The Southgate Roller Rink (now Southgate Event Center) is located in the center of White Center (at 9646 17th Ave SW), a neighborhood of South Seattle. It was originally built by Hiram Green (1863-1932) in 1920 as a boxing arena. From 1937 for the next 70 years it became a roller rink, most recently famous for hosting the Rat City Roller Girls. Today (2009) it is owned by Tom Brown, his son Andrew Brown, and Dean Burgess. They have renamed the historic building the Southgate Event Center and it hosts the White Center Swap Meet and Flea Market among other events. This People's History of the famous old roller rink was contributed by White Center resident Ron Richardson (d. 2011).
Hiram Green and Boxing in White Center, 1920-1934
Hiram Green was one of the pioneer developers in White Center. Green’s five acres straddled both sides of 16th Avenue SW going south from SW Roxbury Street to SW 98th Street. Green’s projects included a theater, drugstore, bakery, feed store, fuel store, dry goods stores, the Rozella Building, and the Triangle Building.. In 1920 Green built the White Center Boxing Arena. The White Center Record, April 28, 1932, described Hiram Green as “a lover of sports, who in his younger days played professional baseball and in his later years was an ardent fan of the fisting world.”
The White Center Arena became one of the important boxing venues of the Northwest. Boxing cards provided a payday for young men during the Roaring Twenties and into the early Depression years. Morey Skaret (b. 1913), in an interview with Ron Richardson, recalls the era. Morey earned 15 cents a round as a sparing partner for the pros in those years. Weekly boxing cards packed the arena. Ringside seats were a dollar fifty and general admission 50 cents. The manager of the arena, Eli Kaston, would let Morey and his buddies in for a dime to see the last two fights on the weekly card.
Among the fighters of the day were Swede Hanson, Red Hawk, Spark Plug Boyd (1906-1961), and Doc Snell. In Skaret’s view the most ballyhooed fight of the era was in February 1933. The fight which matched a popular showboat boxer, ‘Society’ Red Millett, and a tough local black fighter named Frisco McGale (1902-1958). McGale won in front of a raucous packed house. McGale later became a longshoreman, an athletic director at Fort Lawton, and for 23 years helped run the Seattle Golden Gloves. McGale also managed successful Seattle light heavyweight Eddie Cotton (1926-1990). Red Millett joined the Seattle Police Department, where he worked until his retirement.
There was occasionally a pro wrestling card at the Arena sponsored by the White Center Athletic Club. Big time names appeared in the 1920s. This was wrestling such as we now see in high schools, college, and the Olympics. It was the real deal without costumes, phony rivalries, and scripted finishes. The biggest wrestling match at the Arena featured world welterweight champion, Robin Reed (1899-1978). Most experts agree that Reed, an Oregon State College graduate, was the most successful wrestler in United States history. He never lost a wrestling match to anyone at any weight class. Reed won the 1924 Olympic title as a welterweight, and regularly beat the heavyweight champion in practices. Boxing and wrestling continued at the White Center Arena into the Depression.
Green and his arena established a connection between boxing and White Center. A regular fighter at the arena was young Al Hostak (1916-2006) from Georgetown. Over the years Hostak trained, boxed, and tended bar in White Center. In 1939 Hostak won the middleweight championship of the world against Tacoma’s Freddy Steele in front of 30,000 at Seattle’s Civic Field. White Center resident Harry "The Kid" Matthews (1922-2003) kept White Center on the boxing map into the 1950s. Harry turned pro at the age of 15, hence the nickname "The Kid." He fought former middle weight champion Al Hostak in two memorable fights, winning one and drawing the second. Later in his career Matthews defeated Ezzard Charles (1921-1975), former world heavyweight champion After 20 years of boxing Matthews record was 87 wins, 7 draws and 7 losses out of 101 fights. His biggest fight was at Yankee stadium in 1952. Matthews was knocked out by Rocky Marciano (1923-1969), future heavyweight champion of the world. This was a big disappointment, but no disgrace as no one ever did beat Marciano.
Dance Hall 1934-1937
Hiram Green died in 1932. The Depression took down many an enterprise and boxing in White Center ws no exception. The building passed in to the hands of Green’s daughter, Ethel Green (b. 1909). Ethel married William "Pop" Brown (d.1969). William Brown had come from England to the United States during World War I. By 1934 the couple brought in dance bands to replace boxers and the building became a dance hall.
Ethyl and William Brown, according to the White Center News, August 17, 1934 “brought in the snappy music of a wonderful five piece orchestra to perform on weekends.” For three years folks danced to the "snappy music" but the dance hall struggled to make a dime. In the years following the end of Prohibition a lack of regulations in White Center produced a collection of lively taverns and clubs up and down 16th Avenue SW. People found plenty of action without paying to go in to a dance hall. Within three years of its opening the dance hall closed down.
Southgate Roller Rink 1937-2006
In 1937 Ethel, and ‘Pop’ Brown made a crucial and profitable decision. They reopened the large hanger like building, calling it the Southgate Rollerdrome. The name reflected a local attitude in that they considered White Center as the south gate to Seattle. As it turned out, a large skating rink was the right idea at the right time and in the right place. Generations of people recall the good times, friendships, skating instructions, and competitions. Ethel and Pop formed a skate team called the "old smoothies." According to the West Side Story, "Pop" Brown went on to international acclaim as the father of competitive indoor skating in the United States. Albert Skaret (b. 1920) recalled that the best Southgate skaters often traveled to skating rinks around the Northwest to show off their skills thus adding to the reputation of the Southgate Roller Rink as the place for top skaters.
Over the years the managers of the rink held skaters to a code of good conduct. In the West Side Story the Brown’s daughter, Dorothy Tamaccio, recalled that the rink was like a USO for service men during the war years. “My father every night opened the rink with a flag salute, every single night” (p. 220). Brown would also close the rink each night by reading a poem he had written for the skaters as they made the final rounds during the last song.
“It’s not the size of the rink that counts,
Or the style of the clothes you wear,
But the friendly smile that you pass around
Instead of a vacant stare--
So when you skate on the morrow,
We know you’ll stop and think
Of the pleasant time you had last night
At Seattle’s Friendly Rink” (p. 220).
No wonder parents at that time felt comfortable sending kids to the Southgate Roller Rink as it came to be called. The Browns did not allow drinking in the rink. Troublemakers were shown the door. To separate the skating youngsters from the street action on 16th Ave SW, the management moved the main entrance to the backside of the building facing 17th Avenue SE.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Jennifer Langston, April 26, 2006, described the much loved roller rink:
“Since 1937 the Southgate Skate Center has been home to budding teenage romances, birthday parties, formal dances and nationally competitive speed-skating teams. Others remember it as a place where one could look for a fight and find one.”
Out on 16th Avenue SW the rough and tumble action of the street continued. In an interview with Ron Richardson, Albert Skaret described the scene. He never started a fight, but didn’t back down when challenged. He also recalled that there was a code among the young toughs of the day. When someone was knocked to the ground, the opponent stepped back to see if the decked fighter wanted to continue. If not, the fight was over. One did not attack another until he was up and ready to continue. An opponent was not beaten into submission. It was as if the rules of the ring extended to the street.
Bonnie Liebel recalls the place as an exciting but safe haven for kids in the 1940s. Her only unpleasant episode happened right after a new segment of skating surface was installed along the south side of the rink. It had a slightly different grain and finish. As a result Bonnie tumbled head first to the floor carving a divot with her two front teeth.
It seems most anyone you can find in Southwest Seattle remembers the Southgate with pleasant memories. Rough and tumble events took place outside, not inside, Southgate. Melva Kilwine (1935) was captivated by her skating experience at Southgate during the 1940s and 1950s. Melva attended West Seattle High but her heart was at Southgate where she was part of a skating drill team. All the girls were expected to make their own costumes. Southgate would put together a big skating show once a year. Skating competitions, dance skating routines, drill team exhibitions were all part of the gala event under the leadership of 'Pop' Brown. In an interview all of Melva’s memories were positive.
Mike Knutkowski, a Sealth High student in the 1960’s, remembers that, on occasion, Southgate was turned in to a rock 'n' roll venue. Popular bands such as the Kingsmen and Paul Revere and the Raiders drew crowds on the weekends.
David Crabtree (b. 1974) of West Seattle recalls his elementary school groups was bussed to Southgate for skating parties. According to David, a main attraction for youngsters in the 1980s was a bank of video games that included Donkey Kong and Pac-Man and the like.
Over the years, the 32,000-square-foot building housed several other businesses in addition to the skating rink. For years there was a pistol and rifle range in the basement. Upstairs there were eight apartments. Fronting on 16th Ave SW one could find an ice cream parlor, a t-shirt shop, and Mr. Tamaccio’s barber shop. For years the Brown’s son, also named William, ran a successful sporting goods store fronting on 16th Ave SW. A popular feature was a fish ‘bragging board’ where local sports fishermen listed the size of their catch, when and where the fish was caught, and the fishing tackle used. In the basement was a ceramics shop run by Frank Evans, which distributed products around the United States. It has been rumored there was once a sweat shop making garments in a part of the basement. Today the large grey building still includes storefront businesses that face 16th Avenue SW. Bob Houk (b. 1938) and Joanne Houk (b. 1944) run the successful Center Sign Shop. Next door is the Reyes Tax Service.
Rat City Rollergirls
Francine Tamaccio, a descendent the pioneer builder Hiram Green, developed an idea based upon the roller derby days of the 1950s. In 2002-2003 Francine, along with Brandy Rettig and others, founded the exciting Rat City Rollergirls of White Center. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted Rettig about founding the sport in White Center:
"It's the place we chose to put our roots down," Rettig said. "We could have been the Emerald City Rollergirls, but we wanted to be part of a community that reflected us -- a little bit edgy, a little bit tough and rough around the edges. It was the perfect spot for us” (Seattle P-I, April 16, 2006).
The Rat City Rollergirls show their connection to the community to this day by taking part in the annual ‘White Center Spring Clean of Rat City.’ They clean up vacant lots, roadways and wherever they find trash.
The Southgate Roller Rink was the original home of the Rat City Rollergirls. The Rollerlgirls have played for national titles and won the championship in 2004. In 2005, as the Roller Derby was on the verge of outgrowing Southgate, a fire damaged the south side of the building. Today the Rat City Rollergirls practice in Lynnwood and play their matches at Magnuson Park. The new venue can handle much larger crowds than were packed in to Southgate Roller Rink.
In an interview Terri Lidow, a local who refereed matches and coached teams, described the explosive growth of the sport. There are now 11 leagues in the state of Washington and 485 in the United States. In 2009 the Rat City Rollergirls have booked six matches in the Key Arena.
From Roller Rink to Event Center
The Rat City Rollergirls have moved on and the Southgate Rink is becoming something other than a roller skating venue for the first time in 70 years. One idea was to turn Southgate into an indoor soccer arena. Financial issues prevented this project from working out. In the fall of 2008 the owners of the building, Tom Brown and his son Andrew Brown, along with Dean Burgess, reopened the building they now call the Southgate Event Center.
On the Southgate Event Center webpage Dean Burgess proclaims “The Southgate Skate Center building has been a part of the White Center community for more than 70 years! We are proud to be retaining this building and returning it to its use as a community outpost and meeting place.” The building will be open Saturdays and Sundays as the White Center Swap Meet and Flea Market. Burgess adds that “Starting in January 2009 we’ll be hosting events … clubs, private of business organizations, whether political, religious or just fro fun, proms, square dances, concerts, whatever, you name it, we can host it!”
Southgate lives on.