Mike LayPort, who has the distinction of being the fastest roller skater in America, lives in a 22-room mansion off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, with (above, in descending order) his father, Lee, a realtor who in the mid-'40s converted the old Mack Sennett studio into a roller rink known as the Palace Arena; his mother, Vivian: his brother, Patrick, a former senior men's four-mile-relay roller-skating champion who now manages the family gift shop; Patrick's wife, Carolyn, and their children, Kathleen and Pat; his wife Donna, an artistic (or figure) roller skater; and Sam, a Labrador retriever.
The mansion was built by Mary Pick-ford in 1916, four years before she moved out to marry Douglas Fairbanks and built Pickfair. Lee LayPort picked up the estate for $60,000 in 1957; developers, who are interested in its 52,000 square feet of property, have recently made LayPort offers in the neighborhood of $520,000. "Which," says Mike, "would build an awful lot of roller-skating rinks."
Obviously, Mike LayPort is in no need of money, which is a good thing; unlike ice skating, there isn't any in roller skating and, for that matter, no future and no acclaim, except from other speed roller skaters. What there is a lot of is hard work, and often when Mike LayPort is skating mile after mile at the Santa Ana (Calif.) Skate Ranch he wonders if life wouldn't make more sense if he were sitting in the LayPort solarium listening to the ornamental fountain play, drinking Bubble Up and watching the Dodgers on color TV.
Once, before the Santa Ana Freeway cut through the orange groves and cornfields and before Disneyland and subdivisions filled the road with motorists, a rooster named Big Red strutted in front of the Skate Ranch. That was in more peaceful times, when the only other building around was Blower Brothers Mortuary, when the sky was still blue and when the murmur of roller skates on the barn's white maple floor carried faintly in the unpolluted air. Big Red never adjusted to the people who came to the ranch. He would watch their ankles moving toward him then, wings flailing, race them to the barn's entrance.
May 17, 1970
Mike LayPort, who first arrived at the Skate Ranch in 1963 at the age of 17, was quick to establish himself as the fastest speed roller skater in Big Red's territory. He was to become, six years later, the No. 1 speed skater in the U.S. and the most talented member of the first U.S. team to compete at a world speed-skating championship. But Big Red wasn't impressed. Even LayPort wasn't fast enough. "Every time I walked from my car to the barn that ornery old bird would come for me," he says. "He caught me twice and, Gawd, how he pecked at my legs." It is believed that Big Red was stolen one night in 1965 but, with his competition wanting and the world closing in, he probably just wandered south.
Today the roar of trucks along the freeway drowns out the rumble of roller skates. Barker Brothers Furniture store sits across from the barn, and Big Red's descendants huddle together, the yard now an asphalt parking lot. Inside the barn, though, little has changed. The chandeliers are made from wheels of wagons that once carted five-ton loads of sugar beets; milk cans are used as trash barrels; and parents help their children into skates and onto the floor, then settle down in tractor seats to listen to recorded organ music.
It is Sunday afternoon. Church is over, and the folks have driven from Glendora and Whittier and Gardena to bring their kids to the one-hour practice session at the Skate Ranch. Don Howe, who works for a La Habra Dodge dealer, stands at the lunch counter watching his 13-year-old son, Bruce, a national boys' relay champion, drift through the turns and work the short straightaways. "Speed skating is an activity which is helping my boy become a gentleman," Howe says.
Mike West works as a cable splicer's helper and lives with his Mexican wife and two pretty daughters in Azusa. His teen-age girls, Mickey and Sandy, are working laps along with Bruce Howe and 30 other skaters. Sandy, a senior at Azusa High, runs the 440 so well that her track coach asked her to give up roller skating and concentrate on making it to the Olympic Trials. Sandy refused, and last August, at the nationals in Little Rock, she became Intermediate Ladies' Division champion. Mickey, 16, displays even greater potential. "They're good kids," says West. "They have speed skating on their minds. They don't think about staying out late at night and getting picked up by the cops and taking marijuana. My girls have been offered pills, and they say, 'No, thank you.' Then they're called chicken 'cause they won't try them. When that happens Sandy always says, 'I'm a speed skater. You get on a pair of skates and we'll see who's chicken.' "
Mike LayPort leads the pack of skaters around the four pylons, ahead of Bruce Howe, the West sisters and the rest. Unlike them, he skates with his arms behind his back. His huge legs do the work, pumping and crossing, propelling his 200 pounds. He has led the pack for 70 laps—five miles—and now skates off the floor, leaving the younger and slimmer skaters to complete the final mile. LayPort is gasping for breath, hands first propped against his hips, then on his knees. He is out of shape and 20 pounds overweight.
Soon he is back on the floor, practicing starts under the direction of Grady Merrell, coach of the Santa Ana Speed Club (known by rival California clubs as the Chicken Skaters in deference to Big Red's memory). LayPort is hunched over the starting line, a ludicrous figure next to seven 150-pound skaters. When Merrell's whistle sounds he runs 14 steps on the rubber toe stops of his $80 skates and then begins to stride on the pine-and-maple English-made wheels. Going into the first turn, he is in fourth place. Then he jumps to his left, maneuvers through openings and floats by a pylon into the lead. "Just look at that," Merrell says. "No one his size has a right to lead at the first turn, but he finds holes you wouldn't think you could squeeze him through."
The practice is over, and LayPort takes off his skates and walks over to Mike West. "Still like your beer, Mike?" he asks, patting West's stomach. West grins. "Looks like the guy they call Ironman has turned into a marshmallow," he says. (LayPort has been known as Ironman since he won 10 of the 11 events he entered in the 1967 Southwest Pacific Coast Regionals.)
LayPort admits that "right now I can hang a stomach with the best beer drinker around." But beer isn't the reason for his excessive weight. Ever since a certain night 15 years ago he hasn't had a beer or smoked a cigarette. That night his father gathered 9-year-old Mike and his younger brothers, Patrick and Lee III, around him and said, "Boys, we're going to try something. Going to see if you like it." The LayPort children spent the evening drinking beer and whiskey and smoking cigarettes and cigars. "My large stomach comes from eating, not drinking," Mike says. "I drown my dreams in ice cream and soda pop. When I get ticked off at something I go to a soda machine that sells Bubble Up." Once he drank six quarts in 10 minutes. LayPort has an equally unquenchable passion for ice cream, and it is not unusual for him to consume two gallons at a sitting.
He fondly remembers a dinner hour in April 1964 when he was in Mount Sinai Hospital in Santa Monica, recuperating from an operation that removed protective tissue from his legs; they had become so musclebound he had been confined to a wheelchair. He discovered a cartload of supper trays outside his room. When his nurse noticed that the trays had disappeared she summoned the hospital dietitian, who asked LayPort how many meals he had eaten.
"Seven, I think," he said.
When asked to describe the world speed skating championships, held last December in Mar del Plata, Argentina, LayPort begins by telling of the 75¢ steaks at the Light and Power Hotel, where teams representing the 12 participating countries stayed. "If you pushed down too hard on your knife you'd break the plate," he adds.
LayPort begins his heavy eating as soon as the nationals end. Last August, after seven days of skating the floor of Little Rock's T. H. Barton Coliseum in successful defense of his five-mile title and winning the senior men's championship as well, he went to a Big Boy, where he had two triple-decker cheeseburgers, a double order of French fries and onion rings, two large Cokes and a banana split.
LayPort pays for his appetite in April. When not going to lectures at Los Angeles Valley College or reading business and finance textbooks, he runs on the college track and skates at the Ranch. He works out on the track every morning, doing a 440, an 880 and a two-mile in half an hour, and three days a week concludes the practice session with a three-mile run. July, the month of the Southwest Pacific Coast Regionals, finds him in top condition, able to run two miles in 12 minutes. "When I think of what I have to do to get in shape...." LayPort lets his voice trail off before adding. "Unless you really enjoy speed skating you want to hang it up."
The man who first glided across a floor on wheels didn't remain upright long enough to enjoy it. During the course of a visit to England in 1760, Joseph Merlin, a French inventor, demonstrated a pair of skates he had put together in his musical-instrument shop. Merlin strapped the contraptions onto his feet and took off down the length of a ballroom. Unfortunately, the skates could only go straight ahead, and he crashed into a huge mirror at the far end of the room. Roller skating languished until 1819, when another Frenchman, a M. Pettibled, patented a skate with three copper wheels. But it wasn't until 1863, the year James Plympton of Massachusetts developed a skate permitting sideway rotation, thus allowing the skater to turn, that the sport became popular.
In 1880 roller skating was a favorite pastime of New York society. Skating was ideally suited to the poor, however, and it took the Depression years to transform it from a fad, an oddity, into a slice of Americana. The man most responsible was Victor J. Brown, who managed a Newark, N.J. dance arena. In 1934 Brown dreamed up a stunt to boost business—a nonstop, 21-day roller-skating race. After all, he reasoned, hadn't dance marathons proved immensely popular? Brown built a banked wooden track over the dance floor of his arena in Dreamland Park. Fifteen three-man teams entered the race, which started at 9 p.m. on Feb. 7. Spectators wandered in and out for a 50¢ admission price, or $1 in the reserved section, and when they weren't at Dreamland they could follow the progress of the race in the Newark Star-Eagle. The paper carried daily box scores listing the leaders, dropouts and injuries. Personality sketches of the racers were also included. "Edward Mount decided to turn pro for the current grind in hopes of earning enough money to make a trip to Miami," one read. "Young Mount has been on the verge of quitting several times, but dreams of how nice and warm it will be in Miami drive the thought from his head. How nice the heat from the sun will feel on those tired feet."
Similar marathons were held throughout the country, and speed skating became a popular spectator sport. After the Depression these cruel spectacles were shortened and modified, the races lasting no longer than a ball game and featuring battles between villains and heroes. The result was the Roller Derby. The marathons, at the same time, promoted the purer, more legitimate—though far less entertaining—sport of speed skating. Amateurs raced one another before a handful of friends at local rinks in near obscurity.
Irwin Rosee is a director of the Roller Skating Foundation of America. For more than 20 years he has been fascinated by competitive skaters, and he has drawn several conclusions. "Speed skating is a race to nowhere," he says. "Why do guys like LayPort spend their lives in a sport that begins and ends in oblivion? What's the percentage? There's no recognition, no money, no future. They deserve the word amateur more than anyone else in sport. They're all simon-pure because no one would give them 20¢ for an endorsement or to compete. To me this is a story of nuts."
Not surprisingly, there are only 5,000 speed roller skaters in the U.S. They pay $5 for an annual membership card entitling them to compete in local meets: for senior men the events are the 440, 880, one-, two-, three- and five-mile races and an assortment of relays. Another $8.50 allows a skater to take part in regional meets, and for an added $12.50 he can enter the nationals. Then there is the expense of traveling to the meets and the cost of motel rooms and meals.
By contrast, the Italians (perennial winners of the world championships) skate at clubs sponsored by industry. Companies finance the travel and living expenses of their skaters even for local races. Speed skating is a favorite sport in cities of the south and north. Last year it gained complete acceptance as a national sport. One hundred top Italian skaters were given an audience with President Saragat and then got a special blessing from the Pope. But they sacrifice, nonetheless. "Speed skating requires dedication to training, diet and a quiet life when preparing for competition," says Ilio Lucchesi, coach of the national team. "The Italian skater's diet is boiled rice, grilled steaks and orange juice. No spaghetti, and giving that up is a true sacrifice for Italians."
Marisa Danesi is a tall, pretty blonde who lives in Brescia. She skates for the Pejo Club of that city, which is sponsored by Pejo, a mineral water. Signorina Danesi is the best female speed skater in the world, the winner of 12 international championships. "I love racing because I get a thrill from speed," she says. "I become very emotional and passionate when I race. It's part of my life. It's a vice, like smoking and making love. It gives me a nervous charge that I need to exist."
Marisa's counterpart, the finest men's speed skater, is Giuseppe Cantarella, a Sicilian accountant. He began skating at the age of 5 and was a member of the national team at 12. Cantarella has won six world titles in road and track racing, most recently in Argentina last December, when he skated the 500 and 1,000 meters on the banked, polished cement track in Mar del Plata's Sports Palace. Cantarella is more accomplished on skates than with words. He has roller-skated 20 of his 25 years because "it gives me a thrill to win, and I like the fresh air."
Mike LayPort also skated the 500 in the Sports Palace, finishing four seconds behind Cantarella and 17th in a field of 42. He and his three teammates were unaccustomed to racing on a banked track and to the style of international competition—agonizingly slow strategic maneuvering and then a frantic sprint to the finish.
The U.S. will continue to compete in the World's, and most likely speed roller skating will be a demonstration sport—along with artistic roller skating and roller hockey—at the 1972 Olympics. If the Olympic Committee is impressed, LayPort may find himself vying for an Olympic medal in 1976.
Mike LayPort learned to roller-skate before he could walk. He was born pigeon-toed—in fact, his feet were so turned in that his toes faced each other—and a specialist suggested roller skates. When Mike was a year old his father built a tiny cage out of lead pipe and tied miniskates onto Mike's feet. While his parents took turns holding his hands on to the top bar of the cage, Mike tried to move forward on his skates. He became so accustomed to skates that he soon left the support provided by the cage and glided around the house.
"As you can see, it's something I've done all my life," he says. "In fact, my entire life is built around skating—my schooling and even my marriage have been centered around it."
When Mike was 2, Lee LayPort took him to the family-owned Palace Arena. While Lee swept the stage on which Gene Autry, Tex Williams and Tex Ritter had performed at Saturday night dances during the war years, he watched Mike roll around the floor. Mike skated so many hours at the Palace that he often went to bed in tears, and he was so exhausted he had nightmares.
Mike spent virtually every weekend at the Palace until he was 13, when the rink closed down. Then Vivian LayPort began spending her weekends driving her sons to other rinks in the Los Angeles area. During the week Mike went through the process of getting educated. He learned to tap-dance at Hollywood Professional School, where he was one of four in a class of 35 who were neither in television nor the movies.
Of all the movie stars who showed up at the school, the one Mike really longed to see was Mickey Rooney. Rooney had played the part of Johnny (Fireball) Casar, a Roller Derby hero of the '40s, in a film entitled The Fireball. It is still Mike's favorite movie, one that he has seen, thanks to television, 18 times.
Mike next went to John Burroughs Junior High School in Los Angeles, where he was the only Methodist in an overwhelmingly Jewish student body. At Los Angeles High School, he played strong-side tackle and was one of only 10 whites on the 50-man squad. After two years at Los Angeles Valley College, Mike dropped out and joined the Marines, which gave him a chance to skate at rinks in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. He also wandered through Thailand looking for a rink built by missionaries; he had seen its picture in a roller skating magazine. He found it at the end of a three-mile footpath, surrounded by the jungle. Unfortunately, he didn't have his skates with him.
The Sunday practice at the Skate Ranch over, Mike Lay Port drives home. Sam, the Labrador, greets him at the door, holding what was once a basketball in his mouth. Mike's wife, Donna, is in the kitchen fixing dinner with his mother. They ask him how the practice went. LayPort goes to the refrigerator, takes a Bubble Up to the solarium and switches on the TV. There are trophies on the walls, medals won in races he was too young to remember and boxes of photographs from days at the Palace, the Bakersfield regionals and the 14 national meets he has skated in.
He is watching the Roller Derby on Channel 5—a match between the Detroit Devils and the Los Angeles T-Birds. "People ask me why I don't skate the Derby and make some money," he says. "Raspberries! You couldn't pay me $20,000 to do that stuff. I'd get bounced around until I looked like Sam's basketball. When my legs go I'll probably play goalie on a roller-hockey team. But you know what I'd really like to do someday? I'd like to be a sportscaster—any sport, not just skating. The trouble is, my voice is too high. But if I had my adenoids removed...." Like Big Red, the rooster, the competition is wanting and the world is closing in.