It should be said that Empire Rollerdrome first threw open its doors to the public in 1941, but it was only in 1957 when new owners Henry and Hector Abrami ushered in the first New York State Roller Skating Championship that its status as the hottest place on New York’s social scene was cemented. That same year, Bill Butler, known as the Godfather of Roller Disco, took to the rink, making his Empire debut. Uniformed in an Air Force assemble with an LP of Jimmy Forrest and Count Basie’s Night Train tucked underneath his arm, his appearance, which saw him spinning through the crowd, and cruising backwards to the swinging blues which filled the air, set the stage for the emergence of dance in sport.
Fast forward to the 1960s, and Empire was leading the charge for a new era of roller disco, and introducing signature moves such as the ‘Brooklyn Bounce.’ Afterwards, to salute the move, Butler persuaded Gloria McCarthy, (Henry Abrami’s daughter and a celebrated roller-skating figure in her own right) to introduce Bounce Night on Fridays – kicking off the Roller boogie scene, which embraced jazz, R&B, funk and disco music.
“We used to call it roller rocking,” Butler told Rolling Stone in 1979. “All they’ve done is change the names around. Black people have been jammin’ on skates for as long as I can remember. But the terms aren’t important — it’s the skating, it's the way of moving your body.”
By this point, Hollywood’s interest was definitively piqued. Cher threw the inaugural party for her R&B/soul, pop single Hell on Wheels with Butler as her guest. Afterwards, he worked on the roller choreography for productions such as The Warriors (1979) Xanadu (1980) and Roll Bounce (2005).
What Empire Roller Disco does, by unearthing the photographs that Pagnano took for Forbes, which were ultimately never published, apart from their appearance at a 2018 exhibition, is capture the Golden Age of Empire Rollerdrome, the eighties, along with its untameable energy. Photographs depict skaters grooving in groups, and absorbed in the music, creating a place where, as illustrated by Miss Rosen, “rich and poor, Black and white, straight and gay found communion in the shared bliss of turns, spins and dips.”