It’s been 40 years since Lee Theise began building his little empire, one pair of roller skates at a time. At the height of the disco era, he converted a defunct ice rink in Hudson into Roller Kingdom, a 25,000-square-foot roller skating facility, hoping to capitalize on the surging popularity of the activity at the time.
“I’d clean the wheels, two or three thousand pairs a week, myself,” he says. “That’s who I am.”
Theise, a former shoe and skate salesman, did so well in those early years that he opened a second Roller Kingdom in Tyngsborough three years after the first. He’s always taken pride in his attention to detail, from those immaculate skates to his gleaming hardwood floors.
While both Roller Kingdoms have enjoyed relatively steady business through the decades, several local competitors have dropped out of the game, in Worcester, Lowell, and other cities. “I didn’t mean to put them out of business,” Theise says.
In truth, it was the fickle public, as much as the competition, that has led to a drastic reduction in the number of roller rinks in Massachusetts.
After the recent closure of Beverly’s Roller Palace, the number of rinks around Greater Boston has been reduced to single digits. Only one remains in the city itself — Chez Vous in Dorchester, which hosts its fourth annual adult skate weekend, Swerve, April 5 through 7.
From its beginnings 150 years ago, the roller skating industry has endured continuous ups and downs, riding out the lulls in between the occasional spikes, when the pastime becomes a fad all over again.
“I didn’t think it was popular anymore,” says Albert Monsini, an Everett native who took his two teenage daughters to Roller World in Saugus one night in early March. Both he and his wife, Andrea, recall the social atmosphere and fun music of old rinks such as Wheels Plus in Revere.
“I remember them playing ‘Little Red Corvette’ and ‘Candy Girl,’” Monsini says.
Their daughter Julia organized a Friday night outing to Roller World for about 40 students from the drama club at Winchester High School. The students were planning a spring production of “Xanadu,” the 1980 fantasy film starring Olivia Newton-John, which featured plenty of roller-skating.
“Everyone thought it was a great idea,” says Julia.
To some extent, the roller skating business relies on pop culture depictions like that one for its periodic upticks. Long before Linda Ronstadt helped spark a boom when she wore a roller-skating outfit — short shorts, knee socks, satin bomber jacket — on the cover of her 1978 album, “Living in the USA,” Charlie Chaplin made roller skating a theme of more than one of his silent movies.
Charlene Conway, who owns the Carousel Family Fun Centers in Whitman and Fairhaven with her husband, Robert, says she’s heard both positive and negative things about “United Skates,” a new HBO documentary about the underappreciated importance of roller-skating in black America. Positive because it celebrates the roller-rink culture; negative because the film highlights an alarming number of rink closings in recent years.
Skating is still “huge” in the south, Conway says. “In New England, we struggle with our seasonal nature.” Her toughest season is summertime, when people would rather be outdoors.
According to Marc Pyche, owner of Haverhill’s Skateland, Massachusetts was a hotbed of roller skating during the first half of the 20th century. Now, he estimates, the state is “in the middle of the pack.” At one point, his family owned six rinks in Massachusetts, in Quincy, Medford, Amesbury and elsewhere. He’s been spending time in Florida, where he’s preparing to open a rink outside Orlando.
“Realistically, it’s based on property value,” Pyche says. “People can’t afford a 20,000-square-foot building in Greater Boston anymore.”
There are cities where roller skating still thrives, he says — Dallas, for instance, has more than a dozen — “and they all make money.” But there’s just a few left in all of Los Angeles County.
For some owners, it’s personal. “I was a competitive skater myself,” says Carousel’s Conway. Owning her own rinks “is sort of a dream come true.” The Conways took over a failing rink in Fairhaven 27 years ago, and they acquired their second location, in Whitman, about a decade later.
Jodee Viola, who teaches artistic roller skating at the Carousel, is a former world champion. Both her parents were competitive skaters. She calls herself a “rink rat.”
“I’ve got a storage bin full of trophies, a lot of great memories,” she says.
“I’m super fortunate to be able to pass along my love for this to a whole new slew of kids,” Viola says. “People will come for a birthday party and say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this still exists.’ Next thing you know, they’re in lessons.”
Conway grew up skating at Roll-Land in Norwood and Wal-Lex in Waltham, both of which closed around the turn of this century. Constant waves of newer attractions have drawn attention away from old-fashioned roller rinks, she says: “laser tag, trampoline houses, Chuck E. Cheese — anything that offers entertainment for children.”
But roller skating, unlike those other activities, has a built-in nostalgia factor that has served it well. It still appeals to people “from 1 to 80,” she says, in part because everyone can do it.
“I’m not going to get on a super-duper rollercoaster anymore,” says Conway, who is now a grandmother. But she can still lace up a pair of skates and hit the floor.