Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Anna Schechter/Courtesy of Salt Institute for Documentary Studies
Article by Katie Fuller
One day back in 1964, Clayton Kennedy decided he wanted to go roller-skating. With no way to get from his family’s Scarborough farmhouse to the rink — and stuck with his uncle’s roller skates many sizes too big — young Kennedy got inventive. “I just stuffed the toes with paper, and off I went,” he recalls. Rolling down the old Plumber’s Hill Road and past the Humpty Dumpty chip factory, Kennedy took off, a small blip in the searing summer haze.
Six miles and eight dirty wheels later, he made it to the former South Portland Rollerdrome on Thadeus Street.
Every Tuesday night, Kennedy, now fifty-four, is just one of nearly a hundred skaters who diligently attend adult night at Happy Wheels Skate Center in Portland. Nestled among warehouses on the outer edges of the city, Happy Wheels draws people from all over southern Maine. The rink is a holdout, an homage to an era when venues of this sort were as socially vital as the Internet is today. The Portland location, constructed in 1973, is all that remains in a chain of Happy Wheels rinks that once boasted seven across the state. And despite the encroachment of time, age, and economic pressures, regulars want it to remain that way: “For many of us, skating isn’t just part of our life,” says rink employee Derek Fitzgerald. “It is our life.”
At the rink, regulars make their own rules. There’s no right or wrong way to skate; you can do it alone, with the pack, or even “jam” in the middle. But one female Happy Wheels regular stands out from the rest. Cheryl Houde knows that all eyes are on her; she tilts her head back, her long brown curls flowing behind her, and coyly addresses the audience: “I’m drying my hair.” Houde has been skating at the Dyer family rinks — including Happy Wheels — since the sixties.
The Happy Wheels crowd often ventures up the interstate to the Auburn Rollodrome to sneak in a second night of skating. The Rollodrome isn’t Happy Wheels, and that’s just fine with many of the Twin City regulars. “That’s the fast rink,” says Joanne Gauthier, a frequent Auburn skater. The Rollodrome’s adult night is different than the Portland scene; the Auburn crowd is older and smaller. So is the rink — it opened in 1954, nineteen years before Happy Wheels. With few rinks left across the state, Auburn is the closest one for many skaters. One woman even makes the trek from Jackman.
On Thursdays, Rick Farrar, 62, Steve Vogelsang, 61, and Dave Hutchins, 61, gather before the Rollodrome opens. Known as the “Bear Pond Boys,” the trio skated together as teenagers at the Bear Pond Park in North Turner until the late sixties, when Hutchins went off to Vietnam. Farrar and Vogelsang served in the military stateside — shortly after both married and left the rink behind them. Their absence from the rinks lasted thirty-six years.
But when the Rollodrome hosted a reunion for former Bear Pond skaters, Farrar and Vogelsang tracked down their old friend Hutchins. Since then, it’s been a second lease on their skating life. For Hutchins, who has battled post-traumatic stress disorder since his time in Vietnam, it’s been an almost cathartic experience. “It helps,” says Hutchins. “Normally I don’t like to be around people. But this . . . this I like.”
“We get to see each other once a week, and it’s great,” Farrar says. “Good exercise, too.” But they all admit they were getting something a little different out of skating back in the day: “Girls!” jokes Hutchins.
Back at Happy Wheels on a Tuesday night, some of the Rollodrome crowd join their Portland friends. The regulars come in early to chat with the rink’s owner, Danny Dyer. “He’s the hardest-working man in the skate industry,” Kennedy remarks. Fitzgerald is even more forthcoming: “If Danny Dyer isn’t around, I don’t know what will happen to this place.” For the time being, there’s no real threat to the only rink in the state’s biggest city. “It’s the people that keep this going,” Houde insists. “If [Happy Wheels] closes, we won’t stop. We’ll go to New Hampshire. We’ll go to Auburn. We won’t like to travel, but we’ll do it . . . we’ll still skate.”
At 7:30 the music comes on. Kennedy, per usual, is the first on the floor. Known by most as the best skater at the rink, he is quick to downplay his prowess. But he’s still doing things on his own terms: “We are like a family here,” he says. “But I don’t skate with the pack, and the pack doesn’t skate with me.” A group of five young adults are experiencing Happy Wheels for the first time — their predecessors are already out there on the rink, hoping they’ll give it a try. As the hours pass, though, they’re running out of time. Fitzgerald finally leans in towards the mic, and says the words the regulars hate to hear: “Clear the floor please, that’ll be all for
tonight. Thank you for skating at Happy Wheels of Portland.”
Most of the skaters quickly obey and begin packing up for the night, including Kennedy. He glances down at his feet and chuckles. “They can bury me with my skates on,” he jokes. “I’m going for one last ride.”