Bruce Jenner, look out for Vinzerilli Brown. He's got a mind to roller skate over to the Wheaties world headquarters and knock you out of your shoes, slap a pair of $150 Douglas Snyder plates on them, get up in front of America and take his share of the Breakfast of Champions. Lest you think the fantasy stops here this skinny 2-year-old from Manhattan's Lower East Side then plans to treat the home audience to a demonstration of Saturday Night Fever on eight formica wheels - disco rollerskating.
"Nobody's seen that stuff and it's hot right now," Brown explains between numbers at the Empire Rollerdrome in Brooklyn where he learned to stay alive on skates a year ago. Resplendent in cornrow braids and apple-green "Jigaboo Jammers" T-shirt, the name of the exclusive roller-skating club of which he is the founder and president, he adds that "I'm going to be the first person to make a million dollars on roller skates and one commercial's going to do it."
While they now can claim the allegiance of jetsetters Anthony Perkins and JFK Jr., every scene must have its own celebrities. Vinzerilli wants to be roller disco's biggest and best. "The only reason you know about the Beatles or the Bee Gees is because of air time. That's what I plan on getting. That's how the media works."
The empire is the "American Band stand" of disco skating rinks and as such has caught the eye of international trend-watchers. Vinzerilli missed the call from The Mike Douglas Show" but made it down to the rink for foreign and domestic film crews. He has managed as well to get his face in slick publications flung as far as Japan plus he has recently incorporated himself as Vinzerilli Inc. Not a bad showing in a race for attention among the flow of bodies traveling the hardwood track.
For those who can withstand "Boogie Oogie Oogie," the passing stream of bodies is like the Boston Aquarium's great circular tank. All different shapes, sizes and colors of fish glide by. Midtown secretaries in salmon gauze tunics and rust-colored faces hesitantly test the waters. A barracuda with half-closed eyes chews gum and caresses her thighs as the ABC television cameraman follows in hot pursuit.
A 90-pound needlefish in tank top and shorts wears a white flight cap with earflaps and bug-eyed silver-framed sunglasses. He prefers a style of oscillation closer to a Saint Vitus' dance than the New York hustle.
Couples nest like spoons and skate backwards dreamily, while a blowfish wearing a "Slippery When Wet" T-shirt dodders past on her journey from pillar to pillar. A sure-footed shark makes a high-speed dive for the space between her and the railing, bouncing off the one he thinks most likely to fall - a customary way to keep things moving along.
The Panama Kid is doing his salsa thing with his 'fro well forked and in his "Get Down" T-shirt. He deftly skates upstream untouched by human hands or feet. "It's like teasin' a lion in a cage."
Rinks all over the country are trading in family nights and kitschy organ music in favor of the hip young disco crowd; from Brooklyn to Sheepshead Bay, Washington, D.C., down to Florida on out to Claifornia Calls: the Drome gets calls. "Colorado wants us to send out our instructor to teach their employes how to disco rollerskate," claims the owner. The Empire has been covered by network television and national magazines, but where are all the seemingly expert skaters coming from? Some fanatics just never gave up on the Winchester No. 3 plates they used to hold onto their feet with rubber strips from inner tubes, others thought they outgrew it only to find themselves back in the groove with a fearless flourish in what was supposed to be their adulthood.
A dilettante as a child, Vinzerilli Brown's interest in the social sciences led him back to the rink as an adult. He studied the institutions and functions of human society for six years at New York and Adelphi Universities.For three years, he says, he has been working on The Book - "Astrodomical Celestial Observations of the Reconstruction of the Black Family Structure in America." When some of the kids he counsels asked him to meet them at the 'Drome for a talk, "I just got blown away. I didn't go home that night.The next day I went out and bought a pair of skates, went home and put mirrors up in one of the rooms of the house to practice in." He finds the rink the perfect laboratory for his work.
"Guys and gals don't have time for the regular disco mental games and social facades. It's a paradox that you cannot be chic and feminine and bust you a --, all at the same time." Because of these less stringent social rules, "It's like a family and all you need is a pair of skates to join."
The Empire began in the 1950s as a place for white middle-class families to skate to organ music and their kids to compete in organized meets. "During a freestyle competition in '61," says Hank Abrami, owner for 22 years, "one of the guys from Brooklyn came in and decided to skate to 'The St. Louis Blues.' It knocked the crowd dead, but the judges all gave him zeroes across the board. From then on it was trial and tribulation."
They kept their tangos and waltzes, but Friday was "Bounce Night." Color lines changed in the neighborhood and the mostly all-black crowd kept things hopping when they converted to all disco music in '66. Whites stayed away. In early '77 they remodeled. Pratt Institute students painted rainbow and cloud murals on the walls and decorated the island in the center of the track with bamboo and palm trees. Lighting designers dictated the colored neon bolts suspended from the ceiling.
The vinyl suitcase which Brown carries with him to the rink has everything but a portable tracks in it. Towels, a supply of fruit juices, a variety of colorful skating outfits and his JJ T-shirts. Custom made, the T-shirts cost $35 for 75 odd members brown has chosen on their ability to skate as well as their "positive outlook in a negative society!" "I've also got two sets of wheels, one for the rink and one just for skating on the street, listening to my transistor radio and waiting to get into the Empire!"
Brown is most inspired by the hope that someday doing what he loves to do just might pay off. He'd like an alternative way to secure the economic future of the alternative family he has established in Queens. It consists of seven women, three babies he has fathered within the last year. "We wanted them all to grow up together - this is definitely planned parenthood." And himself.
His first love was jazz, but "musicians are too unreliable, they all died at the age of 35." He's incorporated his soprano sax into his roller-disco act, gaining considerable attention and the first $50 toward his million-dollar goal.
"I won the roller-skating Gong Show at another rink. I came in with a sheet over my head, played the sax real slow, then threw off the sheet and rocked out as a two-headed gorilla. I took the first prize of $50. For them to give me money for what I love to do is outrageous!" he says, beseeching the heavens with an ear-to-ear grin.
Tonight he has left the gorilla heads at home and shed the JJ T-shirt along with his canary-yellow terrycloth sweatpants and matching snapbrimmed hat. He has been asked along with other top skaters to perform a number for film crews from ABC and London. "I wanted to tone it down, you never know what the people in Ohio watching this on television are going to think. I don't want them to think that we're a bunch down here."
Brown dons a white sanitation worker's uniform and grabs a mop and dust cloth for his thematic performance with a half-dozen fellow jammers. They disco-skate around a pair of park benches to "I Love New York," doing a litte bit of "every dance that's out there that people do on their feet," and a few steps of his own invention.
Always conscious of the film crews' attentions, he mimes the motions of cleaning while doing his "carousel turns," his "breakdowns" and his New York Hustle.
A young Japanese man, thoroughly westernized in prewashed denims and antique leather jacket, stares in wide-eyed wonder at the spectacle before him that he previously only read of in magazines back home in Tokyo. Both feet firmly on the ground, he turns to the reporter besides him and asks, "Is this the latest thing?"