They skate and court the old-fashioned way at Rhode Island rink

By Rachel Zoll, Associated Press writer
At a squat white building dwarfed by a nearby airport hotel, the glow of neon beckons visitors inside for a nostalgic spin around a rink with a history of inviting romance.
In another era, before shopping malls and the Internet, it was a place for boys and girls to hook up. Still is.

Welcome to the family-owned Sholes Hillsgrove Country Club in Warwick, R.I., one of the oldest continuously operating roller rinks in the country. Little has changed here since World War II, and the owners want to keep it that way.
Remember roller-skating on smooth maple floors? The skates have four wheels -- two-by-two -- and soft leather uppers. Little need for helmets and kneepads.
There's a soda bar where guys and gals court on Saturday nights as a 60-year-old Hammond organ plays hokey-but-lovable oldies, such as "The Hokey Pokey."
"In the late '50s there were close to 500 or 600 people here on a weekend night," says Peter "Bugsy" Bedrosian, a 73-year-old East Providence resident who visits the rink every night.
"The girls used to go to the beach, then come here with their skirts on a hanger, change and go skating with their bikini tops and skirts on. It was great."
The rink opened in 1938, when Morris and Nellie Sholes bought the former nightclub on Post Road after a hurricane destroyed another rink they owned at Oakland Beach.
They tacked their name to the front of the old name and started drawing crowds of sailors based at Quonset Point and the "girls" who followed them, says Leonard Sholes, 82, who took over the rink from his parents.
The club became known as much for matchmaking as skating.
"We had a program called 'whoopee skating' where two boys and a girl would skate together. Then we'd blow a whistle and the boys would go to the girl in front of them. That way, it gives the boys a chance to meet every girl," Mr. Sholes recalls.
It fell to the next generation of Sholes -- Leonard's sons Andrew, Steven, Richard and David -- to keep up the tradition. Despite their careers as lawyers and real estate developers, they happily took over the operation even though "it's not a moneymaker," Steven Sholes says.
"People are always calling asking about buying the place. We tell them it's not for sale," he says. "The city needs a place like this. No matter what age you are, no matter what problems you have at home, people can come here and forget their troubles and have a good time."
The brothers took seriously their duty to preserve the rink as it was. Almost nothing in the rink has changed.
Art Deco lanterns light the floor, old murals of movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart and William Powell surround the bar, and diner-style booths line the cavernous rink, where the ceilings are 20 feet high.
Even some of the employees have been around for decades. The doorman, Frank Rowe, 87, is the former organist who started working at the rink in 1956. Jack Crowther, 50, skated there in the 1960s and now helps maintain the building.
"I met my wife, Linda, here 33 years ago," Mr. Crowther says. "We used to have 'spotlight' skating where you would shine a light on people as they went around the rink. I made sure the spotlight shined on her."
Watching over it all is a photo at the entrance -- Morris Sholes in a suit and Nellie Sholes in a dress, holding hands and wearing skates.
"Pioneers of Roller Skating" says the caption.
At one time, the Sholes owned rinks in Warwick, Central Falls and Coventry; Hartford, Conn., and Quincy, Dorchester, and Nantasket Beach, Mass.
Only the Warwick rink remains. It is one of the few in the country still operating as it did nearly 60 years ago, says Susan Davis, spokeswoman for Rollerskating Associations, an Indianapolis-based group representing about 1,000 of the 2,100 U.S. rink operators.
"Most were family owned and often, after the original owner passes on, the rink isn't kept in the family anymore, or it's sold because the land is worth more developed for commercial purposes," she says.
Many of the rinks operating now were built in the 1970s and '80s, and bill themselves as family entertainment centers where video and laser games are available, Ms. Davis says.
"Nineteen Thirty-Eight -- that's unbelievable!" she exclaims. "It's rare for a rink like that to still be around."
Shopping malls, cable television and computers have robbed the rink of many patrons. The Sholes say the crowds have become younger. Mostly junior high school students now use the rink, where it costs $4 to get in and $1 to rent skates, which are cleaned and repaired weekly.
"The minute the kids get a car they find another place to go," Leonard Sholes says.
On a recent Friday night, kids in baggy jeans and T-shirts made pit stops at the soda bar between skating trips around the rink.
"It's more fun coming here than going to the mall," says 13-year-old Kerri Kelly of Warwick, who skated with two friends. "We come every Friday."
"We meet a lot of good people here," says 14-year-old Bob Harlow, also of Warwick.
To boost business, the brothers rent the rink for private parties. A couple married at the rink last year. They also made one concession to modernity -- inline skates, if skaters bring their own.
"I was worried at first it would hurt the floors, but it hasn't," Steven Sholes says.
Still, the brothers won't advertise the rink. Fond memories and nostalgia are the draw, they say.
"The thing that keeps people coming back is the atmosphere. The moment they come in here they feel younger," Steven Sholes says.
"Someone came here recently whose wife had just died. He said, 'I'm standing right where I met my wife. I had to come back here where it all started."'
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