Let's Go Skating: Ann Arbor's Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, 1938-1951

Ivory Palace Rollerdrome Sticker, Circa 1945

The 1930s saw a surge in the popularity of roller skating across the United States. Many Ann Arbor business owners saw opportunities for profit in this 'Golden Age of Roller Skating', which lasted until the 1950s. One response was a tiny brief in the October 21, 1938 edition of the Ann Arbor News stating "Roller skating. Ivory Palace roller drome under construction. Opening date will be announced soon."

Theodore 'Ted' Wolff, Ann Arbor builder, was in his late 40s when he decided to construct a roller skating rink. He lived a busy life downtown on Huron Street with his wife, children, step-children, son-in-law, mother-in-law, sister, and a tenant who rented a room. The Washtenaw County Fairgrounds on Jackson Road, which is currently the site of Veterans Park, had a space that suited his plan. He hired William J. Moules, local electrical contractor, to wire the building, and Ann Arbor's Fingerle Lumber Company provided the new maple flooring for a smooth skating experience. Advertising for the rink's grand opening, which happened December 6, 1938, encouraged guests to "Bring the Ladies".

Unidentified Couple Outside The Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, Circa 1945

Ann Arbor News, December 6, 1938
The Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, as the new roller rink was known, became a popular recreation venue in Ann Arbor. Admission was 15 cents for children under 12. In Wolff's continuing effort to "bring the ladies", admission for women was only 20 cents, while men paid 30. It was not the only skating establishment in the area, Ypsilanti's Imperial Roller Rink being a larger competitor, but it had a steady business. 

In July and August, the rink paused roller skating for the summer, and the building became a dance hall on Wednesday and Saturday nights. For the first summer season, 1939, Wally Maynard and his orchestra were hired. Wally, a saxophone player and recent Ann Arbor High graduate, was an admired local musician, and likely to draw a crowd. Ladies were admitted free on Wednesday evenings, while men paid 40 cents. In late August 1939, when the Washtenaw County Fair was in session, the Ivory Palace offered nightly dancing with music provided by Harvey Judson and his Aristocrats. In September, the Ivory Palace celebrated the end of summer by resuming business as a roller skating rink.

Business held steady through 1940, with another brief summer break from skating. The most notable event of the year happened on November 19th, when Casper Grammatico and Phyllis Kinney were married at the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome. Their wedding service, which started at 10:30 p.m., had the entire wedding party wearing roller skates. Harold P. Marley, local Unitarian minister, officiated the ceremony. Whether or not Reverend Marley was on skates is a mystery. Through the years, many local residents pointed to the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome as where they met their future spouse.

The Wedding Of Phyllis Kinney & Casper Grammatico, November 19, 1940, Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, Courtesy Of The Kinney/Grammatico Family. Look closely to see Theodore Wolff's building advertisement on the wall.

The Rollerdrome made the newspapers in April 1941 when an 18 year old named Carl Lee entered the building through a window and stole money from the vending machines. When police arrested him, he was carrying three woolen skating socks filled with coins - $12.75 in pennies and $9 in nickels and dimes. He was bound to circuit court and given probation. It is assumed that $21.75, and three misshapen socks, were returned to Theodore Wolff.

World War II changed the climate of Ann Arbor, including the roller skating industry. Like so many roller rinks across the country, the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome adopted the pro-troops slogan of Vim Vigor Victory, and locals flocked to the rink for a brief respite from the conflict. Countless young men and women left the city and entered the service. This list included local band leader Wally Maynard, along with Ted Wolff Jr., son of Ivory Palace's proprietor Theodore Wolff. Despite the war, the Ivory Palace remained open. In 1944, several employees united as a team and joined the Ann Arbor Duck Pin Bowling League. Games were played at the Duck Pin Bowling Alley on Washington Street, and the Ivory Palace team was highly ranked. In 1945, a WWII victory party was held at the roller rink and a photo of the event was mailed to President Harry Truman. To the relief of many connected with the Ivory Palace, Wally Maynard and Ted Wolff Jr. both made it home safely from the war.

1945 Victory Party, Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, Accession Number 60-160.
A fairgrounds bus ran from downtown Ann Arbor to the skating rink, making it easily accessible for University of Michigan students. In November 1947, charges of racial discrimination were raised against the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, and accessibility for black students was publicly questioned. The incident was never mentioned in the Ann Arbor News. A letter was written to the editor of the Michigan Daily stating "Saturday evening a group of four - two Negroes and two whites - went to the Rollerdrome Skating Rink in Ann Arbor. The two Negroes were refused admission. A "private party" was in progress. The others could have gotten in had they wanted to. Since when are private skating parties held on a Saturday night? Is this rink really so prosperous that it can afford to limit its attendance on a date night? As members of a university in which discrimination is condemned, situated in a country where discrimination is SUPPOSEDLY condemned, it is our duty to protest such behavior. It is our duty - if need be - to boycott this rink until its policies are altered. Only then can a supposition be turned into a reality." It was later reported that the Inter-Racial Association would investigate, but no follow-up articles were ever published. If business at the Ivory Palace was affected, it is not known.

Ann Arbor News, October 21, 1949

Saline Observer, December 6, 1945









Business at the Ivory Palace remained steady into 1951, with the rink turning into a dance facility for the summer months. But in October 1951, the story of the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome came to an end. The final mention of the rink was published in the Ann Arbor News on October 26, 1951. "Halloween skating party, Ivory Palace Roller Drome, Sat., Oct. 27. Door prizes. - adv." Just a few days later, on October 30, 1951, the front page headline of the Ann Arbor News declared "Ann Arbor Offered Fairgrounds Property for $127,500". The Washtenaw County Fair Society was willing to sell the fairgrounds land to the city, which had long been hoped for by city officials. Ann Arbor dreamed of converting the space into a fire station, and a variety of recreational facilities. All existing buildings, including the skating rink, would be removed from the property. There was no official announcement of the closing of the Ivory Palace in the newspaper, so it is unclear when business actually ceased. What IS known is how it took several years for the sale of the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds to be finalized.

Theodore Wolff died in July 1953. Curiously, his obituary included no mention of the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome. His retirement in 1947, the same year of the racism allegations, was noted. If those two events were related is unknown. It may be assumed that the final years of the Ivory Palace were managed by someone other than Wolff.

In January 1954, when city officials were still dealing with red tape around the sale of the fairgrounds property, an advertisement appeared in the Ann Arbor News announcing the opening of Broadway Furniture. "We have made the former roller skating rink into a FURNITURE SUPER MARKET - over 9,000 square feet of floor space full of new furniture and appliances." Eventually this business, too, would close and the building was torn down. Residents of our city now know the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds property as Veterans Memorial Park. On the site of the Veterans Memorial Park Pool & Ice Arena once stood the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome. It seems fitting that skaters fall on ice, where skaters once fell on maple flooring, continuing a long legacy of recreation and bruised knees.

Washtenaw County Fairgrounds From The Air, October 1951. The arrow indicates the location of the Ivory Palace Rollerdrome, later the location of Veterans Memorial Pool and Ice Arena on Jackson Road.