16 December 2019

Meet Me Under The Disco Ball

You can't deny that the disco ball is the most treasured party symbol. Reflecting fractals of light from above the dancefloor and pulling our focus to the center of it, the mirrorball tells everyone: this is where the action is. There is no more reliable witness to the ups and downs of clublife than the disco ball, omnipresent and omniscient. As Tracey Thorn sings in "Mirrorball," the 1996 tune from her group Everything But The Girl, "the lovely mirrorball reflected back them all, every triumph, every fight under disco light."

Yet, as is the case for many party icons, the disco ball's origins are a bit sketchy. While the disco ball came to power in the 70s as part of the disco era, the origins of the spinning reflector can be traced to nearly 100 years before Donna Summer topped a single chart. The first documented appearance of the disco ball goes as far back as 1897, where an issue of the Electrical Worker, the publication of an electrician's union in Charlestown, Massachusetts discusses the group's annual party and its most notable decorations. The group's initials (N.B.E.W.) were illuminated with "incandescent lamps of various colours on wire mesh over the ballroom" and another light (a carbon arc lamp, now embraced by steampunk enthusiasts) flashed on a "mirrored ball."

According to archival photos, mirror balls appeared in an assortment of locations, typically those related to social functions. Nearly 30 years after those electricians created a mirror ball for their shindig, an inventor named Louis B. Woeste filed a patent for an object he called a "myriad reflector." The 1924 US patent filing describes the device as a "sphere, yet any other geometrical form-may be substituted therefor, which is preferably hollow and has its surface covered with a multitude of mirrors."

The end of the disco era—with a backlash embodied by Chicago's Disco Demolition Night and eventually its demise prompted by the AIDS crisis—meant an end to the decadence and glam of the 70s. By the early 80s, disco music's time in the mainstream spotlight was over but the disco ball itself endured. While still a fixture above dancefloors, it had also been absorbed by non-dance sides of music culture in the 90s. Neil Young and Sarah McLachlan each had albums named Mirrorball (in 1995 and 1999, respectively). On U2's infamous 1997 PopMart tour, Bono emerged from a massive mirror ball-plated lemon (a fruit that would go on to symbolise the success of both the tour and its related album).

By the early 00s, disco balls began to return to nightlife's iconography in pieces, refracting light across the video for Sophie Ellis-Bextor's 2001 tune "Murder On The Dance Floor" and immortalising excess in Who Da Funk's 2002 tune "Shiny Disco Balls." On her 2006 Confessions Tour, Madonna first appeared on stage emerging from a disco ball that had descended from the ceiling while singing her song "Future Lovers" and a cover of disco queen Donna Summers and Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love."

Today you can buy a disco ball anywhere, but in the disco era, they were harder to find. At that time, Omega National Products was making more disco balls than anyone in the world. The Louisville, Kentucky-based company even pioneered the manufacturing of mirror sheets that cover a variety of objects from walls to Rolls Royces.

"Our company started in the mid-1940s as a furniture manufacturer, and we started making disco balls here in the 1950s," Omega veteran Toni Lehring told THUMP. "We were already making mirrors at the time for art-deco furniture, and then they came up with the idea of making these flexible mirror sheets that could cover everything from trash cans to Kleenex boxes—even a set of grand pianos owned by Liberace. Then we got approached to make disco balls."

In the company's early years, Lehring says 20 to 30 young women (during WWII, in particular) led the manufacturing of mirror balls, which ranged in size from two-inches to six-feet in diameter. Many of them came at the request of amusement parks and jukeboxes that wanted to include the balls as part of their attractions. "The dance halls, roller rinks, and speakeasies came after, and we were the ones making them," says Lehring. "As time went on and the foreign market started to make a lot, we began to sell away some of the disco ball molds to other manufacturers."

At its peak, Lehring says Omega made 90% of the world's mirror balls. At that time, their 48 inch balls were retailing for nearly $4,000, a hefty price at the time. "Most Louisvillians weren't aware that most of the disco balls were made here in their city," Lehring says. While the company is no longer the only game in disco ball business, it's still part of their product line (in addition to wine racks and decorative valences). Omega still has some disco balls hanging in the building's windows, most of the archives and photos of some of the more dazzling creations from the last fifty years were lost during an office move. And lest you think the people making the disco balls are club kids themselves, Lehring describes her colleagues as "regular manufacturing people that get up and go to work everyday" who work in what she calls an "overly basic" office. None of us have dyed hair or crazy tattoos or anything," she laughs.

As decades pass, new trends in music come and go and new technologies change the ways lights are used inside clubs but the technology of the disco ball and its presence has remained relatively consistent. In a culture that shifts so rapidly, how could something like a disco ball remain so untouched?

For almost everyone, the answer seems to come down to nostalgia. Disco balls remind everyone in clubland of a simpler time when the music was pure and the feelings were good. It's kind of like visiting a beautiful landmark in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood—no matter what sprouts up around it (from techno to EDM), you know that disco ball will always be there for you.