We call him Hi Hat Guy, at the Lowell Historical Society, after the name of roller skating rink that is lettered across his red tie. To the modern eye, Hi Hat Guy looks a little like Phil Dunphy, at least at first glance. He’s the father figure played by Ty Burrell on ABC’s Modern Family. Hi Hat Guy also looks like a lot of bobble-head dolls – well, except for the fact he’s hand-carved from wood . . . and over 40 years old. Hi Hat Guy has been sort of a mystery. According to our accessioning paperwork, he dates from 1969 and was carved by one W.L. Bemis. He entered our collection in 1994. Unfortunately, his paperwork doesn’t tell us much more, like who he might have been modeled after, or where he might have once been at the Hi Hat. So, we’ve made Hi Hat Guy our next artifact to research. And any research on Hi Hat Guy has to be research into the Hi Hat Rollaway itself. There are few defunct businesses so iconic to Lowell as the Hi Hat. Some close rivals that come to mind are the Bon Marché or Record Lane or maybe even the Giant Store. But, the best chance to get to the real story behind Hi Hat Guy rests with researching the institution he represents.
Researching the Hi Hat is a lot like researching the Bon Marché. The Hi Hat has such a long legacy, stretching some six decades. Where would one ever find a wooden bobble-head doll in over 60 years of history? Well, like so many of Lowell’s iconic memories, there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the Hi Hat’s memory. The folks of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook page fondly remember the Hi Hat, and have formed a close-knit community dedicated to reminiscing about the Hi Hat, its history, and its many personalities. Surely, the story behind our Hi Hat figurine must be captured somewhere in their memories.
The Rochette Years
By 1969, the year Hi Hat Guy was carved, the Hi Hat was owned by Maurice Rochette, or Mo as he is fondly remembered by the Hi Hat skating community on Facebook. Mo also ran Lowell’s famous Rochette’s diner, and was well-known for the food he prepared. While hired managers oversaw the roller skating rink, Mo made his signature tomato soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, and lemon meringue pies. But the most Facebook chatter surrounds memories of Mo behind his snack bar, serving up his french fries, the gravy, and famous Rochette beans. Mo Rochette was a veteran of the Lowell restaurant scene, going back decades to the WWII years. It seems, at least in his later years, that Mo was hard of hearing. Many fondly recall placing their food order only to see Mo lean closer, cup his ear, and ask them to repeat what they had said.
So, we went to the Hi Hat skating club on Facebook to see if they could give us the identity of the wooden bobble-head dating from 1969. And, where the trail had run cold on who he might have represented, or where he might once have stood within the Hi Hat, the digital age of social media actually presented its helpful face, allowing us to solve at least part of the mystery. Not two days after I posted my original question about his identity to the Hi Hat’s Facebook group, we got our answer. The bobble-head, held by the Lowell Historical Society for some 20 years, represented none other than Mo Rochette himself, in his younger years.
Even though the bobble head doll may look like Phil Dunphy, the father on ABC’s Modern Family, he actually represents the man behind Rochette’s Diner, and the most recent and last owner of the Hi Hat Rollaway. But, the bobble head doll also represents, through the white lettered ‘Hi Hat’ prominently painted into his red tie, the Hi Hat itself, its days of roller skating, and something that was lost to the Lowell scene when the rink finally closed around 1990. To so many, the Hi Hat holds a piece of their youth, and maybe even a window into a different time, perhaps simpler and more peaceful. One member of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook group summarized the sentiment of many in the community with her comment: “Young love was everywhere at the Hi-Hat!”
There are many Hi Hat memories posted to the Facebook group, some of first loves, and others of first kisses shared (or stolen) in the booths at the Hi Hat Rollaway. Today, even though condos occupy the site once held by the Hi Hat, maybe just a little of its memory lives on in the roller-skating figurine carved in the image of Mo Rochette, its last owner. It so easy to drive by the Hi Hat’s former Princeton Boulevard location without even realizing that it once stood there, for six decades.
Coming in the next installment of Forgotten New England:
Did you know that the Hi Hat’s history dates all the way back to the days of Prohibition, in the early 1930s? In its long history, not everyone was a fan of the Hi Hat, or viewed its brand of entertainment as light, safe, respectable fun. Even a former Lowell mayor complained that she’d never ‘let her daughters set a foot inside’ and mingle with boys who wore untucked shirts with dungarees, and girls who wore short shorts.