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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Skateland on Summer

Posted By on Sun, Jul 19, 2009 at 2:46 PM

6b06/1247863150-skateland.jpg Memphis had other roller-skating rinks before this one — Rainbow Lake and East End come to mind — but none of them had the visual impact of Skateland. And I'm talking about the original building, when it was located on the north side of Summer Avenue.

Drivers on Summer could hardly miss the clean lines of the massive building just east of Mendenhall, with a facade of rough stone that framed a wall of glass panels. "SKATELAND" was spelled out in red neon along the roof, and three winged shoes — complete with spinning neon wheels — provided a crowning touch. Anyone still not clear about what went on there could also read, in giant red neon letters, "Roller Skate for Health."

Inside, sweeping trusses of laminated wood supported a high wooden dome that arched over one of the largest rinks in town. A neon signboard mounted on the back wall gave skaters their instructions: "All Skate," "Trios," "Reverse," "Grand March," and when the session came to an end, "Skates Off."

Leo Pieraccini, who also operated Clearpool, the popular swimming and dance hall complex at Lamar and Winchester, opened Skateland in 1955. At the time, it was on the outskirts of town, and the only attractions nearby were the Crescent Lake Tourist Court and the first Summer Drive-In, just down the street. But for some reason, Skateland didn't last long. In 1963, Pieraccini sold the building to the Big M Discount Store chain and built another, smaller Skateland practically across the street, on Old Summer Road. The great rooftop signs were moved to the new location, though they stopped working many years ago.

Back in 2003, I spoke with David Pieraccini, the son of the owner, who told me, "I wish I had that old building today. This rink is 16 laps to a mie, and that one was 10 to a mile. It was big."

The original Skateland structure shown here is still standing, but it has gone through many changes and owners over the years, including a Carondolet department store and a Fred P. Gattas catalog showroom. These days (the last time I looked, anyway), it's a Fred's Discount Store, and the facade is now sheathed in plain concrete panels. Only the humped roof over a portion of the building gives a clue that this was once one of the roller-skating palaces of Memphis.

And as for the other Skateland? Well, the building is still standing, but the roof was destroyed by a fire several years ago, and the roller rink shut down. A pal of mine named Caleb Sweazy came up with the clever idea of crafting furniture from strips of wood salvaged from the old maple floor, and he does very fine work, making chairs, desks, bookshelves, and more, under the name of Firebrand Furniture.

The old Skateland building, still sporting those fantastic neon signs, is now home to a business that sells glass.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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