisements they find around their homes.

With the skating rink closed, Scott eventually sold his property to the Salvation Army.

"He wouldn't sell that to just anybody," Peggy said. "People wanted it for dance clubs, but he did not ever want his name associated with anything that might be disreputable.

"He held out until he found the buyer he wanted."

For a man to whom reputation meant everything, his former customers say he couldn't have had a better one.

"Having lived in a variety of states as my girls grew up, it became evident that places like Scotty's don't exist anymore," said Sandy Gagliardi, 53, now of Orlando, Fla. "We frequented many skating rinks but never found that personal connection, that 'family' feeling.

"We were lucky to have our lives touched by Scotty and Bertie."

Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz.

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