By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Jason Frank
From our January 2023 issue
Back when disco dominated the charts, mobs of twirling, permed, besequinned skaters packed into roller rinks across the country. For most, though, disco faded, perms fell out of fashion, and wardrobes evolved. Over time, roller-skating’s popularity fizzled too, and in 2019, what remains of Maine’s diehard skating community lost a hallowed haunt, Happy Wheels Skate Center. Opened in 1973, it was the last of a chain that once had locations throughout New England, and it was the Portland area’s last rink. “That was devastating,” says Jimmy Mulkern, who’d been skating at Happy Wheels since the ’70s and working there since the ’80s. “I said when they closed, ‘I’m not going to skate again unless they open another Happy Wheels.’”
Now, at age 60, Mulkern is lacing up his skates again, thanks largely to Derek Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald grew up skating at the rink in the ’80s and ’90s, introduced to the pastime by his mom. By the time he was 7, he knew all the Happy Wheels employees by name. By 16, he was an employee himself, serving as a rink monitor and DJ before eventually becoming a manager. These days, the 41-year-old works in IT, and he still loves skating. Last summer, he and a business partner reopened Happy Wheels in a new building in Westbrook, just down Warren Avenue from its former location.
Fitzgerald imitated the layout of the old Happy Wheels, and he salvaged almost everything he could, from the kickboards to the tables to the candy machines. The color palette on the walls is the same too. And even after a three-year layoff, more than half a dozen employees returned.
“I was trying to keep it old-school,” Fitzgerald says. “This is Happy Wheels. This is the real deal.”
When Happy Wheels shuttered in 2019, Maine was left with just four roller rinks, in Auburn, Smithfield, Houlton, and Caribou. Of those, only Auburn’s Rollodrome was running year-round. Since reopening, Happy Wheels has been welcoming 350 or so skaters on busy nights. Some have four or five decades of experience out on the rink — “they grew up with skating,” Fitzgerald says. “They’re good at it. It’s comforting to them.” He also sees young families and plenty of teenage and early-20-something newcomers, many of them taking retro-glam Instagram photos and goofy TikTok videos.
Nationally, participation in roller skating rebounded somewhat during the pandemic. It’s an activity as well suited to a paved bike path or sidewalk as to a rink, and retailers saw skate sales boom. Now that people have been returning to indoor activities, it seems some of those new skaters are finding their way onto the floor. Still, skating remains a much more niche passion than it once was — Fitzgerald recalls about 20 skate centers that operated in Maine back in the day. When he meets people outside the rink and he tells them what he does, he can usually anticipate their first question. “They get this real puzzled look,” he says, “and I hear, ‘You still roller-skate?’”
“Yes,” he’ll tell them. “I didn’t grow out of it.”