The Glorious Disco Days of Flipper’s Roller Rink

The skate center was L.A.’s answer to Studio 54—on wheels

It’s hard to believe but roller-skating was practically a national pastime once. It was so trendy during the ’70s, in fact, skating often figured into film and TV plots. Stars rode around on eight wheels in Xanadu, Roller Boogie, Skatetown USA, Charlie’s Angels, and CHiPs. 

I once skated my way through a whole afternoon of shopping, rolling from the local Thrifty (where I stopped for a 35 cent double scoop cone with mint chip ice cream) over to Fiorucci (where I purchased a new pair of shades) and then on to Camp Beverly Hills (to pick up red satin dolphin shorts to match my Day-Glo wheels). My skates endured a lot of wear and tear.

When we weren’t skating around Venice Beach or Pan Pacific Park, my friends and I spent our last weekends of the ’70s laced up at Flipper’s. The hangout—a former bowling alley called La Cienega Lanes that Art Linkletter owned before it was converted into a roller rink in 1979—was at the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica boulevards. Its glitzy sign read FLIPPER’S ROLLER BOOGIE PALACE. The purple and blue building was hard to miss.

I must have skated enough miles in that rink to get me to the East Coast and back! The floor was coated with a substance that made gliding feel magical. Colorful strobe lights bounced off the mirrors and extra loud speakers blared hits like “My Sharona,” “Call Me,” “I Will Survive,” “We Are Family,” “Le Freak,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Funky Town,” and “8675309”—a number every kid tried dialing at least once. Flipper’s had a bar, a restaurant, and a custom skate shop with artificial life-size palm trees and Art Nouveau murals. The rental booth was decorated to look like a lush tropical paradise.

I celebrated my birthday at Flipper’s in 1979. I wore a two-toned jersey with a headband, knee pads, and leg warmers. My skates had orange and yellow wheels and a yellow stopper to match. The DJ dedicated Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall to me. Flipper’s had a tradition of clearing the floor for birthday boys and girls, and I loved every minute of my moment in the rink’s spotlight that day.

At night, Flipper’s turned into a roller disco for adults, but kids could easily sneak in and see roller-skating fanatics like Olivia Newton-John and Cher making the rounds to Donna Summer songs. (You just needed one of the “cool” parents to cover for you if you got caught.) One friend told me she spotted Gene Simmons in full KISS makeup there one night. A haven for hedonism after dark, Flipper’s was L.A.’s answer to Studio 54—on wheels. A photo gallery on Facebook called FLIPPERS by Cisco Craig Dietz 1979 has tons of great pictures of the scene.

By 1980, Flipper’s hosted weekly skate instructions, competitions, yoga classes, and other entertainment. On Wednesday nights women were admitted free. Tuesdays featured new wave, reggae, and rock ‘n’ roll.

When the roller-skating fad faded along with disco music in the early ’80s, Flipper’s was turned into a punk and new wave club. Acts like the Go-Go’s, Berlin, the Germs, the Ramones, the Plimsouls, Patti Smith, Black Flag, the Talking Heads, and even Prince performed there. Belinda Carlisle remembers Flipper’s this way: “When my husband, Morgan Mason, was a little boy, his father, James Mason, used to take him bowling [at La Cienega Lanes]. So when we heard it was transitioning into a roller rink we just thought that was so cool. I had no illusions of getting in because it geared to that post-Studio 54 crowd. I remember hearing about the opening. I think Cher may have been there that night; it was that caliber of people. As a punk rocker, I thought there was no way we were going to get in. But when we were forming the Go-Go’s we were asked to perform there. They put us in the middle of the rink and we performed as people skated round and round us. It was a very glamorous roller rink. I remember it being very dark. I wish I remember more, but we were probably a bit tipsy!”

The party couldn’t last forever. Flipper’s closed on October 29, 1981. I was heartbroken. In 1984 Esprit spent $14 million to open a flagship store in the rink’s old location. You can see it in a scene in LA Story starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Steve Martin. Remnants of an Esprit ghost sign are still visible on the side of the building. Today it’s a huge CVS. The curved structure has somehow survived its many owners. All that’s missing is a giant disco ball!

Alison Martino is a writer, television producer and personality, and L.A. pop culture historian. She founded the Facebook page Vintage Los Angeles in 2010. In addition to CityThink and VLA, Martino muses on L.A’s. past and present on Twitter and Instagram