Before Now – Secret Ice Rink
I first went there with my Cub Scout troop for a special evening outing.
We followed our den leader down a dark residential street, passing one stucco house after another. The fog was in and the few streetlights had a yellowish aura around them. We 9-year-old boys walked in a snaking line behind the adults. A block off the relative bustle of Judah Street, with its streetcar line and small restaurants, I decided that Mr. Smalley must be lost. Then, in the middle of the block, I saw light slanting out the doorway of a big building up ahead.
The adults paid and we all shuffled into the light.
Cold air with a strange metallic smell enveloped us. Colored lights were flashing and Robert Plant was moaning about “ramblin’ on.” Longhaired teenagers skated around a wide ice rink fenced off like a corral. One girl practiced little spinning hops by herself in the center. I’d grown up in San Francisco. I’d never seen snow. I’d never seen anyone ice skate, even on television. I was baffled that that such an amazing place could be hidden in the middle of a block in the Outer Sunset district.
The San Francisco Ice Arena opened in the mid 1920s at 1557 48th Avenue with a 1.35-ton ice machine and a steel-and-glass wall facing the ocean. The Ocean Beach area had become San Francisco’s recreation zone, from Sutro Baths and Playland down to the then-new Fleishhacker Pool and Zoo at Sloat Boulevard. An ice-skating rink fit in perfectly with the roadhouses and waffle stands that dotted the Great Highway. In the 1920s there were still plenty of empty lots to build on, and the rays of the setting sun had free access through the rink’s glazed-glass back wall.
Frances Larkin lived on Kirkham Street, around the corner from the rink. Her family didn’t have the money to let Frances skate, but she found the Ice Arena provided a cheaper form of recreation in the 1930s.
“When they would scrape the ice, they’d push it out the back door,” she says. “We just thought those were piles of snow. We’d get a bucket and gather it up to make what we thought were snowballs. We’d throw them at the automobiles as they went by. The people didn’t like that very much.”
J. Hugh Visser, who lived on the 1400 block of 48th Avenue, was one of those boys pushing the used ice out through the back door. His crew used squeegees with long handles, in those days before the Zamboni machine. “Ma” Campbell, who ran the ice rink like a military ship, paid Visser with free passes to skate. “At one time I had a stack of 30 or 40 free passes stuffed in my wallet.”
Frank Grant skated there at the time and remembers the “icy cold feeling, the odor of the wet flooring chewed up with ice skates, the scratchy music and the very uncomfortable rental skates.”
But Grant still thought of it a thrill to have a rink right in the neighborhood. In those days of snazzy dress, one skating teacher wore a full suit and bow tie during lessons on the rink.
Fueled by cheap federal housing loans, residential construction in the Sunset boomed in the 1930s. The San Francisco Ice Arena became hemmed in by homes, almost hidden in the middle of the block. The owners sometimes advertised the facility very descriptively as the “48th Avenue Ice Rink,” and other times more exotically as “Iceland.” A large winter-themed mural was installed along the back wall, and featured a mountain lake vista with skaters framed by pine trees.
The Ice Follies came to rehearse new shows in the summer, and by the 1950s some of the show’s stars — Hugh Hendrickson, and Joe and Marlene Thurston — took over operation of the rink.
They had competition. Phyllis and Harris Legg opened a rink on Ocean Avenue and later another on 11th Street. Both were star skaters and performers. Harris Legg had qualified as a speed skater for the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, and with his wife performed a number skating on stilts. Up the road from the Ice Arena, the Sutro family tried to turn around business at Sutro Baths by replacing the aging swimming tanks with an ice-skating rink.
In 1959 Hugh Hendrickson was tragically electrocuted at the Ice Arena during renovation of the brine pump, and for the next 30 years the Thurstons became the face of the business. Marlene Thurston acted as director of the skating school. Many remember the Thomas twins, a skating duo that gave lessons for years. Longtime employees included a man named Emery who checked out rental skates, and an older woman named Flo who operated the concession stand in the back. This corner of the building was decorated to resemble a rustic cabin or ski lodge, with log posts and roof. Never a great skater, as a teen I drank a lot of hot chocolate and spent most of my time watching girls from the concession area.
As with skating rinks across the country, there were all the usual traditions of men-only or women-only skate times, when each gender had the rink to itself for a song. The anticipated “couples” skate meant the management cued up the colored lights and the Bee Gees sang “How Deep Is Your Love?” The special skates were announced by a loud horn and a light board with directions that included “All Skate,” “Grand March” (lines of couples) and “Reverse,” when everyone glided around in the opposite direction (clockwise, I believe).
An ice-rink business also means lots of kids’ birthday parties, and San Francisco Ice Arena had a special party room with murals of cartoon woodland creatures. The Thurstons offered a Junior Hockey League, skating shows where the students were able to show their stuff while the old pros demonstrated their Ice Follies chops (Skippy Baxter would do back-flips on ice!) – and in the era of lots of stay-at-home moms, the arena hosted a Ladies Coffee Club every Thursday morning.
For many years there was a Christmas tree standing in one corner of the rink, which made for an inviting target for boys bumping their friends on the turn. Teenagers came for the night skate sessions, and in the 1970s and 1980s rock music and video games both became part of the Ice Arena experience. My memories include playing Pong and Space Invaders. Karen Katenbrink Poret remembers a machine that dispensed frozen chocolate-covered bananas. Everyone who went remembers the fat black rubber floors off the rink, the wooden bathroom stalls and doing the “hokey-pokey” on ice — a dance that maybe was more anticipated than the “couples” skate.
The last time I visited the Ice Arena was with a new girlfriend in the mid 1980s. It seemed like a quaint, almost ironic activity for a date. We were in our early 20s and felt ourselves too old, or too young, for ice-skating. The back wall mural was faded — the painted girl with her hands in a muff (perhaps the artist had a hard time with hands) was flaking off the wall — and the rust on the roof girders was thick enough to be worrisome. But we actually had a terrific time.
I don’t know exactly when the San Francisco Ice Arena closed for business. I think it was late 1990 or early 1991. The Thurstons made an attempt to find new buyers or sell the facility to the city, but in the end the building was demolished and a series of plain condominiums went up in 1992.
Trivia Answer: Last column I asked what name the Outer Sunset was known by after its days as “Carville.” Into the 1920s, newspapers, city officials, and some residents called the neighborhood “Oceanside,” a name created by a local booster group.
New Trivia Question: What Ocean Beach bar near Playland had humorously risqué murals inside?
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”