Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Apple #527: Disco Balls

Now that we're about to enter the summer season in earnest, I know what you're all thinking about.  Disco balls.

What else turns a ho-hum party into a spectacular event with the flick of a switch?  Disco ball.  What else, the moment you lay eyes on it, tells you exactly what kind of happening place you've just entered?  That's right, a disco ball.  What item lives solely to spread fun and excitement?  You know the answer: a disco ball.

Sparkles everywhere, courtesy of the disco ball.
(Photo from Mike Ruel)

How many disco balls do you count?

When did this paragon of fun originate?  I bet you're thinking it was first used in disco clubs in the 1970s.  Well, in thinking that, my friends, you would be incorrect.

  • A lot of people have varying opinions about when the disco ball first appeared on the scene, and where.  Many people think it was in the disco era.  That's when they got the name disco ball.  But they lived under another name for a long time before that: mirror ball.

Here's a disco ball -- excuse me, mirror ball -- hanging from the ceiling in Some Like it Hot (1959). Looks like a pretty good place to be, doesn't it?
(Photo from Sparkles and Crumbs)

  • Many people say that the mirror ball made its first major appearance in Casablanca, which was released in 1942.  I don't doubt that it is possible that a mirror ball could have been in Rick's Cafe.  However, I looked at a lot of images and online videos of this movie in search of a mirror ball, but I didn't find one.  If anyone has a screen shot of a mirror ball in that movie, let me know.

No mirror balls here.  I did see a lot of these hanging Moroccan-looking lamps, as well as wall sconces, and table lamps with beaded fringe on the shades.
(Photo from Sparkles and Crumbs)

  • Still others say that the mirror ball first appeared in the 1920s, during the Jazz Age.  These folks typically cite a German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Symphony of a Great City), which was released in 1927.  
  • The film is a tour of the city, a day-and-night-in-the life of Berlin in 1927, but what you see is thematically organized.  There are sections about transportation, about machinery, the military, work, lunch time, leaving work, leisure time, sports, vaudeville shows (very brief nudity), more sports, nightlife, and finally, fireworks.  It's actually pretty cool to see what people doing ordinary things on an ordinary day looked like in Berlin in 1927.

The mirror balls make their appearance at 4:22 in this segment of the film.  This part is about nightlife and dance clubs. The shot of the mirror balls includes the nearby lamps that illuminate the balls and it shows them spinning and the light glancing off them. It's very brief, but it's there.

  • One blogger says that, no, the mirror ball is older than 1927.  He says that, in fact, it was his great grandfather, Louis Woeste, who invented the mirror ball.  He called his invention the Myriad Reflector, and he patented it in 1917.  (It couldn't have been a very solid patent if lots of other people made them and called them something different afterward.)

Cover of a brochure for Woeste's Myriad Reflector.  "World's Most Novel Lighting Effect."
(Image from a blog in Kay Corney's honor)

I'm not sure how well you'll be able to see it in the reduced version, but the snapshots show the Myriad Reflector in action at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, at the Gibson Hotel in Cincinnati, at the Elks Lodge in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, at Lantz's Merry-Go-Round Cafe in Dayton, Ohio, and at the Sefferino Rollerdome also in Cincinnati.  

That the Myriad Reflector/mirror ball was in use in all these different places, which have different purposes, and which are in various states, suggests to me that our friend the mirror ball was pretty widely used around the country at this time.
(Image from a blog in Kay Corney's honor)

  • "People never tire of its Glamorous Beauty!"
  • But wait, it couldn't have been Woeste who invented it because I found still more mirror balls that pre-date his Myriad Reflector.  
  • The Wisconsin Historical Society has a photograph from around 1912 which includes a mirror ball.  The photo is of a sun parlor (solarium) in a hospital which treated (or probably more accurately, housed) tuberculosis patients and the insane.  The tuberculosis patients were encouraged to sit in the sun parlor to relax and take the air.  Suspended from the ceiling is none other than our good-time friend, the mirror ball.

Sun parlor (solarium) for tuberculosis patients at the Milwaukee Hospital for the Insane, ca. 1912.  If anybody needed the cheering effects of the mirror ball, it would be people with tuberculosis and/or insanity.
(Photo from the Wisconsin Historical Society)

  • But wait, there's more.  The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, which likes to describe details of its history, mentions the use of a mirror ball at one of its celebrations very early in the Brotherhood's existence, in 1897.
The February, 1897, issue of the "Electrical Worker" discusses the Third Annual Ball held on on January 6, 1897, at Roughaus Hall, Charlestown, and of the spectacular lighting display, which could be seen for miles around Boston. The letters "N.B.E.W." were done with incandescent lamps of various colors on wire mesh over the ballroom, highlighted by a carbon arc lamp flashing on a mirrored ball. The affair was hosted by Brothers Flynn, Melville, Colvin, Smith, Ellsworth and Dacey. About 800 people enjoyed the spiked punch and melodies of Dunbars famous orchestra.
  • "Spectacular lighting display," "800 people enjoyed the spiked punch and melodies."  Oh, yeah, you bet that was a good party.
  • 1897 is the oldest date I could find.  I have the feeling that the mirror ball may be older yet, but I can't back up that feeling with any evidence.  If any of you out there know of a mirror or disco ball that existed before 1897, let me know.
  • Even so, 1897 is a heck of a lot older than I ever guessed.
    • Now that you've seen the mirror ball in use at these various locales, I know that the next time you're at a party this summer, a shindig, a get-together, heck, even a cook-out, and it's feeling a little weak, you might cast your eyes longingly about for a disco ball.
    • To rectify the situation and equip yourself with a disco ball, you actually need three items: the mirror ball itself, a motor to turn it, and a lamp to shine a light on it and cast the miraculous sparkles all about the room.
    • You can buy the standard silver disco balls, or you can go with disco balls that have all-blue mirrors, or all-gold mirrors, or mirrors of all different colors.  You can get standing varieties that sit on top of your table and spin, or stationary half versions that crouch like a small mirrored hill in the center of your dining room table and wish they could be as fun as their complete spinning, ceiling-suspended brothers and sisters.

    An 8-inch blue disco ball.  Available by itself (no lamp, no motor) for $19.95.
    (Photo from House of Rave)

    A sad 8-inch half disco ball.  Really, why would you do this?  It's like cutting off  your friend's legs and then telling him to sit on your table and be happy and fun.
    (Photo from House of Rave)

    • If you want the real deal, the full enchilada, a complete 12" disco ball kit which includes the ball, the motor, and the lamp, all of which can be suspended from the ceiling, is available from one vendor, House of Rave, for a mere $69.95.  Volume discounts are, of course, available.
    Complete 12" disco ball kit available from House of Rave for $69.95.

    If you want to make your own, all you have to do is cut up some old CDs, glue the pieces to a styrofoam ball, hang the ball from the ceiling, and shine a light on it.  Maybe turn on a fan to make the thing move.  

    I myself would prefer the real thing, but hey, we've got to get our disco balls however we can.

    The point is, we could all have disco balls in our houses if we wanted to.  Dinnertime getting a little blah?  Flip on the disco ball.  Sick of folding the laundry?  Bring the laundry basket into the living room and switch on the disco ball.  Having an argument with your spouse?  Switch on the disco ball and within seconds, that argument will evaporate.

    Yes, disco balls have that power.

    Here are a bunch of them:

    MIRRORED DISCO BALL from Hiroshi D. James on Vimeo.

    eHow, The History of Disco Balls

    Kevin Hopcroft, NJD Electronics, History of Disco Lighting
    Disco Ball Info, History
    Wisconsin Historical Society, Sun Parlor for Tuberculosis Patients
    Kay Corney, Myriad Reflector aka The Disco Ball ~ Invented by Kay's Grandfather
    Yahoo Answers, What year was the disco/mirror ball invented/created?
    Ask Metafilter, Who invented the disco ball?
    International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, The 103 Story, A New Industry, A New Union, Local 35 and the 'Electrical Worker'


    1. Strapped Parties10/22/2011 2:07 AM

      thank u!

    2. Hi

      This is fantastic! information :D

      I have searched in vain for a way to contact you...I wonder if you would like to share this information in a magazine?

      If yes, please contact me: julie.fisher(at)magicoctopusmagazine.com

      We are launching in July and our first issue theme is glitter.

      Thank you!
      Julie Fisher

    3. Hello! How can I contact you, I am a journalist and working on a story about the disco ball. You can reach me via mail: michael.ortner@wienerzeitung.at. Best, Michael


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