This week marks the 40th anniversary of that fun palace, Studio 54. I wasn’t there for opening night, Tuesday, April 26, 1977, but I was there on the first weekend, forty years ago. I remember that I had glitter in my clothing and hair (and I had a lot of hair). Party planner, Robert Isabell, had dumped four tons of glitter in a four-inch layer on the floor, which owner Ian Schrager described as “standing on stardust”.
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I believe this was the first, but not the last time, that I danced beneath a mirror ball, the symbol of the era. But, they had been around for at least 80 years. There is the description of a mirror ball in a Boston newspaper feature about a ballroom dance in 1897. One appears in a Berlin nightclub sequence in the silent film Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927), 50 years before Studio 54. Of course, they weren’t called disco balls until the 1970s and 1980s, when they were a ubiquitous piece of equipment in discothèques. They were simply called mirror balls. Even a diviest gay bar with a postage stamp sized dance floor had one.
Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Baker has made disco balls for Beyoncé, Madonna, the Saturday Night Fever (1977) film set, and, of course, Studio 54. She has been making disco balls every week of her life for the past 50 years and she shows no signs of slowing down.
Baker works for Omega National Products in Louisville, Kentucky, America’s leading disco ball maker. During the height of the Disco Era, Omega had a 20 craftspeople, mostly women, turning out 25 disco balls a day, more than 160,000 disco balls a year, all under Baker’s direction. But when China flooded the market with cheaper versions, the workers at Omega began to be laid off. Baker has been the company’s only disco ball maker since 2008.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do. Somebody will say, ‘Oh it’s just a mirror ball,’ but that’s not true. It’s most of my life. I take a lot of pride and joy in it.”
Working with tiny pieces of glass like that be hazardous and Baker has said that she has had plenty of nicks and cuts: “I need a transfusion!”
Madonna’s Confessions Tour (2006) had a disco ball that cost two million dollars and was embellished with another two million dollars worth of Swarovski crystals. It weighed two tons. That disco ball was lowered onto the stage during the opening number, and opened to reveal Madonna singing a cover of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. The ball contained a mile of hydraulic tubing to hold it open, two sets of stairs, and hundreds of LED lights.
Everything But The Girl’s Mirrorball (1996) has the lyric: “The lovely mirror ball reflected back them all, every triumph, every fight under disco light…”. Neil Young and Sarah McLachlan both have albums named Mirrorball (1995 and 1999, respectively). On U2’s 1997 PopMart tour, Bono made his entrance from a massive lemon shaped disco ball. On her X2008 Tour, Kylie Minogue first appears on stage atop a disco ball that descended from the ceiling. Justin Timberlake destroyed one on the cover of his FutureSex/LoveSounds (2006) album.
The world’s biggest disco ball was presented at the 2014 Bestival in the UK. It was covered in 2,500 individual mirrored tiles, and was three stories tall.
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Mostly, disco balls remind me of a favorite era when I went out dancing several nights every week. I danced under a disco ball in big cities and small towns. I once had hot sex with a guy in West Hollywood who had one suspended above his bed.