Bell’s Skating Rink
by Beth Stauffer
On Monday afternoon, I was at my doctor’s office way out towards the airport off Paulding Road when my nurse spotted my official New Haven Bulletin.Com press pass.
“Oh, where have you been? Or where are you going?” my nurse asked me, pointing at my press pass.
“I was just at Bell’s Skating Rink in New Haven,” I told her. “I’m writing a story about how the rink has been in the Dunlap family since 1926.”
Her face lit up. “I practically grew up there!” she said excitedly. “My parents actually met and fell in love there! Without Bell’s, I wouldn’t be here,” she added with a smile.
This random interaction revealed to me just how intricately Bell’s Roller Skating Rink is woven into the fabric of not just the New Haven community, but the entire surrounding area as well. Baseball may well be considered America’s pastime, but I’m pretty certain that a lot more people have fallen in love while roller skating than while playing baseball. That includes my own grandparents, Alonzo and Catherine Bricker, who met at an open skate in Indianapolis shortly before my Grandfather went off to World War II.
The current location of Bell’s Skating Rink, however, has a storied history that goes back even before the start of World War I. Back then, in 1913, Bell’s Skating Rink was an open air dance pavilion called “The Cuckoo’s Dance Hall”. Cuckoo’s was in operation until 1926 when Bell’s skating rink opened. Joe and Anna Bell, Italian immigrants, owned and operated the rink for many years until Joe’s death.
During those years, according to John Dunlap, who currently owns Bell’s and is Joe and Anna’s great nephew, the roller skates back then were something like what you might expect to see in a Flintstones cartoon. The skates strapped directly onto a skater’s shoes, and a key was used to lock them in place. The wheels looked like stones, and if they were to break, said Dunlap, it was almost as if they exploded. Skates have evolved dramatically over the years, Dunlap told me, from the Flintstone-esque skates of days gone by to the current day in-line skates that have nylon wheels that resemble ice skates.
Another thing that has changed over the years is the dress code at Bell’s Skating Rink. While these days the kids usually wear jeans and t-shirt to skate in, back in the days of Joe and Anna Bell, Bell’s Skating Rink actually had a dress code: the gentlemen had to wear collared shirts and slacks while skating, and the ladies had to wear skirts that fell below the knees and blouses.
Of course, the music was different back then, too. Back in the days of dress codes and Flintstone skates, Bell’s Skating Rink didn’t have a live DJ during open skate; it actually had an organ with brass pipes and big tubes. An organist would play live music for the skaters back then as opposed to the music on CD’s that are played these days.
“My Dad sold that organ for $800. I wish we still had it, it’d be worth a fortune!” said John Dunlap with a laugh, recalling the Bell’s Skating Rink pipe organ from days of old.
When John Dunlap was in the 6th grade, his father took over ownership of Bell’s from Anna Bell after the passing of Joe Bell. After serving in the Vietnam war, John returned home and was planning to head to Indianapolis to take his exam to enter the Indiana State Police Academy when his father told him he wanted John to take over the operations of the skating rink. “My Dad thought it would be safer for me than joining the State Police,” said Dunlap. “He said, ‘I’ll give you three days to give me answer or I’m putting it up for sale.’ I had just married my wife, Judy, so I thought I’d better talk it over with her first,” Dunlap reminisced with a laugh, adding, “and, here I am.”
From hearing Dunlap’s stories, it doesn’t seem like he has too many regrets about not joining the Indiana State Police. “It’s been a good business, and we’ve met a lot of interesting people. I mean, I’ve seen generations pass through here! I realize how old I am when I see four generations come through and kids tell me, ‘My grandparents met here!’ I often feel like Santa Claus when I go to the mall because I’ll hear people say, ‘Hey, that’s John! He’s from the Skating Rink!’” said Dunlap. He went on to add, “I love it in the summer when I get people in their late 80’s and early 90’s who stop and say ‘Me and my wife met here during the depression. Can we come in and see the place?’ They take a look around and say, ‘It doesn’t look anything like it used to!’”
These days, John is joined at the skating rink by his son, Eric Dunlap, just like he once joined his own father in the ownership of Bell’s. Eric in many ways grew up at Bell’s, and remembers getting to go to the rink with his Dad when his mother, Judy, would have to go to work. “My Dad would give me a handful of quarters and I’d play the pinball machine for hours,” Eric Dunlap told me with a smile. “It was a kid’s dream! Almost 40 years later, I’m still here. Hopefully the good Lord will provide me with another 40 years in this place.”
Both John and Eric are hopeful that Eric will one day take over the ownership of Bell’s, keeping the oldest continuously operating skating rink in the state of Indiana in the Dunlap family for yet another generation. “New Haven has been real good to us. It’s always busy down here 24/7; this place is almost like a truck stop anymore,” said John Dunlap with pride.
No doubt that the Dunlap family’s commitment to giving back to the community, especially to the children of New Haven, and its emphasis on providing a safe, family-friendly environment is a key to its long term success.
This is the third of four stories on Legacy Businesses located in New Haven, Indiana. Do you have a story you’d like to be told? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org