Rolling Along: The Bygone Craze of Roller Rinks in OmahaApr 28, 2022 05:15PM ● By Sean Robinson
The year is 1988. It’s Kelly Witt’s senior year of high school, and she is riding high. Well, roller skating high is a more apt description. Witt whips and whizzes past her peers on the rink. It’s all a swirl of twinkling lights above and neon fashion to her left and right.
With each lap around Skateland’s slick wooden floor, she picks up momentum. Faster and faster she goes. At this point in time—in this little corner of a then-Omaha cornerstone—Witt and her roller buddies are skate stars. The 17-year-old didn’t know it yet, but she is living and racing through a piece of history. One that’s soon to fade away in the coming decades like disco and drive-ins before it.
“It was my whole childhood. I remember skating all the time,” Witt said. “I was the one who went around the edge really, really fast, dancing and dipping around. Me and my girlfriends, that was our perfect Friday night.”
Once upon a time, from the years of about 1960 to 2000, roller rinks were the place to see and be seen. Witt was just one of hundreds of Omaha residents who reveled in the golden era of this pastime. Invoking nostalgia and notions of the past, roller skating was all the rage for metro kids looking to have a good time on Friday and Saturday nights.
“It was an every weekend night thing. Sometimes Sunday days, too,” Witt said. “There was even overnight skate occasionally where you’d be there until 6 in the morning. It amazed me because this was the one place we all went and hung out. Good times, man.”
Witt and her friends called Skateland off Irvington Road their weekend home away from home. Her mom worked as the ticket taker, and her high school beau was a skate guard. (Think lifeguard but on roller wheels.)
This was hardly the only place Omaha residents were letting the good times roll. In fact, the Irvington location was the third metro Skateland to be opened in a total of six. Frank Cernik opened the first off of 108th and Q streets in 1967. Black-and-white illustrated advertisements for its grand opening read “Take a family fun break!”
Business soon exploded—and Omaha became one of the birthplaces for the roller disco boom in the 1970s.
From all corners of the country, rink operators came to see what this fella in Nebraska was doing so right. It’s because his state-of-the art rink wasn’t designed like those from the 1940s and 1950s. According to family information, his had many firsts in the industry, including “panda parties” where kids could win stuffed animals by inviting friends.
Cernik created a roller-skating revolution in Omaha, with the rest of the country shortly following as he sold his blueprints nationwide. Located off 132nd and Grover streets, Skatedaze was Cernik’s last Omaha rink to open and the last to close, operating from 1982 until 2019.
“Skatedaze was where we belonged,” Jen Donahue said. “It just felt like we as kids always had a place to go in the ’80s, especially if you were one of the regulars. It wasn’t like going to the mall where it was just a ton of random people walking around. You had your people you knew.”
Funky 1980s music blaring. Disco balls hanging overhead. The girls attempting sleek, gliding skating tricks to impress the boys and vice versa. Donahue remembers it all.
Her friends group wasn’t limited to her classmates. She had a crew that spanned citywide as kids from different schools flocked to the rink and bonded over their love of lacing up.
“I met so many people…kids from all over,” Donahue said. “Everybody who went week-to-week wanted to have the best skates. We’d have different color skate wheels or decorate the inside of our roller shoe cases with collages of magazine clippings. It was a big deal.”
Though Witt was hanging rink-side half a city away, she too remembers kids’ drive to express their creativity by dressing up their skates and cases.
“Oh, I had the biggest pom-poms on my skates,” Witt said. “And there were bells and everything was puffy. Imagine me in those and my bell bottoms. What a look.”
Witt and Donahue may have hung up their skates decades ago, but their memories of pom-poms and parties at the rink live on.
Their favorite hotspots have closed—as have almost every other roller rink in the city. The only place still inviting people to spend a night on wheels is Skate City off Fort Crook Road in Bellevue.
“I miss the exercise of it all now as an adult,” Witt said. “I miss that it gave kids something to do other than look at a screen. We were interacting. We were getting a workout in. We were having the time of our lives and didn’t even know it.”
Visit skatecitybellevue.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.