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History Lives Here Text

Roller Skating at the BigPavilion
by Jeanne Hallgren

Roller skatingat the Big Pavilion in Saugatuck was "the thing to do" back in thelate 1940s. A group of us from Glenn would always head that way at least onenight each weekend, when the rink wasopen, which was in the spring and fall. Saugatuck was a very quiet little town.We never saw anyone on the streets and often joked that they rolled the streetsup on Labor Day and kept them that way until summer came around again.



The BigPavilion cast an awesome relection on a midsummer night

As we roundedthe curve on Water Street,the big, brightly-lit, round-roofed building came into view. Many lightsadorned the building, on the sides as well as the front and back. Their glowreflected in the Kalamazoo River and danced on theripples in the water. It was a picture of peace and tranquility.

With skatecase in hand we would arrive at the Big Pavilion to the strains of the liveorgan music that drifted over the sleepy town. Joe Gerkin was at the organ forseveral years and later the music came from records. Gerrie Staley worked theticket window. We paid our admission and stepped inside where everything wasabuzz with the music, the whir of the skaters as they rounded the floor, andthe happy laughter and conversation of friends who hadn't seen each other sincethe last time. Mrs. Wilson was the ticket taker. She didn't smile too much andalways wore a fur jacket, even if the night air was on the warm side.

Once inside wewere amazed at how large the interior was.Large shuttered windows were at the sides and the back. On warm nights theseshutters were open making the roomseem even larger. We could stand at the windows and look out at the river. Theorgan music echoed off the water and created an atmosphere that was unequaledat any other rink.

Almosteveryone owned their own skates, white ones for the girls with big pompoms andblack ones for the boys. If you didn't have your own skates, they could berented from Jerry Little or Jim Wilson, who manned theskate rental booth. We immediately set about getting our skates on and if aboyfriend had come along he would graciously take on the duty of helping hisgirlfriend with her skates. Then we would go out onto the floor and be sweptaway with the crowd. The music immediately put you into a swaying motion.

Those first few times that I wentto the Big Pavilion to skate were learning experiences. A first time skateralways started out close to the railing and then when the rail ran out onewould very cautiously make her way to the wall on the opposite side and slowlyscoot around with the right hand always ready to reach out to the wall forsafety. Placing one foot over the other to turn those corners was pretty trickyand sometimes a little scary. I had one friend whose left foot never left thefloor. He pushed and steered with his right footand went round and round the rink with the rest of us. The more experiencedskaters sometimes lacked patience with the beginners. More than once I took afall after becoming tangled up with faster skaters. Taking a fall was always abit embarrassing. No matter how hard the tumble we always got up as quickly aswe could with a "that didn't hurt" expression on our faces. I pursuedand it wasn't long before I felt sure enough of myself to pick up a littlespeed.

There werealways a few boys who came there just to be rowdy. They would speed around thefloor, chasing each other and cutting in and out of the skaters, puttingeveryone they encountered in jeopardy. Bob Kobernik, Jack Wilson and BudWhipple were the "skate guards" who tried to keep these guys incheck.

In those daysour skates all had wooden wheels with ball bearings to help them roll. If aloose wheel flew off, ball bearings would roll all over the floor. If anyonerolled into one they were sure to fall, so when a wheel came loose the wordwould spread across the floor like a fire alarm. There was a crack in the floorat the third turn and a friend of mine always said the crack was caused by metaking a fall there one night.

Going to the Ladies Room was even trickier. It waslocated on the lower level and going down the series of stairs with skates onrequired concentration. The steps weren't more than eight or ten inches wide,not wide enough to accommodate the length of a roller skate, so you had toplace your foot sideways to avoid having it roll out from under you. There weremany who made it down the stairs by going backwards, clinging dearly to thehandrail. Once you got there you had to complete the mission, hoping that youwouldn't roll out of the stall before you were ready.


Roller skatingmade us thirsty and the only thing available to drink were Cokes. Julia Diekeran the concession and made the sweetest, most syrupy Cokes that I have tasted.Needless to say one of those did little to quench one's thirst. But theconcession stand was a good place for those kids who weren't really"into" skating to hang out.

Some of theskaters stirred up feelings of envy in many of us. I remember an oldergentleman who always skated backwards. He was so graceful, hands behind hisback and swaying to the music. He kept more to the center of the floor. As Ithink back on it now, he probably wasn't as old as I thought he was at thetime.

To keep theevening interesting the management would post a sign at the beginning of eachnumber "All Skate," "Couples Only," "Girls Only"and the one that I never took part in -"Reverse Skate," whereeveryone was supposed to skate backwards, a feat that challenged my naturalabilities. It was like a right-handed person becoming a lefty. "AllSkate" was probably my favorite, a total learning experience for me, Ijust kept rolling along.

Skating at theBig Pavilion began in the springtime with Tulip Time weekend and ran untilJuly. During the summer the skating rink would become a dance floor. When thesummer was over and the Labor Day weekend past, they would roll up the streetsagain and skating would return to the Pavilion and continue until it became toocold.

In 1994 whenthe Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society opened an exhibit about the BigPavilion in their museum in the old pump house, at the foot of Mt. Baldhead, myroller skates were part of the exhibit that summer. A fitting place, I think,for them to spend the rest of their days.

Just the mentionof roller skating at the Big Pavilion brings back many warm memories toeveryone who ever "rolled around the floor" to the strains of JoeGerkin at the organ. No other skating rink was ever quite the same.



The Big Pavilion had two distinct seasons -- roller skating and dancingThe floor had to rosined for skating or, as former skate guard Jack Wilsonnoted, "The kids would have been all over the place." Before the summer season began on July 4, it had to be scrubbedand waxed for dancing, a laborious process. Them after Labor Day it could bereoutfitted for skating overnight, by skate guards skating slowly backwardsdusting the floor with rosin. Jack Repp who was the movie theater manager alsoplayed for the skaters and often claimed that although Joe Gerkin was a betterorganist, he never quite mastered the gliding rhythm the skaters likedbest. The Big Pavilion opened July 4, 1909, but roller skating was notintroduced until 1941. The building was destroyed by fire May 6, 1960. Part of thedebris was 400 pairs of charred roller skates.



ca1966 Toad Davisjazz emporium on Culver Street


The Blue TempoLounge plans a big weekend over Labor Day with an All-Star entertainmentfeaturing many of the top jazz entertainers.

Among themwill be Bob Nelson who will be playing the piano-vibes. Nelson played with manygroups around the Battle Creek-Kalamazoo area.

Ralph Lewiswill be playing the trumpet. He has been playing the trumpet professionally anumber of years including with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

Harry Orr of Kalamazoo will be playingthe clarinet-alto sax. He presently is with the KalamazooSymphony and is teaching in the Kalamazoopublic schools.

Norm Lamb of Holland, is also playing the piano-vibes. He has played withmany jazz groups in the Midwest.

Fred Plummer,drummer, also is from Kalamazoo.Plummer appeared two summers at the Big Pavilion with Jens Jensen.

Bob Snyder,Grand Rapids, will play the bass and guitar. He has played with many of the topname groups throughout the United States.

Thenewspaper article (above) and the advertisement (below) are both from the September 3,1964, Commercial Record, announcing a "Jazz Festival "for Labor Dayweekend. Especially after the Big Pavilion burned in 1960 the Blue Tempo onCulver Street in Saugatuck was known for attracting well-known, although mostlylocal, jazz musicians. Norm Lamb, playing both with various combos and as asolo performer in a piano-bar setting, appeared in various Saugatuck andDouglas venues f or more than 20 years. The Blue Tempo owners were often introuble with the authorities that regulated alcoholic beverages so it isunclear what is mean by "Choice Drinks."