I have a high school friend whose older brother still living in Dallas had an interesting history of roller skating when it was a serious sport, almost forgotten now.

billy-heather-wright-1961-copy

The story is a little long and many readers might not have interest in the subject but it is a wonderful history of another era, another way of life and a very good read- enjoy Billy Wheeler’s story and his dancing skates.

Billy (William Louis Wheeler, III) – on roller skating, et al.

          Billy Wheeler started skating at age four (1934) with steel-wheeled clamp-on skates strapped to his shoes.   In the early days, Billy skated on West 22nd Street – in front of his family’s house at 348, between 8th & 9th Avenues, in Chelsea, lower Manhattan, New York.  And his parents occasionally took him to skate on a large, flat, smooth concrete area near Riverside Drive, possibly part of Riverside Park (but unrelated to the skate park now located there).

In the afternoons after school, when he was a bit older – but still using steel-wheeled clamp-ons – he enjoyed skating all around the neighborhood, observing the trucks which served westside industries.  In 1941 (at age 11), his mom and dad allowed him to take city transit buses (New York City Omnibus Corporation) on his own to school. On the odd weekend, he would ride buses of Omnibus affiliate, 5th Avenue Coach Company, up to the Riverside Drive skating area where the family had gone together in prior years.

It was Dick Adams, a classmate at Friends Seminary, who got Billy interested in rink skating.  They started at Columbus Circle Rink, Broadway & 60th Street, second floor, in October 1945.  At that time, a session of some three hours, 7:30 PM to 10:30 or 11:00 PM, cost 74⊄.  Billy was a “chopper” back then, he says, i.e., a skating novice.  And like other choppers, he wore rental skates (shoe or clamp-on), most likely made by Chicago, a brand widely used at roller rinks in those days.  As his interest in skating grew, he began purchasing his own skates, less expensive Chicagos, and carrying them in a skate box adorned with stickers from the various rinks he visited.

A few years later, around age 17 (1947), he started skating at Fordam Skating Palace, 190th Street & Jerome Avenue.  Going to Fordam had been suggested by a woman named Gloria, whose boyfriend (later husband) Bob Cameron was a floor guard at Columbus Circle.  Gloria and Billy both were interested in learning dance skating and Fordam offered training sessions for that.   These were conducted from 11:00 PM to midnight (after regular evening skating sessions had concluded) for modest fees of around $5.00 per skater.

During the years 1948 ~ 49, Billy worked part-time at Ace Skate Shop, 351-1/2 West 51st Street, owned by Steve Witizen.  Steve and wife Alice lived on West 26th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues, not far from the Wheeler residence.  Witizen later closed his own business and began working for Leo Monte at Peck & Goodie (*) located on West 52nd Street next to Gay Blades, a former ice skating rink which had been converted to roller skating owing to the growing popularity of that sport during and after World War II.

(*) Peck & Goodie reportedly closed in 2003 after 63 years in business.

          Also in 1948 ~ 49, Billy began building his own skates; matriculated at State University of New York (SUNY) Morrisville (1949); and went skating at a rink in Westchester County, Mt. Vernon Arena, at 230 West Lincoln Avenue, Mt. Vernon, NY.  The Mt. Vernon rink was a member of the America On Wheels group, an organization which had over 20 roller rinks under its banner by the mid-1950s.   He also skated at a Madison Lake rink, near the town of Madison, NY, and at Utica Rollerdrome on North Genesee Street in Utica, NY.

It was at Utica Rollerdrome that Billy met Bob Paulsen, who was to become a close friend.  Bob was wearing Liberty skates – an indication that this fellow was no chopper.  He lived in Mt. Vernon and at the time, was a student at SUNY Utica.  Paulsen told Billy about the Skating Club of Mt. Vernon, with which the legendary skating teacher Eddie R. O’Neill was affiliated.  Billy and his dance skating partner Joan Finger took lessons from Eddie, and in 1950, they were eligible to compete in the U.S. Amateur Roller Skating National Championships, an annual event to be held that year in Pasadena, California.

Being passionate about buses, Billy convinced his parents and partner Joan Finger that he and Joan should take Greyhound across country (a miserable trip lasting four days).  The other members of the Skating Club of Mt. Vernon who were going to Pasadena took the train, and they stayed at a different hotel from the one chosen by Billy and Joan.  That was the Hotel Green, an antiquated hostelry patronized by antique people.  Billy and Joan did not do well in the competition, and Billy called home for airfare to return.  He flew back to New York from Burbank on Arrow Airlines.  (Joan most likely returned by train with other skating club members.)

He spent the summer of 1950 at Stratford Fields (the family farm on Cole Street, outside Solsville, in upstate New York) and returned to Morrisville in the fall.  Billy did not finish the school year.  The Korean War intervened, and the prospect of being drafted into the Army, becoming a “ground pounder” and sent off to Korea, was extremely unappealing.  He discussed the matter with his father, and with his parents’ blessing decided to enlist in the Navy – which he did, on January 25, 1951.

His six years in the Navy took him first to Newport, Rhode Island, for boot camp, then Port Hueneme, CA for training as a Seabee.  From there, he was transferred to the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center at Davisville, Rhode Island, for further assignment and deployment to a new duty station.  That turned out to be Headquarters Allied Forces Southern Europe (HAFSE) in Naples, Italy.  Upon completing a two-year tour at HAFSE, he returned to Davisville and shortly thereafter, was deployed in Mobile Construction Battalion 4 to Cuba – to facilitate work on construction of US Navy dependents housing for the Guantanamo Bay naval base.

Upon his return stateside from Gitmo in October 1954, he was posted to Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was permitted to live at home in Chelsea. At the Navy Yard, he was in charge of a small motor pool providing transportation for the US Navy Motion Picture Service. Later, during 1956, he was assigned to a Navy mobile dental clinic as rig operator and maintenance technician.  Among Billy’s duties during this assignment was driving a GMC 850 tractor, hauling a semi-trailer that had been equipped to house a two-chair dental clinic.  This traveling treatment unit, staffed by a lieutenant in the US Navy Dental Corps and a petty officer 1st class dental technician, toured the 3rd Naval District to serve personnel at Naval Reserve training centers.

In late 1956, Billy returned to the Motion Picture Service in Brooklyn and again was permitted to live at home in Chelsea.  This arrangement allowed him more opportunities to follow his passion for roller skating.   He skated occasionally at Gay Blades, at Mt. Vernon again, and then in New Jersey at Hackensack Arena (Atlantic & Firsts Streets) – which became a favored venue.  That rink was an American On Wheels member and belonged to the New Jersey Chapter of the U.S. Amateur Roller Skating Association, a nationwide organization with branches in several states, including Michigan, Indiana and California.

The following year, 1957, Billy was discharged from the Navy on the sixth anniversary of his enlistment, January 25th.  He had decided against re-enlistment because his next available duty station was to be at the South Pole as part of Operation Deep Freeze.  A return to civilian life was far more appealing, and in 1958 he went to work for General Motors Corporation’s GMC Truck & Coach Division in Pontiac, Michigan – thus embarking on a career which corresponded to one of his three truly compelling interests at the time:  “Sex, roller skating and buses.”

In Michigan, he skated competitively for the Riverside Figure & Dance Club at Riverside Arena in Livonia.   He was fortunate enough to meet a fine dance skater, Heather Wright, who became his skating partner.   Skating together, they won the Michigan State Senior Dance championship in May 1961 in Grand Rapids.

After that, Billy stopped skating to focus on buses, Heather got married and started a family, along with attending college.  They remained good friends, but no longer on skates.

Side note on music:  Billy commented that one of the reasons he became a dance skater was “the good music” provided at various rinks back in New York and New Jersey.  Among the organists he mentioned with admiration are Andy Weiss at Mt. Vernon, and Peggy O’Leary, who played at Hackensack Arena and Twin City Arena (on Freilinghausen Avenue in Elizabeth, New Jersey).

Billy remains a big fan of organ music to this day.

 

 

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