Roller rink rises from the ashes Dream: In 1959, Harry W. Morfoot built 'the rink in the middle of the cornfields.' Fire destroyed it in 1992. Last month, the rebuilt facility reopened.

February 22, 1997|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

It's Saturday afternoon at Sportsman's Hall Roller Skating Center in Upperco, and 77-year-old Harry W. Morfoot is back where he belongs -- sitting in his elevated booth watching the world roll by.

It's been too long since Morfoot last presided over a swirl of skaters at his beloved rink near the Carroll-Baltimore county line. In June 1992, an arsonist set fire to Sportsman's Hall, Morfoot's monument to his passion for skating. Built in 1959, the rink became a local institution and a favorite spot for family outings, children's birthday parties and junior high romances.

Morfoot single-mindedly worked to rebuild his rink, in the face of serious health problems, a difficult divorce and endless construction delays. When Sportsman's Hall reopened Jan. 4, skaters were waiting.

"We had them lined up from the lobby to the parking lot and had to turn away 200 people the first night," said Morfoot, who's glad to be back in his rink-side perch, playing music to skate by.

"I can see every face in the rink, I can watch the practice rink back there, I can see the front lobby and people coming in, I can look outside the windows and see what the weather's doing," Morfoot said. "You're not just a DJ up here; you're the rink manager, watching the whole operation."

Morfoot grew up roller skating in the streets of Baltimore and played for 15 years with a roller hockey team called the Baltimore Bees. At 39, the former surveyor and poultry and dairy farmer realized his childhood dream, opening Sportsman's Hall Roller Skating Club of Upperco, also known as "the rink in the middle of the cornfields."

"We had the best sound system, the best organ music in the country," Morfoot recalled. "It was just an outstanding rink."

Morfoot was in Pennsylvania on June 21, 1992, the day Sportsman's Hall burned. When he received word and returned six hours later, more than 200 people were standing in the parking lot and in the field across the street.

"There was an outpouring of sympathy that doesn't happen 'til they put you 6 feet under," Morfoot recalled. "At least I was on top of the ground and could see what was going on."

It was the sight of three burly men "crying like kids" over the destroyed rink that persuaded him to rebuild.

Morfoot's family urged him to retire on the $1 million Lloyd's of London insurance settlement, but he put the money toward a new rink.

"I shouldn't have built it, but when you get old you're not much good for anything," he said. "I thought if I could put this back one more time, it would be my tombstone."

Despite his sometimes gruff manner, Morfoot is sentimental about the rink where five generations of his family have worked and skated. He drops his dour demeanor when a great-grandchild visits him in the booth or an old customer stops by to say hello.

"It's good to see all my old skaters," Morfoot said.

All in the family

Morfoot is grooming his son Barry, 36, to take over the rink, and other family members usually are on hand to help during skating sessions. Barry Morfoot said his father was overwhelmed at the response to the rink reopening, but things have settled down. Skating sessions at the rink -- open Wednesday and Friday nights and Saturday and Sunday afternoons and evenings -- usually draw between 250 and 750 skaters.

"He's like a kid in a candy store," Barry Morfoot said of his father.

Though he's in poor health after several heart attacks, Morfoot manages to bark orders at his son and climb to his seat in the booth, where he sorts through his compact discs and tapes for good roller-skating music. He adjusts his music selections to the crowd. If they're young and fast, he plays songs with a slower tempo to keep an orderly rink; for older skaters he plays country and western. Disco always goes over big.

"When they said disco's dead, I told them disco will never go out," Morfoot said. "It's got too good a beat."

Looking over his brand new rink under three shimmering mirror balls, Morfoot keeps a close watch on the crowd -- the show-off boys, parents with wobbly children and teen-age couples holding hands.

He'd be out there, too, but a knee injury 12 years ago ended his skating days.

"I love to mix with the people," Morfoot said.

During a recent Saturday afternoon session, skaters circled the floor to Morfoot's eclectic choice of tunes -- the Village People's "In the Navy," Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," and "Macarena."

"I guess I might as well put this 'Macaroni' on again," he said. "They like it."

Many of the adult skaters at the rink recalled their adolescent weekends spent at Sportsman's Hall. Nothing had changed much, they said, except the roller skates, which are more sleek and lightweight.

Robin and Jim Kriete of Eldersburg, who skated at the rink when they were students at Sykesville Middle School, were throwing a roller-skating birthday party for their 7-year-old son, Alex.

"I remember everything -- the hokey pokey, the limbo," said Robin Kriete, 35.

Parents pleased

"I thought the guys with the whistles in the middle were so cool."

Parents welcomed the return of the family-oriented rink.

"It's so nice to come back here after all these years," said Debbie Chupka, 41, who skated at Sportsman's Hall as a teen, and brought her daughter Nicole, 6, to the rink the night it reopened.

"They kept it the way it used to be, simple and nice," Chupka said.

As the Saturday session comes to an end, Morfoot slows the pace of the music. The birthday announcements have been made, the hokey pokey has been played and exhausted parents are dragging children off the rink.

"OK, that's the end of the session," Morfoot announces. "When you return the skates, make sure and tuck the laces in the tops of the shoes."

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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