TAMPA — For many young people in the 1970s, there was just one place to be on weekends: the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink.
As the center of nightlife in the rural East Tampa community of Six Mile Creek, the rink, at 6915 E. Broadway Ave., was a place to skate, flirt and escape outside for some good-natured trouble while the grownups gossiped and watched their kids be kids.
But one Friday night in September 1972, the fun came with a little extra thrill.
Bill Yates, a 26-year-old University of South Florida photography student, had snapped some pictures of the patrons the week before and returned to hang the proof sheets on the wall of the rink.
Long before the era of social media, it marked the first time most patrons had seen photos of themselves shared publicly.
“They just loved looking at themselves,” said Yates, 68, who was born in Jacksonville and lives there now. “For many it was probably the first time they were seeing photos of themselves in a very natural state rather than being in a portrait studio.”
Decades later, those photos have made stars of their subjects through a collection of 37 of the images now on display at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. The exhibit opened Oct. 3 and runs through Jan. 17. The photos can be viewed online at www.sweetheartrollerskatingrink.com.
“It has received an unbelievable wave of attention,” said Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden Museum. “Although it is set in Florida in the 1970s, it has universal appeal. People project their own life experiences onto these characters at the skating rink.”
The subjects of the photos are nameless to Yates. Too much time has passed for him to remember who is whom. But the exhibit isn’t about the subjects so much as what they represent.
They have emerged as symbols of the final days of the small-town era in the Old South, when the skating rinks and drive-in movie theaters now vanishing from the landscape served as the town square.
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The coming of the 1980s meant the rise of land development and a tourism industry connected by highways that cut a swath through rural areas.
That evolution is told through the Sweetheart photos: a young boy worn out by too much fun sleeping alone on a wooden bench or a little girl on the dance floor getting sugar-charged by chugging a glass bottle of soda.
The exhibit also speaks to people who came of age during the 1960s or were influenced by the social upheaval of the turbulent decade.
One image shows four rough-looking shirtless boys, one holding a gun to his head, and another image shows a young boy with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth while a woman who could be his older sister or mother embraces him.
“The country was changing very quickly,” Yates said. “That old flavor was hitting the exit door.”
Among the most popular photos is one of a handsome wiry teen who has a bottle of schnapps stuffed halfway down the front of his jeans. On some photo blogs he has been dubbed Six Mile Creek’s Neal Cassady — the counterculture icon of the 1950s Beat Generation and the psychedelic 1960s.
Still, some of the subjects are more than anonymous symbols to the people who were there.
“That’s Darryl Bryan in that picture,” said Robin Sibucao, 63, who grew up around Six Mile Creek, the area where Broadway Avenue and Columbus Drive intersect. It is named for the body of water that flows 6 miles from downtown Tampa.
“His brothers were Freddie and Bobby. That family was real salt of the earth, as were all of us who lived there. I haven’t thought of them in years, but when I saw those pictures, it all came back.”
Chip Linderman, Sibucao said, is the name of a keyboardist in another photo.
“I’m not sure what happened to him or most of the people who went there,” said Sibucao, who left for Los Angeles at 17 — three years before photographer Yates arrived — to launch a long career as a musician. He now lives in St. Petersburg.
“On occasion I bump into a fellow Creeker — what we call each other — and we say, ‘Hey, you made it out. Congrats.’ ”
In those days, locals identified with Tampa second and their community first, said Mario Nuñez, host of the cable public-access history show “Tampa Natives.”
“You were from Ybor, West Tampa, Hyde Park,” said Nunez, 57, a native of Broadmoor Park.
“Tampa was colonial from the start-up through the 1970s — the last of the simpler times. You hung out where you lived. It was small-town life. For me, a place like Six Mile Creek seemed on the other side of the world, and I’m sure they thought the same about my area.”
That’s true, Sibucao said.
“We never felt connected to the rest of Tampa. On occasion we’d go to Ybor, but then at night right back to Six Mile Creek. We’d throw on our best pair of jeans and head on over to the skating rink. It was the center of our universe. It was really the only place for us to go after dark.”
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The owners of the rink, the Cesario family, still live in the Tampa area but declined to comment for the story.
Sibucao said the Cesarios were like second parents to all the children of Six Mile Creek, often checking up on those who meandered outside the rink to make sure they were safe and behaving.
“Some parents were there; some dropped the kids off,” Sibucao said. “But someone was always looking after you.”
Photographer Yates discovered the rink through sheer luck.
He went for a drive one September afternoon in 1972 in search of new subjects and was intrigued by a rickety wooden structure circa 1930 with a handpainted sign shaped like a heart proclaiming it home of Sweetheart Roller Skating.
“I did a quick U-turn and pulled into the parking lot to get a better look, and as I did the owner pulled in as well,” Yates said. “I told him I was a photographer, and he suggested I come back that night when things were jumping.”
A Navy veteran who had enrolled at USF, Yates said he “stuck out like a sore thumb” his first night there.
“I was obviously not part of the crowd.”
Six Mile Creek, Sibucao said, was a blue-collar area, a mix of agricultural workers, warehouses and businesses that focused on construction and repair services. Sibucao’s father was a welder.
“It was a rough area,” Sibucao said. “There was a two tattoo minimum to live in Six Mile Creek.
“We had a bar called the 18 Wheeler where only locals hung. That says it all. If an outsider came around, we noticed.”
Still, the rink regulars were courteous, photographer Yates said, and willingly posed when they noticed the camera focused on them.
But to capture real life on camera, he said, a photographer needs to be “wallpaper,” unnoticed and trusted.
While Yates was developing his first set of photos, a friend suggested he hang the proof sheets inside the rink.
There was nothing unflattering or embarrassing in the photos, so they earned Yates the trust of his subjects.
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From September 1972 through April 1973, Yates spent every weekend except Christmas at the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink.
The patrons became accustomed to the sight of him with camera in hand.
“The skaters became like actors parading their bodies, confronting one another, competing for an audience,” Yates wrote on his website. “Young men aggressively wrapping their arms around their girlfriends’ necks, gesturing uncomfortably for the camera — a sexual come-on, an uncensored performance.”
In the fall of 1973, Yates packed up his belongings, including more than 800 negatives from the skating rink, and headed off for Providence, Rhode Island, to begin graduate work at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Wife, children and a career as an aerial photographer came next for Yates, and though he always intended to do something with the Sweetheart pictures, “life got in the way,” he said.
The rink shut down in the late 1970s, Sibucao said. Today, a pallet company occupies the site.
Six Mile Creek remains a community of mom-and-pop businesses, homes with yards where livestock live, industrial sites and warehouses, but it now is linked to Tampa, not isolated from it.
Residents travel throughout the Tampa area for entertainment. Traffic flows heavily throughout the day.
Once Yates turned 60, he decided it was time to get his “photographic house” in order.
At the top of his list were the photos of Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink.
It started with an exhibit in Jacksonville in 2009.
In 2013, he submitted the collection to Critical Mass in Portland, Oregon, an annual juried photo competition that features the top 50 projects from more than 1,000 submissions. Yates made the cut.
One of the judges was McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. He was so enamored of Yates’ work that he lobbied to have it displayed at his museum.
When the show is over in January, Yates hopes to turn it into a traveling exhibit. Whether it comes to Tampa is up to local museums, he said, but he thinks it’s a good idea.
“Sweetheart Skating Rink represents a place where kids were allowed to be kids,” Yates said. “They were allowed to grow up, intermingle, steal a kiss, skate as fast as they could and get into innocent trouble. People everywhere can relate to that.”