1500 N. Central

From All Night Menu Menu Vol. 2 [2015]

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Craig Schweisinger opened the doors to Skateland USA on Saturday, November 16, 1984. He kept the converted roller rink going for almost exactly four years, but it only took a few months for it to become the most popular hip-hop club in the history of South Los Angeles. High schoolers mingled with gangbangers and roller-skaters who took their choreography seriously. A sign reading no caps - no colors greeted attendees at the door. Everyone was required to pass through an airport-style metal detector Schweisinger installed as part of his permit arrangement with the Compton Police Department. Schweisinger hated the local cops and preferred to use his own security detail composed of people from the neighborhood. His system of order was predicated on mutual respect: he gave it to every street kid who came in and they returned it to him in kind. The success of Skateland was no fluke. It gave Compton youth the all-ages venue they needed at the precise moment those teenagers were transforming the culture of the entire city. What was surprising was that Schweisinger knew nothing of rap music. A balding 38-year-old former surfer, he had grown up with the Beach Boys in nearby Torrance. He and the Skateland regulars became family, but in four years, his was the only white face in the house.

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1950 N. Central Avenue started its life as the Woodley Lewis Sportsman Bowl. In 1962, Lewis—a Compton native—took the money he’d made as a star running back for the Los Angeles Rams and invested in a 36-lane bowling alley with attached restaurant and cocktail lounge. Its opening marked the first wave of black entrepreneurship in Compton.

Next door to the Sportsman Bowl was the Dooto Music Center, an entertainment complex established by Walter “Dootsie” Williams, who amassed a fortune as a record producer: for the Penguins, whose doo-wop single “Earth Angel” became a standard, and then for a string of local black club comics, including Redd Foxx, George Kirby, and Sloppy Daniels, all of whom released their first LPs on the Dooto label. Dootsie’s complex was a combined recording studio, film and television production facility, and 1,000-seat auditorium, where acts like Smokey Robinson, B.B. King, and the Delfonics booked appearances. Williams envisioned a black-operated entertainment conglomerate: Compton’s own NBC.

The prosperous future that Dootsie Williams and Woodley Lewis envisioned for southern Central Avenue didn’t survive the 1965 riots. The bowling alley’s middle class patrons fled the neighborhood in the late 1960s. Lewis was subsequently arrested for bookmaking in 1970. Shortly after, the inside of the Sportsman Bowl was destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin. Dootsie relocated his investments to Mexico, leaving a young Compton hustler named Lonzo Williams to operate Dooto’s as a nightclub. During the fallow years, copper thieves stripped the building for every inch of pipe and wire.

As a young commercial real estate agent with an eye for investments, Schweisinger was invited to take his first look inside by way of a wide-beam flashlight. A series of sunlit cracks spread like white veins across the domed ceiling. When Schweisinger turned his beam onto the floor, he saw a lake of stagnant water covering all 36 lanes, the polished wood contorted like the tracks of a roller coaster. From the mud that covered the former lounge, area Schweisinger excavated a sales award from Chivas Regal. In 1963, the Sportsman Bowl had been their highest grossing merchant in South Los Angeles.

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The asking price had dropped to $300,000 for the 40,000-square-foot building and the three acres of land it sat on. People with money were scared to do business in Compton. Though he lived with his family in the Orange County suburb of Westminster, Schweisinger was at ease in the inner city. While growing up in the South Bay, he had worked shifts in the grocery store his father owned on Avalon and Imperial, two blocks north of the flashpoint of the 1965 riots. On the second night of unrest, the Schweisingers were glued to KTTV. Helicopter coverage showed hundreds running from their store with sides of beef, sodas, and anything else that could be carried out. V&F Foods was burned to the ground that August along with most every other business along Avalon. The Schweisingers’ insurance company classified the riot as an insurrection and refused to cover the cost of any damages. The only thing that survived was an unopened barrel of pickles. “Too fucking heavy to loot, I guess,” said Craig. He rolled the charred barrel back to Torrance and the kids on his block ate kosher dills for the rest of the summer.

The elder Schweisinger thought Craig was crazy to purchase property in Compton. To make his case, Schweisinger took his father on a reconnaissance mission to World on Wheels, a former bowling alley on Venice Boulevard that was converted to a roller rink in 1981. Craig hadn’t been skating since the days of the Torrance Rollerdrome. World On Wheels was another planet. To black teenagers, it was more than a floor on which to move in a circle: it was a nightclub in orbit. The deejays played music unknown to pop radio. The skating was beyond fluid. On weekends, hundreds paid cash at the door just to be part of it.

Newer establishments usually opted for a concrete rink coated with a thin layer of epoxy because it was cheaper and easier to maintain. Ignited by memories of the Rollerdrome, Schweisinger insisted on an all-maple floor, which he ordered from Wisconsin at the cost of $48,000. He repaved the parking lot and strung it with fringe. Woodley Lewis’s Googie-style signage was repurposed for a new era. The circular pans now spelled out rink instead of bowl. On top, instead of woodley lewis sportsman, it said skateland usa.

Word spread that Compton was getting its own rink. A World On Wheels veteran named Jerry Woodard offered to be the floor manager. Kevin Mallett, a promotions manager at KDAY—the first all hip-hop station in the country—offered free on-air advertisement. Eventually, even Lonzo Williams came over from Dooto’s to investigate the buzz. Knowing how important music was to the skating experience, Williams offered the services of the fledgling deejay team he managed. And so the grand opening of Skateland was sponsored by KDAY, with music provided by Lonzo and the World Class Wreckin’ Cru: 16-year-old Antoine Carraby, a/k/a Yella; 17-year-old Marquette Hawkins, a/k/a Cli-N-Tel; and 18-year-old Andre Young, a/k/a Dr. Dre.

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KDAY’s programmer and leading on-air personality Greg Mack paid to install a broadcast line so he could host “The Mack Attack” live from the floor of Skateland on Saturday nights. Schweisinger’s older employees warned against bringing in the rap crowd, saying it would ruin the skate business. He had no choice: he needed income from the concerts to keep the skate business alive. Soon Compton’s first fledgling rap acts were rolling through: Mix Master Spade and Toddy Tee; Joe Cooley; Uncle Jamm’s Army. Those shows were so popular that Mack started bringing out the big rap stars from the East Coast. EPMD, Queen Latifah, and the Real Roxanne were among those who made their L.A. debuts at Skateland, though Mack also had to take them to World On Wheels, lest his listeners accuse him of siding with one territory over another. The biggest show in Skateland history was January 2, 1987. Eric B. and Rakim had one release to their name—“Eric B. Is President” backed with “My Melody”—but the Long Island duo was already revered on both coasts. Unhurried and intimidating, their sound was antithetical to the uptempo hip-hop pervading the L.A. rinks. More than any previous, this pair of songs spoke to a new rap language coalescing in Compton. Skateland was permitted for 1,720. That night, they let in 3,000 and had to turn the rest away. Schweisinger was amazed at the nervousness New York rap stars betrayed while backstage. “We safe out there?” Rakim asked, referring to what he’d heard about street life in Compton. “Out there I don’t know,” said Schweisinger. “In here you’re safe.”

Dre and the other teenagers who had worked Skateland at the beginning were allowed to skip the lines and come to the rap shows for free. Employees and friends of employees always got a break from Schweisinger. “Somebody had to do it,” he said. “This was their chance to get out of their world. Their world was slinging drugs. Skateland was a refuge.” After concerts, Schweisinger and his crew would spend hours cleaning the floor, perpetually left littered with chewing gum, crushed Pepsi cups, and melted curl relaxer. He let his staff and their friends hang around through the long cleanup. Among the regulars was Eric Wright, a young Compton friend of Dre’s. While the rink was cleared of debris, Dre and Eric played records and improvised raps in the deejay booth. In the wee hours, when work was over, bottles of E&J were mixed with Pepsi and domino tournaments ignited. “I’d never seen dominoes played like that,” said Schweisinger. “They slapped them down so hard it nearly broke the fucking table. I still like the taste of E&J because of those nights.”

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Skateland never experienced the escalating violence of World On Wheels, whose mid-city location was its advantage and its downfall. It was situated on a shopping island in the middle of contested territory for three Crip sets and its immense unfenced parking lot offered quick escape onto both Venice and Pico. By 1986, gangbanging outside overshadowed anything that happened inside the rink. Drive-by shootings made the venue inhospitable to unaffiliated locals just looking to skate. Unlike World On Wheels, Skateland was owned and operated by a single entity. Schweisinger felt a personal responsibility for the premises. Because it was nestled deep in Blood territory—the property backed up onto W. Piru Street, the origin point of the entire gang—the property wasn’t subject to the turf wars that plagued its competitor. Despite the strict “no caps, no colors” policy, the crowd was typically a sea of red, but in four years Schweisinger experienced only two shootings: when a member of Mix Master Spade’s crew accidentally discharged his gun in the deejay booth, and when a local dealer was jumped at the entrance gate while picking up his kids from a Sunday skate.

The year Skateland opened, there were 212 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County. By 1988, that number was pushing 500. The street scene in Compton had become more vicious than anything Schweisinger had seen before. He considered himself lucky that he’d come four years without the bloodshed that befell World On Wheels. The property went on the market at the end of that September, just as Eric Wright’s first album hit stores. Backed by Dr. Dre, Eazy-E had debuted “The Boyz-N-The Hood” at Skateland the previous year, a few months after the Eric B. & Rakim show. A group called C.I.A. opened. Their lead rapper Ice Cube stole the night with a rhyme called “My Penis” set to the tune of Run-DMC’s “My Adidas.” Eazy, Dre, Cube, and Yella resolved to form a super group. In March 1988, Schweisinger hosted their first appearance together as Niggaz With Attitude. At Skateland’s peak, Schweisinger had satin jackets made up for everyone who worked on the crew or deejayed. On one occasion, they drove to World On Wheels to check out the competition and to skate. Schweisinger entered: a balding blond guy in his 40s, surrounded by team of black youths. While they were lacing up a gangster leered at them. “Oh, y’all from that Blood rink?” “No,” said Schweisinger. “We’re from Compton.”

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Skateland closed for good after a concert by Tone Lōc on Christmas Day, 1988. The following January, Schweisinger drove down to Mexico to sell 500 pairs of used skates to a rink in Tijuana. That spring, the debut album by a group of his former teenage associates would forever change the meaning of the name Compton. Between the headaches he endured as a rink manager, Schweisinger had always relished errands to Colby Poster Printing Company, in downtown Los Angeles. Ubiquitous on utility poles across the city, Colby’s fluorescent designs publicized political campaigns, boxing cards, and rock concerts without discrimination. When Schweisinger would go to pick up a fresh stack of 50 posters, the shop’s aging proprietor, Herbert Lee Colby, would always encourage him to keep two or three prints from each run for himself.

A few of Colby’s neon-backed block-type Skateland posters now hang in an office at Clemson, where Craig’s son Todd teaches mechanical engineering. His students refuse to believe that he ever met Dr. Dre. The Googie-style sign erected by Woodley Lewis still stands, though its face is blank. The fence that Schweisinger used to curtail drive-bys now protects the current on-site business. The rink itself is used as a storage facility for Kizure Products, a prominent vendor of irons, hot combs, and other hair styling tools. At this point, there’s no way of knowing if it’s still wired for broadcast. ◆