Heaven on Wheels

Amy King shuffles into the Gold Coast roller rink garbed as an elf. Her back curves gently like a lowercase r, and she uses a rubber-tipped cane to maneuver her steady path from the entranceway's turnstile to the rows of booths that rest rinkside.

She knows where she's going. Amy's skated at this rink since she moved here from Ohio in 1958. Tonight, though, she seems a tad overwhelmed by the dozens of buoyant, Christmas-clad seniors swirling about the rink.

Her arrival's a surprise to regular rinkgoers. Last October, Amy moved from Hollywood to Vero Beach to be closer to her daughter. Both women, along with Amy's granddaughter, have trekked to Fort Lauderdale so Amy can visit with the numerous friends she's made while roller-skating at the rink's Tuesday-morning Housewives Skate and Thursday-evening Organ Music sessions.

The biweekly skates are the only ones in town that offer old-time skaters a haven from heart-pounding tunes, seizure-inducing strobe lights, and kids whizzing by on in-lines. During these gatherings Gold Coast hosts a faithful flock whose ages span from 50 to 80-plus. There are rarely bumbling spills or arms pinwheeling for balance, because many of these folks have skated all their lives, and the same jubilant faces return to the rink week in, week out, year after year.

For a moment Amy halts her entrance and double-blinks at the reindeer antlers, the Santa suspenders, the evergreen shirts, and the ice-white pants. She hasn't been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, but in the last few years, the 76-year-old has endured some of its symptoms: forgetting names, difficulty with directions, the occasional confusion when there's too much going on around her.

A voice with a quick Midwestern clip shoots out from the rink's speaker system. "Welcome to our Christmas party, everyone!" and pretaped melodies fill the rink with the familiar notes of a fox trot, then a cha-cha. They're the kinds of songs that bring to mind bubbles, Lawrence Welk, chiffon skirts, and bow ties. The bulk of the party hits the floor, and "Tea For Two" swells over the steady thrumming of rolling wheels.

Near a carpet-covered side wall, a camera-toting woman dressed as a snow fairy urges another skater to pose by the carnival lights slatted across the rink's sloping roof. Couples and stags chat and laugh by the skate-rental counter, where a host of Tupperware containers houses the evening's munchies. Covered cakes and foil-wrapped meatballs accumulate. While there's plenty of tongue-wagging in the lounge area, most skaters cruising the rink's oval floor favor a smiling and mostly silent reverie.

Songs melt together. Skaters float about like swans, their arms stretched winglike on either side, their feet swinging up in coy little front and back kicks. Some skaters shadow one another in traditional skate dances like the Denver Shuffle or the Bounce Boogie; others clasp hands and mirror one another's strides.

More guests arrive. Hugging. Santa caps. Everyone gets snapped by the snow fairy, and now someone's even brought deviled eggs. The party's hopping.

No matter. Amy's made her way to an empty bench. She sets her cane aside and pulls a pair of Riedell white-booted skates from her bag. She's had them for years and isn't interested in upgrading because, as she likes to say, these fit her just right. After she tugs her laces tight, she stands up and glides onto the rink's original 53-year-old maple-wood floor, a small putty knife in her right hand.

She's hunting for candy. Or gum. Sometimes Gold Coast's Saturday Teen Night skaters grind both into the floor. It drives Amy nuts, yet her quest is self-imposed: No one's enlisted her for clean-up duty. She does it because she wants to keep the floor clean. She does it because she loves the rink. Each time she spots a wad, she sails over, swoops down, and scrapes a plastered piece off the maple wood's gleam. Then she glides back to the lounge and shares her catch with whomever's taking a break.

"The last time I got a piece of candy this long," she says, spreading her creased thumb and forefinger to show the appalling length. "It was sticky; it was a mess!"

Her gray eyes flutter with excitement. She heads out for another recon mission, and the faux-fur trim of her red-velvet minidress flounces about her thighs. Amy might stoop while she skates, but her long legs are toned and vein-free, more like the legs of a buff beach model than a retiree.

The music stops. It's chow time, and the line stretches past the rental counter toward the lockers. People pile into booths and tuck their skate bags beneath the seats to make more room for others. A few die-hards remain on the floor, as does Amy. An announcement over the loud speaker welcomes her back. Everyone puts down the plastic forks and knives and claps long and hard. Amy looks up, not getting it at first. When she realizes the cheering's for her, she smiles, and her fair face flushes the color of a tea rose.  

Gospel Night. Gay Skate Night. Tiny Tots Skate. The Gold Coast offers niches for all breeds of skate aficionados. But it's the Tuesday and Thursday sessions that help preserve the rink's history and its sense of permanence, both rare traits in this transient town. The regulars at these skates come back for the soothing stream of big-band tunes, the fresh-brewed coffee and donut holes piled on the snack counter, and the friendships they've forged over the years -- a camaraderie based in common pasts and a sheer love of skating.

"We have people, when they come in to visit, they say, 'You know, I spent my youth in this rink. I had the best time of my life here,'" says Harold Wieselthier, Gold Coast's fourth and present owner. When Wieselthier bought the rink 17 years ago, he inherited more than the Tuesday and Thursday senior sessions. He was bequeathed a cast-iron candy machine hawking rabbits' feet and SweeTarts necklaces, the earthy and intoxicating smell of a couple hundred rental skates, and the 169-white-bulbed sign gracing the rink's farmhouselike façade.

He also acquired Mary Burghardt. "Mary was here when I bought the business. I like to say a lot of things I inherited, I didn't change," he says.

This month, the 71-year-old Burghardt will have sprinkled her own brand of fairy dust over Gold Coast for 20 years. At the rink her roles range from the cashier to a sometime DJ. She counts quarters, rewinds music tapes, and sells pizza squares and pickled sausages from the snack bar. She rents skates and takes calls. She teaches novices and also coaches more-accomplished skaters for invitational, regional, and national meets, stitching her teams' costumes at home on her Kenmore sewing machine and setting the beadwork by hand. The Tuesday and Thursday sessions are Burghardt's babies. She initiated like-styled programs at the Connecticut rink where she first coached and encouraged younger skaters to participate by teaching them traditional skate moves.

"The only way they could skate that night is if they were competitive skaters," she says. A sturdy five feet, two inches, Burghardt brims with a compact energy, and it's most evident from her rapid-fire style of speaking. "They had to know the dances, the figures; they had to know those."

Figures refers to the standard curves and turns roller skaters have to master and demonstrate during meets. At Gold Coast it's customary to spot an intent senior practicing figures by carefully weaving his or her way across the rink's floor. It's harder than it looks. Between the four wheels of one skate, competitors must straddle a line that's no wider than a thumbnail while tracing figure eights and serpentine patterns.

Burghardt's more than familiar with figures; she competed for 30 years before she began her recent 25-year stint as a teacher. Her love affair with skating began much earlier than that, when her mother bought Burghardt her first pair of sidewalk skates when she was only three-and-a-half years old. Tottering on metal wheels and clamps that held her tiny shoe to the skate's base, she jaunted back and forth on the wide sidewalk that ran between the two houses centered on her family's 350-acre farm in Joplin, Missouri.

"Plenty of skinned-up knees," she remembers. "Plenty of flop-flop of the soles, too. That's how I started."

Eventually her mother bought her white, lace-up, ladies' skates, and Burghardt began taking lessons, then competing at local rinks. Local meets led to regional competitions, and regionals turned into nationals. She met her husband, George, at the Levertown Arena in New York when he approached her and asked if she knew the skate dances. When she speaks of him, her usual quick trill slows down, and her face grows wistful.

"I said yes. And he said, 'Would you care to dance?' That was it. We skated all our lives together until he passed. This coming March, the 31st, will be 16 years he's been away," she says.

Married for 21 years, the two competed in seven nationals and snagged medals in six. In 1968 they won the U.S. Federation of Amateur Roller Skating's National Championship for their rendering of a quick-tempo waltz and a tango, both standards in American dance-skating. She still has the picture taken right after they learned they'd placed first. In it her husband curls his arm around Burghardt's green-and-silver-sequined waist, and their skates point toward the cameras like composed pros. But their smiles are enormous, and their faces shine with sweat and the thrilled exhilaration of knowing that, at least on that day, they were the best.  

But after 15 years of skating, she'd had enough of competition's rigors. "I hung 'em up," she says, referring to her skates and her decision to retire. "I said, 'That's enough.'"

Well… not quite. Burghardt might not compete, but three or four times a week, she gathers a few from her Tuesdays-and-Thursdays fold and trains them for tournaments. Right now she's gearing her team up for the seventh annual Winter Invitational 2000 in Casselberry, Florida, a meet where beginning and world-class roller skaters will vie for medals in divisions like dance, pairs, freestyle, and figures.

"Keep the shoulders upright!" Burghardt calls out to Jim Gillespie and Emily Gomez, a dance team working on their numbers in the twilight hours before the rink opens for its Monday-night gospel session. For regional and national meets, the couple has to master a total of six different dances, not knowing until a month before competition which ones the meet officials will select as mandatory skates. This uncertainty and the gimlet eyes of seasoned judges can rattle even a 26-year veteran competitor like Gillespie.

"I try not to look at 'em," he says laughing. "Last year we spread ourselves way too thin. We tried to do solos; we tried to do figures. Now we just want to focus on just the dance this season, see how it works out at this meet. When the scores start to come up a bit, then we'll take on another event."

Fortunately the invitational requires them to perfect only two dances: a waltz and a schottische, a three-beat per stride number that falls somewhere between a polka and a fox trot. Both dances require Gillespie to skate with Gomez in what the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating calls a side position: Prior to launching off, he looks as if he's promenading her.

"Straighten up," Burghardt mouths at Gillespie as the pair banks a turn at top speed. Wearing a comfortable pair of navy blue flats, the coach paces back and forth, her eyes locked on the pair's every kick as they speed around the rink's floor. Burghardt's looking for flaws that might strike points from their routine, but she always cushions her critique with the kindness of a doting aunt, often punctuating her appraisal with a smile or a soft pat on the arm.

"She's sensitive to her skaters. Some coaches, if you did bad, they didn't want to know you," says Gillespie. "With her it's more like a family deal, which makes a big difference. You're treated more like a human being and not like some bulldog."

For their weekly practices, all three don wireless stereo headphones that funnel the same swingin' ditties, so the team's music doesn't disturb other skaters working on their own routines. The headphones give Burghardt the appearance of an airport tarmac worker; when she waves her arms at Gillespie to keep his shoulders back, she looks like she's waving in a plane.

And in a sense she is. To the untrained eye, Gillespie and Gomez soar over the rink's floor as if weightless, their synchronized turns and forward motion propelled by the mechanics of ball bearings, wheels, and muscle. Although a few other skaters mill about practicing figures, the pair whisks around them as if they were insubstantial clouds. Again and again they circle the rink, counting beats, keeping rhythm with one another's bodies until, after a while, they seem like a six-appendaged skater instead of simply two dancing side by side.

"That was better!" Burghardt chirps and reaches out with one arm to stop Gomez's high-speed forward roll. Gomez grabs her hand, circles around her twice, and gives her shoulders a big squeeze. Both women laugh at Gomez's sudden flourish.

Once the pair stops skating, their performance loses its effortless façade. Gillespie's T-shirt sticks to his back. Gomez's chest heaves up and down. Both wipe sweat from their now ruddied cheeks and foreheads.

"She's getting dizzy looking at the ceiling," Burghardt tells Gillespie. She tenderly places a hand on either side of Gomez's face and positions her head. "Head up, chin up, but eyes level. It tells the judges, 'I know what I'm doing.' Always keep your head up," she offers.

It's good advice, and not just for Gomez. After training, while the three sprawl in the booths by the snack bar and banter about past and upcoming meets, Burghardt's blue Bermudas hike up a bit and reveal two vertical, eight-inch scars on both of her knees. Total knee replacements. The surgeries and subsequent screws and pins did more than mar her legs: They've stopped her from skating. For good.  

"I had my last surgery in 1994. About two years ago, I had to stop. My doctor told me if I should fall and break the bones where the pins go, I'd be a cripple," she says. It's a logic that can't be disputed, but it does little to ease the longing she still feels to lace up her skates and roll. Sometimes, when her team's whirling about the floor, she mirrors their steps as if offering up a vaudevillian soft-shoe.

"At first I wanted to cry that I couldn't get out there and skate. I've been very active all my life. And now, not to do anything…" She pauses for a minute, casts a glance at the rink's floor. "It really hurts."

But she fills the void with her two families: her blood relatives and her friends at the rink. Here she gives lessons to kids for three bucks and charges adults a meager ten. Quick tips on how to T-stop or negotiate turns are free. At Gold Coast, Burghardt offers 50 years of skating know-how to anyone who wants it, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she greets skaters by name, chats with them about her grandchildren or her glory days, and then sends them off with a wink, a grin, a "See ya later, doll." And of course she keeps her head up.

As the oldest still-in-business rink in Florida, Gold Coast touts more than half a century's worth of history. Some of it's literally buried beneath the building, where the remnants of a basement apartment still exist. If the rink's first owner and his family had actually slept there during skate sessions, as they did during the rink's off-hours, the noise above their slumbering heads might have resembled the roar of tiny trains in urgent motion. A solid night's sleep would've been hard to come by.

In 1947 Charles Sanford built what's now known as the Gold Coast roller rink by cajoling nearby military bases to donate hard-to-come-by steel. Originally known as the Sanford Rink, its first owner relied on big-bladed ceiling fans, a circumference of jalousie windows, and the sea breeze blowing off the coast to cool down skate-crazed patrons. Dress codes were strict: collared shirts for boys, modest necklines for girls, and no dungarees allowed.

"They had big crowds here on weekends, and they did a lot more dance-skating, more like the competitive skaters do now," recalls Steve Richardson, a local electrician who first skated at the rink when he was six years old and who's worked on the building for more than 40 years. "When Old Man Sanford had it, the organ was upstairs. People could sit up there and watch the skaters, and the organist sat there too, so she could see right out over the floor," he says. Richardson even took his wife to the rink on their first date. Price of admission: 75 cents. The rink's monthly electric bill: 35 bucks. Cold drinks were served in bottles, and a fine resin was sprinkled over the floor to give roller skates' then-wooden wheels a better grip.

Today the wheels trundling over the rink's 12,000 square feet are plastic, and they hold fast to a coat of polyurethane that Gold Coast's current owner, Wieselthier, puts down thrice a year on the rink's original maple-wood floor. The week's cheapest session starts at $3. The jalousies are gone, the fans replaced with air conditioning and a drop ceiling, and the rink's last organist took off more than a decade ago to join the ministry.

But the rink of the past still sits within the walls of the present-day Gold Coast. Behind a booth by the snack bar, a blue-carpeted wall pops out to reveal a secret, à-la-speakeasy passageway. A short climb up cramped wooden stairs reveals the rink's old balcony. Inside, the original ceiling and support beams still exist. Amid cardboard boxes and dust-thick shelves are plaques and trophies from meets held as far back as the '50s. On the balcony's southern wall, tacked over colorless and shredded wallpaper, painted metal signs announce: Ladies Night; Girl Scout, Boy Scout Night; Join a Class Today!

The silver-mustachioed Wieselthier takes the task of preserving the rink's history to heart. "I'm the keeper of an institution right now. It's a notch out of time. That's the bottom line. It's my responsibility to keep the Gold Coast roller rink alive for many years," he says matter-of-factly.

So he throws nothing out and holds true to the rink's original design. When he decided to redo the lounge area's floor, he peeled back carpeting to check what a few existing original tiles looked like; he made sure to lay down the same black-and-white check pattern. He's kept the outside of the building looking almost identical to how it appears in a 40-year-old snapshot he's framed of the rink. Same handful of diagonal parking spaces, same red-and-white color scheme. Presently Wieselthier's even restoring the '50s-era neon SKATE sign that once beckoned both locals and tourists trucking down Federal Highway.  

He's also held on to the Tuesday and Thursday skate sessions, even though they bring in little in terms of profit because customary attendance totals three dozen, tops. It isn't much compared to the throngs he hosts on other nights. But Wieselthier cites the seniors' devotion to skating and Gold Coast as more than just cause for him to continue to offer them what they can't get from any other roller rink in the city, namely, nostalgia.

"I think that's what keeps us unique," he proffers. "Nothing else looks like us. There's nothing that feels like us. When you walk in, you can tell. This is forever."

"Say, 'Praise hallelujah,'" says Rosemary Fusinski, a regular who's skated on and off at the rink for more than 20 years. "This is where we can come and skate and forget about our health and money problems. Forget about everything."

With her coifed black hair, burgundy-lacquered nails, and always-lipsticked mouth, Fusinski, age 57, undisputedly reigns as the rink's unofficial skating diva. Each week she arrives in a skillfully selected skate costume: a micro-miniskirt and clingy spandex top. Like most skate attire, her outfits are skimpy, and she opts to cover them before and after her weekly skates with an ankle-length peasant skirt.

"So I don't have to go to the rink naked," Fusinski explains. "God forbid, I broke down in a car and I'm half-naked. They'll think I'm a hooker on Federal Highway."

Her outfits range from aqua crushed velveteen to pastel palm fronds. At home Fusinski's front hall closet is stuffed with the glitter and shine of costumes she's collected since she began competing in 1978, a stint that ended in 1982, all too abruptly for Fusinski's taste. "I looooove skating. Then I quit because I got a divorce. I stopped for 12 years. I was working to keep the house. Shoot me, I'd tell [my ex-husband]. I don't want to live."

During her four years competing, Fusinski traveled extensively. Sometimes she participated in meets, but just as often she attended simply to cheer on fellow skaters. She still has a letter sweater with patches she's sewn on from rinks and meets in Orlando, San Diego, Fort Worth, and Germany. She's even performed for dignitaries in Haiti, where the owner of a now defunct local rink decided to set up shop and flew Fusinski and her at-the-time skate partner to the Caribbean for the opening-night gala.

"There was no air conditioning; the rink was, like, 125 degrees. I had two dance outfits to change into," she gasps with excitement at the memory. "I was pourin' sweat! And there was lumps in the floor; it was like asphalt. It was horrible. We did some of the backwards dances, and we're like, 'Avoid those holes, avoid those holes.'"

"I wanna tell ya something. We were on TV and everything. They thought we were big-time; they thought we were world champions!" she remembers.

When Fusinski talks about her skating days, she's all teeth and gums, and her manicured hands flutter about like restless birds. She'd dreamed of roller-skating competitively since she was a girl but began only after she placed her own daughter in lessons and discovered she could still compete in adult divisions. She could still skate today in her age division, but she cites the expenses of training and travel as factors for deciding not to do so. That and the three discs she herniated in her back while waitressing. After her divorce she pulled extra shifts to bring in the cash she needed to meet her mortgage.

"You'll see me sometimes on a Tuesday, even Thursday night. I want to rip off my skin; I'm in such pain. But even if I'm off skates for a month, they still call me," she says about her friends at Gold Coast. "'How ya doing?' they'll say. 'We miss your smiling face.' A lot of times I'll even go up there and just watch. It kills me, though, 'cause I want to get out there!" she says.

For the time being, Fusinski's content to pore over the pictures, medals, and frilly ribbons she's saved from what she calls the greatest memories of her life. She skates at the Gold Coast rink whenever she can and likes to stick around for a little postsession gabbing with Beverly Darnaby, another rink regular. The two women, both of whom once skated at the now gone Pines Club rink, became reacquainted at Gold Coast after not seeing each other for 20 years. They found one another again while reminiscing over group photos for which both had posed 20 years prior.  

"We brought our pictures one time…" says Fusinski, in her throaty timbre.

"And I said, 'Hey!' what are you doing in that picture?'" chimes in Darnaby. With her pixie frame and a voice like tiny bells, she's about as different from Fusinski as Mary Ann was from Ginger.

"She tells me, 'I'm getting so fat,'" says Fusinski, rolling her eyes. "I say, 'Puuuhleeeease. Don't even talk to me about it.' I'm not standing next to her in pictures anymore." But the girlfriends do stick together, phoning each other daily, organizing the rink's habitual holiday parties, and hunting down skate costumes in shops from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

"We talk about what it is we're going to wear…" adds Fusinski.

"I just saw two [outfits] for you yesterday!" says Darnaby. They both burst into giggles. Right now they're gearing up for Valentine's Day, and spirits are high. They have to schedule a suitable party date, call the regulars, and make absolutely sure that everyone wears red. Fusinski's ready; she just picked up a square-necked, red-and-black velvet number with red-sequined trim. Darnaby sews and designs all of her own party outfits, and she's now working on a white tulle embossed with shiny red hearts. If she has enough fabric left over, she'll stitch up a set of skate-boot covers to match.

But Gold Coast gives the girls more than just a place to parade their Technicolor threads; it offers two women enthralled with skating a place where they feel they belong.

"We would have never met otherwise," she says. "I've been to other skating rinks that had [similar] programs locally. They used to have quite a few, but they're all gone now."

"God bless them," says Fusinski. "They're the only rink that have this."

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, Glinda the Good Witch makes her providential entrances surrounded by a slow-floating, perfect pink bubble. Skating at Gold Coast's Tuesday-morning sessions feels as safe and rosy as Glinda must have felt while riding around inside her magic globe. The clatter and hustle of Federal Highway rests just yards away, but once inside, skaters forget all about that unpleasantness. They simply slide their $3.50 through the half-moon cutout in the cashier's window. Then they tote their skate bags through the clink-clink of the turnstile and exchange hellos while shedding their rubber-soled slippers and oxfords. There's rarely any dawdling. They've waited all week to come here and skate with one another.

But today the rink's abuzz. First off, it's Mildred Proto's 85th birthday, and same as she does every year, she's brought a coral-flowered cake from the grocery store to celebrate. Mildred's skated here since 1980, and she wants her extended family to croon "Happy Birthday" after she's squeezed in some skate time.

Second, there's the matter of the light stands. On this morning there's a photographer and an art director bustling about, requesting smiles and group shots from the regulars. Nobody minds the attention. In fact the skaters seem to eat it up and show little reserve as they skate by the camera's shutter. Above them a lazily spinning prism light washes the rink's honey-toned floor with red, gold, and green circles. Fusinski's gussied up special for the occasion with a turquoise skate dress, matching spandex tights, and a glittery, saucer-size patch of Betty Boop's head sewn to the front of her top.

She calls out to Darnaby to shadow her in a skate dance. "Bev, Bev! Let's do the City Blues," she says, and Darnaby sails to her side, the ends of her blunt-cut hair flying out past her shoulders. A purple-skirted woman joins them, and the three hold hands in a chain as they roll by the camera, laughing, chins up and legs striding in time. During a group picture shoot, Burghardt saunters over and nestles herself in the center.

"I'm getting in this one," she cracks. The skaters she's welcomed for more than two decades push in around her, and those beside her in the front row point the rounded tips of their skates toward the camera's lens. Maybe out of habit, Burghardt does the same with her shoe. When she's done she wiggles from the fold and scurries over to the DJ booth for one last song before Mildred's cake gets cut. "Laughter in the Rain" lilts over the rink, and the gathering floats over the maple wood's expanse as if enchanted, cameras and outsiders otherwise forgotten.  

That's the extra bonus about Gold Coast's bubble: Unlike Glinda's, it doesn't burst when feet hit the floor. Truth be told, it expands.

Contact Emma Trelles at her e-mail address:


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