The first time Jim Park skated at the Neville Roller Drome, he fell — a lot.
“My mother couldn’t be here when I learned; I was falling down too much,” Park says, recalling being taught by his father.
Fifty-four years later, Park still skates the same floor — falling less often — as a co-owner with his wife, Sophie.
The Parks have only been owners since July 2011, but they are proudly preparing for the Roller Drome’s 75th anniversary on the island just north of Pittsburgh in November. While the business’s website touts the destination as “The #1 roller rink in Pittsburgh,” it is — simultaneously — the last fully-dedicated roller rink remaining in the region.
One of the couple’s goals as owners is to continue fostering a tight-knit skating community, similar to what Jim remembers throughout his childhood and young adult life. Many rink owners are artistic or speed skating champions who cater more toward competitors rather than people who simply want to skate.
The Roller Drome’s patrons span age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, political leanings and physical prowess.
“Here, we were all skaters,” Jim says, referencing how things were during his adolescence to explain the rink’s culture. “And if anybody came in from the outside and bothered anybody, we took care of our own. Not in a bad way, but you protected your girls. Anyone who didn’t obey the rules,” Jim grins, “eh … you know. It was our rink. Very territorial.”
When Jim began skating at the Neville Roller Drome in 1969, it was owned by the Deramo family — the only other owners the rink has ever seen.
While deployed in Europe during World War II, the oldest Deramo son, Tony, discovered skating, according to the Parks. In 1948, Tony and his Italian immigrant family wanted to start a business. The family almost opened an auto parts shop, but “for whatever reason they landed on skating,” Jim explains.
Tony managed the skate rental room. Vic, the second brother, worked at the front door while simultaneously running music and announcements. Danny, the youngest brother, bounced between the skate room and the cafe. When the rink opened, Tony was 29, Vic was 25 and Danny was 15.
The brothers passed away in 2008, 2016 and 2017 respectively, but their influence on the rink is still tangible. The colorful, postmodern interior walls were installed by the Deramo family in 1978. When the brothers knocked out the back wall and expanded the rink by 30 feet in the 1950s, they rotated nights sleeping on the floor to make sure nobody snuck in through the layer of plastic sheeting. A seam where the wooden flooring switches direction marks the addition.
As the Deramo brothers passed away, no one in their family “was interested or had the ability to take (the rink) over,” Jims says. The building had been on the market for “eight or nine years,” Sophie adds, and was being scouted out by an engineering firm to be used as office space as well as by an individual who was looking to open a storage facility.
Jim had considered purchasing and maintaining his childhood rink but did not immediately jump at the opportunity due to work and graduate school obligations. Then, as he and Sophie came home from church one day, they had a shared idea.
“‘I’ve been thinking about something. You’re going to hit me for this,’” Jim remembers saying to Sophie. “She finished the sentence: ‘Buying the rink.’”
“I’ve always wanted to be a business owner, just wasn’t sure what exactly,” Sophie says. “I think there’s something amazing when you can give to the public something that helps the community.”
“And I just wanted to skate,” Jim adds.
Although Jim and Sophie did not meet at the Neville Roller Drome, it continues to be an incubator for long-term relationships, fueling the tight-knit, family atmosphere that has permeated the rink.
Jim has seen at least three proposals during his time as an owner. Sophie adds that there have also been prom proposals and a wedding vow renewal where all the attendees were on skates.
“I had a guy, I would say maybe mid-30s, late-30s, standing there with his kids,” Sophie says, “and he stopped at the door before he walked onto the wood and said, ‘Kids, just want to let you know. Do you see that floor out there? That’s where your grandma and grandpap met. If it wasn’t for them meeting here, you wouldn’t be here.’”
The Parks even hosted the wedding reception for their son and daughter-in-law at the rink.
“He got the comment, ‘No one was bored,’ because we set up the back of the rink as a skating area,” Sophie says. “We had the dance floor up toward the front.”
“Under the front mirror ball,” Jim interjects. “We had very specific instructions from our daughter-in-law on that one.”
While the Parks love watching relationships blossom, they firmly maintain the following of the rink’s rules, which include a dress code that prohibits low-cut or see-through clothing and sagging pants.
“We’re family-friendly, but that doesn’t mean you can start your family here,” Jim tells young couples who get a little too comfortable. Sometimes, he will take it upon himself to sit or skate between pairs.
Steeped in their past, the Parks look forward to celebrating the rink’s 75th anniversary in November but have no plans for what the celebration will look like or when it will be.
Ahead of the anniversary, the rink has seen a number of improvements. Throughout June, the bathrooms along with the cafe’s kitchen, countertops and flooring were modernized.
The Roller Drome was closed after a Thursday morning skate session when the Parks sat down to be interviewed. Partway through, a man wandered in, sparking slight confusion, then a joyful welcome from Sophie. It was their Gordon Food Service vendor. He had stopped by “just to see the place” after the renovations, Sophie says.
That’s just how it is with vendors, employees and regulars, according to the Parks.
“You can’t buy that,” Sophie says.
Located at 5109 Neville Road, Neville Roller Drome is s open Wednesday through Sunday. The rink can also be reserved for private sessions. Depending on the session, children may or may not be permitted. Session details, event schedules and pricing can be found on the rink’s website.