One of my earliest pandemic projects was to clean out my desk alcove, which I often refer to as “the Dorian Gray of my apartment,” because it’s where I stash anything and everything I don’t want to see. The depth of that mess is no exaggeration or hyperbole, as evidenced by me finding – while cleaning and organizing – a DVD that I failed to return to the rental place at least 15 years ago (I’d been juggling a full-time day job and part-time graduate night school and apparently couldn’t be bothered).
It was the 1979 movie, Roller Boogie.
My first reaction to that discovery was a mildly upset and anxious, “Ooops.”
Which was quickly followed by my second reaction: “Oh, HELL yes.”
That night, I popped the DVD into my old laptop, and, like something out of an Olivia Newton-John song from a different roller-skating movie, it was pure magic. Because despite being here, now, in the ominous gloom of 2020, sheltering-in-place alone in my Brooklyn apartment while the global Coronavirus pandemic grimly ravaged the city all around me, it was suddenly 1979, I was eight-years-old, the world was sunny and beautiful and, most importantly, everything once again made sense.
This was the world I recognized.
The one that had been drilled into my psyche by my 1970s childhood. The one that I thought would be waiting for me as an adult.
The one that, instead of Bleak Dystopia, was Kitschy Fabulous.
I pressed play.
Following the film’s title graphic, we meet Bobby James (played by competitive roller skater, Jim Bray, in his first and last film) on the still dilapidated and crumbling Venice boardwalk. Blow-dried and hair-helmeted, with an Avon gold horn necklace (remember those?), Bobby is the best roller skater on the boardwalk and a wrong-side-of-the-tracks stud who dreams of blowing his skate stand for Olympic gold. (N.B.: This is quite an aspiration, given that roller skating has never been an Olympic sport).
In the glorious five-minute establishing sequence that follows, Bobby evidences his skating prowess and beach-wide respect by leading an ever-growing line of dorkily roller-skate-dancing kids through Venice Beach to a soundtrack of Cher. The kids – girls and boys — are dressed in super short-shorts, shirts that are obviously velour, high white sports socks with red rings, Mork suspenders, and sun visors, with many opting for the color combination of red and yellow, making them look like McDonalds condiments. As they skate and dance, skate and dance, and skate and dance, they pass kids roller skating with wind sails. They pass a couple making out on a dumpster, and, seeing the line of roller-skating kids pass by, the girl of the couple crawls out from under the guy to join them. The guy is pissed, but he grudgingly follows, and they continue to make out while skating.
(Ok, let’s be honest. Through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl, there’s nothing hotter than making out with your boyfriend while roller skating. Except maybe riding with Shaun Cassidy on a glitter-covered unicorn to Disneyland).
Roller Boogie helped me to remember what, as a child, I found to be beautiful and cool in the world… at a time when the world no longer seemed very beautiful or cool.
Bobby eventually meets up with Terry Barkley (Linda Blair in a non-vomiting role), a Beverly Hills rich girl and Julliard-bound flute prodigy, who just wants to roller skate, and the two plot to win the Roller Boogie contest at the local rink.
They practice together for a whole day. Sparks fly like metal wheels on concrete. And the coveted Roller Boogie title is within reach — until The Bad Men In Suits show up and threaten to turn the rink into a literal disco inferno unless they can buy it to build a mall.
In the end, the meddling kids manage to save the day; in the ‘70s and ‘80s, meddling kids always managed to save the day – this time with the help of a cassette tape. One of the kids taped the arson threat on his boombox, and the contract to sell the rink was thus rendered voidable as signed under duress (never mind that the recording could have been illegal under California’s two-party consent requirement for conversation recording, although it’s not clear if that was the law in 1979, and I’ve already done way more legal analysis on the plot of Roller Boogie than the writers did). [DISCLAIMER: This is not meant to (and does not) constitute legal advice.]
After watching the DVD for the first time in 15 years, I became obsessed – like, obsessed – with Roller Boogie and the child-like feelings of sunny optimism it evoked.
To quote B.J. Thomas, I was hooked on a feeling.
In an effort to try to recapture that high (which I now craved in doses that increased in proportion to the city’s rising COVID-19 stats), I began binging on other late ‘70s-era media, starting with the classic two-part roller-disco episode of CHiPs (guest starring Leif Garrett). That was quickly followed by Malibu Beach (1978), Little Darlings (1980), My Bodyguard (1980), The Bad News Bears (1976), and Corvette Summer (1978) (i.e., the other Mark Hamill teen film).
But none of them – apart from maybe those particular episodes of CHiPs – came anywhere close to generating the same warm feelings of calm and safety in escapism that I got from Roller Boogie. There was just something so perfect within the combination of sunny Southern California, roller skating, ‘70s fashion, the cool older kids’ adventures, mid-century commercial architecture, and groovy tunes that made it the perfect security blanket for me in an otherwise scary and unsure time.
But it had to be all of those things. Together.
In retrospect, I think Roller Boogie helped me to remember what, as a child, I found to be beautiful and cool in the world… at a time when the world no longer seemed very beautiful or cool. What, as a child, I anticipated in the world… at a time when the world only invoked dread. People often lament how the future was supposed to bring flying cars and other sparkling optimistic technology like in The Jetsons. While I, too, am bummed about those things not materializing (and getting Black Mirror instead), I can almost live without them because they always existed in the distance of science fiction.
But Roller Boogie wasn’t science fiction – it took place in Venice Beach.
And there were Bee Gees posters.
As I self-isolate in my apartment in the midst of a world filled with rampant disease, income inequality, corporate greed, racism, classism, and other divisiveness, I often return to lose myself in Roller Boogie – in a world where the sun is always shining, the coolest kid on the beach is from the wrong side of the tracks, everyone skates together in joy and love, the Bad Men In Suits are actually thwarted, and a cassette tape saves everything.
Yeah. I would have been really, really happy with a world like Roller Boogie.
And that’s where this piece was going to end.
But in another Olivia Newton-John song title (this time, “Twist of Fate”), it seems that I’m not the only one turning to roller skating for comfort in the global pandemic. It warms my 49-year-old heart (as well as my 8-year-old heart, which, admittedly, is never too far away) to report that, in recent weeks, the activity has experienced a resurgence. Following the popularity of Ana Coto’s TikTok clip in which she skate-dances down a Los Angeles street to “Jenny From the Block,” kids are roller skating again, to such an extent that retailers are having a hard time keeping skates in stock.
Maybe there’s hope for that Roller Boogie future after all.