By Elizabeth Perry
The Neville Roller Drome, the last roller rink in Allegheny County, is celebrating its 75th year of giving people who like to skate a safe, fun environment to be themselves.
Over the past seven decades, the Neville Island staple has only had two owners, the Deramo brothers –Tony, Vic and Donny – who founded the rink in 1948, and Sophie and Jim Park who took over in 2011.
Sophie Park said the brothers, who’ve since passed, owned the roller rink for 63 years.
“That’s a huge legacy,” Park said.
Right after World War II, there were about 18 roller rinks in Allegheny County; now, the roller drome is the sole holdout. Locally, at one time, Kennedy and Robinson townships were also home to roller skating venues.
Park said she and her husband came to take over because she’d “always thought it would be cool to be a business owner,” and her husband grew up skating there. In 2011 their own kids skated there, and they knew it was going to be up for sale because the original owners were getting on in years.
Other people had expressed interest in buying the spot, but they didn’t want to keep the space as a roller rink.
Park said she and her husband didn’t want to lose the rink and the culture that had formed around it, so they took over.
“We have a mission statement – to build joyful friends and healthy communities,” Park said.
That extends to their employees, as much as their patrons. Cindy Alexander has worked there for four years. She has a full-time job but was drawn to the roller rink as a second job because she used to skate there as a child.
“The only reason I applied was nostalgia for me,” Alexander said.
Liz Brown, who runs social media outreach for the roller drome and also serves as a DJ several nights a week said the roller drome was “everyone’s little escape.” She also has a full-time job but works there on the weekends and after hours for fun.
“Roller skating soothes my soul,” Brown said. “Any time I’m on skates, I’m automatically 10 times happier.”
Brown’s favorite music to play is 1990s hip hop, but she plays all kinds of different music for different crowds. Friday is teen night, so she tends to play more contemporary music like Carly Rae Jepson and Justin Beiber – the song “Baby” never fails to bring down the house. Sunday is Family Funday, and she plays hits from the 1970s and 1980s. On Oct. 29, Brown said they’re hosting a Taylor Swift night, complete with friendship bracelet bar.
The rink rents in-line skates and also quads – traditional skates with four wheels.
“I like the quads, I’m retro,” Brown said.
Jim Park runs the pro shop, where he sells custom skates and can repair broken skates.
“We’re very fussy to make sure people get into the right skate for what they want to do,” Sophie Park said, describing the pro shop as a “concierge service.”
Sophie Park said the rink hosts a lot of events catering to different skating subcultures. They host a speed team, artistic skating, and they bring in Dave “Smitty” Smith out of Ohio to teach Jam Skating which is break-dancing on skates.
One of the biggest events last July, Park said, was the Steel City Shuffle Skate, which drew skaters from Indiana, the Carolinas, New York, New Jersey and West Virginia.
The design of the roller rink – with lots of wood paneling, brown, burnt orange and powder blue, was put together in the mid-to late-1970s. Although the snack bar and dining area were revamped in June of this year, Park said there are no plans to change the center’s retro style.
R.J. Carrabbia, an award-winning restaurateur from McKees Rocks, helped design the new menu for the roller rink and the dining area.
Carrabbia said that he, his mother and his daughter skate at the roller rink, which was how he got involved with the venue.
“It’s a classic thing, and they’ve been around since 1948. I’m happy to be a part of that. It’s a cool generational facility,” Carrabbia said.
Employee Sofia Buecker, 15, is proof of that age-spanning appeal.
Buecker said skating has helped her cope with a genetic disorder by strengthening her leg muscles. She spends as much time as she can there and even joined the Junior Roller Derby team, where she competes under the name Wartortle inspired by the character from the Pokemon game.
The Undead Adult Derby also operates out of the rink, with names like Smashberry Skate Cake, His ‘n Hearse and Violet Von Slaughter.
“This place is actually the best community ever,” Buecker said.