"Go ahead, Mommy, breathe again."
A sultry female background vocalist utters a string of three breathy pants as P. Diddy's "I Need a Girl (Part Two)" thumps on the boomin' stereo system at Skate King, located at Kienlen Avenue and Natural Bridge Road in Pine Lawn.
"Go ahead, Mommy, breathe again."
Snap. Just like that, the 200 black adults on the King's Northern maple floor abandon the standard smooth glide for a freestyle brand of roller-skating that is uniquely St. Lou soul.
At Skate King -- or wherever he may roll -- Leo White, also known as the "One-Wheel Roller," is the show.
A handsome, wiry, dreadlocked cat of 34 years who has perfected the rare art of skating on one wheel (per skate), White has won more than 54 regional competitions since he began skating at age six. With his ability to slip into a low, stealthy, single-skate glide from a full-throttle roll, White is the skating equivalent of the drool-inducing basketball player who can charge down the court at Formula One speed, then stop, pop and bury a jumper from fifteen feet in transition.
The One-Wheel Roller is part of a simmering local roller-skating scene that has spun steadily, even after the fad's first fifteen minutes of fame in the late '70s. Moreover, White is generally regarded as the most talented roller skater in St. Louis, if not all of Middle America.
"Just as much as you can do on four wheels, he'll do on one wheel," says Nikki Bowens of Skate Groove, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that coordinates a year-round series of skate parties at rinks all over the country (Saints, a popular Olivette rink, hosts the annual St. Louis event).
"I've seen him at a couple parties," says Sarah Teagle of Atlanta. "He always wins [competitions]. Sometimes I wish other people would win."
But Leo White is more than just a sick roller -- at least in Leo White's mind.
Leo White is multimedia, baby. He wants his own sitcom. He wants to be a model. He wants his own clothing line -- just like Nelly.
Once he's famous, he wants to give back. He wants to own a chain of roller rinks. He wants to sponsor roller-skating championships all over the country. He wants to be a motivational speaker. He wants his own foundation to help kids and teach them to skate.
He wants it all. He wants it now. He's got a helluva long way to go, and his path to superstardom begins this week. White is attending the World Championship of Performing Arts in Los Angeles, a city where everybody's somebody -- or at least claims to be. Whether he will choose to permanently relocate to LA may be the million-dollar question for the One-Wheel Roller, whose current, undeniably unusual niche of excellence is anything but sure-fire bankable.
It's Friday at Skate King -- Friday morning, that is -- although the atmosphere is decidedly nocturnal. P. Diddy's still bumpin' as an older chap dressed like an AmerenUE lineman, save for a pair of white silk gloves, flips on the flashlight affixed to his belt for a lit-up roll.
Jimmy Kimple, one of the granddaddies of the local skate circuit, laps skaters in a tizzy of stir-crazy karate chops and neck tilts that would put Mr. Roboto -- much less Styx -- on a stretcher. Lisa "Crazy Legs" Boyd, her cue-ball 'do encircled by a white Bonzi Wells headband, stops on a dime to pop-and-lock at the rail.
Nobody crashes -- phenomenal, considering that these rollers are completely ignoring the traditional counterclockwise etiquette of your grandmother's rink. When one skater buzzes another, it isn't seen as confrontational. In fact, more often than not, the near-collision is instantly and spontaneously transformed into a graceful pirouette, regardless of the would-be combatants' sex.
Light show's blinkin', peeps is blingin' -- especially Lester Savoy, who's sporting gold earrings, a headband, a red neckerchief, a gold necklace and a Tommy Hilfiger basketball jersey. An eccentric Louisiana-bred baby boomer, Savoy resembles Little Richard, minus the makeup and juiced-up mullet.
"Roller skaters are a different breed," says Savoy. "It's like a party every day."
Most of the rolling revelers work swing-shift service jobs or are self-employed. Still others knock off for lunch early, yearning for a sweaty midmorning escape from the weekday grind. Here at the King, they all try on the persona of Moët-swilling superstar, even if Pepsi is the only drink to be had at the snack bar (Skate King has no liquor license).
"It's time to get your sunrise exercise," shouts the DJ over the PA as he puts on Nelly's "Hot in Herre."
Obeying the Lunatic's orders, Aretha "Re-Re" Richardson, a sinewy 33-year-old hairstylist, strips down to her tank top, as do a dozen other mocha pixies.
"I'm a skate junkie," says Richardson. "It's like drugs."
By this point, Boyd's arms are intertwined with those of White, the only cat on the floor who can match Crazy Legs' rhythmic poise. Nelly's finished, and Clipse's "Bangin'" comes on the stereo, compelling the pair to move to the center of the floor, where a dozen skaters are already doing their thing.
After the first verse, Clipse's chunky interlude begins, and everybody stops -- everybody except for White, who does a Hula Hoop shimmy across the floor to the earthquake beat.
The onlookers' mouths are agape as White launches into a breakdance-era "alpha kick." Without standing up, he begins walking across the floor on his hands, losing his wallet in the process.
But White's still money -- he is doing this all on one-wheel skates, a wholly remarkable feat of balance and skill that stands virtually unrivaled in a "sport" that has thrived mainly underground since its roller-derby-and-disco heyday in the early '70s.
White's skates, which he fashions himself by removing all but one wheel on the toe of each boot, are so unusual that he's considering patenting them.
As if it's not tough enough to walk around on the tips of your piggies, imagine trying to stay upright on a wheel taped to your big toe. Next, envision yourself rolling around on this wheel, all the while maintaining total command of your body as you bust stylistic dance moves.
Yeah, right -- forget about it. Yet White takes this seemingly impossible stunt to his own level, effortlessly injecting somersaults and handstands into his routine. Even his most experienced peers are flat-out chickenshit of mimicking White's one-wheel roll.
"I've been skating since I was two years old, but to do the one-wheel thing -- I'm not there yet," says D.C.'s Bowens, who's 36.
Clad in a maroon polo shirt with "Skate King" emblazoned across the left breast, Skate King owner Mathew Foggy, a sturdy, exuberant five-foot-eight welterweight with a salt-and-pepper beard, is getting his roll on with the rest of the pack. The week before, he was all back-slappin' proprietor, patrolling the carpeted perimeter in blue button-down, snappy tie and shiny loafers.
Many of the younger patrons are jealous of the 53-year-old Foggy's boomer peers because their comparatively advanced age gets them into Skate King's 35-and-over Wednesday-night session. Even White, who's less than a year away from this threshold, is prevented from participating in the über-exclusive roll, where rap music gives way to the smoother riffs of the Commodores, Herbie Hancock and the like.
"There's a lot of 'em [young adults] who pine for that music," says Foggy, whose mischievous smile reveals a bouncer's pleasure in being a total hard-ass with regard to the age restriction.
A good hour after the Friday-morning session has ended, Foggy is holding court in the Skate King parking lot with a dozen or so of his loyal rollers.
"People just refuse to leave," he cracks.
The child of small-business owners who now resides in a Victorian house near Powell Symphony Hall, Foggy is an old-school brother for whom the blingin' bling never served as a yardstick for success. For him, it was all about carving out a niche as a black post-civil-rights businessman.
"I've been in the biz for 32 years," says Foggy, who bought and refurbished the Pine Lawn center, his second rink, in 1978. "There's been no boom or bust for us. Roller-skating has always been big in the African-American community."
But geography is also a factor, says Saints owner Andre Stith Sr., whose suburban rink, although it still mainly caters to blacks, attracts a far more diverse ethnic clientele than Skate King.
"White people aren't gonna go down toward Jennings [Station Road]," he explains.
Stith calls St. Louis the "the Midwest roller-skating capital of the U.S." Although skaters in hotbeds such as Cincinnati and Detroit might dispute this claim, all agree that that St. Louis skaters have a distinctive style that is difficult to imitate.
"The St. Louis style of skating is very, very unique; there is nothing like it that I have ever seen," explains Rob Hunter of Cincinnati. "I describe the St. Louis style as a smooth, sexual style -- like a Marvin Gaye song brought to life on wheels."
Hunter claims that Cincinnati skaters "have a need for speed," D.C. skaters like the funk and Motown rollers want to get their twirl on. Every town prides itself on its style, something that is on display every time "cliques" from other cities come together for one of the national skate parties.
Then a penniless twenty-one-year-old student at St. Louis University, Foggy obtained a loan and opened his first rink in East St. Louis in 1970. Even though he saw his King Management company grow to include rinks in Camden, New Jersey, and Shreveport, Louisiana (he has since sold them), Foggy's strongest emotional ties are to that first rink, formerly called the Starlight Skating Center, where he learned to skate at age twelve.
It is at this East Side rink where the early St. Louis icons strutted their stuff -- legends such as Thomas Bowie, who was known for his "travel spins" -- "spinning around on his toes like a top," White explains -- and Brian Morris, the first roller to perfect the two-wheel (per skate) technique, cut a Coke commercial and get married on skates.
"The best skaters are from East St. Louis," says Foggy. "Thomas Bowie is one of the best skaters to ever put on skates. He has the same things that make Leo unique."
Foggy had to close the East St. Louis rink some two years ago for what he calls "management problems" -- roller-skating parlance for "We couldn't control teenage troublemakers." Still, Foggy is planning to reopen the shopworn barn in late October.
From the looks of the building's mint-green façade and off-the-beaten path location in East St. Louis' South Broadway warehouse district, it is virtually unfathomable that Foggy will pull it off -- unfathomable until Foggy, clad in his grass-cutting getup of blue denim and black "No Fear" ballcap, lets you inside the old lady.
Although its polished cement floor is inferior to Pine Lawn's Northern maple -- which Foggy refers to as "the Rolls-Royce of roller-skating surfaces" -- the gabled-roof structure permits a borderline-psychedelic light show that would just as easily appeal to the sunshine-daydream tripster as the sunrise-exercise soul sister.
Foggy's center "is the only game in town," he says. "Ike and Tina Turner once played here."
The interior is astonishingly unadorned. The prices at the concession stand will remain the same -- "Aspirin, $.60" -- but Foggy sheepishly admits that he'll have to remove the Kit-Kat bars that have been going stale for the past two years. All that remains is a little weed-pulling, the acquisition of some new arcade games and minimal marketing -- something that Foggy believes will be accomplished by word of mouth at local schools and among his clientele in Pine Lawn.
"The closure could be a blessing in disguise," says Foggy, reasoning that the geographic cross-pollination of skaters at his Pine Lawn rink will be a boon for business on both sides of the river once he reopens the East Side venue.
At the Pine Lawn center, Foggy has cut way back on sessions for teens, essentially limiting their time on the rink to Tuesday-night "Rap and Roll" from 7-10 p.m.
"For the most part, we've canceled out the teen market, which is a concern of mine," he laments. "You're skating them as kids, basically skipping over them as teens, and you come back when they're adults."
Other rinks -- namely those owned by the Stith brothers (Andre's brother Drexel owns the Palace in Florissant) -- are slightly more ballsy when it comes to catering to kids.
"Kids are our business," says Andre.
But this dedication to serving youth has not come without peril. Saints, which sits on the Olivette-Creve Coeur border, has drawn the ire of the Creve Coeur police, who aggressively prevent Saints patrons from parking on the west side of Warson Road. The ire is undeserved, in Stith's opinion.
"Any time an African-American business is successful, they figure it's all drugs, gangs and negativity," asserts Stith, who praises the comparatively accommodating nature of the Olivette cops, who police the east side of Warson. "We're racially profiled by the Creve Coeur Police Department like you'd never imagine. They don't want us here.
"Everyone likes to give kids places to go, but they don't want it in their backyard."
The Creve Coeur cops claim they're simply responding to the wishes of homeowners on their side of the tracks.
"There is an overflow-parking problem that exists," explains Captain Don Kayser, giving voice to a conundrum that Stith acknowledges. "Business owners have asked us to enforce no trespassing. We don't profile anyone there."
"I've been here eleven years, and there's never been an ounce of damage," claims Stith, who's looking to relocate. "We have weathered probably more than people weathered during slavery."
Saints also hosts a wildly popular adult session on Thursday nights. General opinion holds that although the Pine Lawn Skate King's floor is far superior to Saints' polyurethane, the latter rink plays better music, thereby attracting a comparable number of rollers.
Whether Leo White will gain recognition from coastal tastemakers rests largely in the hands of two associates: World Championship of Performing Arts founder Griff O'Neill and White's manager, Larry Hicks, who's known the One-Wheel Roller since White was a little boy.
Now in its sixth year, WCOPA annually attracts 2,500 performers from 30 countries, each of whom shells out a $1,000 entry fee to compete in one of eight categories: dance, vocal, modeling, acting, comedy, bands, instrumentalists and variety. There is no cash prize for the winners, just Olympic-style medals and the opportunity to rub shoulders with a gaggle of purportedly credible Hollywood agents.
"We've had hundreds launch careers," claims O'Neill.
O'Neill, who met White at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel a few months ago, thinks the One-Wheel Roller has what it takes to be a star. White is similarly impressed with his silver-haired suitor.
"We all know it's hard to get into Hollywood," says White, whose earnest, trusting demeanor appears susceptible to bursts of naïveté. "He's got the keys to the gate. If you go off first impressions, he would leave you with a very good impression."
White would be wise to be somewhat skeptical of the clout of O'Neill, whose pre-WCOPA claim to fame was as executive producer of pageants such as Miss America, Miss Teen America and All-American Woman, whatever that is. Although each performer is given a videotape of the proceedings to shop to local television stations back home after the event, WCOPA has no TV contract of its own. And its only past champion to gain any sort of mainstream notoriety (no, Christian rock doesn't count) is fifteen-year-old Texas teeny-popper Brooke Allison.
To be fair, semilegitimate celebrities have appeared at O'Neill's competition, but they've been flash-in-the-pan luminaries of iffy wattage such as Pauly Shore, Mickey "Hey, hey, I was a Monkee" Dolenz and ex-game-show-host Bob Eubanks, who will emcee this year's championships.
At press time, it was doubtful that White would be able to take part in this year's competition, although -- with a round-trip plane ticket already purchased -- he vows to go and try. At the very least, White, who struggled mightily to raise the requisite funding for the trip, says he'll find some sort of forum to strut his stuff for the multitude of talent scouts in attendance.
Assuming -- and it's a big leap of faith -- that the One-Wheel Roller "gets discovered" in LA, White sees franchises, sitcoms, movies, speaking engagements and a pimp-ass clothing line in his immediate future.
"I want to show the world that roller-skating never left, come out with a clothing line, a sitcom called Freestyle," says White, who reports that he and Hicks have just returned from a meeting in New York with Def Jam and MTV, where they pitched a concept that would have the two media heavyweights co-producing a video featuring White skating outdoors to hit rap songs.
If the slipper fits, maybe, but at least this pipe dream is based on White's indisputable talent: skating. For his part, Hicks, who owns Mattie's, a soul-food restaurant on Martin Luther King Drive (where White often works for pocket money) says that "Leo wants to launch his career in the skating biz -- like Tony Hawk."
Fair enough. But Hicks is just warming up.
"We want to get Leo speaking at Toastmasters, seminars, AmeriPlan," he babbles. "The health-plan seminar -- that's our grand finale."
If that's Hicks' idea of a finale, we can't wait to see what he has in mind for an encore.
"I want to launch it where Leo could teach balance on skates to youth. He would be the most suitable person to open a rink than anyone I know. The rest of the stuff will follow."
Maybe. After all, White's trip to WCOPA will, if nothing else, land him and his skates in Los Angeles, the undisputed epicenter of the great American starmaking machine. And if O'Neill is right about one thing, it's that "anybody who's anybody comes in as a diamond in the rough." White, with his good looks, charismatic athleticism, folksy charm and magical one-wheel act, certainly has the raw goods required for a brush with fame.
"It's not who you know but who knows you," says White, finally coming up with a reasonable rationale for his LA trip and the brutal fund-raising struggle involved. "We know a lot of people, but who knows us?"
"Imagine if Leo was in Venice Beach skating all the time," says Atlanta-based filmmaker/actor Ken Scruggs, a St. Louis native who has pledged to cast White in his next film, tentatively titled Tattle Tale. "I've seen Spike Lee there. I've seen Denzel. Who knows what's gonna happen?"
Deciding whether to take Scruggs' advice -- "Go west, young Leo, and don't come back" -- puts the One-Wheel Roller at a crossroads. Behind door number one: Ditch the Lou for La-La Land and hope your one-wheel roll turns heads on the oceanfront, potentially leading to riches and fame. Door number two: continue to bank on your status as grassroots icon in your hometown and hope that it leads to bigger and better things.
Scruggs -- whose debut feature, Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun, earned him a best-actor nod at the recent Urban Entertainment Conference in Miami -- initially envisioned Nelly and Cedric the Entertainer in the starring roles of Tattle Tale. But Scruggs, relative newcomer to the movie game that he is, soberly recognizes that the people repping Nelly and Cedric won't give a fledgling filmmaker like him the time of day, at least not yet.
"I'm not at a level where I can get those types of people to review my product," acknowledges Scruggs, who, like White, is 34. "But the show must go on. I'm not one of those writers who have one great script. I'm always writing. One day it'll happen.
"With Leo and a lot of people, the problem most of them have is with the business side of things. Leo is extremely talented. The things he does on roller skates I haven't seen anyone else do. All of the things he wants to do can happen, but there's a process. The first thing he has to do is focus on his current talent."
But Scruggs' talent, filmmaking, is something that leads to fame and fortune if executed masterfully. Its home base is Hollywood, for Chrissakes. Meanwhile, White's talent, roller-skating, had its closest brush with pop-culture iconoclasm a quarter-century ago in the form of roller derby, a choreographed, crassly violent pseudosport whose biggest star, Ann Calvello, had to bag groceries on the side to make ends meet.
In other words, if excellence in one's chosen entertainment genre were all that mattered, White and Calvello would be buying Courvoisier by the truckload and chartering private jets by now.
But some feel that roller-skating is on its way back up.
"People are starting to notice those four wheels again," enthuses St. Louisian Auguste Moore, a 26-year-old recreational roller and poet who will be competing at WCOPA in the poetry category.
She's right. People are putting some serious muscle behind traditional four-wheel lines as inline skating fades into oblivion. Hip clubs such as the Roxy in New York City are sponsoring roller-disco nights, and Britney Spears recently signed a three-year contract with the shoe company Skechers to promote her own line of four-wheel skates.
But Americans are a fickle bunch with their nostalgic whims, especially when it comes to what could be termed "hip-decade roulette": The '70s were so in at the turn of the century. Then the '80s took hold last year, spawning a temporary bull market of royalties for Adam Ant and coke dealers. Now, with MTV's butt-rock revival being shoved down our throats, '90s slacker chic is allegedly in the offing, something that Ms. Spears and Skechers should be none too happy about -- unless baby girl plans on reinventing herself in the mold of Heather Graham's Rollergirl. Now that'd sell some skates, boy.
But assuming Britney doesn't go porn after her self-avowed six-month hiatus and Michael Eisner doesn't bump into White at WCOPA this week, perhaps the best way for the one-wheel roller to avoid a working-stiff fate like Calvello's is simply to move to Los Angeles.
Scruggs sees nothing wrong with this strategy.
"Here's the problem with St. Louis: It was an industrial town," explains Scruggs. "It was very good for my parents. My father worked at General Motors for 33 years. St. Louis wasn't a city that was adaptable to technology, to liberal arts. Newer cities, like Atlanta, were more adaptable. Unless you're a politician or have a big corporate job, people don't move to St. Louis."
But for a talent as quirky and underground as roller-skating on one wheel, Scruggs pins the tail on the Midwest mule.
"There's no Venice Beach in St. Louis. You can skate in Forest Park all you want, and all you're gonna see is local people."