Lake Hills Roller Rink: Rockin' Roller Skating at the Crossroads

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/03/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11153

Roller-skating fun came to Bellevue's Crossroads area in 1962 at Howard and Ida Monta's Lake Hills Roller Rink. In 1963 they experimented with having teen dances at the rink, and thus began a rock 'n' roll odyssey that lasted into the 1980s. Local first-generation rock bands including the Wailers, Statics, Viceroys, and Paul Revere and the Raiders gigged there, as did others such as Merrilee and the Turnabouts. Big-time stars -- such as Jerry Lee Lewis, the Coasters, and the Lovin' Spoonful -- did as well. Changing times brought new bands, psychedelic light shows, and more. Additional stars rocked the place, including Santana, Chicago, and Tower of Power. In the 1970s and 1980s, Lake Hills came to serve as ground zero for the region's emerging heavy-metal scene and was the incubator that helped give birth to many new bands, including major acts like Heart and Queensryche.

From Farms to Skating Rinks

"Highland" was the original name given, in the earliest years of the twentieth century, to the area located just east of the budding little town of Bellevue, on the east side of Lake Washington in King County. Once early settlers logged it, farms began to spring up and roads were developed in the 1920s. The main route eastward from Bellevue became NE 8th Street, and the spot where it crossed 156th Avenue NE (the main north/south route in the area) soon became known as "the Crossroads."

Today the fully developed area is generally known for the Crossroads Mall located there. It originally opened as the Crossroads Shopping Center in August 1964, featuring a Marketime variety store, various retail shops, diners, a movie theater, and the Crossroads Ice Rink. Nearby was the Lake Hills Roller Rink at 16232 NE 8th Street, which actually opened a bit earlier, in late 1962 -- and it has quite the backstory behind it.

Roller Rink Rock

Howard Monta, who worked as a carpenter and cabinet-maker in the Bellevue area throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and his wife Ida had a son, Howard A. Monta Jr., who enjoyed roller-skating. The younger Monta was skilled enough to participate in competitive freestyle and pairs skating, and enjoyed doing that at East Bellevue's Vasa Park Roller Rink at 3560 W Lake Sammamish Parkway SE on Lake Sammamish. Then in 1950 the fellow who ran that business, Dell Carlino, hired the elder Monta to help remodel the rink, but when he was short of funds to pay for the completed work, Carlino instead offered Monta a partnership stake in the business. As Monta Jr. would later explain, "A part-time business was formed, with dad handing out skates, mom working in the snack bar, and me assuming the position of floor guard -- telling kids to slow down. I also assumed the duties of janitor" ("Brief History ...").

Years went by, and as the rock 'n' roll era dawned things changed. Around 1958 a teen scene had begun to emerge, with Pat O'Day (b. 1934) -- Seattle's top dance promoter and the Program Director and star DJ at Seattle's dominant AM radio station, KJR -- leading the way. O'Day had been booking various halls and throwing dances with local bands like the Wailers and the Adventurers and later, when possible, with touring stars who came through the area, including Roy Orbison, Tommy Roe, and the Righteous Brothers.

So it was that around 1960 O'Day approached Monta Sr. inquiring if he could rent the Vasa Hall for a show with Conway Twitty. Things went very well, and additional shows followed -- including ones with the Ray Charles Band (supported by Seattle's Dave Lewis Combo), and another with Seattle's Thomas and His Tomcats (featuring a teenaged guitarist named Jimi Hendrix).

By this time Monta Jr. had retuned from military service and he encouraged his parents to break free from the Vasa Hall partnership and open their own rink elsewhere. Scouting out locations somewhat closer to downtown Bellevue and Seattle, he stumbled across some brushy acreage in the Lake Hills area of Crossroads that had a sign posted: "Will Build to Suit." The land was owned by a man named Connors who was associated with the building company Bell & Valdez. A 20-year-lease deal was struck and, in collaboration with the Soule Steel Corporation, designs were produced for what would become the Lake Hills Roller Rink. Construction of the 1,500-capacity venue was completed in 1962 and the skating began.

Down at the Crossroads

Knowing from past experience that the skating business goes slack in the summer season, the younger Monta persuaded his father that dance concerts might help draw crowds during that slack time. Remembering the success of the Vasa Hall dances they reached out to Pat O'Day, who jumped at the chance and came up with a plan for regular Thursday-night dances beginning that summer of 1963. To kick things off he booked one of Seattle's hottest bands, the Viceroys, just then enjoying their big radio hit "Granny's Pad," which not-so-coincidentally O'Day and KJR had helped push into Top-10-hit status. The next week saw the region's premier band, the Wailers, rockin' the rink and word began to spread.

With the ever-popular O'Day serving as emcee at the shows and KJR broadcasting ads for them each week, business was great. As O'Day wrote in his 2002 autobiography, a typical radio ad:

"went something like this, with ... the group's music playing in the background: 'You saw them at the [Seattle] Coliseum Saturday night, now see them up close, dance to all their great music. It's Bobby Vee and his band!' Or maybe, 'It's that new sensation, Them, with their big hit Gloria. Yes, G-L-O-R-I-A, Glor-i-a at the Lake Hills Roller Rink Tuesday night' ... Always we coupled the national act with a popular local band" (O'Day, 104).

Lake Hills was running like a well-oiled machine, but the end of that successful summer, and with teenagers now back in school, the Thursday dances no longer worked as well. Monta Jr. recalled:

"I wanted to continue into the winter months on Saturday nights. Dad did not want to give up his Saturday skating schedule. I argued and argued, and finally he reluctantly agreed to every other Saturday night. Once again, the Pat O'Day dances were magnificently popular. Within a month or two, we canceled skating for Saturday nights and had weekly teen dances" ("Brief History ...").

And everyone -- almost -- was happy. Except the neighbors. By July 1964, a few of them were petitioning the board of county commissioners to ask that the dances be abated, complaining that they were "a public nuisance because of noise and 'other factors.' The board sent the petitions to the License Department" ("County Affairs ..."), but regardless of what may have occurred in the county bureaucracy, the dances continued right along.

The elder Monta eventually named Howard Monta Jr. and his wife, Elizabeth "Liz" Monta (1940-2009), as co-managers of the enterprise. By then skating and dancing to rock music at the Lake Hills Roller Rink was established as a local tradition. While Howard also took on other jobs and activities -- as a City of Seattle firefighter, a University of Washington student, and a Seattle police officer -- Liz moved up from working the rink's lunchroom to ticket seller and then office manager when that job got too daunting for Ida Monta. The rink also employed various King County deputies as security and Vicky Dobbins, who took over the lunchroom job.

The Northwest's Best Bands

Once the rink established itself as the place to be on "the Eastside" (of Lake Washington, across from Seattle), kids from all over flocked there for the Saturday-night shows. And the Montas were now in position to hire a constant stream of the best regional bands. Among those who performed there in the early years were, in roughly chronological order, Tiny Tony and the Statics, the Dynamics, Little Bill and the Bluenotes, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Pulsations, the Valiants, the Kingsmen, the Sonics, the Beachcombers, the Deacons, the Mystics, the Bandits, Merrilee and the Turnabouts, the Bards, Don and the Goodtimes, George Washington and the Cherrybombs, the City Limits, the Dimensions, the Feelies, the Interstate Five, Rocky and His Friends, the Rogues, the Rum Runners, the Liverpool Five, Sir Raleigh and the Coupons, and Mr. Lucky and the Gamblers.

Then, as the 1960s rolled on, new breeds of bands emerged -- some of the psychedelic hippie type, others more pop-oriented -- and also played at Lake Hills. Among those groups were Blue Mountain Eagle, the Bumps, Calliope, City Zu, Crome Syrcus, Daily Flash, Emergency Exit, Fragile Lime, the Hudson Brothers, King Biscuit Entertainers, New Yorkers, Springfield Rifle, Time Machine, Trolley, Surprise Package, and the Unusuals.

Along the way opportunities had arisen to book occasional non-Northwest acts as they toured America pushing their Top-40 radio hits. Among them over the years were, more or less chronologically, Little Eva, the Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Cascades, the Trashmen, Them, the Beau Brummels, the Standells, the Seeds, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, the Lovin' Spoonful, Every Mother's Son, the Turtles, the Five Man Electrical Band, Moby Grape, Cold Blood, Bread, Sugarloaf, Norman Greenbaum, Chicago Transit Authority, Tower of Power, and Shadowfax.

Lake Hills Ballroom

Time brought major changes to the enterprise. Some welcome, others not. In the wee hours of Saturday, July 30, 1968, a devastating fire broke out at the rink. The King County Fire Department was able to contain the blaze, but not before it had destroyed the rink's interior, the skates, the business records, and historical memorabilia, and warped the building's steel structure. Despite $90,000 in damages, Monta Jr. opted to rebuild, while temporarily shifting his skate and dance businesses over to the old Vasa Park Hall, which he was able to rent. Work got underway and Lake Hills got a second life.

Around 1970 the rink briefly rebranded its dance-concert business as the Lake Hills Ballroom, and the good times continued. New local bands of all musical stripes -- soul, funk, and hard rock -- were emerging and getting opportunities to perform there. Among them were Acapulco Gold, Aries, Barney Armstrong's Machine, Bighorn, Child, Chinook, Randy Hansen, Kidd Afrika, Onyx, Shyanne, Storm, and Superband. In addition, there came along a new set of bands that proved to be the vanguard of a style that would become known as heavy metal, including Rail & Company, Juggernaut, Mantis, Sorcerer's Apprentice, TKO, and White Heart. The latter band amended its name to Heart, and it was while the group played Lake Hills that a young Ann Wilson (b. 1950) saw them, and soon joined up as singer ... and the rest is history.

For Liz Monta, one particular night at the rink was understandably memorable:

"On September 12, of either 1970 or 1971 (can't be sure which year), when Buddy Miles Express played Lake Hills, Carlos Santana called me in the ticket office to ask if he and his group could come in and see Buddy. I said 'Sure.' After Santana arrived, they went up on stage and jammed with Buddy's group" ("Lake Hills Roller Rink," p. 2).

The Montas carried on for several more years, eventually using the band-booking services of Mac Keith, who had purchased Pat O'Day's teen-dance business. Around 1975 Keith brought in Craig Cooke, a young talent scout with Seattle's Unicam Agency whose specialty was high-school and college dances between Tacoma and Everett. But then the Montas chose to rent their roller rink and the new operator opted to stop the dances altogether. Later, as he fell behind on rent, the Montas pressured him to try live music again and Cooke was brought back. Noting that dances were falling a bit out of favor with the youth, in 1978 Cooke launched his Battle of the Bands series, which he successfully promoted on his Rockin' You local public-access TV program on Viacom's Channel 3. That same year, on Halloween, Lake Hills was the site of a rare early punk-rock show featuring Seattle's the Frazz and the Lewd. But, with disco music also coming along -- and demand shifting to recorded hits rather than live music -- the Saturday night dances were halted and in 1979 the Montas subleased the building to yet another party who struggled along.

The Metal Years

Around this time the Bellevue and larger Eastside suburban area was developing into a hotbed of hard-rock and metal bands. Cooke formed Craig Cooke Entertainment and his associate Jim McHale revived Tuesday-night band battles at Lake Hills in June 1982. And the young crowds welcomed the mid-week action. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported of one such show:

"The 500 or so at Lake Hills generated a good deal of tense anticipation. Any Seattle Center Coliseum or Arena concert which demonstrated the same level of excitement or audience involvement would have to be counted a success. At Lake Hills the same excitement was achieved without any promotional or theatrical weapons of big-time rock" (Arthur).

Cooke was quoted in The Seattle Times: "'Lake Hills has established itself as the heavy-metal hall.' Cooke thinks that youths who attend concerts there use it as an escape from their regular suburban lives. 'They can go to Lake Hills and be what they're not at school -- it's like Halloween'" (McDonald, E-6).

Some of the metal bands that rocked the rink over the years were Arsenal, Bondage Boys, Culprit, High Risk, Invader, Legacy, Lipstick, Obsession, Overlord, Perennial, Pirates, Prowler, Rampage, Rat Patrol, Realms, Ridge, Sabbatar, Sato, Sentinel, Shadow, Stranger, Syre, Titan, Tyrant, Vice Versa, and Witness. Members of some of these spandex-wearing and mascara-daubed bands would go on to greater things during the subsequent grunge era. Examples include Shadow's guitarist, who became known to the wider world around 1991 as Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, and Sato's bassist, Mike Starr, who later resurfaced in Alice in Chains. But perhaps the biggest success that the skate-rink scene ever engendered happened nearly a decade prior to that.

In 1978 a few kids at Bellevue's Interlake High School, including Michael Wilton (guitar), formed a hard-rock band called Joker. The following year they added Chris DeGarmo (guitar) and began playing at what was now being called the Lake Hills Arena. The following year Wilton moved on to form Cross+Fire with a wondrously named drummer, Scott Rockenfield, and soon DeGarmo and Eddie Jackson (bass) joined them and they morphed into The Mob. One night at a Lake Hills Battle of the Bands show they saw Babylon perform and were very impressed by that band's singer, Geoff Tate. Before long he agreed to do a one-off show with them, but then moved on to join a Redmond-based band, Myth, which also performed at Lake Hills.

But then Tate was recruited to record a demo tape with The Mob in 1981 -- and the tape, sporting a new band name, "Queensryche," made its way to the editors of the influential UK-based rock magazine Kerrang!, who gave it a rave review. That's about when Tate finally agreed to join the group for good. The band signed a major record deal and was launched globally. From those early gigs on the little Lake Hills scene, Queensryche exploded in a huge way, making its Seattle debut concert at the grand Paramount Theatre, becoming the biggest rock act to emerge from the Northwest since Heart's recording debut in 1975, and one of the world's top metal bands of the entire decade.

Craig Cooke and his company were masters at promotion and scoring publicity. In 1984 they invited the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Gene Stout to attend the semi-finals of that year's battle at what had now been renamed the Crossroads Skate Center. He wrote:

"Gum-chewing teens in straight- and punkish-looking attire lined up alongside the building, waiting patiently for the doors to open at 9:30. There were groups of girls, groups of boys and dating couples. When the doors opened they streamed inside. ... A stage occupied either end of the auditorium. Band members, awaiting their turn on stage, tinkered with instruments and amplifiers and talked with friends and fans. Teens played video games and bought hotdogs as attendance swelled to about 750. When the music started, they thrust their arms into the air and started howling. Each rock band had its own cheering section, and there was energy to burn. Soon, everyone was sweating so much that a thin mist hovered over the main floor. All night the music was raw and noisy" ("It's Howling Time ...").

Postscripts

The roller rink was finally shuttered in the 1980s, sitting empty for a few years while the Safeway Corporation attempted to negotiate a purchase of the property. When that ultimately fell though, the building was razed in February 1998, making room for Crossroads Community Park. Meanwhile the nearby Crossroads Mall shifted ownership a time or two over the years, but generally thrived and at times offered its clientele both a concerts series and weekly swing dances.

Liz Monta passed away on September 20, 2009, at age 69. Howard Monta Jr., who worked for the Seattle Police Department until 1997 and went on to publish several books -- including a memoir titled Like a Cat with Nine Lives in 2001 -- suffered a stroke in March 2015 and moved to Crestwood Nursing Center in Shoreline.


Sources: "Crossroads," City of Bellevue website accessed August 31, 2015 (http://www.ci.bellevue.wa.us/crossroads-area.htm); Brian Lutz, "A Tour of Crossroads Bellevue -- Part 1: The Mall," The Sledgehammer website accessed September 20, 2015 (https://thesledgehammer.wordpress.com/2008/05/26/a-tour-of-crossroads-bellevue-part-1-the-mall/); Howard Monta Jr., "Brief History of Lake Hills Roller Rink Dance/Concerts," Pacific Northwest Bands website accessed December 28, 2015 (http://pnwbands.com/lakehills.html); Liz Monta, email message quoted at "Lake Hills Roller Rink," p. 2,  Pacific Northwest Bands website accessed December 28, 2015 (http://pnwbands.com/lakehills1.html); Sam Carlson, email to Peter Blecha, November 9, 2015, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Pat O'Day, It Was All Just Rock 'n' Roll (Seattle: R'-R' Press, 2002), 104; "County Affairs: Dances," The Seattle Times, July 31, 1964, p. 25; "$90,000 Blaze Hits Roller Rink," Ibid., July 30, 1968, p. 11; Susan Schwartz, "Roller Discotheques -- Teenagers Finding New Appeal," Ibid., September 29, 1977, p. G-3; Patrick McDonald, "Heavy Metal in the Suburbs -- Rock Fans, Money, and Promoter Make Bellevue the 'Headquarters,'" Ibid., June 12, 1983, pp. E-1, E-6; "Old Roller Rink Giving Way to Park Expansion," Ibid., February 9, 1998 p. B-3; "Elizabeth Emma Monta," obituary, Bonney-Watson website accessed November 11, 2015 (http://bonneywatson.com/obituaries/2009/09/Elizabeth-Emma-Monta.html); Gene Stout, "It's Howling Time Tonight in Bellevue," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 19, 1984, p. D-1; George Arthur, "Battle of the Bands," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 206 Magazine, undated copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Craig Cooke, emails to Peter Blecha, November 18-19, 2015, in possession of Peter Blecha; Pat O'Day, email to Peter Blecha, November 20, 2015, in possession of Peter Blecha.
Note: The source listings were updated on December 28, 2015.

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