Long before the internet, Redwood Roller Rink was exporting artistic roller skating to the rest of the world. How a Redwood City icon became the home of world champions.
by Kali Shiloh
(Photos by Philip Wartena and Kali Shiloh)
In the heart of the high-tech capital of the world stands a vault from the past. There’s no air conditioning and no heat, and the ceiling leaks when it rains. Somehow it’s clear, though, that there’s nowhere the skaters who call Redwood Roller Rink home would rather be.
Redwood Roller Rink (RRR) in Redwood City has occupied a sliver of land between Main Street and the railroad tracks since 1952. Just prior to opening day, as the community prepared to celebrate the birth of what would become one of the best artistic roller skating rinks in the world, a train rushed by and the roof caved in. Today when you enter the rink, which still reverberates with the roar of each passing train, you see a rib cage of metal reinforcement beams running the length of the ceiling, a vestige of that opening day excitement. Everywhere you look you see history.
And yet perhaps the most important part of the rink’s history can no longer be seen but only remembered. “Papa” Jim Pollard, together with his wife and former skating partner Suzie, bought the rink in 1969 and owned it until his passing in March. It was Pollard’s influence that transformed the rink into an international beacon of artistic excellence; his legendary knowledge, generosity, and passion for artistic skating that led to its niche fame.
At 10pm on Sept. 30, after 48 years, Suzie Pollard will retire, and Redwood Roller Rink will close its doors for good, the final chapter for a roller skating mecca that will go down in history.
‘Everyone knows who Jim is’
When I visit the building to interview manager Robin Haleber, it looks the same as it did 20 years ago at my sixth birthday party. As we sit in the fluorescent-lit lobby, talking at a table that’s probably older than I am, I can see into the rental skate room with its rows upon rows of skates — all of them old, all of them beige, all of them perched, I imagine, exactly the way they were 60 years ago.
The skates are heavy. I remember. They’re heavier than ice skates, all the regulars will tell you with pride. I remember carrying those heavy skates over to a bench, giggling next to my friends, all of us nervous, none of us skaters; threading the thin laces tightly through the eyelets and hooks that went up past my ankle. Even now, the carpet underfoot in the lobby always gives me a false sense of confidence; with a slight march, it almost feels as easy as walking with heavy shoes. But every time, the moment I step onto the unforgiving wooden beams of the rink the wheels roll with a treacherous ease that still confounds my muscles and sense of balance. And then, strangely, the movement becomes soothing, the vibratory feedback from millions of minuscule imperfections on the surface of the floor traveling from my feet all the way up to the smile on my face. When I stop and take off my skates, my body feels a bit wrong — too still, like rolling has become its natural state.
Recalling this kinetic memory from years ago, I can understand why so many people, so many families, are hopelessly addicted.
At RRR, most of the long-timers are artistic skaters. Artistic roller skating is one of many roller sports. You’ll find two types of skates in roller sports: quad skates (a.k.a. roller skates) and inline skates (a.k.a. rollerblades). On the inline side there’s inline hockey, speed skating and slalom. On the quad side there’s rink hockey, roller derby and artistic skating.
With a style that resembles that of Olympic ice skaters, artistic roller skaters demonstrate their skills as individuals or pairs, performing choreography, spins, jumps and lifts that take years to master. Artistic roller figure skater Ashley Clifford is a third-generation artistic skater who, at 19, has been a member of Team USA six times. She describes the allure of artistic skating as a potent combination: “It takes so much strength and power, and to make all that come together in an elegant and graceful way — that’s the hardest part about it. I think the power and beauty mixed together is what attracts people.”
As one of the best skaters in the U.S., Clifford competed at the World Roller Games in Nanjing, China, in mid-September, coming in ninth in her category. Even an ocean away, Redwood Roller Rink and Jim Pollard were at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
“Everyone knows who Jim is,” says Clifford of her fellow competitors in Nanjing, “and everyone around the world knew Redwood Roller Rink . . . People from Italy, France, Brazil — people who haven’t even been here, who haven’t even experienced it, they just kept giving me hugs and saying how sorry they were that it was closing.
“It’s not just heartbreaking for the Bay, it’s heartbreaking for the whole skating community around the world, because everyone knew this place and how much of an impact this place had on skating as a whole. It’s crazy.”
And, according to just about anyone you talk to, that impact came mainly from Pollard.
“Mr. Pollard was so generous with his time that he would travel the world to share successful [skating] programs with other countries,” remembers Haleber, the avuncular rink manager who first started skating at RRR in 1971. “He would take seminars over to places like India, did a lot of work in South America, and took a lot of seminar presentations to Asian countries.” Today, those countries give the United States, which used to be number one in world skating events, a run for its money. Due in part to Pollard’s efforts, artistic skating is a world sport with a growing base.
The base at home, though, was where he invested the most time. RRR, in addition to becoming a training ground for some of the world’s best artistic skaters, has offered programs for just about every demographic you can imagine. The Pollards are proud supporters of the Special Olympics; they’ve held Disco Night, Christian Night, Rainbow Night; hosted parties for children, adults and schools like Stanford and UC Berkeley; they’ve put on Production Numbers, which Haleber describes as Broadway musicals on skates; they’ve had roller derby teams, a junior roller derby team, a hockey team.
The rink’s prestige and its caliber as an athletic institution come as an overwhelming realization. So too does the staggering array of options within skating. The closure of RRR is not a simply the disappearance of recreation, it’s the loss of a diverse skating ecosystem that has taken generations to mature.
Fear of falling
At the core of RRR and Pollard’s mission is an inclusivity that’s hard to rival. “Jim always had the door open,” says Clifford, echoing a sentiment I heard from many. “Everyone was a family, everyone helped each other. No one was ashamed of anything . . . It was great. It is great.”
Part of that culture of acceptance seems inherent in roller skating. There isn’t much high profile appeal: no college scholarship, no brand name sponsorship, no street cred to speak of. In this regard, RRR often feels full of innocence and authenticity, because you can sense that everything comes down to a pure love of skating, which can appear present as much in a world champion as in a diffident newcomer wobbling along the periphery.
Pollard was eager to introduce skating to anyone who might be interested, and he focused on more than jumps and spins. One unexpected area of attention: falling. “I used to fall, no matter what I tried,” Haleber remembers, “fall, fall, so bad that I was bruising myself up all over. Finally, Mr. Pollard conducted, I think it was three lessons with me where he [said], ‘I’m going to teach you how to fall so you don’t hurt yourself anymore.’ And that’s what it took — three lessons of teaching me how to fall before I really got over that.”
The fear of falling is pressing and rational. No soft grass cushions the impact, and no traction beneath your shoes helps you catch yourself. Out on the rink, any fall is a hard fall. But it’s part of skating. “With kids, the first thing we do is have them sit on the floor and teach them how to get up,” says Clifford. Every artistic, speed and derby skater must embrace the unsteadiness, the uncertainty. Learning how to fall and get back up is the only way to progress.
Have skates, will travel
No fear of falling, no lack of street cred, no long commute will stop a passionate skater from skating, I’ve learned.
It’s a 100-mile round trip for Clifford, who lives in Morgan Hill, but she and her family don’t let that stop them. “This is home,” says Clifford of RRR. When the rink closes, she’ll be transferring to a college in Florida where an artistic rink has invited her to train. “My coach goes to Florida all the time,” she explains, “so it’ll be easier if I’m there.” Her coach lives in Italy, where Clifford has spent months working on artistic skills. Reaching her potential in skating has always involved a long commute.
Coach Doug Woodroofe came to RRR with his students when their rink in San Jose closed. “We’re gonna miss it,” he says. “It’s not just a building. It’s not just an activity. It’s part of our identity. It’s who we are.”
Scott Lydon, a software engineer and former Junior Olympics artistic skating competitor who now skates for fun, isn’t sure where he’ll get his skating fix once the rink closes. “[I might] move to Antioch,” he says casually. “I’d consider it one of the places I’d look for jobs.” Why? Because it has an artistic skating club.
Third grader Sri, who has been skating for five years, responds with less concern. What will she do when the rink closes? “Probably ice skating,” she says. She’s no stranger to traveling — RRR is a 45-minute drive from her home — but the next closest rink will be too far for her family. At just eight, she’s already ventured out of state twice for nationals. When I ask where, she responds: “Lincoln [Nebraska] and New Mexico. And I have a wiggly tooth.”
Her friend, Maya, who came to the area from Israel last year, had to learn English on the fly. “We used to use Google Translate,” says Woodroofe, as Maya verbosely explains the tedious translation process that has been replaced by rapidly developing fluency. Learning to skate and learning English have gone hand in hand, it seems.
Looking for a home
With virtually no options left for Bay Area skaters, the sport’s popularity appears to be waning. But there’s reason to hope.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a dying trend, not at all,” says Jeff Warrenburg, Roller Skating Association Sectional Director and owner of Paradise Skate Roller Rink in Antioch. “I would say, just off the top of my head, over a dozen [rinks] in the U.S. popped up this past year — [rinks that were] built and opened.”
One challenging aspect of owning a rink in the Bay Area comes from the price of real estate. Warrenburg rattles off the spatial requirements of a rink: 10,000 square feet for the skating floor alone, with at least 20,000 square feet for the whole building. “The land’s so expensive,” he laments. “In the Bay Area it’s just really hard to find at a reasonable rate.”
For the casual skater on the Peninsula, this is a loss that will hurt. RRR offers a drop-in kids class on Wednesdays that invites beginners to learn the basics of skating. “It’s those Wednesday kids,” says coach Michelle Higby, head coach in Antioch and part-time coach at RRR, “those are the ones I worry about, the ones just coming in to skating.” Without a facility, many of the other members of the skating family will find it hard to roll on, too. The roller derby teams are looking into using a warehouse, and there’s no word yet on the future of the Special Olympics program.
In Lake County, where the land is less expensive, Warrenburg is opening a new rink at the end of October, and he’s an owner who values the finer points of skating. “They had a really strong art club,” he says of RRR. “Someday I’d like to be as strong as they were with artistic skating. They produced a lot of top skaters.” While the doors of RRR will close, the future of skating may not be so bleak.
Unfortunately, without a local rink, most Bay Area residents have nowhere to continue practicing.
“We’re hoping a rink opens up,” says Woodroofe. “We’ve all been through this before: when a rink closes there’s this big surge — everyone’s gonna open rinks . . . And then the reality sets in, and then the enthusiasm starts waning. So, right now everyone’s real enthusiastic — their cousin has a lead here, and their best friend has a lead here, but slowly they start dropping off.”
Haleber hopes community members will collaborate to keep skating alive. “I’m looking for proposals to continue, maybe not in this rink, not in this location, but just to have roller skating continue.”
“I’ve watched three into four generations come through this door,” says owner Suzie Pollard. For her, a roller skating rink is a place for families. RRR caters to families in the community, and it has become a family to all who enter.
Each time I visit the rink now — primarily to conduct interviews or take photos — a pit grows heavy in my stomach. I look at the faces of those on the skating floor: the kids, the champions, everyone in between. Most of them are smiling. I want to shout, The rink is closing! Why aren’t you miserable? But they know much better than I what they are losing. They’re smiling because, for now, they can do what they love. They’re smiling because the future is uncertain, which leaves room for optimism. Most of all, they are smiling because, although we must say goodbye to a cherished piece of history, it’s hard not to feel lucky that we’ve had this place for so long.
If you’d like to help celebrate Suzie Pollard’s retirement and Jim Pollard’s legacy, come to Redwood Roller Rink at 1303 Main Street in Redwood City on Saturday, Sept. 30. The rink will be open to the public from 10am to 10pm.
For open skating in the Bay Area, check out:
Church of 8 Wheels in San Francisco (open Fri/Sat, 7–11pm)
Silver Creek Sportsplex in San Jose
For skating lessons near the Bay Area, try:
The Golden Skate in San Ramon
Paradise Skate Roller Rink in Antioch
Roller Palladium in Santa Cruz