Fire on ice
Palo Alto's Winter Lodge still has power to inspire a passion for skating in young and old
Olympic champion Brian Boitano has skated on ice rinks throughout the world. He even skated on a glacier in 1988. But some of his fondest memories took place at Palo Alto's Winter Lodge, where Boitano and his friends held numerous parties, he said recently.
Winter Lodge has been a Middlefield Road fixture for 55 years, and while public interest in other social pastimes might have waned and given way to land-use pressures (witness the demise of the Midpeninsula's bowling alleys), the lodge — and skating — are thriving in Palo Alto.
The family-friendly experience that founder Duncan Williams envisioned in 1956 endures. It has expanded to include elementary school physical-education classes, special-ed programs for children with autism, ice hockey and "broom ball," and "date nights" that attract adults.
"It has one of the largest skating schools in the U.S.," Executive Director Linda Stebbins Jensen said, noting its 1,000 students.
Though Winter Lodge has one of the smallest skating surfaces in the country and is only open seasonally, that hasn't detracted from its charisma.
"I really miss it. I'd like to have it in my backyard," Boitano, who grew up in Sunnyvale, said.
He and training partner Yvonne Gomez now hold skating parties around Christmas in San Francisco, where he resides, but many of their guests still reminisce about the early parties at the lodge, which was then called the Winter Club, he said.
"I loved being outdoors. It's a fun rink to be festive. Winter Club made you feel like wearing a hat with a big pom-pom," he said.
Jensen said the lodge's goal is just that: to create a festive, fun, no-pressure atmosphere where people of all ages can build relationships and skate. Williams built the rink for that purpose, she said.
This past holiday season, every elementary school in Palo Alto except Walter Hays held a family night at the lodge for the entire school, she said.
On a recent Friday evening, families descended on the lodge, lining up for tickets to a holiday party held by Mariano Castro Elementary School in Mountain View. The party at Winter Lodge is in its third year, said Sandy Lubkin, an event organizer. The lodge provides an environment where the kids can just be kids, she said.
Unlike other rinks, there is no competitive-skating program at Winter Lodge. Jensen said the lessons allow kids to progress in their own way and at their own speed. Skaters come from as far away as San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey and Sacramento to get that "real feeling of skating outdoors," Jensen said.
Jensen thinks the outdoor ambiance and no-pressure atmosphere are part of the draw.
"It's the only completely recreational rink that we know of in the country," she said.
As daylight dimmed, the silvery leaves of eucalyptus trees surrounding the rink shone with a frost-like patina. A flame flickered in the outdoor brick fireplace, which was built with donations to commemorate the lodge's 50th anniversary in 2006. Donors bought bricks, on which they wrote remembrances of happy times spent on the ice.
Dozens of late-afternoon skaters of all ages wobbled and glided around the rink in circles to the strains of "Frosty the Snowman." Little kids wore crash helmets; older kids sported knit caps. A few donned Santa hats. A clutch of "tween" girls giggled excitedly, holding onto each other for support.
At the opening notes of "Let it Snow," the crowd suddenly surged to a spot where an overhead snow machine spouted snowflakes from painted, cutout clouds. Heads pointed skyward with tongues and arms outstretched, trying to catch the flakes of "snow" — specialized nontoxic foam that Disneyland uses for its winter show, Jensen said.
The flurries stuck to heads and jackets. On warm days, they stick to T-shirts. That incongruity — eucalyptus trees, a Mediterranean climate and sleeveless skating — is also part of the draw. Winter Lodge is the only permanent outdoor rink in the flatlands at sea level. Most are located in higher, colder elevations, Jensen said.
As more people from northern states and colder climates have migrated to the Bay Area, they have brought their love of skating, said Marvin Lee, 86, the oldest of three generations of Winter Lodge skaters and a longtime ice-skating and ice-hockey advocate.
"When we came here, we found ice skating the perfect family sport," said Lee, whose father-in-law, Howard Preble, was a hockey coach in New England.
Lee and his wife, Alison, began skating at the lodge in 1963, when it was still called the Winter Club (see side bar). A retired San Jose State University economics professor, Lee said he would skate twice a week.
"I used it to shake off the cobwebs from the day," he recalled.
He stopped skating two years ago after falling a couple of times, but his sons and grandchildren have all skated at Winter Lodge and continue to skate wherever they live, he said. One son still plays hockey twice a week, and two granddaughters, who live in Mountain View, skate competitively at San Jose's full-size rink. But they still come to Winter Lodge for the sheer joy of skating, he said.
While other venues have faded away, Winter Lodge is a metamorphosing community asset that has withstood the test of time due to community and city support, proponents said.
After World War II, shopping centers built indoor skating rinks as a way to attract families, Lee said.
"There were rinks from Santa Rosa to San Jose," he recalled. Many were comparable to the Winter Lodge — odd shaped, small rinks where a number of the most successful figure skaters first blossomed: Peggy Fleming, Debbie Thomas, Brian Boitano, Rudy Galindo and Kristi Yamaguchi, he said.
But most such rinks have faded away. Successful regional shopping centers began closing the ice rinks to make way for more lucrative retail, Lee said.
"In many cases they were able to do so because they were located in new communities with community governments that didn't wish to interfere with their business operation, in spite of the fact that they would be losing a variety of essential community recreational benefits," Lee said.
Older communities organized to keep their community recreational rinks, however.
"Two efforts, one in Cupertino led by Attorney Patrick R. McMahon, who had two teenage children pair skating, and the other in San Mateo's Fashion Island, were successful in requiring the shopping centers to continue operating their rinks as promised in their original approved shopping-center development proposals," he said.
Boitano said he has seen the number of figure skaters on the ice steadily go down over the years. Some Bay Area rinks, such as the Sharks Ice at San Jose and Sharks Ice at Fremont, are managed by the San Jose Sharks hockey enterprise and appear more hockey focused, he said. Local ice rinks' websites show pictures of hockey teams, not freestyle or figure skaters, although those classes are offered at all of the rinks.
At Redwood City's Nazareth Ice Oasis, which has been around since the late 1970s, a 2008 letter to members announced new ownership, a name change and a shift in strategy to keep the rink viable.
"Joining and maintaining membership in the U.S. Hockey League will be one of the strategies that we will pursue," management noted.
Rink manager Hanna Hanhan said he has seen a shift away from individual skating toward team sports.
"There are more girls practicing hockey and more kids in teams, such as synchronized skating," he said.
The San Jose Sharks rink "has a whole girls league. They didn't have that a few years back," he said. And this season's synchro team at Oasis has increased from less than 10 skaters to 24, he added.
"Our Theater on Ice team is one of the best and won the bronze medal in the nationals in 2011," he said.
But Hanhan emphasized that each rink is different. In the last year Ice Oasis has seen an increase in younger skaters, with parents bringing in 4- to-6-year-olds, he said. The rink had only figure skating through the late 1980s but then added a glass partition and hockey. It added an adult hockey league in the early 1990s that now includes all ages from 18 to 72, he said.
One reason for the increased interest is low cost, he said.
"There used to be a perception that skating is expensive, but that isn't true anymore. The cost of skating hasn't increased like in other sports. It still costs about the same as a movie ticket," he said.
Jensen agreed that cost is an incentive for families to take up skating. Each year the skating school has seen a steady upward climb in class enrollment that has stabilized at about 1,000 students, she said.
"It's double what we were 10 years ago," she said.
Schools such as Keys, Castilleja and International School of the Peninsula also are instilling a love of the sport. The schools offer skating as a component of their physical-education programs, Jensen said.
Shermagne Gunn, lower and middle school physical-education instructor at Keys School, said the entire school, grades kindergarten through 8, participates in the winter skating program — 287 students. Middle school students skate during the month of November and lower school grades go in January, she said.
"Skating is one of those sports/activities (like skiing) that if one does not have exposure to while young and still close to the ground it is often never learned. It began as part of the PE program but has evolved into a school-wide winter tradition," she wrote in an email.
Students in lower grades take skating lessons; older kids skate and play broomball, a hockey-like sport in tennis shoes, using brooms, she said. Many students continue with private lessons after school or have play dates at Winter Lodge. The school has a "Family Skate Night" during which students and parents come together to share an evening of skating and show off new skills, she said.
"The kids get exposure to an activity that is both physical as well as social. Most kids are used to 'grass or court' sports, so when they are introduced to skating, some actually prefer it over the traditional team activities. For those who still prefer the 'grass or court' sports, they are able to see through the eyes of the classmate who struggles with a new skill. They see again how persistence and practice can lead to the success of individual accomplishments and how words of encouragement from a supportive friend can mean so much," she said.
Sally Swank sat on a bench alongside the outdoor rink, reminiscing about her youth at Winter Lodge in the 1950s and '60s. A Palo Alto native, Swank was supervising a friend's 6-year-old child during the free skate on a recent Friday afternoon.
"Skating here as a child was great. It's the same as I remember it. As a Paly teen, I went to skating parties here. In Palo Alto, you never see winter conditions. This is the closest thing to real winter," she said.
Jensen said the lodge might be more corporately managed now, but it has stayed true to Duncan Williams' ideal. Williams died at age 90 on April 11, 2011. He had retired from the lodge in 1983 after his lease expired. Jensen said she would always remember him as "like a grandpa to me. He had a way to run the business, and everyone was part of a family." Sometimes he broke even; sometimes he put his own money into the lodge to keep it open, she said.
In 1985 the lodge faced closure to make way for condominiums. Lee sought to join the interests of the Stanford Hockey Club and Friends of the Winter Club to rebuild the rink as an outdoor facility on public land, he said.
They formed Community Skating, Inc., a nonprofit organization, which came to the rink's rescue. A land swap was made and the lodge now rents its land from the City of Palo Alto. Community Skating, Inc. still runs the lodge, which is "completely, 100 percent operationally funded," and is financially stable, Jensen said.
But the threat of losing Palo Alto's winter treasure 26 years ago still prickles some fans, and they are wary of any inkling that it might be converted for any other purpose.
"Don't take this away," a woman chimed in, overhearing a discussion about the lodge. "We have enough condominiums. Leave this alone."
TALK ABOUT IT
Share your memories of the Winter Lodge on Town Square, the online community discussion form on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at email@example.com.