Manitoba History: The Winnipeg Roller Rink
by Myron Love
Within the past few years, roller skating has become a popular pastime in Winnipeg. New rinks have opened in Transcona, Fort Garry, and Garden City. However, as far as present manager Fred Verity is concerned, the old Winnipeg Roller Rink, near Portage and Langside, is still the only rink in the city. “The floors of the other rinks,” he points out, “are only half the size of the old rink’s wooden floor.”
Verity discovered roller skating and the Winnipeg Roller Rink in the early 1960s. “I took to the roller rink because it was warmer than skating outdoors in the winter,” he says. Eventually he became a part-time employee at the rink, and later rose to the position of manager.
A few years ago, an old King’s Stone ginger beer bottle was found under the floor of the rink. Verity came across an ad for that same kind of bottle while flipping through a 1938 Winnipeg Roller Skating Club yearbook. He also discovered some old receipt books dating back to the period 1933-1936. His interest thus aroused, he decided to try to piece together the history of the rink.
Verity’s research indicated that the building was originally a livery stable, with the back doors on Furby Place lining up directly with the lane. “Several years ago,” he says, “we went out to put posts around the laneway to cut off traffic. We hit concrete under the ground. This must have been where the livery stable office was.”
The building is first listed in the 1906 Henderson’s Directory. A Mr. John B. Kellough was listed as the proprietor of the livery stable. The building’s first address was Furby Place S.S. [south side]. About 1912, W. J. Holmes opened the Winnipeg Skating Rink in part of the building. Star Livery and Holmes’s ice skating rink shared the location for about five years. Then the livery area was used by a storage company for a few years. Verity reports that the front section of the building, which is now the entrance, was added about 1920, and the address became 358 Langside rear.
Phil Del Bigio, president of Del’s Electric Motor Supply Ltd., remembers ice-skating as a kid, about 1925, at the Winnipeg Skating Rink while a 12-man band played and shivered. He remembers Holmes, too. “When I knew him, he was already an old man. He was tall and distinguished-looking, and always well dressed.” Holmes was an entrepreneur. At various times he had been a hotelier, and a bridge contractor and builder. He was hard-nosed and tough. “If a guy were smoking at a hockey game,” says Del Bigio, “Holmes would walk right up to him and pull the cigarette out of his mouth.”
Holmes owned the skating rink until well into the 1930s, so it was near the end of his tenure that the rink was changed over to a roller rink. For a couple of years there was ice skating in the winter and roller skating in summer. After 1936 it became strictly a roller rink, and roller skating became the craze in Winnipeg. A headline in the December 14, 1936 edition of the Tribune read: “Roller skating becoming leading winter pastime in city.” “The Winnipeg Roller Rink was the place to go,” says Del Bigio, “and people came from Emerson, Morris, Portageall over.”
Del Bigio started roller skating in 1937. From 1939 to 1953 he was secretary-treasurer of the Winnipeg Roller Skating club, and he was “manager” of the rink on Sunday evenings. He explains: “Officially the rink was closed on Sundays because it was against the law at that time to charge admission on that day. We got around it by selling memberships at 25 cents each for Sunday evening skating. One year we sold 9,965 memberships. The place was always packed. We [the employees] always had a pool on the number of people present. The lowest figure was usually 1150-1300. One good thing about a big crowd like that was that you couldn’t fall down.”
Del Bigio admitted that he himself was not a very good skater. “I’d go on an hour or so after the action started,” he said. “In the ‘40s, unlike today, the skates were clamped right on to the shoe with a little crank. My old skates were still in the rink office last time I looked two years ago.”
On Sunday mornings, the Winnipeg Roller Skating club1200-1400 skatersmet for dance skating and fancy skating lessons. The club put on a show once a year. Among the performers were the late Bill Marshall and Bill Angus, who were part of several dance-skating teams. Marshall worked at the rink for years. Angus man-aged it. Del Bigio knew “90% of the club members.” He particularly remembers Audrey Green, former wife of the late bandleader, Marsh Phimister, as “a real beauty.” According to Del Bigio, the best-looking girls in Winnipeg skated on Sundays, and at other times, too.
In the ‘50s roller skating went into a slump. Del Bigio sees it as a case of “the crowd following the crowd.” “The regular group faded away,” he says. The two other roller rinks in the citythe Auditorium, and River Park at the end of Osborneclosed down. The Winnipeg Roller Rink alone held on until the recent upswing.
The old rink has not changed much in sixty years. It’s still boxed innot quite on Portage, nor on Langside. The Furby theatre which stood in front of it, on Portage, is now the site of a car dealership. The angled wooden sidewalk leading from the rink’s front door is now gone. The big change in the building itself was the installation of a suspended false ceiling over the skating floor several years ago. Inner walls were installed to retain the heat and close in the area.
Today’s skaters can skate to the music of one of the rink’s several thousand records. In addition, there are many tapes. The music is rock and disco. The rink also sells skates and equipment. The Winnipeg Roller Skating Club still meets on Sundays.
According to Fred Verity, roller skating is now, as it always was, one of the best sports for health. He supports his view on the basis of medical research. The rink’s motto“For Health’s Sake, Roller Skate.”