Undiscarded: Stories of New York: Ep7 – Rollerskate

Check out Empire Roller Disco, photographs by Patrick D. Pagnano – presented by Anthology Editions in The Gallery at the Ace Hotel Brooklyn till July 29th

In one of my first meetings with Dave Herman, founder of the Reliquary, he asserted that change is the only constant in New York. New Yorkers are fiercely loyal to their institutions, think of the recent outcry (some say tantrum) over changing the iconic “I heart NY” to “We heart NY.” We observe and feel these changes most acutely in our neighborhoods when beloved diners shut down or long-time mom-and-pops are replaced with shiny new mobile stores. In my short 12 years in Sunnyside, I’ve witnessed the once unobstructed view of the 4th of July fireworks above the Chrysler Building become a mere glimpse amidst garish high-rises sprouting like weeds in Long Island City. Preserving and documenting these moments of change in New York City’s history is one of the crucial responsibilities shouldered by the Reliquary.

So for this episode, we focused on a single used roller skate that hangs from the ceiling in the main room at the Reliquary. A remnant from the “Empire Skate” exhibit (Summer & Fall 2018) and an artifact from the beloved Empire Roller Skating Rink in Crown Heights. The Rink has gone by several names – the Empire Rollerdrome, Empire Skate Center, and famously in the 70s the Empire Roller Disco. In 1941 the Swanson family converted an old deserted Ebbets Field parking garage into a state-of-the-art Roller Skating rink. Speakers from the world fair were installed and its famous maple flooring was laid down. The Swansons also happened to own a flooring company and Empire became known as the “home of the miracle Maple” and attracted skaters from all over the city. Hassidic Jews, teens, and elder statespeople of skating could be seen skating side by side.

In the 1970s the disco craze took the country by storm and the rink became the birthplace of Roller Disco. The man responsible was Bill Bulter, who had been skating at Empire since the 1950s. Known as the Godfather of Roller Disco, Bill convinced the then owner’s daughter Gloria McCarthy (a famous skater herself) to start a “Bounce” night in the 60s where he could showcase his unique style of skating called jammin’. By the 70s Mr. Charisma’s (another moniker for Mr. Butler) stylish tricks and effortless skating style (Brooklyn Bounce, Wobbly Duck) made the rink a HOT destination and drew storied celebrities away from the snooty uptown clubs (Studio 54) down to the warm & accepting Brooklyn Rink. Most famously Cher herself (photos from Getty)!

Empire Roller Disco became a cultural epicenter, nurturing skating styles and hosting competitions that launched the careers of many skating legends such as Maurice Gatewood, Roger Green, and Pat the Cat! It also served as a breeding ground for DJ superstars and propelled the rink to unprecedented heights. One of the biggest stars was DJ Big Bob (Robert Clayton), an icon in the Skate Music scene and a renowned skater himself.  And he still has it! I experienced his fire at last week’s  Ace Hotel Brooklyn’s Opening Party for an exhibit and Anthology edition book party on Empire Roller Disco featuring photos from famed street photographer Patrick D. Pagnano. 

Yet, despite its fame, the Empire remained a space that fostered community initiatives that kept inner-city kids engaged and off the streets. Sadly some say crime and rising rent in the 1990s led to the decline of New York’s big rinks. A series of unfortunate events, including the owner’s illness and a shooting incident, marked the beginning of the end for the Empire. Despite efforts by community groups and local politicians to save it, the Empire Roller Drome closed its doors in April 2007, the last of the cities big rinks. The closure left a deep wound in the community, turning long-time skaters into nomads who had to find new rinks all they way in NJ or Long Island or take to the streets (see SUBCULTURED).

Yet, the spirit of the Empire Roller Disco lives on. Our guest this week Eric Alston, a skate legend & long-time Empire Skate guard (or as he puts it Empire Lifer) vividly takes us back to the heyday of Empire and what it meant to his community of skaters. Eric can actually trace 3 generations of his family who all skated at Empire on their 4th birthdays.  

It was clear was the attachment to the empire was still very close to his heart.  Many of the Empire Skaters still feel this way. Here are some photos of the Reliquary’s Empire Skate Exhibit (2019) that celebrated the legacy of the Empire Rollerdrome and its legends.

The nostalgia for Empire Roller Disco continues to reign supreme, finding renewed energy with the resurgence of skating during the pandemic. All over the city, pop-up rinks and roller-skating parties have emerged, capturing the spirit of that bygone era. Just last week, the Ace Hotel Brooklyn hosted a momentous event that perfectly aligned with this resurgence. The opening party for the photo exhibit and book, titled Empire Roller Disco, by Anthology Editions, showcased the remarkable work of the late street photographer, Patrick D. Pagnano. The stunning photos, accompanied by the groovy sounds spun by none other than DJ Big Bob himself, created a magical evening that transported attendees back in time when bell bottoms, wheels & disco reigned supreme. If you’re in Brooklyn, don’t miss the opportunity to visit the exhibit at the gallery in the Ace Hotel Brooklyn (252 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn, NY), running until July 29th.

References and Resources

  • A Trip Through Time at Empire Roller Disco – Huck Magazine
  • Groovy Empire Skate – Promo Video from the Reliquary
  • Bounce, Skate, Roll – Music & Roller Skating from – Wax Poetic
  • Empire Skate: The Rise and Fall of Roller Disco with Reggie Brown – Lecture presented at Brooklyn Public Library in conjunction with Empire Skate Exhibit at the City Reliquary
  • Meet Bill Butler, The Godfather of Roller Disco – NY Times
  • The Last Lace Up – Empire’s closing – NY Times
  • Empire Origin Story – Place Matters

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2 Responses to “Undiscarded: Stories of New York: Ep7 – Rollerskate”

  1. Tania M says:

    Cathy – are you talking about Patrick?

  2. Cathy says:

    He was a great friend and I miss him all the time.