Editor's note: Sadly, the Empire Roller Rink was closed on April 23, 2007, after being sold. The word is that it will be turned into a storage facility.
Place Matters entry from ca. 2004.
The Empire Rollerdrome has been a fixture in Brooklyn for over 60 years, regularly transforming itself to reflect trends in popular culture. Particularly known for its pioneering role in the roller disco craze, the Empire is now the last remaining large-scale roller rink in Brooklyn.
The Swanson Family opened the Empire Rollerdrome (now the Empire Roller Skating Center) in 1941 in a former Ebbet's Field parking garage. They converted the garage to a roller rink using speakers from the 1939 World's Fair and adding a state-of-the-art maple floor (they also owned a flooring business), lending the rink its nickname "Home of the Miracle Maple." The rink was later owned by Sonny Durante, who in turn sold it to brothers Henry and Hector Abrami in 1956.
The Empire was once part of a circuit of rinks in the city where skaters would go for competitions, lessons, and recreation. In the 1950s there were about 28 such rinks in the city including the Fordham Skating Palace, the Queens Roller Rink, and the Coney Island Roller Skating Rink. After they purchased the Empire, the Abramis tried to diversify its appeal by adding other activities to the huge rink including boxing matches, miniature golf, and even a bowling alley. During this time the rink also hosted many events including the first open New York State Championship in 1957.
In the 1960s, the Empire gained prominence for the many innovative roller dance styles that were pioneered there including the "Brooklyn Bounce," also known as the "Wobbly Duck." Adding to the rink's prestige was the presence of Bill Butler, one of the most influential skaters of the 1960s and 70s. He made the Empire his home base during these years, practicing and teaching there and attracting skaters from around the country eager to learn from him and witness his unique "jamming" technique firsthand.
When the disco craze of the 1970s hit, the rink was renamed the Empire Roller Disco (both "Rollerdrome" and "Roller Disco" can still be seen on the rink's exterior signage). In this incarnation it played a major part in the roller disco craze that swept the nation--it was one of the first places to popularize this new style of skating and attracted people from across the country. The Empire was also the first rink to replace organ music with a live DJ--for over 15 years the internationally acclaimed DJ Big Bob (Robert Clayton). The rink's reputation for great music grew even more after 1980 when a 20,000-watt system was installed, which was considered the best sound system at any roller rink in the country.
The disco atmosphere inside the rink was reinforced by the disco-club lighting, a "California-like" decor with plastic palm trees, and, of course the latest disco music of the day. Outside a canopy gave it a Studio 54-look. The Empire became so popular that movies were filmed there and celebrities like Cher would stop by to take lessons from Butler. The Empire's disco heyday also provided many fond memories. Sam Alston remembers, "This was one of the first places I ever skated. My mother used to bring me here in the 70s and 80s. And this place, it was one of the first ones that had a disco atmosphere, where it had a sound system, it had the disco lights. All the other skating rinks back then would be just a big warehouse."
At 30,000 square feet, the Empire is the last big roller rink in Brooklyn, comfortably hosting 1,000 skaters at a time. Following the illness of its longtime manager, Gloria McCarthy (Henry Abrami's daughter), the Empire closed for two years beginning in 1998. A nationwide chain, United Skates of America, later purchased the rink and it reopened in the spring of 2000 with a focus on family entertainment.
As of 2004 the Empire and its unique neon sign remains as a reminder of its ongoing significance--as skater Khadijah Shaheed says, "The front sign is beautiful with colors and the fancy writing. It just makes you want to come inside... It's a landmark. If you drive by--instant memories about what goes on inside." Moreover, as current owner Michael Feiger points out, the Empire provides more than just an historic legacy--it provides an important ongoing outlet for a community that has few other venues for indoor recreation.
Alston, Sam. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 24, 1999.
Butler, Bill and Schoen, Elin. Jammin': Bill Butler's Complete Guide to Roller Disco. New York: Pocket Books, 1979.
Clayton, Robert. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 7, 1999.
Fisher, Terence. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. September 20, 1999.
Jean, Francis. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. November 28, 2001.
Kamber, Michael. "Age of Empire: The Reopening of a Brooklyn Roller-Skating Mecca." Village Voice, April 12-18, 2000.
Marzano, Dale A. Roller Disco. New York: Domus Books, 1979.
Shaheed, Khadijah. Interviewed by Elena Martinez for Place Matters. July 28, 1999.
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