Harry's Roller Rink

[Taken from the Library News, February and March 2009 of the City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society, By Richard D. Thomson, Librarian]

...This Month [February, 2009] Ronnie Featherstone provides another of his stories on San Bernardino businesses and their owners. This one is on Harry's Roller Rink, which was owned by Harry Dickerman. Because of Ronnie's story, local historian John Adams and I became interested in Dickerman's enterprises, so we undertook to learn more about Harry's skating rink, and to see what information we could find on Dickerson's other businesses, one of which was the Baseline Drive-in Theater. John, who is a friend of Ronnie's, is the historian for the Rialto Historical Society and the author of several books. We are both familiar with many of the online sites where historical and genealogical data can be found, and thus began to find quite a bit on Harry Dickerman. However, the more information we collected, the more questions we had. Finally we located Diana Speckels, Harry's daughter, and she put us in contact with her brother Robert (Bobby) Dickerman. Bobby filled in many details, but John and I still had some research to do.

Postcard of Harry's Roller Rink
A postcard picture of Harry's Roller Rink, probably 1953, the year they put the new maple floor in
(Courtesy of Steve Shaw)

Bobby told us that when his father bought the building in the 1940s it was already called "Harry's Rink." It was run by Harry Fiander, and was located south of the Orange Show Stadium at 905 South E Street. Then, in 1953, it was moved to the west side of the street at 690 South E Street. John and I tried to find out if it was built at the 905 address, and if so, when and by whom. At first, we thought it might have been moved twice, and that its original location was in Urbita Springs/Pickering Park. There is a reference to a skating rink there, and a building of about the same dimensions as Harry's Rink appears on a 1938 aerial photo of the Urbita Springs area. As it turned out, Paul I. Kelly built the structure at the 905 address in 1938. This information comes from Paul's son Ken, who has vivid memories of not only the rink, but also of Harry Fiander and Harry Dickerman.

I have decided to present the story in two parts. The first part is Ronnie's childhood recollections of Dickerman and Harry's Roller Rink. The second part will be based on historical records, and the firsthand knowledge of Bobby Dickerman and Ken Kelly. If our research goes well, part two will appear in the March [2009] issue of the newsletter. Bobby gave us 18 family photographs, including one of his father, which appears below in Ronnie's story.

By Ronnie Featherstone

This story is dedicated to the memory of Harry Dickerman, and the businesses he ran in San Bernardino during the 1940s-1960s. Thanks to him, memories were made for literally thousands of Inland Empire residents during those years. Most people only knew of his name "Harry." Not many that went to Harry's Roller Rink ever met him and wouldn't have even recognized him.

Harry Dickerman
Harry Dickerman

During WWII, the roller skating rink was an inexpensive form of recreation for families, teenagers, professional skaters, and seniors. It brought all the age groups together for a fun experience at a very inexpensive price. After Harry bought the place, customers came from all over the Inland Empire by the hundreds. He had times just for seniors to skate, times for families to skate, and then times for everyone to skate, from the beginners to the professionals.

Harry was of short stature with a medium build, and he had dark hair and brown eyes. Every time my family (five kids) went to Harry's Roller Rink, we always made it a point to talk to Harry. He was a great businessman, and cared about his businesses. His social abilities with people made him very popular with all ages. Most teenagers visiting his rink during the '50s and '60s might remember Harry because he was in his 50s and 60s during those years.

Harry was like a parent to all the kids, when their parents weren't there. If someone fell and scratched his knees, Harry was right there with a bottle of Iodine and bandages. I witnessed Harry's kindness many times. If a child was crying all alone, Harry would go over and put his arm around him, and then solve the problem. Roughnecks and pushers didn't last long; Harry would walk out on the skating floor, kick them out, and tell them, "Don't come back"

The wall at Harry's Roller Rink
The big neon sign on the wall at Harry's Roller Rink

He had a neon sign on the wall. A category on the sign would light up to show who skated next, and when the music would change from a waltz to a fox trot. The acoustics in the old wooden building were wonderful and did justice to the live music played on the Hammond Organ.

Harry handed out wooden horses for the really small kids to use while the parents sat watching their older kids skate. He always tried his best to make a fun environment for everyone. Every occasion took place at the roller rink. There were wedding parties, reunions, school class trips, anniversaries-groups of all kinds. Seniors had fun just as much as the kids did. A teenager could have fun for hours at the roller rink, and not even spend $3.00. Shoes rented for .50 cents, and it was $1.00 to skate. Plenty left over for the concession stand.

On his neon sign, Harry would occasionally light up the "Clear Floor" sign, and everyone would get behind the rails while he checked the floor for any trash, spillage, or candy and gum that had dropped. His old wooden skate floor shined like high gloss varnish, and all his wooden rails were varnished to a high luster, and very heavy duty.

Shelves From Harry's Used to Hold Rental Skates and Wooden Horses
On the top shelf are the wooden horses used to keep the toddlers occupied

Harry also was the owner of the Baseline Drive-In Theater. In 1948 he bought 20 acres, built the screen and opened his independent heater. When I would go there, I always stopped at the projection room to talk with the projectionists.

Harry Dickerman, who passed away at the age of 90 on March 25, 1988, was a great humanitarian, and he also enjoyed seeing people have fun. He was definitely an asset to San Bernardino and the surrounding cities. Recognizing his contributions was a pleasure for me, and a large population of San Bernardino will remember his name forever.

Ronnie Featherstone

Harrys Admission Ticket
A person could have hours of fun at Harry's for a nominal admission fee
(Courtesy of Dave Rutherfurd)

Baseline Drive-in Theater in Highland
Harry also owned the Baseline Drive-in Theater in Highland, CA

Last month [February, 2009] I ran a piece by Ronnie Featherstone on San Bernardino businessman Harry Dickerman and his roller rink. Ronnie works from memory and is sometimes aided by Rialto historian John Adams. Inspired by Ronnie's story, John and I decided to expand on it, and we have worked together for about the last two months gathering information. In the course of our inquiries we located Harry's children Bobby Dickerman and Diana Dickerman Speckels. We also were able to find Ken Kelly, the son of the rink's builder Paul I. Kelly.

They were all helpful, but special mention goes to Bobby, who not only provided/substantiated the basic facts, including some surprises, but also supplied us with all the family photographs in this history. And our thanks to Steve Shaw for contributing some 1967 photographs of the fire at Harry's Roller Rink, which were taken by a San Bernardino Sun-Telegram employee.

As for John Adams, he is indefatigable. In addition to traveling to the usual historian's haunts, such as the Arda Haenszel California Room at the Feldheym Library and the San Bernardino County Archives, John spent untold hours checking out Internet sources. He found many people who remembered the rink, and curiously, most of them remembered the rink manager Harold Blizin, and the organist Bonnie Dixon. This means that people were really attached emotionally to Harry's.

Harrys Roller Rink Postcard
Postcard courtesy Dave Rutherfurd


Mention Harry's Roller Rink to just about anybody who lived in the San Bernardino area in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, and chances are you will be met with a big smile and a rush of positive recollections of that wonderful place. It was good, cheap, family entertainment, and a source of fond memories. The owner for most of the life of the roller rink, although not the founder, was Harry Dickerman.

Harry Dickerman
Harry Dickerman 1898-1988

Harry had another enterprise of similar fame, the Baseline Drive-In Theater, located in what is now the city of Highland, and this business he did build from scratch. It was another source of inexpensive, wholesome entertainment for people of the San Bernardino Valley. In the 1950s he started another roller rink in Glendale, which he called Harry's Roller Rink #2. A fourth business came late, in 1965, and this was Harry's Restaurant, located on South E Street near the roller rink. The restaurant proved to be another success for this remarkable businessman.

Harry was born in the last decade of the 19th Century. People of his generation were those most affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Just when they were hitting what should have been their peak productive years, the economy greatly contracted and was nearly destroyed. There was not much venture capital floating about in those days, so Harry had to finance his businesses from his own savings and borrowing capacity. He built up his holdings by offering family entertainment at competitive prices, by using innovative methods to attract customers, and by prudently managing his enterprises.

Harry's parents were Russian immigrants, who came to New York in the 1890s. Judging from the occupations his father listed in the various census records, the family was far from wealthy. Harry was born in New York City on May 14, 1898, the fifth of six children born to Louis and Fannie Dickerman. In the opening years of the 20th Century the family moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1920, then 22 years of age, Harry was living in the home of his older sister Anna and her husband Morris Guttman, together with his nephew Don and niece Lillian. Another nephew, Budd, would be born soon thereafter. In later years Harry was closely associated with Don and Budd, as both were managers of his Minnesota businesses, and all three men eventually moved to Southern California during or shortly after World War II.

By 1930 Harry had moved in with his sister Sarah and her husband David Gilman. At that time, Harry was a theater proprietor, according to the census for that year. Somehow he had managed to propel himself from the menial jobs of his earlier years to a position of ownership. Irving Gilman, Sarah's son, is listed as the theater manager, at the ripe old age of 24. (Another son, Sid Gilman, later became famous as a football coach for the San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Rams.)

In the summer of 1935 one of Harry's three theaters, the Northtown, was bombed twice. Budd remembers it and says that the first time it was a stink bomb and Harry thought it was the work of pranksters. The second time was much more serious. The explosion ripped out the front of the theater, doing $1,000 in damage, and shattered the windows of nearby stores. Witnesses saw three men driving away after the blast and it was discovered that competitors objected to Harry offering giveaways on "gift nights" to attract customers (probably drawings for prizes, using admission tickets). They referred to his advertising gimmick as "unethical practices." Trade journals described the struggle between movie house owners as "The Chance Games War." Harry agreed to forego the gift-night plan. He continued in the theater business for several more years before selling all of his Minneapolis theaters to Don Guttman.

By 1945 Harry had relocated to San Bernardino where, in that year, he entered into a contract with Paul. Kelly, owner of an existing roller skating establishment called "Harry's Rink." The details of this arrangement are spelled out in a document recorded in the Official Records of San Bernardino County, a discovery made through the diligent research of Rialto historian John Adams. This purchase agreement identified Harry Fiander as the man for whom the rink was named and who was currently leasing the rink from Paul Kelly. Dickerman purchased Fiander's interest and entered into an agreement to buy the rink and a lot 300 feet by 150 feet located on South E Street. The purchase price was $20,000, with a payment of $2,000 down upon signing the agreement on October 1, 1945, another $4,000 on Jan 1, 1946, and $500 per month thereafter. Once the principal had been paid down to $10,000, Kelly was to issue a grant deed to Dickerman and accept a mortgage for the outstanding balance.

Aerial view, looking southwest, of Harry's Roller Rink circa 1950
Aerial view, looking southwest, of Harry's Roller Rink circa 1950 when it was at 905 South E Street. The rink is the oblong building with the rounded roof (center), just above the Orange Show's football stadium. Left of Harry's are buildings that comprised Paul Kelly's Southwest Lumber Company.

Harrys Roller Rink Flyer

The purchase agreement does not address the issue of when the rink was constructed. The earliest reference found to Harry's Rink is in a telephone book dated February 1939. The rink is listed at 905 South E Street, which is just south of where the Orange Show built their stadium in 1941. At first it was thought that the rink might have been moved from the old Urbita Springs Park located across the street. The Pacific Electric Company sold the park to Ernest Pickering in 1924, and Pickering built a ballroom and roller rink as major improvements in that year. These were located at the entrance to the park off Colton Avenue and the dimensions of the rink, as determined from aerial photographs, closely matched the size of Harry's. Recently the whereabouts of one of Paul's sons, Kenneth Kelly, was discovered and he cleared up the questions surrounding the rink's origins.

Ken was born in 1929 and has a memory of activities in the late 1930s. His father had determined to build a roller rink in 1938 although why is still in question. There already was at least one roller rink nearby, but Paul undertook to construct another, anyway. One reason might be that the other rink, or rinks, in the area did not have high quality floors.

Harry Fiander had been in the business locally since at least 1930, when he was listed in the San Bernardino census as being a rink proprietor. It is thought that Fiander and Kelly collaborated in determining the viability of building a new rink of quality construction. The land was graded and the lumber was stacked in preparation for building when the floods of February and March 1938 struck the area. Paul had a lumberyard on the site, Southwest Lumber Company, and when Lytle Creek overflowed its banks the existing structures, as well as the lumber and other building materials stored on the property, suffered major damage. This setback was only temporary, as the building was completed by the end of the year.

Orange Show Grounds Circa 1953
This photo, looking northeast this time, probably dates to 1953. The Swing Auditorium was opened that year and can be seen in the center of the Orange Show grounds (large vertical-walled building). Harry's Roller Rink is still in its original spot next to Orange Show Stadium (lower right). Across from the stadium, to the west, is Scaramella's Dairy, whose north property straddles Lytle Creek. Dickerman bought the dairy for the new location of his rink.

Shortly after Harry Dickerman purchased the rink, he became a proud father. He had married Sallie Hersh, a Minnesota woman, and in 1946 their son Robert M. (Bobby) Dickerman was born. Tragically, Sallie died of natural causes when Bobby was only 14 months old. In 1950 Harry married Estelle Shane, and in 1952 Diana Dickerman was born. Both Bobby and Diana went to local schools in San Bernardino. Diana put her married name (Speckels) and city of residence on one of those find-your-classmates sites, and we thus were able to acquire her phone number. She put us in touch with Bobby, who has greatly assisted in the writing of this story. Below are some of the family photographs he shared with us.

Bobby, Harry, Diana, and Estelle Dickerman
Bobby, Harry, Diana, and Estelle - 1955 Estelle, Harry and Diana -1957
(Courtesy Robert M. Dickerman)

Harry and Estelle Dickerman, and close friends Evelyn and "Chief" Levin
Left to right: Harry, Estelle, and close friends Evelyn and "Chief" Levin
(Courtesy Robert M. Dickerman)

One of the first things Bobby told us was that the rink, the actual building itself, was physically moved to 690 South E Street in 1953. He remembers that wheels were placed under the structure, and when it was rolled up the street he thought it looked like the rink itself was skating. Another of John Adams' archival finds was a document written by Earl Buie in his capacity as Secretary-Manager of the National Orange Show. Buie stated that the property at 905 South E Street was purchased by the Orange Show in late 1952, and that they would not be held responsible for the removal of the structure. The building's owner was identified as Harry Dickerman's Atlas Theatre Company. By the end of the following year the move was completed and all the remodeling finished. Harry took out the following large advertisement in the Daily Sun for the Grand Opening on December 17, 1953.

Harry left the oversight of his businesses to general managers. The first rink manager, while it was at the 905 South E address, was his nephew Budd Guttman. The general manager in the 1950s was Harold Blizin. Harold was an in-law, having married Harry's niece Leah Guttman. Harold was a kindly man and is recalled with affection by a generation of skaters. One Eisenhower High School grad described him as having a jovial personality.

Another stated that Harold used to give him rides to Harry's: "I used to go to the skating rink often, sometimes three or four times in a week. Occasionally Harold would give me a ride to the rink on his way in. If I needed a ride I'd stand out on Foothill Blvd at about 6:30 P.M. and he would pick me up. This happened because once he saw me trying to hitch hike and he told me not to do so, but just wait for him and he'd pick me up. One other thing Harold would do was give me a short knuckle rub on the head while calling me an affectionate term, 'rapscallion.'"

Another part of the Harry's Roller Rink family was organ player Bonnie Dixon, although in her case it was figuratively, not literally. Actually all employees were treated as family, and you could probably add the rink customers, for that matter. Bonnie (Bradley) Dixon was a professional musician all of her life, and was very popular with the skaters, not only for her wonderful music, which lifted every-one's spirits, but also for her personality. She really made that Hammond Organ sing. She played on a raised platform at the north end of the building, opposite the entrance, in a glassed-in cubicle.

The skaters respected the rule that she was not to be bothered while playing, but whenever she took a break and stepped into the public area, her admirers mobbed her. During the Korean War the servicemen in particular hung out at the rink, and many a bride met her husband there.

San Bernardino resident Eleanor Finneran was a patron of Harry's in the early 1950s. She recalls the fine condition of Harry's floor. Waxed to a high shine, the skating surface was superior to other rinks she went to, ranging as far west as Whittier, and San Diego to the south.

In 1956 Harry bought and remodeled an existing building in Glendale, and it became Harry's Roller Rink #2. Bobby, who lived in the area for a few months each year, would go to the Glendale rink. He remembers skating with Rita Hayworth's daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan in 1963. When Harry and Bobby were at the rink, Harry closed the evening by singing, "I'll See You In My Dreams," which he dedicated to his son. Later in 1963, Harry sold the Glendale rink. The name was changed to Moonlight Rollerway-and it still exists. Bobby says it looks the same, and even has the original telephone number from 1956.

The Moonlight Rollerway
The Moonlight Rollerway, formerly Harry's Roller Rink #2, still looks the same as it did when it was Harry's in the 1950s and '60s, according to Bobby Dickerman

One of Bobby's memories is of an advertising promotion that featured a fiberglass figure of a woman in a yellow skating dress on the roof of the family's 1957 Ford Station Wagon. The car had lettering on the side advertising both rinks. The figure was supported on a steel rod and as the car drove about town, the rod rotated so that the woman twirled around as if she were skating. At Christmas she was replaced with a Santa Claus figure. Unfortunately, Bobby could not locate a photo of the car and skater.

In 1948, not long after he bought the San Bernardino skating rink, Harry began a new business, one he built from the ground up. This was the Baseline Drive-In Theater, located on the south side of Base Line Street, a block east of Victoria Avenue. The concept of the drive-in movie theater was fairly new-the first patent in the nation was issued on the East Coast in 1933-but Harry's theater experience probably helped convince him that this could be a good investment. Bobby said that his cousin Budd played an integral part in buying the 20 acres of land in what is now the City of Highland. This was to be a major investment; contemporary news accounts estimated the cost of the facility at $125,000.

Baseline Drive-In Theater Marquee
The marquee shows the movies "California," released in 1946, and "House Across the Bay," which came out in 1940
(Courtesy Robert M. Dickerman)

Frontal view of the Baseline Drive-In Theater, showing the back of the huge movie screen
Frontal view of the theater from Base Line Street, showing the back of the huge movie screen
(Courtesy Robert M. Dickerman)

Neighbors did not welcome the proposition of a giant screen nearby and protests were lodged when it was heard before the County Planning Commission. An attorney representing a group of adjacent property owners opposed the theater, citing noise, traffic congestion, reduced property values and general nuisance as some of the detrimental aspects of the proposal Planning director Tony Zenz had a list of stringent requirements attached to the conditional approval, including fencing, landscaping and traffic control. When the item went before the Board of Supervisors, the neighbors' attorney repeated their concerns and said they did not want a theater there under any conditions. Harry's lawyer, Donald W. Jordan, presented a survey he had taken of property owners living next to the Tri-City Drive-In Theater in Loma Linda. The neighbors there said they had no objections to the theater. The Highland Chamber of Commerce had investigated the matter and was in favor of the project. One hundred people attended the Board of Supervisors meeting, and the paper reported it as a "spirited" public hearing.

As a teenager in the 1950s I went to the drive-in on numerous occasions, and in 1961 I spent several months there as an usher. My recollection is that the place was pretty quiet. The movie soundtrack was broadcast from a wired speaker that you took off a post and hooked onto the inside of the car window or door, and even with the windows rolled down, the sound did not carry very far. People sometimes forgot and drove off with the speaker, ripping it off its post. Customers were asked to turn off their lights at the ticket window. Obviously this was to avoid annoying other drive-in patrons, but it also avoided lighting up the neighborhood. That, and the trees and large bushes which sheltered the exterior boundaries, kept car lights from being a problem. The cars entered and left using driveway access to Base Line in a commercial area, so traffic was not a problem, either. All in all, the drive-in was a good neighbor.

In 1955 Harry sold the drive-in to Pacific Theaters. His nephew Don Guttman was the vice president and general manager of the chain. The Baseline Drive-In Theater closed in about 1985.

Ten years later, in 1965, Harry built a drive-in restaurant just south of his roller rink at 694 South E Street. Singer Jimmy Webb was inspired to write "Up, Up and Away" when he attended the grand opening and saw the hot air balloon that was rented as a marketing ploy to get people to attend and go for a free ride. This became a popular spot. Radio stations KFX and KMEN were broadcast from "Uncle Harry's Restaurant." The name later became "Uncle Harry's Dixie Dogs and Burgers."

Sadly, Harry's Roller Rink burned down in 1967. The fire began before dawn on July 10th and most of the interior of the building was charred, including the skating floor and wood roof supports. About 30 firemen responded quickly, some within minutes of the alarm, but the fire had spread through the whole building by the time they arrived. A news article of the event noted that it was the only rink within the city, although there were three others in the San Bernardino Valley.

Fire at Harry's Roller Rink
Smoke from the fire was visible for two miles (Courtesy Steve Shaw)

Destruction of Harry's Roller Rink
The fire spread so rapidly that Blitz, the rink's German Shepherd watchdog, died before firemen could get to him
(Courtesy Steve Shaw)

Aftermath of the Fire at Harry's Roller Rink
A fireman checks out the charred remains of Harry's Roller Rink
(Courtesy Steve Shaw)

Thus ended the 22 years of Harry's roller skating enterprise. He still had the restaurant, but he had moved to the San Fernando Valley area and his interests changed. He died years later on March 25, 1988, a few weeks before his 90th birthday. Harry Dickerman passed on, but he left a legacy of great memories to so many of us.

Richard D. Thompson