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Rolling back time

To walk into Crystal Springs Roller Rink is to step into 1939, the year it opened: no fancy music system, no air conditioning and no misbehaving. Just a good night out.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published February 6, 2005


See photo gallery with audio   photo

  photo
[Times photo: Lance A. Rothstein]
Suede rental skates sit on shelves at Crystal Springs Roller Rink. In a town where the kids have no movie theaters or malls, they have the rink.
photo   Twelve-year-old Jessica Murray pulls on her skates just after she arrives at the Crystal Springs Roller Rink

CRYSTAL SPRINGS - If Walter T. Curtis had his way 66 years ago, the rough-sawed lumber building at the end of Central Avenue would probably be long abandoned, or knocked down.

"He wanted to build a dance hall," Curtis' daughter, Bernice Rooks, says. "But Mama wouldn't okay it. He wanted beer and everything."

What sprang up in the compromise was a roller-skating rink.

Curtis sawed the timber himself and had the place built in the fall of 1939.

Large windows with heavy shutters and no screens lined the pine walls. An ancient Michigan cash register held money behind the counter. A tin roof provided cover in the thick stand of oaks, just steps from the banks of the Hillsborough River, between Plant City and Zephyrhills.

Children, teenagers and adults glided around the floor, popular music floating through the air.

That was Crystal Springs Roller Rink then, and now.

"There ain't nothin' new around here much," says Truman Rooks, the 74-year-old proprietor, Curtis' son-in-law and Bernice's husband.

Mr. Rooks, as he is called by young and old who cross the threshold, is the soul of this place now. A living symbol of Old Florida, he paces around quietly, a ball cap perched high on his balding head. He speaks with purpose, using his gravelly voice to great effect.

Over the crackling public address system, Mr. Rooks scolds kids when they skate too fast or huddle too closely in the dark corners. His words are indecipherable in the din, but offenders know to quickly shape up.

His other weapon is an oversized flashlight of shiny silver, the most modern-looking thing in the building. He shines it on unruly skaters.

"It's like a highway patrol," Rooks says with a grin. "I done got 'em clocked."

But for all his toughness with the kids, they are the reason he turns on the lights and the music for two hours every Friday and Saturday night. He pats them on the head and knows their names - and their parents' names.

He's not a cozy Santa Claus figure, just a man who has been in one place long enough to know its people.

"These kids around here ain't got a lot of money," Rooks says. "I keep it open for them to have somewhere to go."

In quiet Crystal Springs, there are plenty of churches and shady places to sit and look at the river. But no movie theaters, no malls. Its only other recreation landmark is closed to the public: The springs where people swam and picnicked for generations is the source of Zephyrhills Natural Spring Water and site of a private nature preserve.

Walter Curtis ran the springs for years. It's where Truman and Bernice first met, in 1947. Curtis had a dream of owning the springs - and even acquired the $8,000 to buy it - but the deal never came together and he turned his attention to other pursuits.

When the rink opened, the cost to skate was 35 cents. Now the price is up to $3. You can bring your own skates - inline or otherwise - or you can use a pair of the soft suede skates with orange wheels kept in every size on the shelves. Either way, it's $3.

"One little girl didn't have but $2.80," Rooks confides. "We let her in."

Sodas and candy bars are 75 cents. Throughout the night, kids roll up to the weathered counter, crashing into it with a thud, and slap down a dollar or three quarters and blurt their orders.

"Sunkist!"

"Butterfinger!"

Rooks or his daughter takes the money. The old brass register is still there, but the drawer just sits open, the coins held in change purses.

Every transaction is recorded on a white legal pad.

Out on the rink - smooth as glass, made of Tennessee maple - 30 or 40 kids whiz by again and again. The little, wobbly ones cling to a rope strung through the middle of the room. The older ones stick to the outside lanes, trying to achieve speed records on inline skates.

Mostly country music blares through the speakers, because that's what Mr. Rooks likes. The CDs have taken the place of waltzes played on 78-rpm records.

In the parking lot there might not be a single car. Parents drop off their kids, taking advantage of the inexpensive babysitting. No one loiters. Mr. Rooks won't have it.

He peers out the open window every few minutes, looking something like a cattle farmer searching for wanderers.

"I don't allow nobody in the parking lot," he says. "They're supposed to be inside."

Simply put, if they come, they come to skate. "That's right," Rooks says, winking. "That's right."

Like her mother before her, Megan Ames comes to the rink just about every weekend. She brings her inline skates and socializes with friends. She wishes she could hear pop music instead of so much country, but that's her only complaint. Even at 12, she thinks the $3 admission is a good deal.

"It's a good dating place and a good hangout place," she says.

Dyllon Leab, whose parents and uncles used to skate here, says helping Mr. Rooks is one of his favorite things about coming to the rink. He tidies up when he's asked and fetches drinks for the younger kids.

"It's a nice place to be, and I know Mr. Rooks pretty good. I help him out," says Dyllon, 14, dressed in fatigues. "He's a good man. I like him."

Indeed, reverence for Mr. Rooks reaches far. The kids don't forget him.

Last year he received an anonymous letter in the mail, written on a typewriter, postmarked from Lakeland. The enveloped contained $50. The writer confessed that about 20 years earlier he and his friends had stolen some flags from outside the rink.

"It said, "Mr. Rooks, I hope you will forgive me for that,"' Rooks says.

He wishes the letter had been signed so he could tell the young boy, now a man, that, yes, he forgives him.

Unlike most of the structure, the tin roof atop the building isn't original. That one lasted 45 years. Rooks replaced it years ago with aluminum, which lasted no time at all. Then he put on another tin roof himself.

"It'll outlast me, I imagine," says Rooks, who is retired from the Plant City roads department.

The building's other modern amenities - fluorescent lights, ceiling fans and a bathroom - were all added about 30 years ago.

Rooks' youngest daughter, Joellyn Chancey, remembers having slumber parties in the rink - skating all night, sleeping on the floor. She and her friends had to run back to the house to use the bathroom.

"This is all I've ever known," said Chancey, 51. "I've gone to some fancy rinks, but this is home to me."

Her house and the rink are the bookends of this short, unpaved stretch of Central Avenue. Her parents' house, where they've lived since they married in 1948, is next door. Next to them is Walter Curtis' old house, a stone's throw from the roller rink. Chancey's daughter lives across the road with her grandson, Kyle Straussner.

Yes, Walter Curtis' great-great-grandson, a timid, 5-year-old redhead, skates most weekends at the roller rink.

"It's an old building - lot of history behind it," Rooks says. "I want to keep it open as long as I can.

"I like it, so I keep it."

About 9:50 p.m., the cold fluorescent lights come up, and the kids head for the windows. Mr. Rooks has them trained: They take up the wood planks that hold the windows open and pull in the shutters.

Megan's mom comes in to gather up her daughter. Another night of skating comes to an end. Parents and kids wave and call goodbye before disappearing out the door.

They'll be back next week because there's a man who makes sure they have something to do, way out here in the country.

If you go

Crystal Springs Roller Rink, 38030 Central Ave., off State Road 39 in east Pasco County

Hours: 8-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; available other nights for private parties

Phone: (813) 782-2967

Admission: $3, includes skates, or skaters may bring their own. Snacks are 75 cents.

Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521. Her e-mail address is moorhead@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 3, 2005, 10:16:03]


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