When Being a Freak Was Chic
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On April 21, the LGBT Center in Greenwich Village was crowded with people who weren’t born when Studio 54 opened in 1977. A few veterans of the city’s most famous nightclub and other survivors of the Disco Era joined them. There, in a unimpressive meeting room, an impromptu sound system blared oldies like “Ring My Bell,” “Le Freak” and, of course, “I Will Survive.” A spoon of cocaine went into a mylar moon—a tribute to Studio’s original décor and main energy booster.

The dancers had not only assembled to mark the 30th anniversary of Studio 54, but to pay tribute to its legendary habitué, one who indeed has not only survived but thrived. There, in the middle of the impromptu dance floor, in her signature Sunday-go-to-meeting hat, veil, pearls, elaborately framed glasses, lace gloves, diaphanous chiffon ballgown and enough costume-jewelry bling to weigh down Foxxy Brown, was Rollerena in all her glory.Born and bred in the hills of Kentucky in 1948, the boy who would be Rollerena became the “bluegrass belle” of three counties. He earned the “Vietnam Veteran Against the War” button that is as much a part of his outfit as his horn-rimmed, Dame Edna glasses while serving in the artillery infantry in the late-’60s for two years. “Long enough to know that we were finished the day we went in there,” he told an interviewer recently. As for his opposition to our current adventure abroad, “Jungles in ‘Nam or sandstorms in the desert, it all comes to down to one issue: money.”Like so many gayboys from the Heartland, he eventually found his way to New York. The persona of Rollerena was born on September 16, 1972, when he went into an antique store on Christopher Street and donned his now-signature vintage ’50s hat and a gown. He reportedly went into a bar, and, according to a tribute website, “the whole place went absolutely wild. A crowd gathered like they were awaiting Glinda landing in Oz.” Thus, are legends born. After a few iterations, he became known as “Roller Arena the Fairy Godmother” and made her “official” debut in the1973 Easter Parade.
He had already been roller-skating for a few years, however. Formerly, he was known for a simpler outfit: visor, umbrella attached to his head, backpack and bicycle horn under his belt. He became known around town when he appeared on his skates in the Gay Pride March in 1971, only two years after Stonewall. He still makes it the entire length of the march route, to the cheers of the crowd, as familiar as the lavender line down Fifth Avenue.Roller Arena (eventually shortened to Rollerena) became one of those much-beloved (and much-missed) Downtown characters. Like the Purple People, he was easily identified. With the booming popularity of roller discos—a craze she is credited with having started—she went from curiosity to celebrity. Tourists took her picture and asked for her autograph. She started to make special appearances at events. She got a business representative and was regularly on TV and radio talkshows. A New York Times article about the new popularity of adult street skating acknowledged her as a pioneer of the trend.But it was at Studio 54 that the legend of Rollerena took root and became part of our urban myths. It all began, appropriately enough, on Oct. 31, 1977. After the annual Halloween Parade, she first was admitted into the club that will forever define the Disco Era.Steve Rubell, the club’s co-owner and the arbiter of the notorious velvet rope, loved her getup and persona. Soon enough, she became a regular. The man, who by day worked anonymously in a city agency, rubbed shoulders nightly with first-name pals like Liza, Calvin, Andy and Bianca. In her roller skates and waving a magic wand, she became one of the most beloved characters in a nightclub where it was hard to stand out. One observer of the scene describes her as “the most celebrated of the disco fantasy folk to grace the dance floor of Studio 54.” Probably the only other regular who became anywhere near as well-known was Disco Sally, an eightysomething grandmother.Rollerena was never a druggie, however, and her survival makes her one of the few remnants of those crazy long nights. In the ’80s, she devoted herself to ACT-UP and other AIDS organizations. Her presence made a demonstration into an Event.She continues to receive attention wherever she goes. I first met Rollerena just last summer at one of Michael Fesco’s Sea Teas, a floating dance party around Manhattan. My friend, a Studio veteran, said hello and introduced me. Her soft voice (with a hint of a Southern drawl), the light touch of her hand and, above all, her gentleness not only brought back a time when NYC could embrace wild characters without irony or snark, she also reminded me that good manners and kindness are the real hallmarks of a true lady. Of any gender.Today, Rollerena is retired from her day job. She’s proud of the fact that, in New York magazine’s recent oral history of Studio 54, she was the only patron mentioned by name—which is exactly as it should be, since she was its most famous non-boldfaced personality.She continues to do good works and to protest yet another military adventure. She has donated her memorabilia—boxes of newspaper clippings, photos and assorted paraphernalia, including gown, roller skates, wand and some original accessories—to the LGBT National Archives at the Center. They’ve all been lovingly catalogued and made available to scholars who want to understand how NYC, for a few brief years, transcended mere commerce and entered the magical realm of fairyland.So how do people perceive her today, when it’s a very different age and the “freaks” are trendsetter wannabes like Paris Hilton? Typically earnest, she told Next magazine that people see her and “they see a sense of security and a dignified appearance that personified a low-key on-site fashion plate.”“A leatherman at Ty’s, [a Christopher Street bar,] told me a year ago that as far as he was concerned, there was not one single outfit from Bryant Park’s Fashion Week that could rival my wardrobe. I thanked him and then he bent over and kissed my Dingleberry ring.” Take that, Paris, and stick it in your dinkleberries!