Skaters on a Tuesday night at the Moonlight Rollerway round the rink as the Fabulous Dominic plays the mighty Hammond organ. Peter Gilstrap/KQED
Skaters on a Tuesday night at the Moonlight Rollerway round the rink as the Fabulous Dominic plays the mighty Hammond organ. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

You Can Find California’s Last Roller Rink Organist at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale

You Can Find California’s Last Roller Rink Organist at the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale

5 min

After dark, along the endless industrial stretch of San Fernando Road in Glendale, pretty much all you’ll hear is traffic.

But on Tuesday nights, there’s another sound.

“The Hammond organ is very strong. It fills the rink and you can hear it out into the parking lot. Makes people curious,” says Dominic Cangelosi or, as he is known professionally, the Fabulous Dominic.

At 86, he is the last roller-skating rink organist in California.

The Fabulous Dominic at the Hammond B3 organ has been keeping skaters happy since the early '50s.
The Fabulous Dominic, at the Hammond B-3 organ, has been keeping skaters happy since the early '50s. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

When he first sat down behind a rink organ, the world was a different place. It was the early 1950s, and roller rink skating was in full bloom in a postwar country looking for light recreation. To quote a period promo film made by the Roller Skating Foundation of America, “This is roller-skating, America’s favorite fun sport. A wholesome, year-round recreation. One of our truly great, All-American participant sports.”

That’s right around the time the Moonlight Rollerway opened its doors, and that’s also when Cangelosi started his musical career, at the original Moonlight location in nearby Pasadena.

“At that time in the ‘50s, there was nothing but live organ music in most roller-skating rinks around the country,” he says.

Business was so good that the Moonlight expanded, buying the Glendale rink in 1963. Cangelosi worked both places — he was one of three staff organists — but as the years went by, the glory days of skating to an organ began to disappear.

“Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I was still working as a staff organist, only part time because after Elvis Presley and the Beatles, rock 'n’ roll [records] came into the picture, and they kinda fazed out live organ music in the skating rinks.”

But that didn’t stop Cangelosi. He was determined to keep the sound alive for die-hard rollers who craved the human touch.

In 1985, he dropped $96,000 and bought the Glendale rink.

“Since I was the organist here for so many years and I took over the business,” he says, “I kept the live organ music going at least one night a week.”

That night is Tuesday. And Tuesday is tonight.

It’s almost 8, almost time for Cangelosi to fire up the mighty Hammond B-3. He sits and opens a spiral notebook filled with aging sheet music. But before he touches the keys, he’s on the microphone, a rare moment, offering a bit of simple Zen guidance that applies as much to a roller rink as it does to human existence.

“Do not stop along the rails. If you fall down, get up as quickly as you can.”

And then, the tradition begins.

The drum machine clicks off a midtempo beat, and the Fabulous Dominic kicks into a mellow version of the standard, “Ain’t Misbehavin.' "

And, as they have for decades, people start to skate clockwise under the giant mirrored ball. They’re gliding slowly, arms out to the sides. Some are awkward, some are graceful. And almost everyone is smiling.

It’s an almost David Lynchian moment of transcendent American beauty.

Queenie Black, left, with fellow Moonlight Rollerway fan Ava Garcia. Both are regulars on Tuesday nights when the Fabulous Dominic commands the organ.
Queenie Black, left, with fellow Moonlight Rollerway fan Ava Garcia. Both are regulars on Tuesday nights when the Fabulous Dominic commands the organ. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

Skater Michael Mannix has been here nearly every Tuesday for the last quarter-century.

“Dominic is special. He puts emotion into his music,” says Mannix. “His music makes me skate. I follow the music and I feel so happy.”

Queenie Black is back at the rink for the first time in three years. Before that, she was a longtime regular, and — like everyone here tonight — a big Dominic fan.

“The music is a nice, relaxing time,” she says. “And it’s funny sometimes, too, he’ll play modern songs, but he’ll have the organ playing like, toot de toot — ahahahaha!"

“Dominic adapts new songs as well as old songs, Broadway musical songs, and he plays all tempos. People come from all over just to listen to his music,” says Betty Palubeski, the rink manager.

Palubeski also works the register and the skate counter and pretty much anything else that needs doing in the place. She has been on the job for 26 years.

“Tuesday night, it kinda takes you back in time,” she offers. “Doesn’t matter how old you are, it makes you feel young.”

Betty Palubeski, Moonlight Rollerway manager the last 26 years, began skating at the rink as a child.
Betty Palubeski, Moonlight Rollerway manager for the last 26 years, began skating at the rink as a child. (Peter Gilstrap/KQED)

“We do have a following, they’re old-timers, and we’re getting new people all the time,” Cangelosi says. “A lot of young people that find it very interesting to skate to live organ music because it’s not heard anywhere else but in a roller rink.”

Cody Littlefield is one of those young people. He’s about to step into the rink. He has spiky hair dyed white, a nose ring, and in large gothic letters across the front of his throat, there’s a tattoo that says: LEAVE ME ALONE.

“(It’s my) first time. Never been here before,” he says cheerfully. “I love it! The music is sweet and it makes me want to skate.”

And then he leaves the walking world and joins the hypnotic, circular parade of skaters as Cangelosi’s organ playing guides them all into the only time machine with a mirror ball and a snack bar.

But what is the future for a roller rink with a live organist in California?

“I don’t know,” admits Cangelosi. “There’s not going to be any after I’m gone. I don’t have anybody looking to be a skating rink organist anymore.”

So the position could be open?

“Yes, it could be. If somebody wanted to step up, I’d be glad to train them.”

Cangelosi’s shoes are big and fabulous. Filling them will be no easy task. But for now, the organ is alive and well, and the Tuesday nights roll on and on.

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