Saturday mornings on occasion found me at the Polar Palace, a block south of Melrose Avenue at the corner of Van Ness Avenue and Clinton Street. I was a teenager, no longer riding the red car from the San Fernando Valley into Hollywood. When I was fourteen, Mother decided I was old enough to take care of myself while she was at work.
So the Polar Palace it was, with its painted mountain scenes on the end walls, a neat place to meet girls. It was the largest indoor ice surface in the world—110 by 230 feet. It cost 75 cents to enter, 25 cents as a spectator. A lady named Gracie sat at the cashier’s booth. She’d been a Mack Sennett bathing beauty years before.
One Saturday when I was there, the pretty blonde actress, Vera-Ellen, was skating at the rink. She was practicing for her upcoming film, White Christmas. She played the role of Judy Haynes. Rosemary Clooney played her sister, Betty. Bing Crosby as Bob, and Danny Kaye as Phil, pursued them.
In the finale, Bob and Betty declare their love, as do Phil and Judy. The background of the set is removed to show the snow falling in Pine Tree, Vermont. Everyone raises a glass, toasting, “May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white.”
That reminds me. Christmastime found my mother meticulously decorating a silvertip pine with tons of tinsel. My wife, Barbara, says I inherited Mother’s idiosyncrasy. She laughs whenever I walk through the kitchen and can’t resist straightening items on the counter, or the times I walk through the garden and have to pull a weed or two.
Anyway, the Polar Palace with its hanging incandescent lights was a fun place, but it wasn’t insulated, so a sort of fog misted inside. I dressed for the cold conditions. Oftentimes, in the summer, as much as four inches of water accumulated on the surface. I recall little lumps of ice that formed from condensation caused by an overhead pipe that dripped rusty water. The pipes held the lights. At least the rust stains alerted skaters to the crusty deposits that were hazardous.
The Polar Palace, a huge wooden structure, burned down in 1963. The cause: faulty wiring in the coffee shop. After the fire, it was discovered that permafrost went as deep as forty feet into the ground. For many years the property was not suitable to build upon.
The coffee shop was where all the non-skating action occurred, where I flirted with the pretty girls. They made hot and cold sandwiches, including a great hot meatloaf sandwich, but my favorite was a bear-claw heated on the grill in sizzling butter.
What I called the professional skaters, paid 50 cents a month for personal lockers.
The guards, a guy named Dick and several others, resurfaced the ice (this was pre-Zamboni) with hand scrapers and a device that looked like a ten-gallon drum with a wide strip of chamois hanging from it. The drum contained water and fed the top of the chamois, which laid a smooth surface on the ice. The corners used to have a big buildup of ice from the hoses.
Cliff Oddson was manager of the skate shop, and was one of the best sharpeners in town. He’d skated in Sonja Henie’s shows and a couple of her movies. He had a great collection of antique skates which all went in the fire. A guy named Bob also worked there.
In 1954, the U.S. Nationals were held there. Tenley Albright was crowned national champion for her second women’s singles title.
I have wonderful memories from those Saturdays—the music, the smell, the cold, the sounds of skaters whizzing past me. The Polar Palace seemed so huge back then.