Roller skating is being seriously considered for the Summer Olympics," says skating professional Caroline Mirelli. But she doesn't sound entirely confident. "I may not be here to see it happen, of course. We've thought skating was going to be an Olympic event since I first started skating back in 1939," she admits.
Mirelli, who was inducted into the Roller Skating Coaches Hall of Fame in 1996, is president of the Memphis Roller Skating Club, which will present The Nutcracker on Roller Skates on Tuesday, December 21st, at the East End Skating Center.
"Usually, we just put on a winter show where we play some music, and the skaters do their routines," Mirelli says. "But this year one of the parents suggested that we do The Nutcracker. It's a real family show."
The East End Skating Center itself is a place for families, with blue wall-to-wall carpet and a festive 1980s confetti motif. Vintage video games line the walls. The turquoise tables and benches are Eames-era wonders, and purple mushroom-shaped stools sprout everywhere, providing skaters with a convenient place to plop. Like most of our local skating rinks, East End seems to exist out of time, and Mirelli who, at 72, seems mystifyingly young, fits right in.
A native of Chicago, Mirelli joined a variety show called the "Roller Skating Vanities" in 1947. That's where she met her late husband Tony, whom she describes as a "genius skater."
"I skated with the 'Vanities' for nine years," Mirelli says. "I started out as a lowly little chorus girl. But I also did makeup and anything else I could do to make a little extra money. I became the swing girl and so learned everybody else's parts. I was even the front end of a horse. I did a little bit of everything."
Tony and Caroline became well-known skating partners, and in 1960, a year after the couple moved to Memphis to open Skate Haven, the Chicago Skate Company made them a special pair of inline skates.
"We put them on," Mirelli says, "but they had a rubber wheel and that was a problem. You would push so hard, but you couldn't go anywhere. The [wheels] were a little wider than [contemporary] wheels but not by much. And the boots were very, very thin, so we didn't pursue it at the time."
Today, Mirelli's students wear both inline and four-wheel skates.
"Early on, a lot of coaches looked down on us because I was letting my skaters use inlines. They said you couldn't jump in them. They said you couldn't spin in them. But I was going to be up with the times. And you should see what these kids can do now."
Mirelli cringes when you mention ice skating.
"Every time one of my skaters comes in [the rink] wearing a skater's skirt people say, 'Oh, they must be an ice skater.' I get so tired of that, because I've been doing this for a long time. We can do everything that ice skaters do," she says. "And maybe we can do a little more. We're doing [four spins] now. And you should see some of the Italian skaters. Their jumps are so perfect they could do them inside of a telephone booth."
Mirelli's students aren't so bad themselves. In 2004, the Memphis Skate Club took home 10 national medals.
Mirelli continues to coach and skate, creating new freestyle routines and better training exercises. She attends annual coaching and judging conventions in Las Vegas, where she gets inspiration for new routines. She teaches private classes for children and adults, and she promotes the art and sport of roller skating whenever and wherever she can.
"I love roller skating. It's what I've done all of my life," she says. If Mirelli has one regret it's that more boys don't consider creative roller skating.
"The boys all want to play hockey," she says, ticking off the physical benefits of sports training. "[The hockey players] are all so strong," she says. "Give me a hockey player, and I can make a champion."
There will be two performances of The Nutcracker on Roller Skates on Tuesday, December 21st -- 7 and 9:30 p.m. Audience members are invited to stay and skate after the show. Admission is a donation of canned food for the Union Mission.
"Bringing the canned food for the mission is the most important part," Mirelli says. "You have to do whatever you can do to give back to the community." •
The East End Skating Center (363-7785) is located at 5718 Mt. Moriah.