Skate Nights are Wheely Fun
by Jim Provenzano
With a history going back decades, roller skating and its various gay nights continue to offer up fun on wheels, both in Redwood City and at a church on Fillmore Street. Both locations bring lighthearted nightlife with an innocent sense of fun.
Although its designated "gay night" is on Tuesdays, David Miles, Jr., also known as "the Godfather of Skating," assured me that any of the several weekly nights, and even a new daytime slot, are more than gay-friendly.
On last Saturday's Black Rock roller disco night, several mostly straight participants donned festive Burning Man styles, including retro shorts and socks, fake fur and LED hats, as '70s funk and disco pumped through his installed speakers at the former Sacred Heart Church on 554 Fillmore Street at Fell. As stained glass window depictions of Jesus and Mary looked down, attendees whirled in circles, with a few gravitational mishaps.
Miles Jr.'s love of roller skating goes back to 1979, when he made a visit to Golden Gate Park.
"I heard about people skating in the park, bought a pair of skates," he said. "In the beginning, we used to hang out on the bridge in between 9th and 10th avenues. We started a skate patrol, because they were gonna ban skating in the park. We were doing that up until 1996."
Currently, of course, skating and rollerblading remain popular –and allowed– in the park and other areas. Miles Jr. prefers to keep the events simple.
"You don't see food trucks or sales banner there," he said of his outdoor events. "I've worked hard to keep it simple, but the world wants you to promote yourself."
And that he does, but modestly, with his website and, for a time, his own local cable access TV show.
When Sacred Heart Church was closed, the building remained dormant for a time, until Miles Jr. found a way to re-open it for fun in November 2013. But it wasn't without a bit of controversy.
"Some people from the church felt like they got ripped off," he said of the closure.
After all, Miles Jr. noted, roller skating is a form of celebrating life, "which is what religion is supposed to be about."
And Miles, Jr. has been spreading the gospel for years, with events at The Women's Building (in association with IndieFest), at the former Cell Space in SoMa, and with rolling outdoor events that preceded the birth of the cycling event Critical Mass.
"What was really weird, at Sixth Avenue and Kennedy Drive, we were calling that the Church on Eight Wheels for years," he said. "Now, look what's dropped into our laps; an actual church!"
Miles, Jr. did propose a conundrum. "I'm a bit perpelexed by a 'gay night,'" he said. "What's gay music?"
Mention of a few pop music divas, and perhaps a song or two from the score of The Rink aside, his playlist of classic funk and disco seem festive enough.
"My family has been so way past the uptightness since I came to San Francisco from Kansas City," said the 58-year-old father of three children, who even met his wife 35 years ago at a skating event.
"My skate scene has basically been the same from the 1970s to this day. I've been going to Burning Man for 14 years," where he's packed a small skating floor and music. "It's something that has pushed my whole skating experience. I've never been involved in anything so inclusive. But having a gay night is, I guess, a way to say anybody can come to our events."
Since the Church on 8 Wheels events aren't held in a nightclub, they have to skirt a few concerns. Without a costly DJ license, a playlist is set on computers and iPods. Alcohol is not allowed, but private parties allow a little BYOB and food, just no glass bottles.
Attendees do need reminders, as Miles, Jr. announced on a recent night, "Do not hold a can or anything in your hand, If you do, you will fall down."
And people do fall down, so a general 'At your Own Risk' policy prevails, as do a few participants' fashionable and functional knee pads, and even a few helmets.
"You don't want to be drunk or stoned while skating," Miles Jr. said. "The Women's Building events have a full bar, but you have a different crowd there."
Attendees needn't be daunted by the more proficient skaters, since beginners are encouraged with lessons.
"We're not trying to be great skaters, just plug in to the grooves," said Miles, Jr.
As a founder of the California Outdoor Rollerskating Association, he's been promoting skating events of all kinds, including organized cross-state events. Miles Jr. is actively working toward saving venues and converting old ice rinks into roller rinks, as he did in Santa Barbara.
The Church on 8 Wheels has a two-year agreement to use the space. That may be extended, but Miles, Jr. isn't daunted by change, as his fans and friends continue to keep rolling.
His biggest recent events have been held in an airplane hangar at The Presidio, and a Target-sponsored 17-day event at the Alameda Country Fair.
"We're mobile anyway," said Miles, Jr., whose LED-lit mini-van, a signpost of his events, was parked outside the church's entry. "We can move anywhere. This is the way we can bring skating to anyone."
Roller skating has long been a part of the gay scene, going back to the 1970s. Who can forget the romantic collision in Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, where Michael "Mouse" Tolliver met Jon Fielding?
In real life, gays have long been having fun at the rink.
As author/editor Jack Fritscher wrote about local athletes in his essay, "Gay Jock Sports," in Drummer 20 , January 1978, "Sports is a way to practice competition, a way to learn physical/political/moral self-defense, even if only expressed through busloads of men heading Tuesday nights to South San Francisco to roller skate. More than pirouetting, the Folsom Street men turn the rink into a poppered roughhouse of rollerball. Every Tuesday night, the big motor-coach bus, parked on Castro Street across from the Castro Theater, sits with its motor running as it filled up with men, pouring out of the bars, carrying skates and bottles of poppers for sniffing while skating around the roller rink."
So it is at Redwood Roller Rink (but without the poppers or buses), where Rainbow Skate has been attracting LGBT skaters to its Wednesday night events.
Manager Brad Leary has been running events there for nine years, but the rink has been open for much longer, and a gay skate night has roved from place to place, "for close to 35 years," said Leary. "It started off in Alameda, and then I believe San Ramon after that, and then San Mateo."
The San Mateo Rolladium hosted Wednesday Night events until The Rolladium closed in 2001. Rainbow Skate then moved to the Redwood Roller Rink in Redwood City.
Leary assures potential first-timers that the trip from San Francisco is only a half hour drive, or a CalTrain away (the rink is a ten-minute walk from the nearest station).
"We get a combination of people from South Bay and elsewhere," said Leary. "It's pretty mixed between men and women, and popular for birthday parties."
Leary also mentioned their annual Halloween party, which includes a costume contest. Other holiday events are held, along with Retro Night (disco classics played each first Wednesday), and the monthly Underwear Night (each month's last Wednesday).
For many, the mere mention of roller skating may inspire refrains from the camp Linda Blair film Roller Boogie , the Olivia Newton-John cult classic Zanadu , or even that film's stage adaptation that starred Cheyenne Jackson.
But Leary confided that the music isn't always blasts from the past. "We have to be mindful of the younger crowd," he said. "The retro nights nights appeal to the older crowd 40 and up, like myself."
That age group includes Leary's partner Kimeron Hardin, who spins tunes as DJ Special K.
"Younger kids like the older music, too," he added. "What's fun about that night is peopole dress up."
And while some may sport rollerblades for outdoor fun, the rink maintains a 'four-wheels' policy.
Leary and Hardin inherited the event when the previous promoters moved on. "It's nice for us to be involved in the gay community here, and what many people enjoy is that it's a non-alcoholic event."
But that doesn't mean there's a lack of fun.
Redwood Rink's Leathermen at the Roller Rink nights, held in May in 2012 and 2013, will enjoy a third go, thanks to organizer Andy Scheer.
"People have said, 'Oh, I wish you would do it more often,' but for now it's good once a year," said Scheer. "The first time we did it, the timing worked out that it was after all the seriousness of the contests, IML [International Mr. Leather] and Mr. San Francisco Leather, so it gave people a chance to have fun."
DJ DamNation (aka Folsom Street Events Director Demetri Moshoyannis), provided pop tunes. While leatherfolk participated in good numbers (more than 75 attendees each year), the dress code is by no means strict.
"It's more than just leather," said Scheer, "but includes kinksters and fetishists."
So, yes, you may encounter a man in a jock strap and gas mask on wheels.
Scheer said that the event grew out of similar alternative events, such as the Leather nights at local movies and museums.
"I think there's a need for people to do something other than the usual things we do, like go to bars."
Among the community are some experienced skaters. As with other venues, newbies are welcome, but a pair of kneepads might be a good idea to go with one's jock, fetish or kink gear. The combination has led to quite a good time.
"Some people get so bound up in being their leather 'personas,'" added Scheer, "that I think Leather Skate Night lets them relax. Once you get out on the roller rink, you really learn how to have fun."
Church of 8 Wheels' Gay Roller Disco Night takes place every Tuesday at the former Sacred Heart Church, 7pm to 10pm. Black Rock Roller Disco is each Saturday, 7pm-10pm. Other events weekly. 554 Fillmore St. $10 entry. $5 skate rental. www.churchof8wheels.com www.facebook.com/events/376223422517608
Rainbow Skate is held each Wednesday night, and Leather Skate night will be held in early May, at Redwood Roller Rink, 1303 Main Street, Redwood City. www.rainbowskate.net www.facebook.com/rainbowskating/
The next IndieFest Roller Disco (held first Fridays) is April 4, at the Women's Building, 3543 18th St at Valencia. Disco attire encouraged! 21+. $10. 8pm-12am. Skates rentals available or bring your own. www.sfindie.com