Revelers of every stripe rejoiced last week as Empire Roller Disco, the “Studio 54 of the roller-skating world,” reopened its doors. Empire’s sudden closure in 1998 following the illness of its manager, the late Gloria McCarthy (“she stroked out on us,” says one skater), left pot smokers, heavy drinkers, and roller-skating fanatics citywide at a loss.
But Empire’s closing meant more than just lost opportunities for hedonists; in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, the rink revolutionized roller-skating, its influence spilling over into the worlds of dance, music, and fashion. The Crown Heights rollerdrome was the first to replace its live organist with a DJ, the first to cater to a black clientele, and most important, the self-proclaimed “birthplace of roller-disco.”
Yet for some, the April Fool’s Day homecoming was bittersweet. “The guards at the door, they took my water, they took my pretzels, and they took my two packs of gum,” reports Adrienne Jackson, dreadlocks cascading over an electric blue spandex number.
Michael Feiger, East Coast director of operations for United Skates of America, the nationwide chain that recently folded Empire into its portfolio, confirms the rink’s days of sex, drugs, and hip hop are behind it. “We’ll do things that appeal more to kids,” he explains. “That is our operating strategy around the country.” In the next breath, Feiger utters words sure to make Brooklyn street toughs—including Mike Tyson, a former regular—shudder: “This is a family entertainment center.”
This is, of course, a sea change from Empire’s recent history as a family creation center. One spectacularly talented roller skater, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, “I met my wife here,” then pauses for reflection. “Actually, I met every girlfriend I ever had roller-skating.” Another skater (and former employee) asks, “What did you think they were doing rubbing up on the girls in the corner? We had to sweep up the condoms in the morning.” (One assumes this was done before Saturday’s “Gospel Skate” session.) But semipublic copulation is only one of Empire’s many claims to fame.
Until its closing two years ago, Empire was run by McCarthy, a small woman who would arrive each morning in a well-worn Oldsmobile, her head barely visible over the dashboard. Once a champion roller skater, McCarthy claimed her father purchased Empire—a roller rink built in the former Brooklyn Dodgers’ parking garage—so she would have a place to skate. “Miss Gloria,” as she was called, kept a scrapbook in her desk. The sheets were filled with yellowing Page Six photos taken at Empire: Cher, JFK Jr., and other lesser celebrities from the late ’70s.
Those were Empire’s golden years, a time when roller-skating merged with Saturday Night Fever and roller disco was born. Teams in color-coordinated bell-bottoms and wide-lapel shirts performed synchronized floor shows before huge crowds bussed in on “white night.” The media smelled money and quickly cast the best skaters in movies or flew them to Europe to do shows. Many were inner-city kids from the projects. “I was on TV playing a drug dealer on skates. Meanwhile, I get back to Brooklyn and I really am a drug dealer on skates,” recalls one regular.
“Mad cocaine flew through here,” confirms Big Bob, Empire’s much loved DJ. In a few years’ time, the scene faded and the city’s 40 rinks dwindled to three. Well into the ’90s, skaters who had gone on world tours or performed on TV talk shows awaited the reemergence of roller disco as a global phenomenon. Rollerblading, the bastard son, took off instead.
But none of this made much difference to Miss Gloria. She had her regulars and she had Big Bob, a skate DJ people traveled to hear. And according to two former employees, she also had a cocaine-distribution ring operating out of the back office. Miss Gloria was both loved and resented by the skaters. Loved because she frequently asked after parents and even grandparents who had skated at Empire. Resented because she could be imperious and, as Eric Smith, a skater here for 20 years, put it, “as raggedy as this motherfucker was, she never put a dime back in it.”
The skaters endured the venue’s indignities because, in addition to Big Bob, Empire had the best skaters in the world. They frequently moved in pairs at 20 miles per hour, hitting synchronized 360-degree spins in heavy traffic, or slowing to drop into a split or somersaulting into a headstand. The most daring would approach the back rail at full speed. Above the rail, chest high, sat the floor of the stage. Never breaking stride, the skaters would leap four vertical feet in the air, skate along the edge of the stage, then drop back onto the rink, never missing a beat.
The stage is gone now, torn down during the recent remodeling. They took the photo down too, the one of the security guard shot to death in 1998. Surveillance cameras caught the whole thing on tape and it was eventually played on America’s Most Wanted; the killer was caught in North Carolina some months later. Skaters shook their heads, but no one seemed surprised a patron denied admission would come back and spray the lobby with bullets. Or that he would miss his intended victim and kill the father of two young children. Guns and knives were occasionally smuggled in, often taped to the thighs of girlfriends, according to security guards. Once or twice a year “Love Is the Message” or some other classic was punctuated by gunshots. At least one patron claims to have skated in a bulletproof vest.
Those days are almost certainly gone now, as are the Peter Max-style murals, a victim of the corporate baby blue-and-yellow paint scheme. Alcohol, tobacco, and drugs are out; in are 550 75-cent lockers, video games, and vending machines where patrons can buy bottled water for $1.50. These concessions alone could bring in a quarter-million dollars a year. “This ain’t no mom-and-pop operation anymore,” says Big Bob, as employees in matching blue polo shirts and Old Navy-style headsets walk by.
Clearly Big Bob is not thrilled with some of the aesthetic decisions made by the Ohio-based conglomerate that purchased Empire. “I tried to tell them, ‘This is Brooklyn, this ain’t no Cleveland suburb.’ ” But after trying to buy the establishment himself—and being turned down by 40 lenders—he’s philosophical about the takeover by outsiders. It was Big Bob himself who turned to United Skates of America when it appeared a developer might buy the building and put co-ops on the site.
And he points out that his 20,000-watt sound system is still intact. He can still do what he refers to as “catching the Holy Ghost”—that is, he can build the music up as a session progresses, read the crowd, and then drop Nas or James Brown at chest-pounding levels, whipping the skaters into a frenzy of screaming, shouting, flying bodies.
And the skaters will adjust to the family atmosphere. Shannon Selby, a Crown Heights resident and sometime “back dancer” with Mariah Carey, has been skating and dancing here for half his life. Selby and his brother came on opening night to work on a dance move where they roll forward into a somersault, then slide backward across the floor on their heads. But the guards quickly informed Selby of yet another new rule: Dancing without skates is now prohibited at Empire. Undeterred, Selby and his brother laced up their skates, somersaulted across the floor, and slid backward on their heads, skates high in the air.