Good times have rolled on at the Roller Garden in St. Louis Park for 52 years, but they’ll brake to a stop Saturday, May 8.
The owners of the longtime entertainment establishment announced on their website, rollergarden.com, that they would close the doors for the final time on that date.
“It has been a privilege to see all the smiles and happiness of our skaters, watching them grow up, bring their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren,” the notice says. “This was an incredibly difficult decision which was not taken lightly.”
Bill Sahly, who owns the business with his wife, Pat Sahly, and her sister, Colleen Johnson, said they had considered ending the roller rink’s run for its 50th anniversary.
“We kept on running it, but we kept on getting older and more tired,” Bill Sahly said in an interview.
He noted the second employee he hired in 1969, who worked as facilities maintenance director, retired last November, leaving a void. A second shutdown ordered by Gov. Tim Walz that month amid a surge in COVID-19 cases caused the business to be closed during the holiday season, and Bill Sahly noted the rink could open at only 25% capacity when allowed to reopen in mid-January.
“A roller rink is not like a high-end designer store of some kind,” he said. “You’re dealing with the masses, and that’s who we serve. We love our customers. It’s family, children, church groups, school groups, Girl Scout groups, YMCAs and YWCAs. That’s the heart of the business.”
Generations of families have visited, he added.
“It’s their thing, their activity.” Bill Sahly said. “Their friends are there. They loved it. They’re like family to us. So, it’s bittersweet, and we reached the point where we can’t run with the crowds.”
He also noted operational challenges, with a small parking lot and complaints by residential neighbors about the noise from the business’s sound system and customers who are leaving.
Of the sound system, Bill Sahly said, “We’d love to see somebody pick up the reins and open a rink in a central location in a nonresidential area where they can really run it, run the people in and let it rip.”
The buyer of the building, Kenwood Gymnastics Center, has expressed interest in the facility repeatedly since 2019, Sahly noted.
After another offer and while bills continued to mount amid the pandemic, Bill Sahly said, “We were worn down and we thought, you know what, it’s time. I’m not old, but I did turn 80 on St. Patrick’s Day.”
He said he and his wife want to enjoy more time with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The family’s other skating rink, the Woodbury Fun Zone, remained closed after the first shutdown in 2020. Maintenance and tax costs that have continued as the family seek a buyer for that site have also contributed to financial constraints.
The owners of Kenwood Gymnastic Center, which currently operates at 3440 Beltline Blvd. in St. Louis Park, plan to keep the Roller Garden building and create a historical display on the wall.
“They love our beautiful hardwood maple floor and the history of the building,” Bill Sahly said.
The building originally opened in 1930 as an indoor riding academy with horses, according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society. Pat Sahly’s father bought the facility after it had become an early indoor tennis site.
Bill Sahly recalled, “I was a salesman at the time, and he said, ‘How’d you like to run a roller rink?’ I said, ‘Well, that would be interesting.’ Little did I know 52 years later I’d still be there.”
The facility hosted both indoor tennis and roller skating for a period, with Bill Sahly describing a system he rigged up with posts, cables, nets and a cart with wheels that he said could transform the floor from one activity to the other in 2 minutes. Although tennis went away in the mid-1970s, he recalled days in which a bird or two that had made it through holes in the windows flew around during games.
“It was challenging tennis, but it was indoors,” he said.
The St. Louis Park Fire Department used fire hoses on the interior – with the power switched off – to clean the building before annual smelt fries.
The Historical Society documents the building’s colorful history, including a jam-packed Halloween dance in 1963 with The Trashmen, known for the hit “Surfin’ Bird,” with such a large crowd that the building’s glass front wall shattered. The article is at slphistory.org/pastime.
Since the closing announcement, Bill Sahly said comments on social media have been flooding in with memories of meeting significant others there and thousands of children’s birthday parties.
The roller rink attracted visitors from Minneapolis and many other suburbs, including many children of immigrants who enjoyed the activity, he said.
Over the decades, the music format has changed, from an organ to rock ‘n’ roll on 45s and LPs to cassettes, CDs and then computers. Bill Sahly recalled the days that the Woodstock generation used to come into the rink. When raggedly bell-bottom pants ended up becoming caught in the rollerskate wheels, he said his mother would trim the fringe to prevent mishaps.
“That was like asking them to trim their bangs,” Bill Sahly said with a laugh.
In later years, the owners hosted parties themed with Michael Jackson and Prince. For a “Purple Rain” party, they inflated a waterbed hung from the ceiling with purple sheets to give away as a grand prize. Other parties featured bicycles and a large yellow rubber raft hung from the high ceiling as prizes.
Pat Sahly sold millions of tickets to the rink over time.
“We’ve managed to work together for 52 years which not every married couple can say,” Bill Sahly said. “We’ve met a lot of great people – a lot of great people – and had a lot of laughs.”
The business is planning a “Week of Goodbyes” May 2-8. More information will be available on the website.
The online statement says, “It will be extremely difficult to say goodbye. We hope that we have been able to provide memories that will last a lifetime, as you have done for us.”
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