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Pop Culture! Movies: Roller Skating Across the Silver Screen

Incredibly popular for nearly a century, American cinema continuously incorporates ideas from other areas in American culture, including roller skating. Films have including specific aspects of roller skating such as the Skating Vanities in “Pin Up Girl,” and the roller derby in both the 1950 film “The Fireball” and the 1972 film “Kansas City Bomber. During the popular Disco era, several movies worked roller disco into the plot of the film, including “Skatetown U.S.A.” Other film makers have used roller skating in their movies, from Charlie Chaplin’s use of rink skating as comedy in his film, “The Rink,” to recent science-fiction movies like “Prayer of the Rollerboys.” Over the course of the 20th century, roller skating has appeared in numerous contexts in many films.

Often referred to as the film in which Chaplin performs at his most inventively graceful, “The Rink” came out in 1916, two years after Chaplin moved to Los Angeles at the age of 25. Chaplin plays an inept and clumsy waiter by day, an elegant and graceful roller skater by night at a near-by rink. There he meets a young woman while skating one night and she invites him to her birthday skating party, whewhre Chaplin faces off with another interested man. A row ensues, with the police appearing and Chaplin making his exit by hooking his cane to the back of an automobile. Though Chaplin’s skating ability came as a surprise to make of his fans, before Hollywood he once played in a skating act where he learned the fiendish skill of falling.

1949's Pin Up Girl started Pin-up queen Betty Grable in this musical comedy which featured the popular roller skating act, the Skating Vanities. Grable plays a secretary with a tendency to stretch the truth who falls in love with a war hero, played by John Harvey, who believes her to be an actress. While Grable’s character struggles to unravel the complicated situation, the audience is treated to numerous dazzling producing numbers. For more on the Skating Vanitites see audio tour stop 19.

Perhaps one of the films most associated with the Disco Craze, 1978's Roller Boogie shows what happens when a rich young woman, played by Linda Blair, runs away from her shallow parents in order to roller skate on Venice Beach. She ends up helping an expert roller skater foil a crooked businessman’s attempts at taking over the local roller disco.

1979's Skatetown, U.S.A. was advertised as a mix between “West Side Story,” “American Graffiti,” and “Saturday Night Fever” on wheels. The movie centers on an annual roller disco dance contest at Skatetown, a spectacular roller rink located on the Santa Monica Pier. Patrick Swayze stars as Ace, a tough Venice Beach gang leader at the rink, competing against the valley boys at the disco contest. Scot Baio and Maureen McCormick from “The Brady Bunch” also star, and Flip Wilson makes a guest appearance.

In 1972 Kansas City Bomber showed Raquel Welch playing a rugged roller derby skater manipulated by her team’s owner, which whom she is having an affair. The film follows Welch’s character as she attempts to salvage her career while raising two children on her own. The climax of the film occurs when Welch, tired of being used, refuses team owner Ken McCarthy’s order to throw a grudge match. Welch did much of her own skating in this movie, holding up production once for six weeks after breaking her wrist from a fall. The movie also features a young Jodie Foster.

1986's Solarbabies is one of a number of sci-fi films including roller skating. The film is about a band of roller skating kids who are refugees in a far-away land with little water who use magic to help them fight the system.

Fireball from 1950  shows Mickey Rooney playing a rebellious, antisocial orphan who becomes a skating champion in the roller derby. Pat O’Brien co-stars as a priest and loyal friend to Rooney in his quest for fame and acclamation. The Chicago Skate Company launched an aggressive promotional campaign alongside the film’s opening in the fall of 1950, encouraging rinks across the country to prominently display Chicago Skates alongside movie ads.

Xanadu from 1980 stars Olivia Newton-John as Terpsichore, a singing, roller skating muse who comes to ear to assist musician and roller-disco owner Michael Beck. In addition to acting in the film, Newton-John also sang on the soundtrack, with “Magic” becoming the most famous song. Though a disco cultural icon, with a Top 10 hit every year through the 1970s, “Xanadu” was only one of four movies she appeared in over her long career. Gene Kelly makes a star appearance in the film.

In 1975's Rollerball, A futuristic drama set in 2018 about a world of corporate states with no free-will God, or violence, the venting of human nature’s animal violence is through the popular game of rollerball—a mixture of roller skating, motorcycle racing, and basketball where death is part of the entertainment. James Caan stars as a long-standing hero of the gruesome sport, who becomes dangerously popular and ordered to retire, only he refuses.

1980's Prayer of the Rollerboys intertwined sci-fi and roller skating. This film’s plot focuses on a bankrupt America where racist-fascist roller skating teenagers rule. Corey Halm stars as a young man who infiltrates one vicious drug-dealing gang in order to save his brother. Patricia Arquette also stars.

On the displayed Left Wall is 1995's It’s Always Fair Weather.

The film is about three friends who served together in World War II who then reunite ten years later and find their friendship is no longer strong, so they take to the Big Apple. The film including a roller skating routine done by Gene Kelly, which critics hailed as a stand-out performance. Kelly also co-directed the film, which received two Oscar nominations and became one of the most popular films of 1995.

Tired of being pushed into beauty pageants by her parents, Texas teen Bliss finds herself after joining a female roller derby team in 2009's Whip It.

On the right wall we begin with the 1937 film, Shall We Dance?

This romantic comedy stars Fred Astaire as a ballet dancer who would rather by a hoofer and Ginger Rogers as a musical comedy actress. The two unite efforts in order to compete in a dance contest, pretending to be married. Liking the act so much, the couple does tie the knot by the end of the film. The seventh film pairing between Astaire and Rogers, the movie received an Oscar nomination for best song, the George and Ira Gershwin tune, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”

In 2011 SKATELAND showed how a small town Texas Youth decides what the next move is in his life when the local skating rink closed.

1971's Derby had Director Rober Kayner and crew moved in with derby star Mike Snell and his family recording aspects of their often quite personal lives for a film commissioned by roller derby sponsor Jerry Seltzer, son of the founder. New York Times movie writer Vincent Canby was “amazed that a film which was designed to be self-serving should be such an accurate report on a time and place.” The film, he noted, mixed “fantasy and fact skillfully.” The movie also includes interviews with roller derby stars like Charles O’Connor and scenes from derby events.

In 2005 Roll Bounce showed the stow of how 1970s roller-skate jams fueled this coming-of-age comedy, as X and his friends, who rule their local rink, are shocked with their home base goes out of business. Heading over to the Sweetwater Roller Rink, they find their modest talents, are, at first, no competition for their trick skaters and pretty girls who follow their every move. (Written by IMDB editors)

National Museum of Roller Skating Audio Tour - Museum Proper
  1. The First Roller Skates
  2. Patented Roller Skates
  3. The Father of the Modern Roller Skating
  4. Rinking
  5. The "Newest" Craze
  6. The Disco Era
  7. Pop Culture! Skating in Lines: Roller Skating and Comics
  8. Pop Culture! Orchestras, Organs, & Disco: Music in the Rink
  9. Pop Culture! Movies: Roller Skating Across the Silver Screen
  10. Competition: The History of Hockey on Wheels
  11. Competition - Speed Skating
  12. Competition - Dance Skating
  13. Competition - Figure Skating
  14. Competition - Derby
  15. C. W. Lowe's Tent Rink
  16. When Skating Goes to War
  17. Skating for Others
  18. Roller Skating Car Hops
  19. Jam Skating
  20. Extravaganza on Wheels: The Skating Vanities
  21. Vaudeville