It's a strange photo choice for a postcard: a huge expanse of dance floor, rainbow tinsel streamers adorning the ceiling, and a band on stage all the way in the back, almost too tiny to be seen. This is the Rainbow Roller Rink, which was only open for five short years, but remains one of the Valley's hottest teen hangout spots in memory.
What's missing from this empty, empty postcard scene is hordes of 1950s teenagers, swerving in crazy circles with roller skates attached to their feet. Or another night--the teens aren't skating, instead they're dancing up a storm to the sound of Ritchie Valens' guitar.
The roller rink (also known as Rainbow Dancing and Skating) opened in 1954 at 14318 Calvert St., Van Nuys. In 1958 the owners, brothers Stan and Roy Bannister, also opened Skateland (18140 Parthenia St., Northridge). But the Bannisters were not in the roller rink business for keeps. In late 1959, they sold the Rainbow, and soon it underwent a chilly transformation into an ice rink--the location has been Van Nuys Iceland ever since. (Skateland was sold in 1968, and remains a skate rink to this day.) Despite its brief life span, the Rainbow made its mark on Valley history.
"Make a date to roller skate!" Drag racer Don Prudhomme, who grew up in San Fernando, said of the Rainbow Roller Rink, "We didn't go there just to pick up girls, we were serious racers." The teenage boys in Prudhomme's crowd would "rake" the removable wooden wheels of their roller skates, so they were big in back and little in the front. With these angled, racecar-like skates on their feet, they would race around at dangerous speeds. ("A lot of times I'd slide and hit the wall and the wheels would explode.")
And after the skate races on Saturday nights, the kids would climb into their vintage cars and cruise up and down Van Nuys Boulevard, from Carl's Drive-In on one end to Bob's Big Boy on the other. "There was a real connection between that place [the Rainbow] and hot cars," said Don Prudhomme. These were the days of the first Van Nuys cruise nights, complete with street races, club initiations, and dodging cops. The boulevard gleamed with lights and neon: the Fox Van Nuys Theater, Oscar's Drive-thru, June Ellen's Donuts, the A&W, Brunswick Bowl, Mike's Pizza, Cupid's Hot Dogs, and Andy Andrews Used Cars (where hot rods and custom cars could be found.)
Even hotter than the cars was the music. The Rainbow Roller Rink was the only local skating rink at that time to play rock and roll. While I have yet to uncover a set list proving that Valley legend Ritchie Valens played "La Bamba" on their stage, I consider it confirmed that he did perform there. Valens was the same age as Don Prudhomme, but died tragically in a plane crash in 1959, along with two other early rock performers. He was only 17. Remembering Valens in a 1987 interview, his high school girlfriend Donna Ludwig recalled sneaking out of her house to meet him at the rink. Another friend (or "cruisin' buddy"), Chick Armendariz, told a story of when he took Valens home after playing the Rainbow. Valens started playing his guitar, and things got loud--imagine teenage boys banging on pots and pans for percussion. Aremdariz's parents woke up, but Valens wasn't afraid of their scolding. Instead he asked them to dance, and they did!
The Rainbow Roller Rink was open for only a short time, but made an indelible memory in the minds of a generation of Valley teenagers. If you visit Iceland at 14318 Calvert today, try to imagine a time when the rink was made of maple and tinsel streamers hung from the rafters. And maybe you can still hear "La Bamba!"
In 1963, the Bannister brothers (former owners of the Rainbow) joined with KRLA DJ Bob Eubanks and opened the Cinnamon Cinder, a chain of alcohol-free "young adult night clubs." The original location was at 11345 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. In 1964, Eubanks mortgaged his house to bring the Beatles to LA to play the Hollywood Bowl. Before the show, they met reporters at the Cinnamon Cinder, which was packed with giddy teenagers. According to the Valley News that week, the Beatles were at their press conference in the Valley longer than they were on stage at the Bowl.
Partial List of Sources
Bartholomew, Dana. "Skateland Has Been Center of Family Fun for Generations." Los Angeles Daily News, Feb. 21, 2008.
Madigan, Tom. Fuel and Guts: The Birth of Top Fuel Drag Racing. St. Paul, MN: Motorbooks, 2007.
Martin, Dick. "The Don Prudhomme Story." Hot Rod Network, Dec. 2, 2013.
McIntosh, Barbara. "The Reveries of Valens' Donna." The Washington Post, Sept. 4, 1987.
Schrader, Esther. "Go-ahead for Ritchie Valens Star Is a Hit with His Fans." Los Angeles Times, Aug. 20, 1989.
The memories of those who once cruised Van Nuys Boulevard, for example here.
The footage of Ritchie Valens playing "Ooh, My Head" is from the film Go, Johnny, Go! (Hal Roach Studios, 1959.)