Baby Boomer Memories: Roller-skating to live organ music

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Baby Boomers (and other folks) may recall Broyles Roller Skating Arena as a fun family activity or a great place for teenage dates.

Broyles was open seven nights a week, but geared for children on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Where else could you get free skating lessons on Saturday mornings and roll to live organ music?

Locally organized roller-skating dated at least back to 1902 when Berkshire Park in Lanesborough offered the nearby communities a seasonal rink until the trolley park closed in 1923. In the 1930s and 1940s Crystal Palace on upper North Street, was a popular indoor skating rink.

However, during World War II, popularity for skating waned, and this facility closed before most Baby Boomers were born. Interest in indoor roller-skating returned when the Broyles family built their rink at 55 Dalton Ave. in 1952.

The popularity of skating has always gone in cycles since 1863 when Massachusetts native, James Plimpton, invented the four-wheel "quad" skate. His skates were designed with two pairs of side-by-side wheels and a cushion and pivoting mechanism that allowed skaters to steer by leaning to the sides. Before then skates were an inline design.

Many boomers will remember childhood experiences of attaching metal skates to their shoes, tightening with a key and then skating down the sidewalk. The rinks offered more advanced quad skates with shoe-type laced skates. For over 100 years the quad skate was the dominant design and remained so until roller blades became more popular.

In 1950, former Taconic Mill executive, Edgar (Ed) Broyles and neighbor, Al Bianchi, owner of Pastime Bowling Lanes on Summer Street made plans to build a joint bowling alley and skating rink on a remote Dalton Avenue plot. Unfortunately both entrepreneurs passed away before they could initiate their creative plans. The Broyles' family continued the effort, but focused only on the skating rink.

Broyles Arena was completed in 1952 at a cost of $125,000. It was the largest in the Berkshires with a maple floor skating area of 7,480 square feet (135 feet by 55 feet) — enough space to hold 600 skaters or as many as 1,800 dancers.

Advertised as "Berkshire County's Finest Amusement Center," the Broyles rink became known as the best place for skating in the region. On opening day, 2,000 people came to skate and another 3,000 came to watch. The arena had a soda fountain, check room, office and parking for 500 cars. Ed Broyle's son, Bob, and his family were the first to operate the rink. Ed's widow, Josephine, was involved in the operation until she retired in 1968 and son, Bill, and family took it over.

Well-known local theater and restaurant organist, Harriet Katherine Krone Kohrs, became the house organist for over 10 years until live music was discontinued in the 1960s.

Over the years the Broyles Family held many events and fundraisers in the form of "skatathons." Perhaps the most interesting use of the arena was as a church. In 1960 the newly formed St, Francis Parish held services there until its church was built in Coltsville.

Although skating arenas opened in other cities and towns around the Berkshires, Broyles remained the largest draw and continued through the 1970s. But as skate boards and roller-blades grew in popularity the limitations of indoor rinks and only skating in circles became liabilities.

Bill Broyles sold the arena in 1987, and the building was then transformed into a bowling alley. Today the Imperial Bowl promotes itself as "Pittsfield's Premiere Candlepin Bowling" venue.

Ironically a bowling palace also was in the original plans of partners Ed and Al. Ed Broyles' son, Bruce, who once told me that the original maple floor is still under the bowling alley and ready for use if indoor skating ever takes its turn again.

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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