Maybe you didn’t grow up roller skating at a 1970s-era roller rink outside Tampa, Fla. Maybe your friends weren’t smoking in middle school or preening in navel-baring shirts, trolling for the kind of boys who keep a bottle of peppermint schnapps tucked into their jeans.
The denizens of the “Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink” captured by photographer Bill Yates and featured in this show curated by Mary Stanley at Hathaway Contemporary were undeniably of a certain time and place. But if you were or are a teenager engaged in the universal gestures of preening, swaggering, flirting and pining, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of recognition in these gorgeous, evocative, heartbreaking images.
Yates took these black-and-white photographs between 1972-73 as a young photography student and then forgot about them. And while too evocative of economic struggle, sad backstories and messy human emotions to conjure up a “bygone era of youthful innocence,” as curator Richard McCabe notes in a catalog essay accompanying the show, they do give a powerful impression of this unique place. They make you feel as if, on the evidence of these 39 images, you’ve just passed some time among its people.
From all appearances, the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, despite its slightly ratty wooden frame exterior, was the Studio 54 of this dirt road Florida town, a hotspot drawing large intergenerational swaths of the local population to its door. Housewives in curlers, men in work shirts with their name embroidered on the pocket; but also tow-headed high school dream boats with a dangerous edge and tough-looking girls flaunting their curves like head shop Bonnie Parkers mix it up on the rink’s crowded sidelines.
Yates gives you a sense of the local fixations, like the vogue for enormous puff ball pompoms worn on roller skates or the full-throttle dance moves on the roller rink floor that demonstrated an in-it-to-win-it attitude. Part of the charm is the sense of ribald fun on display, a peacocking and preening equally bold and brash whether male or female, their swagger and lust coming off the images like heat waves on Florida asphalt.
Yates also captures the lonely girls bench warming from the sidelines, overshadowed by all of the flashier, sexier Romeos and Juliets; the little kids sleeping on those same benches, perhaps waiting for distracted parents. The images unleash an array of complex emotions that speak to their unique power.
One of my favorite photographs in the exhibition is of a little girl wearing go-go boots and shotgunning a Pepsi with half-pint bravado, commanding center stage like a “Soul Train” dancer eating up her moment in the spotlight. A beach town Shirley Temple, she’s surrounded by a ring of grownups who take in her underage virtuosity. Such images betray a streak of grit and tough-as-nails attitude running through these blue-collar folks in their proto disco-era finery: wide belts and flowered collared shirts, aviator glasses, epic sideburns and flared leg plaid pants.
It’s not hard to imagine the Sweetheart as a bargain-basement paradise for a lot of them, a joy-filled break from less wide-open and magical real lives. The Sweetheart functions as a stand-in for any small town or big-city juke joint, soda fountain or nightclub: a place where you can momentarily forget yourself, find a mate or maybe a steady and feel glamorous and alive — at least until the last slow song.
Yates just had the prescience and the eye for the telling detail to convey the white-hot bundle of excitement, lust, disappointment and sadness that makes these places magic.