Every Tuesday night, Lillian Tomasino laces up her roller skates, puts her arms around her partner, and glides in sweeping circles across the floor of Moonlight Rollerway. Holding each other like ballroom dancers, she and Tom Clayton move effortlessly to the jaunty, classic tunes played live on a Hammond organ above the Glendale, California, rink. Despite the fact that she’s recently had spinal surgery, and that her bad knee keeps acting up, and that Tom, one of her regular skating partners, suffers from partial paralysis – Lillian is 86 years old, after all, and Tom’s 72 – they are among the most graceful skaters on the floor.
Moonlight Rollerway (formerly known as Harry’s Roller Rink) opened in 1956 and occupies a building that was originally built as a factory for aircraft parts during World War II. Although there are traces of the intervening decades – a disco ball, gold tinsel, a rainbow carpet from the 1980s, a digital photo booth – owner Dominic Cangelosi, 80, has made a point of keeping the place’s character largely true to its original form. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Moonlight Rollerway is the fact that it is one of the last rinks in the country to feature a live organ player – as was standard in the ’50s – and that some of its current regulars have been coming since it first opened in 1956.
Cangelosi isn’t exactly new to Moonlight, either. He started playing organ at the rink in the ’60s, and in 1985, he used his life savings to buy the place. Some folks are willing to drive long distances to hear him play – one man even comes up from San Diego on occasion, which can take as long as three hours one way. Ron Hines, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, calls ahead each week to see if Dominic will be there that night, and will decide against skating if he’s not.
Lillian, the rink’s oldest “regular,” makes the hour-long drive to Moonlight from Orange County every Tuesday without fail. “I was born in 1930, and I’ve been skating since I was four years old, out on the street,” she says. “I started skating at Harry’s in the fifties. I’d take the bus and go on the weekends, or as much as my mother would let me go. All the rinks in those days had organists.”
Roller skating has been around for more than a hundred years in the United States. Its popularity ebbs and flows, in large part due to fads and the economy. Prior to labor laws, when most people worked much longer hours, it was considered to be an activity for the elite, who wore formal attire while skating. After the economic boom of the twenties brought more Americans to roller rinks, popularity then dropped during the Depression when skating was again too costly for most, but rose again after World War II, and again in the ’70s and ’80s when roller-skating-themed movies like “Roller Boogie” came out. More recently, roller derby, a contact sport in which teams race around a track, gave it another boost. New rinks are still being built around the country, and according to trade group Roller Skating Association International, over 40 million people in the U.S. skate per year.
Although roller skating is currently en vogue, and is not likely to die out entirely even when it’s not, organ music at roller rinks may eventually disappear. “With Elvis Presley, the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll, organ music at rinks began to fade out,” says Dominic. “I keep the organ music going because that’s the way it used to be, and a lot of people who come here like to skate to the organ music.” Dominic says that once he retires, there are talented organ players who could continue the tradition. He doesn’t have anyone in mind at the moment, but he’s confident he will find someone when the time comes.
Of course, organ music is popular with the older generation, in part because it’s what they grew up with. “The things you did when you were young are all tied to the music you heard at the time you were doing it,” Kent Iverson says of the music’s sustaining power. In fact, when Dominic goes on break from playing the organ, and a DJ starts playing rock music in the interim, the “old guard” (Tom, Ron, and Lillian, to name a few) typically leave the floor. “It hurts my ears,” Tom says.
The regulars here are known for a certain style of skating called “rexing,” which they perform primarily to organ music. To “rex,” one skates backward, either alone or as a pair, in a figure-eight or hourglass pattern, employing specific footwork. There’s also “spot rexing,” which is similar, but only uses a 16-foot circle, as opposed to the whole rink. Back in the old days, folks would spot rex together in a long line of people, in synchronized fashion – sometimes as many as ten or twelve people in a row.
Organ Night at Moonlight has traditionally been a rexing night, rather than, say, a dance skating night (although Dominic has been known to provide organ music for dance skating as well). Rexing and dance skating patterns clash, and therefore it’s not ideal for the two types of skaters to share the floor – they could easily run into each other if not paying close attention.
“A lot of young folks don’t skate anything like we did,” Lillian’s former skate partner Dave Schwam, an expert rexer, once said.
“The scene was pretty wild,” says Lillian. “When you came to the skating rink in those years, there was no supervision. There’d be fights and arguments, and people would settle it outside. You don’t see that anymore – the teens today are much milder than they were in the forties and fifties.”
The atmosphere at Moonlight today is fairly tame; it is a noticeably diverse group of people, skating harmoniously, playing pinball, or perhaps gathering for a birthday party. Friends skate hand in hand, and the older skaters often offer assistance and skating tips to wobbly newcomers.
Younger skaters today don’t seem to have a big interest in rexing – in fact, they scarcely know what it is – even if they do come to the rink regularly. Mostly they ask for advice on the basics (going forward, backward, turning around); they’re there to have a good time, and less so to work on the craft.
“Today, generally you see folks who are coming for the first or second time, they thought it would be fun to do, they try it on… In some cases, there are people who come for a couple of months, and then their life takes them somewhere else,” says Kent, who is one of the youngest rexers at Moonlight.
Kent and his wife, Sondra Segall, make it a point to help people who are struggling on skates so that they feel welcome, and are therefore more likely to come back another week.
“Some highly skilled, highly trained skaters realized that if I could help new people, they certainly could help new people,” says Sondra. “And now there’s a whole pack of skaters finishing the Advanced Backwards Skate, and instead of leaving the floor, they turn toward the spectators and encourage people to come out onto the rink and try skating backwards for Beginner Backwards Skate.”
Lillian has now outlived two of her long-term skating partners. Frank, with whom she had skated since the ’80s, passed away in 2012, and Dave, whom she had known since they were teenagers, died in late 2016. Although these days skating can cause Lillian significant pain, she has no intention of hanging up her skates anytime soon. After her spinal surgery in October 2016, she was back on her skates within six weeks. “My friends talk about [me skating at my age], and they think it’s great. I don’t give up too easy. As long as I can do it, and I can get out in public. That’s the main thing—’cos I’m at home a lot. The senior centers are too tame for me.”
Lillian, skating with Dave, one of her former partners, in 1985. Dave was sidelined about ten years ago due to a broken hip, but he continued coming to Moonlight every Tuesday to watch the skating, and joined the group for coffee at a local diner after the rink closed at 10:30 p.m. He passed away in 2016. (Video by Mr. & Mrs. Video, courtesy of Lillian Tomasino)
Lillian’s knee problems now often prevent her from being able to skate by herself, so she waits at the sidelines for one of her unofficial partners to swing by – usually Tom or Kent. Even when in pain, Lillian determinedly presses on. She and Tom typically save the final skate of the night for each other. As Dominic announces the last song at 10:25 p.m., Tom locates Lillian, rolls over to her, offers her his elbow, and they glide onto the floor of the rink together one more time.