Way before Cindy Sherman, from the dawn of photography, people have dressed up in front of the camera. Because the camera captures them not only as they are, but as they wish to be. Fashion and photography are a natural fit–what other medium could convey the infinite variety of human style, as well as the vision and aspiration behind it?
Darleen Rubin met Rollerena in the 1970s when New York was on a downward splurge. Bankruptcy loomed, crime was high, entire neighborhoods had fallen into decay. Pundits thought the city was through, but people carried on, some even turning the gritty streets into a personal stage set.
Though Rollerena was born in Gravelsnatch, Kentucky,* he immediately stood out in the Big Apple. In September of 1972 he went into The Opulent Era, a shop specializing in old Vaudeville clothes, selected a bathrobe and skated off down the street. He whirled into a bar called Dancing Danny’s, and the place went wild. A star was born.
As befitting a celebrity, Rollerena’s wardrobe became ever more glamorous, with signature pieces like the Turtle Clutch and the Rose Fur Hat (worn the night he danced with Rudolph Nureyev at Studio 54, where he always got in).
Darleen Rubin is professional photographer whose fashion, lifestyle, and celebrity pictures have appeared in the New York Post, W, Men‘s Wear Magazine, and graced the cover of Women’s Wear Daily. She has also spent many years documenting people and change in her West Village neighborhood.
On a warm spring day in 1973, she was chatting on the street with a friend when a vision streaked by. A quick shot captured a tall figure in a flowing gown with a knapsack, pale hat, and something rising over his head like a halo. It was Rollerena. He honked his horn, executed some swirling moves, and his signature back kick. It was love at first shot, and when they were introduced, the two became fast friends.
Rubin has been documenting his looks and moods ever since. In a city full of stars, Rollerena has always been exceptional. Haunting thrift stores long before it was hip, he has created over the years ensembles that rival the wildest offerings of New York Fashion Week. Mixing designer threads with no name treasures, he shows a flair for the dramatic as well as the humorous: look at any Rubin photo of him and you can’t help but smile. He is a grace note in the dreary dirge of everyday living, an orchid in a field of weeds, always memorable and outstanding, uniquely himself.
She has captured it all, including his early props which included a bicycle horn, circus baton, and special star wand he used to “bless” people. He ventured into Bloomingdales, and once came upon an escalating road rage scene. But he whisked out his wand and tapped the would-be fighters on the forehead, after which they were too dazed and confused to continue. “People, cars would stop,” said Rubin, “they’d never seen anything like it.” Then he would skate off, leaving the scene happier than he found it.
When I started this post, I thought it was going to be about clothing and style, then realized it wasn’t. It’s not about outer stuff, but inner truth. Rollerena has been photographed many times by many people–amateurs, professionals, tourists and paparazzi–but never more lovingly than by his dear friend, Darleen Rubin. Against a changing urban backdrop, their unique partnership has endured over many years and produced not only wonderful pictures, but many moments of joy and fun. What began with a quick shot, blossomed into lasting friendship.
Sometimes one person can change your life just by showing up. They make things richer, brighter, and more meaningful in ways we can’t always express or understand. As Rollerena came into her life, so Darleen came into mine. We met in January, 2010 at an exhibition at the Salmagundi Club. I was looking for people to write about for the blog, and ever game, she agreed, opening a door to things I never imagined.
Her work inspired me to write not only about photography, but about the changing city beyond the frame. When I think of New York, it is her pictures I see–the brooding streets and rotting piers, the grit of hard times, the tremendous heart of people who press on despite challenges and fear. Seeing them not only makes you smile, but more willing to go on. They give you strength.
So thanks for the memories and pictures too. In poetry and friendship, I tip my hat.
*According to a September 2011 interview with Darleen Rubin and Rollerena