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Uptown in the News  

April 9, 2003
The Rainbo fades away
By Kevin Adair, Lerner Correspondent

Uptown residents will soon hear the sounds of wrecking balls and construction once again, this time claiming the historic Rainbo roller rink, 4812 N. Clark St., to make way for a condo complex.

The last group of skaters left the rink around 2:40 a.m. Monday, March 31. Within 24 hours, all 12 of the rink's huge mirror balls were lowered in preparation for the wall-to-wall sale of the building's contents April 2 and 3.

In the end, the historical and social value of the rink was exceeded by the property's real-estate value.

Rainbo and its parking lot sit on two acres that have seen many entertainment uses over the past 130 years. In the 1870s, a beer garden was built there. Rainbo's current building dates back to 1922, when it featured a theater/restaurant and an outdoor garden with lavish stage shows.

Michael Ross, a former security employee, said that in the 1920s, the building included a tunnel up Lawrence Avenue toward the Green Mill on Broadway, allowing gangsters and other patrons to escape Prohibition-era police raids.

In addition, the building has hosted wrestling, boxing, dog shows, 30 lanes of bowling, an ice-skating rink, and various performance uses from rock concerts to Big Band ballroom dancing.

In 1980, the Raibo's roller-rink surface was laid atop the space that for the previous 22 years had been maintained for ice skating. Skating patrons entered the building from Clark Street, then walked down a 100-foot hallway, passing the Rainbo Skate Shop on the way. The skate shop has since moved to Oakton Avenue in Skokie.

As they entered, many didn't realize that to their left was a colossal, vacant, crumbling chamber, whose walls feature neoclassic ornate plasterwork juxtaposed with an Art Deco ceiling of extended and retracted circular platforms. Surrounding the chamber on three sides, 20 feet above floor level, is a wide and deep balcony which suffered fire and water damage.

In the 1960s, the forward space of the building was the Kinetic Playground concert venue, hosting such acts as the Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead. By the late '80s, the former Kinetic Playground space had become one of the area's first skate parks, where skateboarders could navigate obstacles and display their skills on half-pipe-shaped ramps that propelled them nearly as high as the 40-foot ceiling.

But with the installation of the skate park came the destruction and removal of the original bar and lower-wall paneling, both made of fine imported woods. The skate park was only used for a few years before it was closed down due to liability concerns.

In the 1990s, the U.S. General Services Administration contracted to use the forward space of the Rainbo building for new Social Security offices, but then it halted in mid-construction, leaving the current gravel floor. A fire in the neighboring Crafty Beaver store contributed further to the building's structural problems, according to General Manager Mark Stern.

The Rainbo's patrons, staff, and management all gave different reasons for the club's recent demise, but several things are clear: Columbus, Ohio-based United Skates of America, which had owned the building and the business for 22 years, sold the building to a developer in early 2001, but continued to operate the business under a lease agreement. Patrons were notified at the beginning of March of this year that their beloved rink would remain open for less than 30 days more.

Many of the over 500 patrons who skated on the club's closing night shared stories of growing up and making close friendships inside the Rainbo.

"This should have been the last rink of all the rinks to close," patron Jesse Woolfolk said. "I've been skating for 42 years and we had nothing (else) on the North Side as far as skating. So I was here the day it opened. I used to work as a Redi-Mix truck driver. If I was here around lunch time, I'd jump out of my truck and run in here real quick and skate and jump back into my truck and go."

"Skating is one thing my wife and I have always had in common, and she's skating here with me tonight."

Employees who had just completed their last shift at the Rainbo, including bartender Darnell Harris, blamed poor management for causing the North Side's only roller rink to go out of business.

"I started DJ-ing here when they first opened and I left, then I came back here in '84 and I've been here ever since," Harris said. "This (closing) is about bad management. The Social Security Administration was going to put its headquarters in the other side of this building. They reneged on the contract, but they still had to pay. That money didn't come back to keep this place open."

(Editor's note: Following community protests over plans to move the Social Security office from Lincoln Square to the Rainbo building, the U.S. General Services Administration agreed to place it at its current location at Lawrence and Leavitt.)

Stern confirmed that United Skates' financial benefit from the Social Security contract was not reinvested into improvements at the Rainbo site. Stern also confirmed that the profits from the Rainbo had been used by United Skates to expand into additional rinks around the country, but few of the corporation's profits had come back to improve the Rainbo facility, except that a new game room, party room, and bathrooms had been added on the south side of the building.

But the Rainbo didn't close simply because the company had not further redeveloped the property. Stern emphasized that while profits had increased under his management, the roller-rink business was no longer providing its owners with the most profitable use of the property.

Stern said they notified the public as soon as they knew their lease was terminating, which forced them to cancel several events that had already been contracted, including Monday night hockey, spring break programming and concerts.

Stern dismisses the likelihood of any last-hour preservation attempts, noting that Rainbo had the building for sale for several years before it was purchased by the current owners, who left the rink untouched for over a year. Preservationists could have stepped in at any point, he said.

"Where were they three years ago when the building was up for sale?" Stern asked.

Jim Dvorak, United Skates president, pointed out that the monies generated from the Social Security Administration's pull-out were on the real-estate side of the ledger and were never intended to go to the skating company. Had the U.S. government agency not abruptly changed its plans, Dvorak said, its use of the other half of the building could have helped keep the Rainbo open.

Dvorak encourages Chicago skaters to visit the company's newer rink located at 79th and Racine, which was opened about two years ago.

But adults, kids, teenagers, and entire families are unlikely to trek over 20 miles to the nearest open rink. Young people from Uptown and neighboring communities will no longer have that venue as a constructive outlet for their energy.

Those present at the Rainbo on the night of its last hurrah will likely remember the amazing moves of men, women and children who were dancing, gliding, spinning and leaping, backwards and forwards, including moves reminiscent of singer James Brown, creating a Broadway-worthy performance that Chicago's North Side may not see repeated for many years to come.

Kevin Adair is a Chicago actor, writer, magician, juggler, stilt-walker and founder of Adair Performance.

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