Letting the good times roll for 41 years Bel Air rink remains virtually unchanged


Boston has Fenway Park, Chicago has Wrigley Field and Bel Air . . . well, Bel Air has its roller rink.

Maybe the old concrete-block and wooden structure, painted yellow and maroon, on Conowingo Road -- at the end of the U.S. 1 bypass -- is not as venerable as those meccas of baseball folklore.

There are no ghosts roaming within the 100-by-210-foot confines, but there are the memories of carefree times when, for more than 40 years, teen-agers sought entertainment, formed lasting friendships and, in some cases, found spouses.

The rink remains nearly the same today as the day it opened in 1952.

That was the year when Charles Durham gave up a career as a Maryland state trooper to become Charles Durham, entrepreneur. Today, Mr. Durham can still be found overseeing everything from skate rentals to the concession stand.

Recently, Karen Siler of Forest Hill rented the rink for two hours for a party for her daughter Sarah.

"My daughter really likes to skate so I thought she would enjoy having her party here," said Mrs. Siler, who paid her first visit to the rink as a 10-year-old with her mother, Lillian Sivertsen.

Sherry Keithly, who is in charge of parties, said the rink is available for such events on weekdays between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Over a year, the rink has dozens of private parties and church groups, she said.

Public sessions, with an admission charge of $3, are held Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings as well as Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

"Tuesday evening sessions are not heavily attended because it's a school night, but Friday and Saturday night crowds range from 125 to 175 skaters," Mr. Durham said.

"Times change, fashions change, music changes, but not the kids. We still get the ornery ones from time to time but, for the most part, our crowd is well-behaved."

Crowd control has never been a problem for the 84-year-old Mr. Durham.

"I never was shy about tossing out anyone who was not abiding by the rules of this rink," he said. "Sure, I'd get some lip service from them, but they knew I meant business. I wasn't about to let a few spoil things for the decent kids."

Many of today's skaters are children, and a few, grandchildren of those who first discovered the rink through church-sponsored bus trips from Baltimore years ago.

"I have many parents tell me about their first visit here," said Mr. Durham, a lifelong bachelor who lives in a 22-room Victorian house on a 222-acre farm in Darlington. "Some relate how they at first felt intimidated by the locals, but after subsequent visits, formed friendships that remain today. Some now live in Harford County."

Inside the building are a ticket booth and cluttered office, both finished in knotty pine -- a popular paneling in the 1950s. The concession stand, which at one time served hot dogs and hamburgers but now is limited to pizza, candy and snack food items, is to the left. Two soda machines stand against the wall.

Four rows of light blue wooden benches are aligned behind an orange guard rail. It is on these benches that customers lace up their skates before entering the rink, eat their snacks or sit out a few songs.

To the left of the concession area is the music booth, which contains a turntable, a cassette player and a reel-to-reel tape player.

Mr. Durham notes that he supervised construction of the building, which took six months and cost $150,000.

"I knew exactly what material I wanted in this building," he said. "The floor is made of hard maple from Michigan, the walls are nearly 2 feet thick, and the roof trusses are made of oak.

"I've been told by many local builders that this is the best-constructed building in the county. They said that at today's prices and using similar material, it would probably cost about $500,000 to build.

"The floor is special and every two years gets a fresh coat of polish to protect and preserve the finish," he said. "You won't find another like it anywhere on the East Coast.

"Floors cost thousands of dollars, and the most expensive is Michigan maple, which is very hard and knotless . . . [and] very expensive," Mr. Durham said. "It's paid for itself. . . . I don't know of any other rink using that type of wood. The floor's been down almost 40 years, and it still looks like new."

Obviously, he's proud of the rink, and it is a big part of his life.

"This place has brought me everything I have ever needed. It provided me with a nice income but, most of all, it put me in touch with thousands of real nice people," he said. "At first, the kids called me Mr. Durham. The next generation referred to me as Pop Durham. Now, well, it's plain Pop Pop."

There is no Green Monster, as at Fenway, or the Bleacher Bums of Wrigley, but there is the call for "All skate!" resonating off the walls as it has for 41 years.

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