Emotional skaters say farewell to Roller Garden in St. Louis Park: 'It's given me my life'

·4 min read

They sashayed and spun, glided and grooved. Then, as the house lights came on, they cried.

For five decades, kids, teens and adults went to the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park to skate and to celebrate. Last week, they went to say goodbye.

"It's heartbreaking," said Irissa Semler, 22, tightening laces the same shade of blue as her hair. "The atmosphere here is so nice and supportive in a way I really needed and loved."

When Semler heard the family behind the roller rink was selling, she brought a journal, inviting people to jot down their memories.

"After being gone almost 41 years, today I felt like I was back home," one woman wrote. "A welcoming place to come of age," said another. "Skating has been there for me."

Before the rink opened on each of these final days, dozens of fans — skates slung over their shoulders — formed a line down the block and into the parking lot. Inside, they posed for photos with the polka-dot dinosaur that once perched atop the building. They traded stories and phone numbers. They stuck their heads in the DJ booth.

"Hey, Travis, can I request a song?"

Sheena McCollum cleared her schedule, freestyling during each session, tearing up and breaking down each time.

"They'll have to drag me out of here by my skates," she said.

McCollum, 37, has been a third-generation Roller Garden devotee since she was 4, when Santa delivered shiny white skates with pink pompons. This rink is where she grew up, napping between skates; where she was recruited for roller derby; where she's met some of her closest friends.

On Halloween, when skaters donned costumes and masks, she still recognized the regulars: "I can tell either by the skates or the skate style." Last week, she spotted spins she hasn't seen in years.

"People have been coming out of the woodwork," she said. "It's been bittersweet, to say the least."

A few other rinks remain. There's Skateville in Burnsville and Cheap Skate in Coon Rapids. But the Roller Garden is special, the rink rats argue, not only because of its high, curved ceiling from its roots as a horse riding arena, or its storied floor, formed from polished strips of solid maple.

The family that's long owned this place has made it welcoming, inclusive, comfortable.

The regulars are happy for owner Bill Sahly, now 80, and his family, understanding that running this place meant working nights and weekends.

Goodbyes, too. During the last all-ages skate, daughter and manager Kim Swenson sold tickets while her brother Kevin Sahly, clutching a flashlight, checked on a kid who had tumbled.

They hosted an invite-only farewell Saturday night. Rudolph Macon, 61, flew in from California. "This is my family."

As the disco lights swirled, the pace around the rink picked up. In its center, Angela Higgins balanced on her forearms, her back bent so much that her skates, glowing green, illuminated her rhinestone-studded mask.

Higgins came to the Roller Garden as a 30-year-old alcoholic and found, over time, that she "wanted to be here just a little more than I wanted to be drinking."

Here, she discovered purpose, formed memories and friendships — even was scouted for a professional circus. "It's given me my life," she said.

The rink's closing leaves a hole in her heart and a gap in the community, Higgins said. She started a Facebook group for a roller-skate ride share, so people who live nearby can get to other rinks.

Past 10 p.m. Saturday, after hugs and speeches and selfies, the DJ announced the final two songs, "a couple Roller Garden classics." One skater wiped his forehead, another wailed. A few friends locked hands.

"Take time to tell me you really care," the funk-disco band Heatwave sang over the speakers. "And we'll share tomorrow together ... "

In the center of the rink, a woman spun on one skate, picking up speed, her body blurred. As the music slowed, she did, too. Then she gained a little momentum, twirling again and again. Once more, before finally coming to a stop.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 • @ByJenna