See ya! Tribute to Johnny and Maisie Urban

October 25, 2012

The funeral procession for Johnny and Maisie goes past Johnny's.

CUSTER – Today, we said goodbye to Johnny and Maisie Urban. Hundreds of people showed up for the funeral at St. Simon Church in Ludington followed by the burial at Custer Riverside Cemetery and then the wake in the Big Room at Johnny’s of Custer.

It is amazing the impact these two people had on multiple generations of people in this community.

I accompanied my mother to the funeral and the wake. Johnny’s has some pretty special memories for our family. First, it is where she met my father. So, that’s a pretty big deal.

But, imagine this: 15-years-old and new to this country, hardly able to speak any English. You live on a farm in northeastern Mason County, basically isolated with your parents, sister and brother.

Besides high school, Johnny’s was the place to get to know American society. This was the place where all the kids from around the county went. They listened to the new rock-n-roll music, roller skated and danced. Talk about culture shock for a girl who, up until then, spent her life in post-war Netherlands.

People like Johnny and Maisie Urban took my mother under their wings. They took all the kids under their wings. They made the kids feel safe and welcome.

Walking into the Big Room, which was the original roller skating rink, brought back many memories for me as well. The first thing I This is where, since I can remember, we would spend our weekends roller skating. When my brothers and I were really young we would go on Sunday afternoons. When we got older, into our pre-teen and teen years, we would go Friday nights – which always ended with an hour-long dance.

As teenagers, we would attend the Saturday night dances. First, in the old rink then in the new skating rink, which was built in the early ’80s.

I remember a couple times being picked on by some bully. All it took was a chat with Johnny and the problem would be resolved. He always treated me kindly, of course I was Alie’s son, so that made a difference too. As a pre-teen I wanted to be a disc jockey, so I would spend some of my time on the bandstand watching Johnny do what he did best, spin records.

As the wake was wrapping up today, Johnny and Maisie’s son, Jim, spoke. He introduced the new owners of Johnny’s, Rick and Sheralyn Sherman (I think it’s important to note that Johnny’s Roller Skating Rink is a separate business that has been owned by Andy Quillan since 2010). Jim told those present that to his parents, Johnny’s was never about them but about the customers. He encouraged people to support the Shermans and continue the business.

I had the opportunity to talk to some of those attending the wake.

“We were very lucky to have something like Johnny’s in our town,” said George Johnson, a retired Chrysler executive and 1960 graduate of Mason County Eastern. “It’s amazing that Johnny was able to attract the entertainers that he did.”

Fran Nash of Custer has known Johnny and Maisie before they were married.

“They were the best,” she said. “They were just so down to earth.”

Donna Miszewski of Custer pointed to the wall with signed photographs of dozens of entertainers. “I pretty much attended most of those shows,” she said. “I can also remember my parents would have the 4-H Christmas party here and they would always hire Bob Anderson and the Snowflakes as the band.”

For those of us who went to Johnny’s as kids in the ’80s, a few people come to my mind: Scott Hallberg, Scott and Todd Quillan, Dan Reinoehl and Mert Mallison.

“Todd, Scott and I started when we were about 10,” Scott Hallberg said. “I remember we negotiated a wage with Johnny. We did everything. We were dishwashers, bus boys and skate guards. We would come in and set up tables and then take them down. Whenever there was a big show we would have to go across the street to the church to get more tables and chairs.”

“Whatever Johnny wanted us to do, we did it,” Todd Quillan said. “Johnny and Maisie were just great people.”

Mert Mallison said she started working at Johnny’s when she was 14, 49 years ago and continued to work there off and on since.

“They were awesome people. I started in the old snack bar and would wash dishes in exchange for getting a pop,” she said. “I worked as a waitress and then started working at the teen dances and in the roller skating rink and Big Room as the ticket taker.”

Andy Quillan, son of Todd Quillan, was a second generation skate guard at Johnny’s. He worked for Johnny’s nephew, Vic, who was buying the business from Johnny. Vic died unexpectedly a few years ago.

“After Vic died I really got to know Johnny,” Andy said. “I started talking to him more and more and convinced him to let me buy the roller rink.” In 2010 Andy bought the rink.

“I didn’t expect to make a living from it, but I wanted a place for kids to go. I wanted them to have a place like my brother and I had and my dad had.

“Johnny was like a grandfather to me. I would sit in his office and watch the Tigers games with him. We would talk for hours. I don’t have a business background and he would give me advise. He treated me like family.”

Dean Lasley of Summit Township almost became a star because of Johnny.

“I had a band, the D-Notes and Johnny produced our record under the Urban Records label. We cut 500 records and almost sold them all. The song was ‘Blue Moon.’

“He was my best man at my wedding. He was my godfather and a very good friend,” Dean said.

Story and photo by Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief