By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief
CUSTER – Western Michigan entertainment legend Johnny Urban died this weekend at the age of 85. Johnny was best known as the owner of Johnny’s of Custer, roller rink, restaurant, night club and bar.
Johnny and his twin brother Tony built Northern Gardens Roller Rink in 1948 when they were 18-years-old, according to former manager Dan Reinoehl. In 1954, Johnny bought out his brother and re-named the facility Johnny’s of Custer. The place grew into a restaurant and then also a night club, bringing in acts that eventually would make it big.
Johnny once told me that he would book the acts just before they hit the national scene. His connections in the ’60s gave him good contacts in the ’70s when country music became more popular.
Reinoehl said Johnny’s biggest act was the Archies. They performed at Johnny’s a week after they appeared on American Bandstand. Other acts included the Kingsmen and Danny and the Juniors, among others. Famous country artists included Barbara Mandrell and Crystal Gayle.
He boasted himself as Mason County’s “oldest teenager” and often compared himself to Dick Clark.
In the 1990s Johnny started transitioning himself out of the leadership and ownership of the business. The roller skating rink was separated and sold. His nephew, Vic, became involved with the operation and became owner. Vic died suddenly a few years ago leaving the facility in state of non-ownership. The facility was just bought within the past couple of months.
Johnny was also the current president of the Custer Village Council, a position he has held for many decades. Reinoehl, also a village councilor, said he believed Johnny had been on the council for over 60 years.
News of his death has caused many to reflect on what Johnny Urban and Johnny’s meant to local residents.
“I met my husband at Johnny’s and our daughter met her husband there too,” said Leola Gajeski. “I think lots of us met our partners there.”
“Johnny was an incredible man,” said Jennifer Lake of Branch. “I’ve gone to Johnny’s since I could walk. He treated all us kids as his own. I’m glad that my kids have had the pleasure of knowing him and growing up at Johnny’s.”
“He was family to most of my generation and my parents’ generation,” said Randy Duggan.
“I learned how to rollerskate at Johnny’s of Custer when I was maybe in fifth grade,” said Pamela Uhl. “Johnny was such a nice man.”
“I have no idea how many laps and falls I did,” said Antonia Edmondson of Manistee. “I remember pleading with my parents for the Johnny’s jacket and it made my Friday nights.”
“Twenty-five-years-ago I had my first dance with my now husband, J.W. McCormick, at Johnny’s. “Stairway to Heaven” and “Turn the Page” will forever be linked to an awesome night at Johnny’s.
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On a personal note, if it wasn’t for Johnny’s I most likely would not be here. It is where my parents also met.
Johnny was always kind to me and a class act. I remember he would always wear a tie. As kids we looked forward to when he would spin records and when he would put on his roller skates and come out on the floor with us.
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and have fond memories of Johnny’s. It was a weekly ritual to roller skate there on Friday nights. After skating, around midnight, I believe, there was a one hour dance.
Johnny’s was the universal babysitter. My parents would drop me off, along with various friends, and they would go to the nightclub. As we got older, and our older siblings could drive, they would typically take us.
I remember the skate guards, including Dan Reinoehl and my cousins Todd and Scott Quillan. Dan started working at Johnny’s as a dishwasher when he was 13. He worked there for 15 years, making his way up to general manager. He eventually bought the roller skating rink (then sold it back).
Just last week, as I was cleaning my garage, I came across my roller skates and case. I just can’t let them go, they have that much meaning.
As we got older, roller skating wasn’t as cool. Instead, my friends and I would attend the Saturday night Teen Rock Party. It seemed as if every teenager in the four county area was at Johnny’s on Saturday nights in the ’80s.
Around 11 p.m. Johnny would play a series of slow songs including Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” He would then go into his oldies sequence starting with “At the Hop” by Danny and the Juniors. The evening would always end with Elvis Presley’s “If I can Dream,” followed by Johnny saying “See yeah!”