Skate hoard: Exhibit showcases Brooklyn’s roller disco artifacts

Like the old times: The City Reliquary invited dozens of skate enthusiasts to enjoy an old school musical skate party in celebration of its current exhibit “Empire Skate: The Birth of Roller Disco.”
Brooklyn Paper
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They’re rolling out disco history!

An exhibit at the City Reliquary celebrates the history of roller disco in Brooklyn. “Empire Skate: The Birth of Roller Disco,” showcases artifacts, video, and photographs of the 1970s dance craze spawned at the Empire Roller Skating Center in Crown Heights, which shuttered in 2007. The exhibit explores the largely untold history of a movement that swept the world, said its curator.

“This art form and athletic health activity grew in popularity worldwide, and has its origins in one specific area,” said David Herman. “In a city where we’re constantly seeing things erased and rebuilt, it’s important to tell the story, because it’s a big chapter in Brooklyn and left a mark internatio­nally.”

The display focuses on the heyday of roller disco, in the late 1970s and early ’80s. It highlights the origins of roller disco, its dance styles, the people who created it, and even the four wheeled shoes that made it all happen, which many dancers modified to accommodate their fancy moves. All of the exhibits focus on Empire Skate’s role in creating and spreading the movement, said Herman.

“Empire was the birthplace of roller disco, and a lot of times that’s a self-proclaimed title, but we took a deeper look and saw how they earned the title. There were plenty of nationwide magazines that referred to them as the granddaddy of all roller discos,” said Herman.

During the Empire’s peak, its regulars became household names, and stars from the world of music and film flocked to the skating arena, according to Herman.

“At one point it was attracting popular celebrities and one of the famous images is of Bill Butler, who is the godfather of disco, and Stevie Wonder at the rink,” said Herman. “It was the place to be and where the spotlight was shining. Bill Butler and the handful of other people there with him didn’t know it would grow the way it did.”

City Reliquary has hosted several events to help keep roller disco alive, including a dance party at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel’s gym on July 14 (pictured). No more events are planned, but the exhibit will be on display until Oct. 14. Among its artifacts are a roller skate worn in the 2005 film “Roll Bounce,” which is set in 1978, and another skate on loan by Brooklyn’s only shop focused on roller skates — Five Stride Skate shop, and t-shirts worn by different skating groups who performed their dance routines at Empire.

The exhibit also features home video footage that shows the disco moves of the skaters, and that also offers a glimpse of the lost Empire rink, from the birth of the movement until it closed.

“It shows a lot of interior that really identifies the rink, and the raw footage is from 1980s and shows its lifespan until the closing date in 2007,” said Herman.

“Empire Skate: The Birth of Roller Disco” at City Reliquary [370 Metropolitan Ave. between Havemeyer Street and Marcy Avenue in Williamsburg, (718) 782–4842,]. Open Thu–Sun, noon–6 pm. $7.

Reach reporter Alexandra Simon at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at Follow her on Twitter @AS1mon.
Updated 1:04 pm, July 20, 2018
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