World on Wheels, the legendary Mid-City roller rink that shaped L.A.’s early hip-hop scene and became a haven for neighborhood youth before being forced to close in 2013, is set to reopen this summer.
Tommy Karas, the new owner of the business, says he signed a lease on the building last fall and has been working since to gut and renovate the place into what he calls “a 2017 version of a roller rink, to the highest end.” He’s still waiting on licensing from the city — including the potential of a liquor license — and expects the opening is at least a month away.
With the help of rapper Nipsey Hussle, who is among the rink’s biggest champions, Karas is looking to rebrand World on Wheels as a place where celebrities and locals alike will want to hang out, grab a bite or watch a game on TV long after they’ve finished skating. “I don’t think roller rinks are dead,” Karas says. “I think the owners of roller skating rinks are dead.”
The roller rink and attached bowling alley sat vacant for nearly four years after its parent company, AMF Bowling Center, filed for bankruptcy and lost its lease on the building, spurring community outcry and a years-long grassroots campaign aimed at saving the rink. Some activists early on proposed the city should buy the property and turn it into a youth or community center; others put their faith in potential buyers like Snoop Dogg, who sang about the roller rink in his 2011 song “The Way Life Used to Be” and at one point was rumored to have put in a bid on the property. (His publicists did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
Karas, a former nightlife impresario who grew up in Chicago and built his career managing clubs in Las Vegas, Miami and New York before moving to Los Angeles seven years ago, says he’d become disillusioned with the bottle service scene, in which "if you don’t have $3,000 to get a table, you’re a nobody.” He’d been looking to invest in a more low-key, entertainment-oriented venue — a bar with a bowling alley or an arcade, for example — when he stumbled upon the strip mall property near Midtown Crossing, where Venice, Pico and San Vicente come together.
Karas’ friends warned him that other bar and club owners had looked at the roller rink repeatedly over the years and either decided it would be too much money and work to renovate, or were turned down by its landlord, James R. Young of Midtown Shopping Center Associates. (Young's office could not be reached for comment.)
“One thing I kept hearing was, ‘But you can’t get it. But you can’t get it. But you can’t get it,’” Karas says. “That’s already a bad thing for me, because once somebody tells me I can’t have something, it’s over. That’s really when I go after it.”
When Karas began rehabbing the building — originally opened in 1981, destroyed in the 1992 riots and rebuilt along with several others in its shopping center — it was easy to see why so many others had passed on it. “The space was horrific, probably one of the most horrific spaces I had seen,” he recalls, describing caved-in walls, beaten-up floors and plumbing that needed significant repairs. “It was 30 years old. It was just a nightmare, an absolute nightmare.”
Of course, resurrecting a place like World on Wheels takes more than just time, money and physical labor. It also requires an understanding of its significance to the community that considers it so sacred that some have compared it to a place of religious worship.
“It was like a church almost,” says Derek Tucker, who learned to skate there as a kid and remembers returning every year with summer camp groups. Now 45, he says he started taking his kids to the roller rink about 7 years ago to help him get through a divorce and eventually became such a skilled skater that he got hired to work there as a skateguard. “It was like a psychiatrist’s office, a place you would go to clear your mind, get your stress off of you, get a good workout in the process.”
Terry Lewis, a fellow skater and activist who campaigned at City Hall to preserve the rink, says its closure also left a void for kids in the neighborhood. “It was like a refuge, if you will, because it was an inner-city rink,” she says. “So people who were having trouble at home, gang members, families who had lost loved ones, could come and be part of the rink family.”
After World on Wheels shuttered, many of its most serious skaters were left feeling like “nomads,” Tucker says. “All of the L.A. skaters that live in L.A. proper now were relegated to going to Orange County or Chino to skate.”
Skateland, the only other rink in the city of Los Angeles, is about 25 miles away in Northridge, and the Moonlight Rollerway in Glendale is not particularly accommodating to “urban skaters,” Tuckers claims, since it banned the use of fiberglass wheels, which are favored by many who skated at World on Wheels.
Even before taking over the property, Karas — who says he grew up going to the now-demolished Rainbo Roller Rink in Chicago — had heard stories about how World on Wheels once served as the broadcast home for the hip-hop station KDAY. But it wasn’t until he got a FaceTime call one night from rapper Nipsey Hussle, who grew up in Watts and spent weekends skating at World on Wheels in junior high, that he began to really understand its legacy.
“This is like the Coliseum, the Forum, like Crenshaw High School, like the Hollywood Sign, you know what I mean?” Nipsey says, overwhelmed with excitement. “As far as L.A. staples, you have to put World on Wheels in the same convo as a Magic Johnson jersey.”
Nipsey had heard through the grapevine that Karas had acquired the property and soon discovered they had a mutual friend from Playhouse, the Hollywood nightclub Karas used to manage and Nipsey used to frequent. Karas welcomed the approval from a local artist whom he admired, and Nipsey was eager to act as a voluntary consultant for the project, which he felt would attract value to an often-overlooked part of town.
“It gives access to a different type of person, because the kids who go to World on Wheels can’t afford to go to Playhouse and spend thousands on a table at minimum and buy bottles all night, or they’re not 21,” Nipsey says. “It’s a divide. Once you cross Wilshire, that’s a different demo.”
Like many who spent a good chunk of their adolescence at World on Wheels, Nipsey remembers most fondly the legendary "7-on-7" skate nights, during which parents would drop off their kids for a coed sleepover from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. the next morning.
“You wasn’t cool if you didn’t do a few things in middle school,” he says. “If your momma didn’t let you go to the 7-on-7, you ain’t crackin.” He takes a drag from his blunt, then pauses. “Now thinking about it, I got an 8-year-old daughter. I’m not dropping my kid off to no 7-on-7.”
Even though 7-on-7 parties likely won’t return anytime soon, the words “Seven to Seven” are now immortalized in an arch-shaped piece of art in the main arcade room, an Easter egg for the old-school skaters.
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But much of the space today is unrecognizable from its past life. The multicolored carpeting has been torn out and replaced with sleek, dark flooring. The walls that were paneled with wood are now covered in graphic street-style murals painted by local artist Tonia Calderón, and there are now private rooms with with flat-screens, glass doors and club-style couches — a holdover from Karas’ days booking tables at nightclubs. The ceilings have been raised, the cafeteria is now a dining lounge that looks like something you might find in a Las Vegas casino, and the arcade games will soon include new offerings like virtual reality golf. (One fixture that remained intact is the DJ booth, where Karas hopes to enlist talent like Dre Sinatra and Don Cannon.)
Veteran skaters like Tucker acknowledge that World on Wheels may never look or feel the way it once did. Lewis, who along with Tucker manages the Save World on Wheels Facebook page, worries about admission prices going up and crowds so massive that there’s little room to skate. But more than anything, she’s ecstatic about finally getting back her home away from home, a victory for which she never gave up hope even when others did.
“I can’t even explain the joy,” she says. “I feel like I’m giving birth.”