Jay Malkin wrote in to the Miss Cassette Detective Agency a while back. No longer living in town, Jay was trying to track down his father’s drugstore once at the southwest corner of 24th and Leavenworth and it was in that initial hunt that I bumped into the Crosstown Roller Rink from a long ago photograph. To spy that tucked in rink, just beyond the curve of the road, gave this seventies roller girl a real thrill. Loyal to the job of hounding Jay’s family drug store, I fought off the tempting case wheeling about the recesses of my mind—the Crosstown Roller Rink! We will get to the delicious exploration of that rink but first, a diversion into the Malkin file as shared in a few photographs. I am of the belief that these other lengthy discussions and off-course campaigns illuminate the whole area in which the Crosstown Roller Rink was situated, but if you’re feeling like a spoilsport, I suppose you can skate ahead of us and we’ll catch up later. Meet at “The Crosstown Clues,” guys and gals.
The Malkin Dossier
I would find the smoky photo in the steadfast mission for My Omaha Obsession buddy, Jay Malkin. The image, the antecedent to this whole wonderful mess, really. To study this photo of not too long ago is to realize the immense change/s in our city—perhaps subtle, carried out in tiny, incremental shifts. I say this without emotion, after having overshared so many emotional moments in our years together–the city is destructible. In the words of the great Lucinda Williams, “Towns I used to live in have been rearranged.”
Looking south on 24th Street from Leavenworth at the streetcar tracks. Gay Time Bar is on the left and the Goldman’s Pharmacy is on the right. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: April 1953.
The ardent will remember the intersection, some will have forgotten and the rest of us weren’t even born yet. They say that 24th and Leavenworth was never the power center or even an esteemed cultural center of town but if we look, it is plain to see that this was once a pretty cool crossroads—surely a great good place of many people’s world. When we detectives are lucky enough to gather, we look at these little, insignificant things of great importance. So let’s peer a little deeper.
This photo is unrecognizable as the Omaha of today, so I included a current image to hopefully rein it in.
Summer of 2021. Standing on 24th Street, camera is facing south across Leavenworth. Conoco Select Mart at 2401 Leavenworth is located on the right hand side. It had always been a 7-11 since I began visiting the area but by 1999 it had switched to a Kum & Go. Compared to the photo above, the 24th Street thoroughfare is much wider as it passes across Leavenworth. Both buildings in the historic photo, now gone, were built out to the very corners of their lots but 24th was only single lanes going north and south.
Above 1953 photo magnified for your viewing pleasure. Jay wrote: “My father owned and operated the Leavenworth Drug Store on 2401 Leavenworth St. for many years and I worked there helping him out many summers. The store was kind of a landmark in the neighborhood and had been a drug store for probably 100 years.” Jay also remembered the Sam Rosen Bar being a next-door neighboring business in those years.
Part of what struck me about the 2401 Leavenworth building was how old it appeared. We do not see buildings still standing (in Omaha) from this time period. The wood frame construction, although not fancy, had its charms–the care given to details of gingerbread and fishscales and built-in awnings. I wanted to see those back porches. Meanwhile the street level storefronts had telltale signs of a modern facelift or two. The second floor French dentist’s office—”Dr. A. L. Naviaux,” was where Armand Naviaux had his dental office as well as family residence at “2401 1/2 Leavenworth.” I love my half addresses. That neon Sealtest ice cream sign. The MCM billboard marketing a brighter future, “Symphony in Motion” was slapped on and nailed to the mature building in a wistful, ironic manner. Really the whole Middle America vision seemed from a noir movie that I would have devoured with my grandmother. I would discover that as early as 1890 the Peyton & Owens drugstore was at 2401 Leavenworth Street, later transitioning to Peyton Pharmacy. Goldman’s Pharmacy, as it is seen in the photograph, where Dave Goldman conducted one of the longest runs in this location until his business auction in 1955. It operated under General Pharmacy until 1960, when Jay Malkin’s father, Phillip Malkin, took over as Leavenworth Drug. Of note the World-Herald reported in January 25, 1970 that Leonard Powers, owner of Powers Pharmacy at 2401 Farnam Street, purchased the prescription stock and other merchandise of Leavenworth Drug, 2401 Leavenworth, from Phillip Malkin. Leonard Powers was a recent character in our 2406 Farnam essay. The W. Dale Clark Library city directories showed me that, sure enough, the Sam Rosen Bar was at 2403 Leavenworth. Jay was spot on.
More yummy details from Jay: “When he closed the store in 1969, I remember going down into the basement which was dark, dirty, and full of stuff that was probably not looked at for 70 years and I found some bottles of old medicines that, now, are probably 125 -150 years old (they were ancient back then) and my father was surprised to find them. Most of them were still sealed with their lead seals intact (really weird stuff). My father was going to dump them, but I snuck them out of the store and kept them and still have them today!!! (Still all sealed up with the medicines inside).”
In case ya mighta missed this wiseguy. What a dream ghostworld.
It is disheartening to realize the cool cowboy 2401 Leavenworth building was razed and recast as a measly 7-11 Store by 1988.
I would have some fun tiptoeing backwards through time. We are going to head west along Leavenworth for this next grouping of clues. Phillip Malkin’s first edition as Leavenworth Drug was out of the 2823 Leavenworth building from 1955-1960. I’ve got to think this building was plowed down for the portion of I-480, named the Gerald R. Ford Expressway. Jay would remember his father’s pharmacy being right by a church and St. Peter’s Church is very near to this location. The pharmacy had previously been called City Drug (No. 2) from 1931 to December of 1954. Charles Pizinger, Jr. was pharmacist and manager of his City Drug (No. 2) until he got pinched in a citywide pharmacy bust for allegedly selling “Benzedrine, ‘goof balls’ and abortive drugs” in October of 1952. Mr. Pizinger and other local druggists pleaded no defense. Pizinger was fined $1,500 and costs, placed on probation for three years but by February of 1953, Pizinger was arrested for probation violation in alleged illegal selling of drugs. I would find another court case stemming back to the 1950 repackaging and “misbranding” of medications out of the family pharmacy. A federal probation officer filed on him because the pharmacist had “illegally sold morphine on several occasions.” Our Mr. Phillip Malkin took over the lease in January of 1955, changing the name from City to Leavenworth Drug. Taken into custody by a deputy US Marshal, I would find Pharmacist Pizinger popped back up and was operating a City Drug in Des Moines in the late 50s, leading me to believe things were ironed out in some fashion.
“My grandfather owned the Malkin Fine Fur Shop somewhere on Park Ave. back in the 1930s – 1940s.”
I would discover the family furrier was housed at 2818 Leavenworth—very close to Phillip Malkin’s first pharmacy. “Malkin & Sons,” as it was initially called, moved into the 2818 Leavenworth bay in December of 1946. This location had previously hosted the I. Berkowitz Fur Company from the early 1920s to almost right before Mr. Malkin’s lease began.
The American Legion Club at 28th and Leavenworth. To the left is the M. Malkin Fine Furs and Refrigerated Fur Storage. Creator: Savage, John (1903-1989). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: 1958. Fascinating to look at the first American Legion Club of Omaha. This service member’s club will come up later in our story! Love the car and the two girls walking.
Detail from another 1957 photograph. Creator: Savage, John (1903-1989). Publisher: The Durham Museum.
We were delighted to study the details of these photographs. The signs! Jay shared that the “M.” of “M. Malkin” on the shop stood for Morris, his Grandfather Malkin. 2816 Leavenworth and the other great buildings along this strip were emptied and goods auctioned off in August and September of 1960 to make room for the aforementioned interstate highway. Morris Malkin and wife, Esther, had lived at 715 Park Avenue, no doubt leading Jay to remember the Park Ave name. This address unfortunately no longer exists.
A M A Z I N G neon everywhere.
Let’s return to our 24th and Leavenworth corner and the fantastic 1953 photo. The controversial Gay Time Bar, at 2311 Leavenworth, was commanded by Mr. Charles Bradehorst. Mr. Bradehorst’s colorful beer parlour had opened quite respectably under Maxine Bradehorst’s liquor license. Apparently it gained its seedy traction over time. A “known hangout for criminals and hoodlums and scene of several vice raids was padlocked in August of 1957,” after the city suspended its liquor license. A midnight raid caught eight known burglars among 18 total patrons arrested–interestingly the tavern was closed by vice in the wee hours for the paintings of partially nude women on the walls. Proprietor Bradehorst admitted his “place has been a hangout for hoods” and publicly asked the police to help him clean it up. Accused of selling alcohol to minors, encouraging the patronage of drunkards and felons, the lewd pictures on the walls, with a stash of unlicensed narcotics in the building, Bradehorst was frequently demonized in the papers. Later it was revealed he was part of a tire theft ring and sent off to the Nebraska Men’s Reformatory.
This illustrious corner served flowing adult beverages dating back to Mr. Arthur Metz’s liquor license application in 1902. She had once been the Koeinsbruegge Restaurant and Bar. Florient Café and Soda Room in the early 1920s. Tuchman Stores Grocery in the 1930s. Rosen’s Liquor Market in the late 1930s. In the late 40s Opal and Wally Closner were alleged to have allowed dice games in the bar leading to Phillip Besler taking over their license and lease as Besler’s Tavern. Please see the 1512 Howard Street essay for more on our man, Phil Besler.
Photo borrowed from the OWH archives. October 1950. Previous to the Gay Time Bar, Besler’s Tavern, at the southeast corner of 24th and Leavenworth, on the occasion of a car pile-up. I love to see that marquee and angled, corner door.
I ruminate on this 2311 Leavenworth saloon because just out of the camera’s eye, to the east (left) was another bar, separated only by a common wall. I do wish I could see this! Around the time of this photo it was the Trench Bar or Fogie’s Bar but by 1993 this next-door neighbor at 2301 Leavenworth had become the Crosstown Tavern, something of an early obsession of mine…well, many of ours. The Crosstown Tavern was known for knife fights, general drunkenness, drug deals, prostitution and as they say, disorderly conduct, that intimated some noteless contractual agreement upon entering. The notorious and frequent fist and knife fights would very often spill over onto the sidewalk of Leavenworth and sometimes, as my friend Marc just reminded me, the combatants would topple into the street. Likewise it was not uncommon for a lone, weaving Crosstown Tavern regular, although not always the same character, to wander into the punk club down the road, where we were watching bands play at the Cog Factory. The Cog was at 2224 Leavenworth. Check out this link to the Cog Factory documentary: https://youtu.be/PBdctCH–Eo. The Crosstown and its raucous crowd was a highlight of the area and part of the fun of going to a Cog show—further confirmation that every neighborhood had its own customs to be observed.
Love this one–the narrow passage of 24th and Leavenworth. Tracks on the ground, grid in the sky. Looking north on 24th. The 2401 Leavenworth pharmacy building on the left. This angle allows us to see a great “Coca Cola” and “candy” hanging sign at Goldman’s Pharmacy. Also the diner perfect Koffee House Restaurant across Leavenworth. The city directory let on this location was at 720-22 South 24th Street and was part of a franchise.The 2311 Leavenworth Gay Times Bar on the right. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: April of 1953.
Excuse me, as I totally get nerdy. 1955 and 1993 photographs borrowed from the Douglas County GIS site. Both show Leavenworth running left to right at the top of the image. 24th runs perpendicular north-south. 1955 aerial (image on the left) shows the crisp corners and narrow thoroughfare of 24th and Leavenworth with 2401 Leavenworth and 2311 Leavenworth still standing. By the 1993 aerial (image on the right), 24th has been widened by knocking down 2311 Leavenworth. 2301 Leavenworth (Crosstown Tavern) is still standing at that point. The Quonset hut building to the south still stands!
Here’s how the Quonset hut building stacks up in 2021. Cool and Weird!
The 2311 Leavenworth (tavern) building would later evolve into an Econ-O-Wash, razed sometime in the 60s-very early 70s. At that point 24th Street at Leavenworth was widened. (Sidenote: A review of Google Map shows that 24th Avenue, two lanes, crosses this intersection going south and 24th Street, two lanes, actually heads north.) The Crosstown Tavern, to the east, at 2301 Leavenworth Street was finally closed by the city in the spring of 1999. It seems that when a building is this disreputed in Omaha, the powers that be eventually get it knocked down; the 2301 building was razed sometime between 2004 and 2007. If anyone has a photo of the Crosstown Tavern building I know a bunch of Cog Factory kids who would love to see it.
Around the corner from Jay Malkin’s father’s pharmacy was “The Little Diner,” which Jay interpreted as “the tiniest lunch counter that I had ever seen. I remember that it was so small inside that all there was room for was the lunch counter with stools and the space behind the counter. I can’t remember what I had to eat for dinner yesterday, but I can remember eating ‘fried egg sandwiches’ there with my father and that they were the best.” When Jay worked for his father, he was treated to lunch at either that little diner or Bronco’s–either of which sounds so heartwarming.
With the aid of the city directories, I would track the tiny diner to 806 South 24th Street, a teeny brick sliver of a structure tacked on the southeastern edge of the old 2401 Leavenworth building. In the 1920s it was the Joseph Palma Restaurant; by the early thirties the Troy Z. Schrader restaurant fit the bill and in 1939 Mae Cook operated her Violet’s Beauty Shop out of the address.
At this juncture we will bid a fond adieu to Jay, Phillip and Morris Malkin. Thank you, Jay, for all that you shared of your family memories. If I hadn’t corresponded with you, I might not have found all of these great places and people, leading me to the Crosstown Roller Rink investigation.
The Crosstown Clues
It was in this darker portion of the photograph, just south of Leavenworth Street, that I spotted the Crosstown Roller Rink. I was so excited. It looked like a crazy garage or even a firehouse with tons of style. How had I never heard of the Crosstown? And this was the second business I had tripped over in the area with Crosstown in the name—why was that? I couldn’t quite get a feel for the place or its dimensions. The further I looked to the south (second enlarged image), I could see the roller rink was once in a proper neighborhood filled with homes. It was so wonderful to see 1953 Omaha and imagine having access to skating so close to home.
The neighborhood enlarged. Street of dreams. Seeing this image with all of the homes and apartments along 24th, reminded me of what a densely populated neighborhood this was–a part of the Columbus Park Neighborhood, with boundaries roughly at 20th and 29th Streets, from Leavenworth to Martha. Further to the south is the (Charles) Mason School at 1012 South 24th Street. This dignified grade school building was later renovated into apartments in the 1980s. I looked at one to rent in the 90s and it had gloriously high ceilings and wonderful windows. I imagined the locals were ecstatic to have a rink within walking distance.
When a survey of the essential Douglas County Assessor site exposed the once Crosstown Roller Rink building was still standing, I became even more excited. I had never taken note of it. Granted, she no longer had the darkened red brick garage stylings and her architectural details were smothered in an of-the-moment fiber cement or stucco material but there she was. Hypers! The Douglas County Assessor site described 812 South 24th Street at 20,126.0 sq ft, built in 1916. This area was platted as Redicks 2nd Addition. (We had previously learned of the various Redick developments in the Park Avenue Doctors Hospital investigation.) A quick stake-out would disclose 812 South 24th had a nice, airy barrel roof and was more than wide enough to accommodate a whole neighborhood of skaters on a good size rink. Additionally the building extended all the way to 25th Street and offered additional matching doors on that western side. Those who like to sniff around will recognize these as good solid clues. It all added up.
Together Omaha, a nonprofit homeless prevention agency bought the 812 South 24th Street building in 2013. In August of that year they started a renovation, pouring $2.3 million, funded entirely by private donors, into their new 20,000 square foot headquarters. By December of 2013 they were moving in. In the fall of 2020 Together Omaha acquired the once 11-Worth Café building at 2419 Leavenworth Street, around the corner for their service department.
Both images borrowed from the Douglas County Assessor site.
I soon readied my snooping ensemble, several chocolate bars, toe stoppers and a carrying case.
Origins of 812 South 24th Street
The Douglas County Assessor logged 812 South 24th with a build date of 1916 but I could not actually track that address in the Omaha City Directory until 1921. According to the newspapers and earlier directories, the surrounding structures at 811 and 813 South 24th Street as well as others down the line, were cottages and rental homes. These homes very often served as both residence and business. For instance, the 1916 Omaha City Directory entered Modra Sokal, the palmist, residing and working out of 811 South 24th and Anthony “Tony” Damato, the grocer/fruit man living and selling out of 813 South 24th. The Damato surname would come up again and again on the trail and I decided I must do a full Damato story. Fascinating. I decided not to make a fuss on the build date, because we all know what happens when I get obsessed. However I could not ignore the Crosstown Garage enterprise and its solid connection to the 812 South 24th building.
Damato Sidenote: The 1939 Omaha City Directory navigated me to the Frank Damato restaurant at 813 South 24th Street. Same address as Tony Damato’s grocery store. I would track the Frank Damato restaurant to the Old Chateau “Omaha’s finest Italian Café,” but by 1941, 813 South 24th had converted to Frank Damato Liquors. This later refashioned to Rosso’s Show Bar in the late forties. Charles Rosso, that is. Of Rosso’s Walking Cane? We can pray. Later still it became Rea’s Chateau where there was “DANCING NIGHTLY with Music By Rea.”
2020 aerial borrowed from the Douglas Omaha GIS site. Camera faces west. 812 South 24th is the large building. The barrel roof and dimensions of the brick building, extending from 24th Street to 25th Street are impressive in any time period.
The Crosstown Garage
Crosstown Garage appeared on the scene in the summer of 1916, originally trailed to the 315 South 24th address, north of Leavenworth. In August of 1920 the OWH announced Vernon Smith and his partner, Anton Kopf, opened “a new garage” at 812-16 South 24th under the Crosstown Garage name. The auto repair show and storage facility, “new and modern in every respect,” was described in the press in terms that led me to believe this was indeed a brand new building. This new building was thought to be “particularly convenient,” because “there are no pillars or obstructions.” Of course those who would later skate in the building already know the lack of pillars made for a superb roller rink in its second life.
812 South 24th Street, Together Inc, as it appears today. Front elevation, east facing. As I said earlier, the east portion of the building is now coated in some type of modern fiber cement or stucco—I am sure to give it a neutral, prominent facade, albeit, a clean look for the neighborhood. Not my personal favorite but I understand it. I dream the goods are still intact under the current shroud.
To truly SEE the old Crosstown Garage building, you must creep to the backside. Or maybe don’t creep. Just drive down 25th Street. Here is the back, western facing elevation. So many architectural details remain, even ghost signs and I LOVE this. Those who skated the Crosstown Roller Rink will recognize this as the old place. Very classic 1920s garage. I just knew you’d want to see this.
The design of this historic building as an old auto shop made immediate sense—the perfect, humble, general-purpose space easily converted decade after decade. Like everything good built in the early 20s, she was attractive, sturdy and hardworking: wide garage doors at both the 24th and 25th Street entries with factory windows; a block long structure at 20,000 sq ft. The barrel-roof design was utilized from a structural standpoint as the full steel trusses could hold up the roof, allowing for a large, column-free space where cars could easily maneuver. No need for pillars or poles! I’ve got to think this was also a great design for this part of America, where rain and snow could easily run off. Probably very cold in the winters and hot in the summer, this huge clear-span of a garage had the excellent early-20th-century daylighting from the skylights that is even more enviable now that it is a rarity. The barrel-roof was seen in bowling alleys, theaters, ice rinks and much later with the new MCM supermarkets; the barrel vault could be hidden from view using a dropped ceiling or recessed skylights for creating a more polished look. But as you will see in the upcoming photos, those steel trusses and skylights are still exposed in the 812 South 24th Street building and that is an essential part of what makes this effective structure Uncorrupted Cool.
Sometimes Cross Town, sometimes Crosstown, the business bought and sold cars, worked on cars and there even appeared to be a second business operating within, specializing in auto trimming in addition to car washes. In its heyday, the Crosstown Garage was open 24 hours a day and had capacity to store 150 cars. You could also find the sensible, used, 1919 Oakland Roadster for $500 at the Crosstown.
Damaged Ford Model A being repaired at the Crosstown Garage at 812 South 24th Street. Note the vaulted ceiling, trusses and skylights. Extra cool! Note the numbered stalls for storage rental. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: April of 1936.
As you can imagine with one of Omaha’s largest, if not the largest garage, there were a number of property owners and businesses leasing within those garage doors over the years. Interestingly Charles D. Birkett and John A. Anderson were two owners who would buy, sell and repurchase the huge space over the years. Other owners were Mrs. Lena Cohen, Charles Taylor and C. A. Morrison. A. R. Hollenberger was an auto trimmer; Frank Friend, the manager. By 1931 Frank H. Tapelt and Walter S. Brown were running the Crosstown. Tapelt had been in the Yellow Cab business for years and in the Crosstown, found a way to operate both companies while storing his fleet of cabs. All owners and managers wisely maintained the solid Crosstown Garage name, seemingly with the same employees year after year…and here’s one now.
Henry Studyvin was a Crosstown Garage veteran with more than 12 years employment in 1936. Not only did he bring in the wrecks, the poor man honorably assisted the OPD in helping the victims of horrific auto accidents as well as removing the remains of the deceased. This was very often a grisly job and these were images Mr. Studyvin said he would never shake.
OWH archives. March 23 1941. For all their value to the city, the Crosstown Garage was throwing in the towel in March of 1941. Crosstown Garage had stood for a little over twenty years. The property was up “for sale or rent.” The Auto Laundry company took the keys to the building and opened in April 14, 1941. This venture was short lived, only clocking a few months. In my judgment they should have stuck with the proven Crosstown name.
What’s in a Name?
Crosstown Cleaners. Crosstown Shoeshop. Crosstown Tavern. Why were there so many usages of the word crosstown in the vicinity of the Crosstown Garage? The very definition of crosstown, “extending or traveling from one side of a town to the other,” sparked the idea to search the car lines from the World-Herald and led me to crack open Richard Orr’s incredible book, O & CB: Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs. I have just in the eleventh hour come to understand this puzzler. Or I think I do. There were Crosstown runs and Crosstown cars. An OWH story from 1889 reported the Omaha Street Railway Company ordered a full plant for the electric crosstown line the company was to put in operation. 24th Street travel, both north and south became known as the Crosstown car.
OWH archive. October of 1910: 35th and L streets in South Omaha to 24th and Cuming Streets in Omaha. This new route was said to combine stub lines, cutting past Creighton College, “where 24th Street has been opened.” The new mode of “travel was surprisingly large,” thought of as a great convenience and time saving.
In the 1920s the Crosstown was the longest carline running from 24th and Kansas Ave. by Miller Park in North O, all the way to 24th and Q Street by the Union Stock Yards. This also shed light on the Crosstown Garage’s accommodations for 150 automobiles. With citywide transportation easily accessible and so many apartments, houses and businesses without garages in the area of 24th and Leavenworth, I could see where the Crosstown’s auto storage had a function. Please share if you know more about this phenomenon.
Incredible 1951 photograph scanned from the O & CB: Streetcars of Omaha and Council Bluffs by Richard Orr. Just north of 24th and Leavenworth. I could stare at this one all day. “Saturday afternoon streetcar riders climb aboard Crosstown Car 909 at 24th and Leavenworth on August 4, 1951, as it heads straight south toward South Omaha. Crosstown Car 947 on the horizon, having come from South Omaha and now by First Church of Christ Scientist on St. Mary’s Avenue, will go to the end of the line at 29th and Lake to turn around.” Orr specified that the Crosstown streetcar roll sign meant “South or North bound carline on 24th.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Crosstown Roller Rink
The moment we’ve all been waiting for. On November 6, 1941 a World-Herald advertisement announced Omaha was to have a new entertainment destination spot in the form of the Crosstown Roller Rink. The “Fox Brothers” would throw their grand opening party on November 11th. The Brothers Fox were touted as longtimers in the skating sphere, operating “five rinks in Minnesota and Illinois.” With their newest endeavor, the Fox Brothers must have thought they found a goldmine with the Crosstown Garage layout–a block-long building, flat surface, one story, no obstructions for skaters–not to mention the building located on a widely-used streetcar line, within a highly populated neighborhood of young people. In these years there were many inventive mom and pops across America creating skating rinks in all sorts of unglamorous hideaways. The Foxes would succeed in their new market and go to the top of the hit parade.
OWH archive. Advertisement for the November 11, 1941 opening. Miss Cassette’s notes on marketing: This layout is eyecatching and the illustration is very cute and hep for the times. The other Omaha rinks’ ads and illustrations looked fuddy-duddy compared to the Crosstown vibe. In 1940 playsuits for girls over 12 years of age were a no-no at the skating rinks. “Skirts on which may be twirled high” were encouraged for females. The Foxes didn’t miss a beat with this signaling of the twirly skirt.
OWH archive. Nov 9, 1941: “Twenty-five thousand dollars have been spent in remodeling and equipping one of the largest and most up-to-date roller rinks in the middle west, now occupying the former Crosstown garage building at 812 South Twenty-fourth street. A block-long roller rink has been built by Fox Brothers(…) Arnold Wiegand of Kankakee, Illinois will be manager of the Crosstown Roller Rink which features a fiber, knee-action floor.” This fiber, knee-action floor interested me. I thought for sure the Crosstown had the traditional maple wood flooring…but a felt base carpet? They would outfit the one story brick building with fiber flooring over concrete.
OWH archive. October 29, 1941. I would have to backtrack. Just short of $25,000, I did find the building permit for $950 for the remodeling of the Crosstown Garage.
Early Skating in Omaha
Back in February of 1882, the OWH proclaimed the formal opening of Pinney & Marshall’s Roller Skating Rink. “The floor was in excellent skating condition, and a large company, composed mainly of gentlemen, were on hand to enjoy ‘the royal, health-giving fun’ which is to be had upon roller skates and without the danger of frost or air-holes which beset the skater on ice. You fasten the machines upon your feet, stand up and immediately will feel a decided inclination to ‘wipe up the floor with yourself.’”
Martha Grenzeback, genealogy and local history librarian at W. Dale Clark Main Library found a great book for us with mention of early Omaha skating: The Leading Industries of the West: Omaha. Chicago. H. S. Reed. 1884. The article described that roller skating rinks had become the rage all over the United States during the last few years and that Omaha had “several defunct inferior ones” in that time. I am assuming by this that Pinney & Marshall’s didn’t meet Omaha’s high standards. Mr. J. C. Elliott had newly opened a rink “on the north side of Capital Avenue between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets” in December of 1883. The rink surface consisted of hard maple floor and total cost was $5,000. “Sometimes as many as 1,000 people have appeared on the skating surface of this rink. Three times a week a fine brass band furnishes music for the skaters.”
By 1888 this classy “Capitol Avenue Rink,” as it became known, played host to the Omaha Guard, who held their “first drill with guns” upon its glossy maple floor. Maybe for economical and functional reasons, large buildings were used for a multitude of purposes–public auditoriums were also used for indoor roller skating as well as bicycling in the winter months. The roller rinks with the sole focus on skating in these early years boasted of “elegant maple floors,” “ball bearing skates,” and “fine music,” which meant a live band or organist.
1947 advertisement for the Richardson skate. Even in 1947, the ballbearing skate of the 1880s was still in use. I even have a similar pair when we moved to Omaha in the 1970s!
The Crosstown’s Competition
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Omahans enjoyed roller skating at Krug Park Roller Rink. Krug Park, the amusement center at 2936 North 52nd Street was in Benson and long considered “The Rink.” From the 20s-to 1940, the Krug rink was inexpensive and featured live music. They boasted of their Chicago Boxwood Rollers. It was my impression that the West Farnam Roller Rink at 4016 Farnam was the new, hip rink in the Midtown area in 1930. Previously the Omaha Community Playhouse, the West Farnam Roller Rink would again refashion into the West Farnam Gardens, a dinner and dancing club for a time in 1932. That summer the club featured “the hottest bands in town” but they casually transitioned back to roller skating by that fall. Skating and organ music is cheaper, right? The West Farnam had an all maple floor, pipe organ and roller bearing skates. Palace Roller Rink, at 19th and Davenport, came on the scene in 1936. By 1937 Elite Roller Rink opened their doors at 24th and J. By 1939 the Carter Lake Club Roller Rink got in on the action. It was easy to understand the great pleasure Omahans found in skating and socializing for only 25 to 35 cents a night during the Great Depression. Most rinks were open until 10 PM or midnight. Hard to imagine those hours on a work or school night but it’s true.
Mr. Lloyd Fox
Not surprisingly the Crosstown Roller Rink was a huge hit in Omaha. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U. S. would enter World War II, shortly after the rink opened. Skating became a favorite pastime during the WWII years, much as it was during the Great Depression but all the more. The recreation was popular because it was an inexpensive way to have fun as a family, a place for young people to socialize on their own, a safe activity for girls and single women, in addition to the health benefits.
Less than a year after the grand opening, Lloyd Fox, no longer part of the Fox Brothers, had bought the Crosstown Roller Rink. Now, I’ll be honest—search as I might, I never found out about those infamous Fox Brothers of which Lloyd departed. Soon after settling in Omaha, I did find Lloyd Fox selling off two portable roller skating rinks at $4,000 a piece. I wondered if the Fox Brothers’ enterprise was a touring roller rink?
OWH archive. September 20, 1942. L. G Fox bought the building from John Anderson, previously mentioned. The brief article let on that Fox was the owner—no mention of what became of the Fox Brothers. A month later L. G. Fox and the Crosstown’s rink instructor, Charles Workman, “toured the east coast to inspect large roller rinks for ideas and to learn ‘more about roller dancing which has become popular among rink fans.’”
Mr. Fox would later change his tune with regard to the extra short twirly skirts. From the Town Tattler of 1943: “Lloyd Fox, the roller skating impresario, didn’t wait for official banning of questionable women’s attire…Fox long ago forbade girls appearing in his rink in such scanty habiliments…He also made the men and boys wear their collars and neckties…And Joe Malec has always required men to wear coats at Peony Park.”
Lloyd Glenn Fox and his wife Jessie (sometimes spelled Jesse) Belle Emerick Fox married in 1919. Prior to moving to Omaha, the Foxes resided in Illinois and Minnesota, which squared with the prior clue that the Fox Brothers had developed skating rinks in those states. The Foxes bought 4855 Decatur Street from Nelle M. Bader in August of 1942—a lovely Cape Cod home in the Metcalfe Park neighborhood.
4855 Decatur photograph borrowed from the Douglas County Assessor site. This home is described as 4 bedrooms, 2 baths 2,336 sq ft and built in 1941. This was a new house when the Foxes resided there.
OWH archive. And here is how 4855 Decatur looked back in 1942.
Mr. Fox was a World War I veteran and a member of the American Legion Club at 28th and Leavenworth. (We saw the photo of the club earlier in this story.) Mrs. Fox was very involved in auxiliary activities for veterans and their wives. A military family through and through, Mr. Lloyd spoke proudly of his sons’ service to our country in those early years of his roller rink. I was able to learn of the Fox boys from that military article with brief details of the girls garnered from various genealogy sites. Son Harlan Lloyd Fox served in the Navy in the South Pacific. Son Ralph Howard Fox was serving in the Army at “the prisoner of war camp at Rupert, Idaho.” (I had to look that one up. Never heard of it! Sure enough Camp Rupert was a World War II prisoner of war camp near Paul, Idaho. Built for $1.5 million, it was able to accommodate a city-like environment of 3,000 people. “The first POWs were Italian and were received in May 1944. In September 1944, 500 German POWs arrived.”) Third born, Kenneth Ray Fox was in the Army, received the Purple Heart and at the time of the article, was in Germany. The couple’s fourth son, Clyde Wendell Fox served in the Coast Guard, also a holder of the Purple Heart honor and at the time of the article was in the South Pacific. Lloyd Fox also spoke of his son in law, Lieutenant Floyd Willey Scheel, an Airman. Scheel was married to the fifth Fox child, Audrey Ann. The article also mentioned the Fox “adopted son,” Staff Sergeant, Harry G. Martin. I would later find their youngest, biological child was Ardis Willetta Fox Williams.
All of this led me to think that maybe Lloyd used the name Fox Brothers for his sons?
OWH archive. October 1942. Our man, Mr. Lloyd Fox.
At some point Mr. Fox replaced the Crosstown’s fiber flooring. As seen in this 1943 photograph, the rink transitioned to a traditional maple floor over concrete. Pendant lights hang from the ceiling. I was glad for the chance to see how the skating rink functioned within the once car garage. Loved to see the industrial trusses above that gleaming floor.
Interior of the Crosstown Roller Skating Rink at 812 South 24th Street. Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: October 1943.
Detail of the previous 1943 image. The various check windows. Clever use of the half wall, allowing the Crosstown to create different rooms without obstructing the ceiling trusses or spending too much money on renovation. “Check Cases Here.” This was for carrying case storage for those who owned and brought in their own skates. Skate cases came in steel (assorted color combinations) or aluminum (“The featherweight champion” was light and sturdy with a satin finish.) “Skate Room” was for those renting skates from the Crosstown. “Check Room: Please Present One Check Only.” This was a coat and hat check. A guest would be given a numbered ticket for their coat, to be claimed when they left. Advertisements for the Crosstown Doorman stated an age requirement—“must be over 30.” Checkroom Girls were required to work six nights and two afternoons a week. Concession Girls worked similar hours. For a look at a real skate case from the Roller Bowl in Omaha, check out my previous investigation: 3716 Leavenworth Look Back.
OWH archive. 1943. Lonely girls dreaming of skating with a GI, actually found a swell time skating with other girls. The Crosstown Roller Rink welcomed the single lasses.
Now might be a good time to mention that for all of the “lonely girl talk” during WWII, it seems that a whole lotta gals found their complimentary mate and excellent pals at the Crosstown. A very brief scan of local obituaries illuminated the Crosstown Roller Rink as a touchstone for many couples, best buddies and their families. Lillian Marie Tatroe met Robert “Tate” Tatroe in 1944 at Crosstown Roller Rink. Rose Madsen met many dear friends at the Crosstown skating rink. Irene Frankoff Flaxbeard was a student from South High when she began skating at the Crosstown. Her talent at artistic roller skating led her to tour throughout the United States and Canada. Joann C. Andrews met her husband, Edwin Andrews at the Crosstown Roller Rink. Bert L. Wulff started his family after meeting his wife, Ruth Widger, at Crosstown Roller Rink–they were married on September 23, 1951. Shirley Maree Simpson met Alfred Riedmann at the Crosstown in October in 1949. Esther Rishel met her husband, John Rishel, at the Crosstown Roller Rink and they later married. Patricia Matuska met her future husband, Lendall Matuska, at the Crosstown Roller Rink. They were later married at St. John’s Catholic Church. These were just a few examples. I was deeply moved that the Crosstown rink would be mentioned in these people’s obituaries. I cannot think of a unifying local business that will be mentioned in anyone’s obituary in the next forty years. (If any family member is willing to share, I would love to include photos of local Omahans at the Crosstown or in their skates. Everyone would love to see these images. Please email me.)
**Addendum of February 10, 2022. I was so pleased to hear from Elaine Flaxbeard, daughter of national skating talent and hometown girl, Irene Frankoff Flaxbeard. Elaine gave me permission to share her writings and also included wonderful photos of mother, Irene and her friends. Thank you, Elaine!
Elaine wrote: My mom, Irene Frankoff Flaxbeard, was mentioned in your writing of the Crosstown Roller Rink. In an interesting coincidence, you also wrote of a skating partner of hers, Paul Spargen “Stella.” In their skating days, his nickname was “Pickles.” It was he who was actually wanting to join the roller skating touring group. He practiced with my mom and she was selected. She lasted about a year or so and got homesick. She was living with her family on Poppleton Street. She told us about Pickles and his singing as Stella. She said it was based on the song, “Stella by Starlight. She was so sad when she heard of his murder. Was the perpetrator ever apprehended? Lil Frankoff Tatroe (also mentioned in the Crosstown blog) was Irene’s older sister by four years. Aunt Lil died in January 2019 and my mom passed in February of the same year. I have a couple of photos to share.
My mom and “Pickles” (Paul/ “Stella”). I think the photo of mom and Pickles is priceless. He was very handsome. Wish I could see a photo of Stella. My dad said he had Greek heritage. My father, Don Flaxbeard, is alive and sound at 96 years of age. He’s the one who said it was actually Pickles who auditioned, but my mom got the gig.
“My mom and a friend (not sure of her identity). My mom was very beautiful… all her kids had to have orthodontia. She was born with a one-in-a-million smile. Always reminded me a bit of Ava Gardner.”
I could see this photograph of the girls in bluejeans was taken on 24th Street, facing north. Leavenworth is at the top of the hill. This photo must have been taken right in front of the Crosstown. The little restaurant is on the left side and the now missing building is seen on the right. Irene and her girlfriend looks so beautiful and stylish—the epitome of teen glory!
Elaine included this wonderful World-Herald article about her mother, from July 30, 1950. Irene Frankoff was invited to join the Skating Vanities.
This is actually a roller rink in Chicago but it is from the early 1940s and gives a good sense of the times. One can see from this low ceiling that Omaha skaters were spoiled by the Crosstown Roller Rinks’ high ceiling and airy, athletic court feel.
Wartime and Crosstown Employees
In March of 1943 “the Government prohibited the tanning of white leather,” which impacted the white leather skating boot trend. Also skaters were encouraged to bring in their broken and cracked skate plates (the plate is the part of the skate that attaches the boot to the trucks and skate wheels) to be welded, cut down and remounted as a savings. Even Omaha sold skating products. One company, the Ak-Sar-Ben Skate Equipment Company, later Plastic Products Corporation had a full roller skate wheel division.
“Last Call for White Leather.” The Hyde dancing boot skate from this 1942 advertisement became a rarity—a prized commodity by 1943. “White bucko calf for the most fashionable roller skating occasion. Ask your rink operator or roller skating friends.”
The Crosstown Roller Rink required a full staff to run this large operation. Previous to World War II, professional skaters were hired by rink operators to educate patrons and promote roller skating–kind of like a pro golfer at a country club. The war caused “a famine of professional skaters” and the national Roller Skating Rink Operators’ Association encouraged owners to “carry on pro functions themselves.” This was one of the many jobs that a woman could easily fulfill (if she could work the late hours that rinks seemed to be opened) and I imagine, be of encouragement to other women. Miss Irene Seifert fit the bill and was hired on in October of 1943. She headed up the professional staff at the Crosstown, newly hired from the Arena Gardens in Detroit where she had previously taught skating lessons. (If any family member has a photo, I would love to include it in this investigation.) Miss Irene was Crosstown Roller Rink’s skating instructor for over 15 years. Arty Fox, surely a relative, was also touted as a “Crosstown pro.”
Dale Leland Davis was a jockey at the Ak-Sar-Ben horse races and “later worked at the Martin Bomber Plant but it was his job teaching roller skating at the Crosstown Roller Rink where he met his second wife, Miss June Marie Clanton. The couple was married in December of 1943.”Clayton Cowan began playing the Hammond organ at the Crosstown Roller Rink while he was just a 16-year-old South High student. Said to be the “most popular organist ever to play in an Omaha roller rink,” Cowan played there for 10 years from 1942 to 1952—six nights and two matinees a week, putting himself through Omaha University (now UNO) in the process. By 1949 Bill Goodrich was also a professional organist hired by the Crosstown.
1948 promotional roller skating advertisement. Note the girls’ skirts were getting longer.
It would seem a matter of record that there were some difficult times at the Crosstown Roller Rink. To be clear, I don’t know if these were financial worries (can’t imagine what it took to keep the doors open on a 20,000 sq ft roller rink, considering they only charged 36 cents a patron), or a change in career plans, personal or health issues or otherwise.
OWH archive. Sept 1944. Reopening? Did they close for a long while? Was it just a clean-up, renovation or holiday?
January 15, 1946. Article from the clippings folder of the reference desk at the W. Dale Clark library. Crosstown Rink sold to the Royal Candy Company for $36,000. “Mr. Fox, who operated the rink five years, plans to open a rink in another part of the city.”
Did the January sale to the candy company go through? I wondered because the Crosstown Roller Rink seemingly was not closed too terribly long, if at all. Perhaps they did sell and close for a time or maybe the Foxes continued their skating business by renting 812 South 24th?
In October of 1946 the World-Herald announced Federal District Judge John W. Delehant issued an injunction back in March 20, 1945, enjoining the Hotel Fontenelle, Peony Park Ballroom and Lloyd G. Fox operator of the Crosstown Roller Rink from playing for-profit hits and popular music numbers. “The right to publish and sell copies of copyrighted musical work and the right to publicly perform works for-profit are separate and distinct, separately granted by the Copyright Act.” The court ruled that actions of the three places were in violation of the Federal Copyright Act. The suit was brought by five New York music publishers. I am not exactly clear if this suit was because the Crosstown was having their organist play copyrighted works or if the rink was playing rerecorded music. The Hammond Electric organ was thought to be the standard for skating rinks. According to Billboard Magazine, a 1947 Hammond went for about $1,700.00 used. Speakers were $150 to $250 a piece. There were also “Skating Records” with “standard dance tempos” created by skate recording companies across America in the 1940s. They featured “live organ quality” for those rinks that didn’t have their own organist. Extra Weird and amazing. But back to the issue at hand—did this legal suit have anything to do with the Crosstown’s brief closing?
Kristine Gerber shared this photo from her book, Omaha Times Remembered for the Omaha World-Herald in 1999. This great photo was submitted by Paula Shoemaker Fryer and shows her parents, Hal Shoemaker and Carol Vescio at the Crosstown Roller Rink in 1948. The couple married the following year. (Proof that the Crosstown was open in 1948.) Thank you for sharing this gem!
One thing is for sure. By 1949 we have our proof that the Crosstown Roller Rink was functional again, if it ever truly closed. They had a series of ads and a new polished presentation. Lloyd Fox was still owner of the business but son Ralph Fox was by then managing.
OWH archives. Both were 1949 advertisements. Tuesdays nights you could wear blue jeans! Or T-shirts even!
In June of 1950 the OWH announced Lloyd Fox had “completed purchase of the building.” There were “plans to have the front remodeled.” It was perplexing for sure but I was just glad the Foxes had found a way to make the skating rink continue.
Those lucky enough to have skated during the “Golden Age” of roller rinks, (between 1937 and 1959, according to Lou Brooks’ book, Skate Crazy: Amazing Graphics From the Golden Age of Roller Skating) already know about the promotional rink stickers. Skating rink operators began creating individual sticker designs to promote their particular rink in the early 1940s. Guys and gals would then collect the stickers of the rinks they had skated locally or when they traveled and even trade them with other skaters. These stickers could be kept nice in a scrapbook or stuck to their roller skate cases. The roller rink stickers became such a popular side-passion of skating that by 1948, a skating group met and formed the Universal Roller Skating Sticker Exchange in New York. I think I first really became aware of the skating stickers when I was researching the West Farnam Roller Rink for my 40th and Farnam story, but I didn’t know it was a national phenomenon.
Image of sticker borrowed from Ebay. Vintage Crosstown Roller Rink, Omaha, Nebraska 5″ Octagon~ Roller Rink Sticker. The Crosstown Roller Rink didn’t have a fancy or cute sticker like other ones I’ve seen but it was certainly striking and obviously did the trick. “Nebraska’s Largest” had entered as a slogan.
Likewise the Nebraska History Past Perfect site displayed a great postcard and included this information: “During the 1940s and 1950s, roller rink sticker collecting was very popular. Skaters from across the county would send each other stickers from their hometown rinks and receive stickers from other places in return. In addition to stickers, other items, such as postcards, were occasionally exchanged.”
1950s Crosstown Roller Rink postcard image borrowed from Nebraska History Past Perfect site. Description: “Postcard with image of refreshment bar, seating areas, and empty skating area. On the back is the address ‘812 So 24 Street’ and the claim that they are ‘Nebraska’s Largest Roller Rink.’” From these images on the postcard I could see the Crosstown had enjoyed a spruce-up with fancy seating, a new color scheme and fluorescent lights! I also enjoyed their new slogan. The Crosstown Roller Rink also employed “Nebraska’s Largest DUSTPROOF, SLIP-PROOF skating surface.”
The Omaha City Directory of 1951 showed the father and son duo continued to run the Crosstown Roller Rink. Most information I could gather described Lloyd as the owner and Ralph as general manager. This partnership would continue until Lloyd’s death. As with any business through the years, I would find clues that seemed to signal a mix of highs and lows—many of which we might not ever know the specifics of. For example in 1952 the Crosstown rink closed up as usual on a Sunday night. Manager Ralph Fox left the building at 10:45. Apparently “alarm came shortly after” when a rubbish fire was discovered in the basement. The “cause of the blaze not immediately determined” and it “smoked up the interior of the Crosstown.” Strange. Also in 1954 the rink “Reopened” again, suggesting it had closed. I am not sure if the Crosstown had formally closed or if it was just simply a family vacation. If I am interpreting this correctly, it looks as though Senior Fox sold the 812 South 24th Street building to his son Ralph in 1955. Did he sign over the deed for health reasons or was he wanting out from under the business? There continued to be odd incongruencies like hiring for concession and check-room girls in August of 1956 and then a month later the building was up for sale. Additionally the building was put on the market again in 1957, “asking $135,000– excellent condition.” These clues led me to believe the Foxes wanted or needed out of the rink business.
OWH archive. September of 1956. Building for sale.
For all of the confusing hints of a possible shuttering in the newspaper, the Foxes had sunk some money into a Crosstown Roller Rink renovation in the 1950s. We saw impressions of a MCM renovation in the previous postcard. These photographs give a better view. I have just now noticed these photos were taken at the request of the Western Securities Company, the company tasked with selling the building for the Foxes–meaning Western needed these pics for real estate advertising, most likely.
The exterior of the Crosstown Roller Skating Rink at 812 South 24 Street (“Nebraska’s Largest”). Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: August 21, 1956.
The following are magnified details because I am obsessed.
Because I am totally weird, I must point out the similarity of the 1956 Crosstown Roller Rink skaters sign on the left and the 1930s West Farnam Roller Rink skaters sign on the right. Something tells me there was standard neon skating rink design back in the day. Or did the Foxes buy the West Farnam’s sign?
The interior of the Crosstown Roller Skating Rink at 812 South 24 Street (“Nebraska’s Largest”). Creator: Bostwick, Louis (1868-1943) and Frohardt, Homer (1885-1972). Publisher: The Durham Museum. Date: August 21, 1956. WOWSA. There were new fluorescent lights and the ceiling was insulated. The Foxes installed a “false ceiling in front” and insulated the building in Sept of 1954.
More amplification to follow.
Impressive jet set air conditioning.
Cool Forbidden Planet speaker.
Meanwhile in print at least, the Crosstown continued much as the beloved local business it had always been. Many young people road the bus to the rink every Saturday for their matinee skate. The Crosstown also offered a sock hop after the skate. There were hobby horse races on Tuesday nights, when blue jeans and pedal pushers were allowed. In these years dance figure skating was gaining in popularity; there was even a Omaha Dance Figure Skating Club. In 1955 thirteen of the Crosstown Roller Rink skaters competed in the Midwestern Regional Roller Skating Championships.
OWH archive. May 1956: Tuesday night was the only night blue jeans were permitted. Also pedal pushers, “T” shirts, Levis or overalls are permitted. Crosstown Roller Rink smartly ran ads alongside the other cool teen hangouts selling their good times skate in conjunction with the drive-ins.
Death of Lloyd Fox
In December of 1958, Lloyd Glenn Fox, Omaha’s roller skating impresario, passed away at the young age of 59. I do not know the details of his passing. Jessie Fox, Lloyd’s wife, would continue to be very active in the military service members’ community. She died in October of 1968.
OWH archive. December 1958.
After the death of their father, brothers Ralph and Harlan Fox ran the Crosstown rink. There was indication that roller skating was on the decline–blaming the popularity of the new home television sets, drive-in movies, and teen hangouts like the hamburger joints and bowling alleys. In March of 1961 Ralph Fox surprising ran his city council campaign headquarters from the Crosstown Roller Rink. A mystery article from November 2, 1961 made plain the family had finally sold off the 812 South 24th Street building to the Omaha Furniture Mart. “The property was acquired from the estate of Lloyd Fox,” which led me to believe the parcel was not in Ralph’s name or that something foggy was negotiated. The Foxes announced they were formally closing in a tiny advertisement twelve days later. We like to play detective around here and it all seemed a bit of jolt but the reality might have been a dismal, ongoing fade. And we did have our proof that they were trying to unload the building for some time. (But then there was the ultra strange announcement to watch for the new location. It never happened.) In 1964 Ralph Fox received a “Life Member” award from the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association of America. He was by then working in the insurance business.
The Omaha DePorres Club, the Crosstown and Racial Discrimination
After researching this story almost to completion (although the investigation is never over) I tripped on an article interviewing Omaha basketball legend, Bob Boozer (1937-2012). Bob would play with the Knicks, the Bulls, the Lakers, the Sonics, the Bucks and even win a gold medal when he played on the US men’s Olympic basketball team. In this article Bob talked about the northern version, the Omaha Version, of fighting Jim Crow in post World War II. Boozer said in the OWH (June 20, 2019) “Crosstown Roller Rink denied admission to blacks, except on Wednesday nights. Peony Park prohibited blacks entirely.”
Was it believable? Certainly. I had read similar of other Omaha businesses in this time period but I had found nothing of the sort in my investigation to that point. I mean nothing was mentioned in the World-Herald. A review of the great North Omaha History site tipped me off that the Crosstown refused to admit Blacks into the rink back in July of 1952. For more on Sasse’s findings and details of the DePorres Club timeline, please read: https://northomahahistory.com/2018/02/21/a-timeline-of-the-omaha-deporres-club/
I would consult the Omaha Star newspaper archives to find out all I could about the Crosstown Roller Rink.
Omaha Star archives. July of 1952—“Crosstown Roller Rink owner Ralph Fox refuses to admit DePorres Club members. Fox is taken to court and found guilty of discrimination, and ordered to pay the minimum fine of $25.” He admits African Americans afterwards.
Image borrowed from the Omaha Star archives. November 14, 1952. Denied Admittance. “Two Air Force Sergeants and a Creighton University student from Kansas City were refused admittance to the Crosstown Roller Rink because they were Negroes. On Thursday evening Nov 6 Bob Blackwell, English Webb, R. and Claude E. Smith were refused admittance while persons ahead of them were sold tickets. Denny Holland, employee of the Omaha Star, immediately preceded the group of Negroes and was sold a ticket to the rink. The cashier, after observing the Negroes, called Ralph Fox, co-owner of the rink. Mr. Fox told the group they could not come in and that they knew why. In a conversation that followed a police officer standing at the entrance, was called over by the group to explain to Mr. Fox the law against refusing Negroes admission to places of amusement. The officer told the group he was employed by the group (presumably meaning the rink) to check tickets. Webb filed a warrant for Mr. Fox’s arrest through the city prosecutor’s office on Monday, Nov 10. The case is to be heard in police court on Wed morning, Nov 19, 1952.”
Image borrowed from the Omaha Star archives. July 1953: “Three Negroes were admitted Tues evening to the Crosstown Skating Rink, ending a year’s campaign by the DePorres Club. The group reported other skaters paid little attention to the mixed race group and that there was no incidents of unfriendliness. Denny Holland, DePorres Club president, stated that when he saw Fox, rink manager, he offered him the assistance of that club in working out integration there and congratulated him for doing the democratic thing. Mr. Fox claimed he lost ‘an awful lot of money’. The group had spent two months of meetings with him to try to persuade him to allow Blacks to skate. The group said they would remain vigilant to see Crosstown didn’t “slide back to its old ways.” Mr. Fox contended he had previously not allowed Negroes because his white customers would leave in such large numbers, he would lose money. He paid a $25 fine for denying a group of DePorres Club members’ admittance after the case had come up three times in Municipal Court and three times in District Court.”
For the next few years, I would find the Omaha Star included the Crosstown rink in their “Children’s Activities” section. I figured the Foxes and their employees had amended their ways and were no longer discriminating based on race.
Image borrowed from the Omaha Star newspaper. In August of 1956 the Crosstown Roller Rink was busted again. Fox said he knew his policy of not allowing Blacks to skate other than at private parties, when invited and on Wednesday nights was against the law. He felt mixed skating, which he said he tried for eight months, was bad for business. Fox said that no whites complained about skating with Blacks but that the (white) regulars stopped coming to the rink. Once he established Wednesday night for Negro skaters, it proved ‘profitable.’
June of 1958 the Crosstown Roller Rink continued to advertise their Wednesday night skate in the Omaha Star, adding a special midnight skate—8:00PM to midnight. There was even a Skaters ‘n’ Dancers Club at the 1st Annual Sweethearts Ball where local royalty was chosen. Again this offering was on a Wednesday night with addition of Sunday nights. Were these accommodations that the Black community and the DePorres Club were comfortable with?
Ad borrowed from the Omaha Star archives. April 1959. The Omaha Star was running ads for chartered bus service to the Crosstown Roller Rink on Sunday and Wednesday nights from (24th and Lake). Meanwhile there were many skating clubs that had formed in North Omaha–“The Kellom Ram Rods,” the “Lake Kool Kittens” and the “Long Little Lillies,” to name a few, were enjoying press for their skating parties at the Crosstown Roller Rink. In one article fifty-five boys and girls were said to have shared a “gay afternoon” of skating.
For a one night only event at the Crosstown, an ad ran in the Omaha Star in August of 1961 featured the original Seven Wonders Combo. “All of your friends will be there at the Crosstown Roller Rink. (A Special Skating Party for You.)” The Crosstown closed by November of 1961. By 1962 an Illinois Court ordered a skating rink closed for racial discrimination after the scene of a recent sit-in demonstration.
Sherry Alston, as young woman in 1964, about to head overseas for more dance training and performances.
Little Sherry Lind Alston of 2878 Wirt Street was recognized publicly at age ten for her artistic talents, both as a visual artist and in all forms of movement. As a youngster she began attending ballet classes twice a week after school. Sherry was just 14 years of age when she began roller skating at Crosstown once a week in the evenings in 1959. She was a Black girl, living in North Omaha and I wonder if Sherry rode one of these chartered buses I recently learned about. Already a graduate of Tech High at age 17, Sherry amazingly presented 35 of her dance pupils in a recital entitled “Africa Speaks” and included primitive dances and spirituals. She would go on to study dance in Los Angeles, Toronto and Stockholm, Sweden. She excelled in ballet, figure-skating, jazz ballet. By 1966 Alston “demonstrated ballet on skates at the YMCA on North 22nd Street.” She became founder of Sunside School of Cultural Dance and Art in 1966, a program that “gave poverty children skills in roller skating and roller hockey.” A lifelong skater and dancer, Sherry would graduate of California State University in physical education with emphasis on ballet, gymnastics, physiology of exercise and track and field. Sherry and her two sisters, Carlotta and Tonya were chosen to appear in 1979’s Skatetown USA–a movie I loved as a child—and many Americans’ introduction to dancing on skates. Sherry Alston was quite possibly the Crosstown Roller Rinks’ most famous alumni.
The What Happened Next
As announced in 1961, the Omaha Furniture Mart moved into 812 South 24th Street. The business sold new, used and repossessed furniture. They had previously operated down on Vinton Street. Their Grand Opening was in August of 1962. By September of 1981 they went out of business and left the location vacant once again. It was odd that every business seemed to last about 20 years in the building.
Ad borrowed from OWH archive. June 26 1962.
In short notice a series of automotive-mechanic, welders, a third-party presorted mailing firm and manufacturing businesses made use of the space, with little conversion needed. When the Open Door Mission wanted to move their 60 to 100 bed proposed shelter into the once roller rink in 2000, they were met with opposition by the Leavenworth Neighborhood Association and many of the local residents. Ultimately the owner rejected Open Door’s offer, favoring a manufacturing company. A southern loading dock was added in 2004 by the manufacturing company.
My Trip to the Crosstown Roller Rink Building
I walked into the 812 South 24th Street building unannounced this summer and truthbetold, was probably acting in a rather mysterious manner. I waited my turn, (there were so many visitors there on that day) and asked a young woman at the counter if I could take some interior photos, if I promised not to photograph any people. In memory, she called up a supervisor and that’s how I came to meet Melissa Gatus. Melissa was so warm and great—but I could feel her study me and she had no problem questioning my little playing dumb routine. In her line of work it pays off to get a good read on people and Melissa definitely out-Columboed me. She went back to consult with someone and got the clear to actually tour me around, showing me the behind the scenes of our roller rink building. Of course the agreement was that I would not photograph any of their clients. I was more than pleased.
Together Omaha had also created a community garden, picnic area and a community space for the neighborhood across the street.
Together Omaha’s 812 South 24th Street building is amazing. Not only was this an A+ renovation (great mix of natural sun and electric light, bright, cheery, the original exposed brick walls, steel trusses still in view—everything intact except for the maple floor), but I got to observe what Together Omaha does. I could hear how the front line staff talked to the many people in the waiting area. Together Omaha uses this large space to offer a local pantry in a very nice, orderly grocery store environment, which allows their clients to pick out what they want. It was a dignified experience. There was a whole back area for personal and beauty products. With this 20,000 sq ft expanse of a building, Together Omaha had plenty of areas where their caseworkers could meet with their clients one on one to coordinate resources such as rent and transportation; there were other offices and team areas where staff could collaborate. It was abuzz with activity but because of the building and the clever layout, it seemed calm and airy. Needless to say they were very busy. I was so impressed and grateful for the opportunity to meet Melissa and see the inside of the building I had been researching.
Feelings Still Mutual
By the time we moved to Omaha, roller skating was cool once again. I am so grateful to have grown up in a time when I could love this activity. Being a Benson kid, Cheap Skate was my first intro to the rinks. There would be no way to have known that the Crosstown Skaters Reunion was being held in 1976 and 1978. There might have been others. Clayton Cowan was brought back to play the Hammond electric organ. 350 skaters, who frequented Crosstown between 1941-1961 gathered together at the Skateland at 108th and Q. Can you imagine?
It feels strange to wind down this roller rink investigation and you know I get attached. The only way to stop this story will be to pledge more roller skating tales in the future. I leave you with this perfect message to an old love, from 1954.
OWH archive. 1973. Did they find each other again?
In memory of Sherry Lind Alston
I welcome your feedback and contributions to this Crosstown Roller Rink investigation. Feel free to share thoughts and clues in “Comments.” (If any family member is willing to share, I would love to include photos of local Omahans at the Crosstown or in their skates. Everyone would love to see these images. Please email me.)I welcome you to poke around with your flashlight. Investigate. Hide in the shrubbery. Look under these rocks and down those alleyways. I am more than pleased to have you tiptoe about. By the time you head for home, I hope you have been fully Sherlocked and Satiated. Thank you, detective friends.
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