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Drome gets its due: Mitchell’s Roller Drome gets honored today

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Shown is one of the few pictures of the Roller Drome. (Photo courtesy of Rick Gillis)2 / 3
Pictured is a scanned image of a Daily Republic clipping showing the Original Sting Rays in 1965 while they performed at the Roller Drome in Mitchell. (Photo courtesy of Rick Gillis)3 / 3

It all started in a tent.

What eventually became host to some of the biggest bands in the region and locals’ favorite place to roller skate, Mitchell’s Roller Drome, began as a nomad.

When Ray Weinhart and another Avon man bought it, the roller skating rink was a big tent with a portable floor that could be removed in sections, recalled Jack Weinhart, Ray’s son. It took two to three days to erect the tent, which could only be set up outdoors in the summer season. It was set up inside at the Hutchinson County Fairgrounds in Tripp during winter.

But, the summer had its hazards, too. One of the first years after Ray and his wife, Ruth, became sole owners of the portable rink, high winds blew in on opening night. A Daily Republic article from June 16, 1952, says the storm brought lightning and 53 mph winds that cut power from hundreds of homes temporarily, and ripped the roller skating rink’s tent to shreds.

“Dad got everybody out of there, and he was the last one going out and he said he felt a board hit him on the arm as he was exiting, and the tent went down,” Jack Weinhart said. “That was the end of that season.”

But it was the beginning of the Roller Drome.

After that, Jack said his parents decided to build a permanent roller skating rink in Mitchell. Unsure of the exact date, he estimated it was the early 1950s - he was about 10 years old when he and his parents moved from his native Avon to Mitchell. A Daily Republic article announcing the new permanent roller skating rink to be built by Ray Weinhart is dated 1952, and a Mitchell City directory from 1953 lists the address of the Roller Drome as 1410 N. Main St., on what was then the outskirts of town. By the end of the decade, it morphed into one of the area’s most popular destinations for all ages.

The Roller Drome is one of three venues being inducted into the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame today at the Ramkota Exhibit Hall in Sioux Falls. Doors open at 4 p.m. for the event, and the show starts at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $35, and are available at the door.

Formed in 2008, the South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association is a nonprofit created to honor and remember important South Dakota individuals, bands and venues to “keep the music alive,” said Don Fritz, chairman of the South Dakota Rock and Roll Association board of directors and founder of the organization.

“We just do this because we love music,” he said.

Each year, Fritz said the board of directors encourages nominations, which help board members compile the list of inductees. He said each year the board selects two to three ballrooms or dance halls from across the state, noting that without the venue, rock ’n’ roll musicians would have had no place to play.

“Every town had some venue, whether it was a ballroom or dance hall,” Fritz said. “They’re just as important as any other aspect of music.”

The other venues being inducted this year include Tacoma Park in Aberdeen, and Stoney Point on Lake Kampeska in Watertown - which, like the Roller Drome, no longer exists, Fritz pointed out. He said part of the original Tacoma Park building still stands, but is no longer in use.

“The Roller Drome was one of the more popular places,” Fritz said of its selection.

Despite the close proximity of other popular locales like Ruskin Park and Milltown, South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association biography information says “the Drome,” as it was nicknamed, “held its own and hosted all the big names.”

‘Whole different world’

One of those names was Myron Lee, whose band - Myron Lee and The Caddies - drew strong crowds. Lee was part of the inaugural class of South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association Hall of Fame inductees in 2009, and is credited as a “founding father” of rock ’n’ roll music in South Dakota in the late 1950s.

Now retired from music and still living in his hometown of Sioux Falls, Lee chuckled at the moniker.

“Somebody started calling me that, so if that’s what they think, I appreciate it very much,” he said.

Lee said he got started with rock ’n’ roll much the same as any other teen in the 1950s - listening to the radio. He credits a 1955 movie, “Blackboard Jungle,” as really kicking off the genre. As the likes of Little Richard and Elvis began making sound waves, Lee said he realized if he wanted to have a music career, he needed to play rock ’n’ roll. He bought a guitar, learned a few chords, found a few like-minded friends in the area and started a band.

“It was as easy as that,” he said.

According to his website, Lee and The Caddies had their first out-of-town date in 1958 at the Tyndall Groveland Park Ballroom, another area hot spot. Over years, Lee said he recorded music and toured all over North America, meeting many of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll from the ’50s and ’60s.

“We were the first band to really get started and play all over the Midwest. We were just fortunate,” he said. “There weren’t any other rock and roll bands around at that time, at least not around here.”

And he credits that fortune, in part, to venues like Ruskin Park, and, of course, the Roller Drome. As a South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association hall of fame inductee - he was one of the first - and former South Dakota Rock and Roll Music Association board member, he plans on being at today’s induction ceremonies.

“This five-state area was dotted with ballrooms all over. That’s what made things go in those days,” he said. “We would not be able to start out and do what we did these days. There’s just no places like that. It’s a whole different world, now.”

He estimates he first played the Drome around 1959, when he and his bandmates were fresh from high school. For about three years, Lee recalls his booking agent getting a gig for the band on Thanksgiving evening and Christmas evening.

“The place was packed every time,” he said.

Lee said he lost track of the venue over time, but remembers the nice floor at the Roller Drome, and remembers it doubled as a roller skating rink. Rick Gillis, a Mitchell native, was in two bands who have been inducted into the SDRRMA Hall of Fame, The Original Sting Rays and The Torres, and both played at the Drome during the ’60s.

He also remembers the venue fondly, citing several things that made it unique: no alcohol, no permanent stage and poor acoustics. The low ceiling, wooden floors, and a low-to-the-ground stage made sounds echo, Gillis said.

“It was like playing into a tube with wood all around it,” he said. “The sound came right back at you.”

But, a positive tradeoff was the stage, which had to be built for each show, and made it easy for audience members to nearly rub elbows with the band - something Gillis loved.

“It was probably the most audience-friendly place around,” he said. “It was fun for a band, because everyone was on top of you.”

‘It was a big success’

The Drome had a maple floor, Jack said, and boasted more than enough space for a band to set up at the back of the rink. He estimates the skating rink was around 6,000 square feet, and Sunday nights often drew 150 to 200 people. Busy nights could pack in as many as 300 to 400 people.

“It was a big success,” Jack said.

Jack said the Drome was primarily a roller skating rink for most of his high school years, when rock ’n’ roll began to grow in popularity. Roller skating in Mitchell drew from surrounding small towns from as far as 60 miles, Jack said, but when rock ’n’ roll hit the scene in the ’50s, “it put a damper on skating because most everyone wanted to listen to the music.”

“Roller skating, of course, is like anything else, it has its cycles,” Jack said. “Dad saw the bands playing, and the places that could accommodate a dance were doing well, and he said, ‘Well, we might as well get in on it.’ ”

Saturday nights were typically reserved for bands, Jack said, and Daily Republic advertisements compiled by the Carnegie Resource Center agree, urging people to spend their Saturdays dancing to The Chevelles, the Defiants, Jay Bee and The Kats and the Fabulous Flippers, who Gillis described as one of the biggest bands in the Midwest.

“It was very successful; he got some pretty good bands that they just jammed in there,” Jack said. “Even on a night with the local talent, the people really enjoyed having a place in Mitchell to dance.”

Jack described his dad as a disciplinarian, who maintained high standards for his establishment and expected his patrons to do the same. Ray Weinhart typically hired off-duty policemen to keep order, and no alcohol was allowed on the premises.

“If you wanted to drink, it was best done elsewhere,” Jack said. “I said I never worked for a tougher boss than my dad, even in the service. But it sure was a good time.”

Those same standards applied to the youth who frequented the roller skating rink, Jack said - and Ray Weinhart was not afraid to ban youth from his place if they didn’t follow the rules.

But he was also a forgiving man, Jack said, and if youth offered a sincere apology, they could regain admittance.

“He enjoyed kids and young people, especially those who showed any sign of respect to peers and elders,” Jack said. “Dad's goal was to provide a safe place for young people to have fun.”

And they did. Jack said he jokingly referred to his father as the town babysitter on Friday nights, the week’s most popular night for youth, while Saturday was typically dance night and Sundays were often when the adults came out to skate. Gillis added that Ray Weinhart’s decision to add another band night midweek - often Tuesday or Wednesday - allowed him to bring in bands that might not otherwise be able to come. He recalls nights with maybe as many as 600 people.

“The ’60s were the days of the dance hall,” he said. “The place got crowded.”

Steven Harmes, of Mitchell, remembers the tent, and then later going to the Roller Drome often in grade school, junior high and high school. The skating and the dancing were both a big draw, he said.

“It was fun. We had some pretty good skaters,” he said.

Jack said when he went to college in 1959, that was his exit from the Roller Drome. He’s not sure when his dad, who died in 2006, sold the business - sometime in the early to mid-’60s.

A 1976 advertisement in The Daily Republic describes The Rink as “formerly the Roller Drome,” and “now open under new management.” Daily Republic photos identify the owner as Orlin Heinz. What happened in that decade in between is something of a mystery, even to people well-acquainted with the venue.

“We’ve had a problem, too, as far as getting information,” Fritz said.

A file at the Carnegie Resource Center in Mitchell contains piles of Daily Republic clippings remembering the roller skating rinks that have dotted Mitchell’s landscape through the years. Those archives show rinks, operating under various names, owners and locations -- including the Dreamland Ballroom, Roller Drome and finally The Rink - existed in Mitchell from the early 1900s until The Rink’s demise by fire in 1985.

According to a Daily Republic article, The Rink burned down in a late-night fire that began on Jan. 29, 1985. The fire was so severe that more men and trucks were called in from Letcher, Mount Vernon and Plankinton, according to the article, and the building eventually collapsed. No one was injured. Prospects for a rebuilt rink after the fire were apparently dashed when Roger Sackreiter, the rink’s owner, was charged with arson in connection with the fire. Daily Republic archives show he was eventually acquitted of the criminal charge, but locals also say Sackreiter and his insurance company ended up in civil litigation.

What is certain, however, is the popularity of the Roller Drome as a roller skating rink and as a ballroom during the height of rock ’n’ roll music’s popularity. Fritz said the Upper Midwest was peppered with ballrooms and dance halls during the 1950s and ’60s.

“South Dakota was probably really unique in the fact that we had more per capita than anywhere in the country, and we had a lot of really good ones,” he said.

The Mitchell area had several, including Ruskin Park, which was in Forestburg, and Island Park in Milltown - both previous SDRRMA Hall of of Fame inductees - and the Roller Drome.

Jack and his mom now live in Escondido, Calif., just north of San Diego, so he won’t be able to make it to today’s induction ceremony. But a cousin who lives in Sioux Falls plans to accept the award on his family’s behalf, and Jack said he’s proud of what his parents accomplished.

“I think Dad would be extremely grateful and proud of what he did in Mitchell for the people,” Jack said. “It was a lot of fun for a lot of people.”