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Closing Time at the Roller Garden

20April 2021

Roller Garden, that time capsule of a roller rink in St. Louis Park where every child of the ‘70s and ‘80s had a birthday party, a first kiss, a first heartbreak—often in the span of one Bee Gees song—will close its doors for good on May 8.

For 76 years, Minnesotans have rounded the wooden rink inside the red brick building that was originally a hippodrome, used for horseback riding, tennis, and smelt fries, according to a 2009 MinnPost article penned by former news anchor Roxane Battle, who acknowledged winning a roller skating contest or two in her day. Bill Sahly and his late father-in-law, Russ Johnson, bought the venue in 1969 and it remained a family business for 52 years.

Roller Garden survived the end of the disco era and many subsequent shifts in music and pastimes, but ultimately, it couldn’t withstand the pandemic. “This was an incredibly difficult family decision which was not taken lightly,” ownership wrote this morning on Facebook and the Roller Garden website. “There were many contributing factors over the years, including the owners desire to retire, that led us in this direction, and then Covid hit, which literally pushed us over the edge.”

The building, just off Minnetonka Boulevard and Highway 100, will not be torn down, Roller Garden noted in its post. But the skates will be hung up for good. “We would have loved to see this historical facility remain a roller rink, but we’re happy to at least know it’s not being torn down and will be run by another family owned business.”

Owners could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Just a couple of other roller rinks continue to operate in the Twin Cities, including Skateville in Burnsville and Cheapskate in Coon Rapids.

In the 1970s, Roller Garden hosted as many as a thousand skaters on any given Friday or Saturday night. It was the place to be. But as disco music gave way to rock and R&B, the popularity of roller skating waned.

But even after its shag carpets fell out of favor, Roller Garden remained busy. “We have proudly provided great entertainment for kids, adults, families, schools, churches, daycare groups, scouts, colleges, choirs, companies, and more birthday celebrations than we can count (even a wedding),” owners wrote in their closing announcement. “It has been a privilege to see all the smiles and happiness of our skaters, watching them grow up, bring their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren.”

In recent years, many of those kids who grew up at Roller Garden returned to host a retro 40th or 50th birthday parties. Christian music nights became increasingly popular, along with old school funk nights. Bar mitzvah parties and family fun nights were mainstays of the business.

But perhaps what truly kept the disco ball spinning and neon lights flashing was the local love and support of the nostalgic rink. Just minutes after the announcement was made online, praise and memories came flooding in from Roller Garden fans.

“This seriously is heartbreaking,” one longtime fan wrote on Facebook. “I love you forever Roller Garden. So many amazing birthdays and memories have been shared there. Nothing beat the nostalgia of rollin’ in to the same smells, carpet, games, prizes… it always felt like a hug when entering the building. You will never be forgotten. Thank you so much for all the memories.”

On Twitter, locals called Roller Garden their “happy place,” tweeting “RIP Roller Garden” with stories and photos of first jobs, birthday parties and generations of first-time skaters.

A “Week of Goodbyes” is planned for May 2 to 8. More information will soon be posted on the Roller Garden website.

Now all that’s left to decide is who gets to keep Roller Garden’s iconic green dinosaur statue.

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