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Book Review: Empire Roller Disco by Patrick D. Pagnano

from ‘Empire Roller Disco’ © Patrick D. Pagnano


The 1970s were a time of great cultural change and innovation. The civil rights movement had won major victories, and the American Black community was experiencing a new sense of freedom and empowerment. This was reflected in the music, fashion, art and pop culture trends of the era. Empire Roller Disco captures all this and much more.

Roller Skating was one of the most popular activities among Americans in the 1980s in New York City – the ‘Empire’ (originally Brooklyn’s Empire Rollerdrome which opened in 1941) was hailed as the “Studio 54 of the roller-skating world.” – folks like JFK Jr. and Cher were in attendance. Roller rinks were a place where people could come together to ‘cruise’ around the rink, socialize, and have fun. Thankfully, Patrick D. Pagnano documented the Empire in NYC so structure and timeframe alike were captured in a place where Black culture in particular could be celebrated under the glittery sparkle of a disco ball that spread its light on all who enter.


from ‘Empire Roller Disco’ © Patrick D. Pagnano


from ‘Empire Roller Disco’ © Patrick D. Pagnano


Nostalgia can be a powerful force for connection. The pandemic has seen a resurgence of demand and interest in culture, music and movies from the past 40 years. In a time of calamity, many people who grew up in the 1980s drew strength from fond memories of ‘Top Gun’, ‘Dirty Dancing’, music by performers like Jackson Browne… which creates a dotted-line leading to ‘Stranger Things’ (tell Winona Ryder I say Hi ) and ‘Yacht Rock’ (I still need convincing on this)… and by proxy: roller skating and skate rinks. 

Roller skating has recently become popular again. This is likely due to a number of factors, including that nostalgia for the 1980s, the rise of ubiquitous social media, and the growing popularity of ‘analog things’ which feel ‘cute’ and ‘unique’ to the all-digital, always internet-ready Generation Z, who will face a reckoning with their own high school photos and regrettable hairstyles in the coming decades. You’re welcome.

New skaters discover, and old skaters remember, the fun to be had, the friends made, and the music played. I heard ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ by Queen for the first time at a roller rink, and ‘Heart of Glass’ by Blondie, and countless ‘slow-songs’ to draw couples onto the rink.  I draw connections visually to Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ and the gritty, sometimes seedy work of Nan Goldin, or the documentary and portrait photographers of the late 80s-early 90s Hip-Hop scene like Mike Miller, Barron Claiborne, Jonathan Mannion, and many others.

While we never saw Cher trying on a pair of rented skates at my own local rink in the 80s – the endurance of the trend is evidenced by the fact that it is still open every Friday through Sunday. The long-forgotten enclosure from the original 1960s drive-in is gone, but the cinder-block building still stands. One can hear the beats in the gravel parking lot. Muted, but loud… the music still plays in a melancholy, roller rink kind of sadness. In an odd ‘multiverse’ kind of way, I find myself connected to the people who entered that hot, sweaty, loud space in NYC… the collective energy of the place made you feel fully alive.

Pagnano’s images freeze the fluid glides and swoops of people on the maple floors of the Empire. His added lighting makes the incredibly difficult photographic challenge of an enormous darkened interior space possible. And he shot it on film with a Leica, which is not for the faint of heart in the 80s. His images of skaters at the Empire evoke the feeling of capturing a ballet or stage performance at the critical moment when you can ‘understand’ what is going on, get a feel for the vibe of the night, and nod your head in sync with the beat. We see performers get the limelight in the center of the rink, thrill seekers speedily weave their way between folks on the floor, and the wall-huggers slowly make their way along the outer carpet-covered walls. 

Pagnano struck gold with his ability to cross generations and timelessly bridge cultural divides by capturing the joy and expression on display at a certain place at a certain time: It was the 1980s in NYC at the Empire Roller Disco. Thanks to him, we are there and can feel the pulse of the music, and the throb of the hearts of those who went to strut, glide, or cruise around in the music-filled glittery-darkness.


Empire Roller Disco
by Patrick D. Pagnano
Introduction by Miss Rosen
Anthology Editions
7.75 inches x 10.25 inches
132 pages, 118 images

Patrick D. Pagnano moved to New York City from Chicago in 1974 and immersed himself in an art practice that would grow to include street work, portraiture, and documentary photography. His work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and numerous other institutions. He passed away in 2018.

Miss Rosen is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Since launching her journalistic career as an art and nightclub critic for the Village Voice in 1997, she has gone on to publish work in magazines such as L’Uomo VogueBustJuxtapoz, and Paper as well as on websites including ApertureDazedHuck, and Vogue. She served as editor and creative director for powerHouse Magazine, and was Marketing Director for powerHouse Books from 2000–2009. Rosen has contributed to numerous books and publications on photography and the arts, and has lectured at Columbia University, the International Center of Photography, and the School of Visual Arts.

About Cary Benbow

Photographer, Writer, Publisher of Wobneb Magazine

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