History of the 1973 Playland Skate Center

Historic roller disco Playland Skate Center turns 50

Written by Josh Conrad in 2023

Five years before the 1977 hit film Saturday Night Fever brought disco dancing into the mainstream, longtime North Shoal Creek business Playland Skate Center (8822 McCann Rd) opened their doors and offered a “modern” new experience for Austinites in 1973: two “football field size” roller rinks where you could skate to “top 40” music under strobe and black lights. By the end of the 1970s, with the 1979 films Roller Boogie and Skatetown U.S.A., the roller disco “fad” was a national sensation with multiple skating centers in Austin in addition to Playland including Hot Wheels (1606 Stassney Ln), Rollin Cross Texas (821 Brentwood St), and Skating Palace (525 Barton Springs Rd, next to Armadillo World Headquarters). Today, only Playland remains of Austin’s original roller discos, but the energetic spirit of the 1970s continues here today with DJ’ed skate nights and diverse crowds at all skill levels.

Histories of roller skating (such as this article and this article) describe how traditional roller rinks in the US dating back to the 19th century hired organ players to play rhythmic and repetitive music that synced with the rhythms of roller skating, but that after World War II traditional rinks began transitioning to hiring DJs to play up-tempo soul, R&B, and funk music, especially in Black communities. In the 1970s, dance music rose into the mainstream “top 40” led by Black and gay communities around the country, and, following this lead, roller discos began to be established which advertised themselves as welcoming and diverse spaces for folks from all walks of life. 

Founding Playland manager Steve Evans, a former Los Angeles police officer, focused on developing Playland into a welcoming place for diverse groups of kids who Evans felt needed safe community spaces. Newspaper articles also document Evans work building community through 24-hour charity “skate-a-thons” (inspired by Jerry Lewis telethons) and promotional parades in which groups of 50 or more skated from the Capitol north to Playland to raise money for muscular dystrophy and other causes. Playland also had an in-house disco dance troupe that performed for promotional events around town.

In the 1980s, Playland, once claiming to be the largest skating center in the state, converted one of its original two rinks into the Austin Antique Mall, and today, one can still see the original wooden skating floor and snack bar area among the booths of vintage furniture and jewelry. The other original rink, however, continues to host popular skate nights, birthday parties, and community events to this day such as the NSCNA Skate Party on September 23! 

On June 23, 2002, in what has proven to be Playland’s most significant historic event, the first all-female roller derby organization, later known as Texas Rollergirls, held their first public exhibition at Playland and subsequently kicked off an international roller derby revival that continues today governed by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA). While roller derby as a sport has been in existence as long as roller skating, the modern flat track sport that first formed at Playland emerged as a radically feminist women-run movement that rapidly gained popularity in the mid-2000s and today has hundreds of leagues worldwide.

Photos courtesy of Playland Skate Center.