THE MIRROR BALL
“Make your place a dazzling Fairyland,” trumpets a handbill advertising the Myriad Reflector, a mirror ball patented in 1917. And who would disagree?
No-one knows for sure when the first mirror balls appeared. Its origins are obfuscated by myth and rumour; smoke and mirrors. It’s even suggested that it was originally used in Europe as a way of warding off witches. It has the ring of possibility, for the mirror ball is bewitching; dispensing glittery magic into the night.
It predates even Cincinnatti inventor Louis Woeste’s Myriad Reflector. The earliest documented evidence of its existence came in a report of the Third Annual Ball of the Electrical Workers on January 6th, 1897: “The spectacular lighting display 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. About 800 people enjoyed the spiked punch and melodies of Dunbar’s famous orchestra.” Sounds like a great party.
The mirror ball never misses an occasion. When it wasn’t entertaining the electrical workers of the Boston area, it was aiding the recovery of tubercular patients in a Wisconsin insane asylum. While its medicinal virtues may be unproven by science, we’d wager the outcome was positive. In 1919, it assisted the performance of the Louisiana Five jazz band and eight years later, it twinkled atop Berlin ballroom dancers in the movie Die Sinfonie der Gro∫stadt. It also made a crucial appearance in Some Like It Hot helping Marilyn Monroe perform with Sweet Sue & Her Society Syncopated.
In the ’60s, the hippies turned on to its twirl when concert promoter Bill Graham made the mirror ball a staple of his nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco and in New York, where Andy Warhol’s antique ball was used as a prop for the Velvet Underground as they performed ‘I’ll Be You Mirror’.
It became so synonymous with the disco era that, for a period, it even changed its name to disco ball. It was there are at its birth, like any doting father, shining its focussed beams on the imposing figure of Francis Grasso, at the Haven and Sanctuary. David Mancuso had a mirror ball and little else at the Loft (what else do you need, after all?). The Paradise Garage, the sacred spot of New York disco, had a 30” mirror ball with six – count ’em – 500 watt old lamps faithfully trained on its every move (and only Larry Levan, its resident, was allowed to operate it).
In 1987 and 1994, Pink Floyd constructed what was the then the world’s biggest mirror ball, so large it was almost a planet. As it ascended fully, it burst open to reveal yet more lights inside. U2’s mirror ball, as seen on their 1991 Zoo TV tour doubled as both ball and – holy moly – DJ booth. On her 2006 tour, Madonna went one step better. She climbed out of hers, as though bursting from the centre of a Terry’s Orange Chocolate.
And so we come to Smirnoff whose free-hanging mirror ball is the world’s largest. It weighs one and a half tons and has a ‘ticker tape’ running round its circumference so the public can send suggestions for new night ideas, as part of their on-going Yours For The Making night-time campaign. At the end of October, Maya Jane Coles even DJed underneath it at the southern entrance of the Millennium Bridge. It’s the Death Star of mirror balls.
In these days of Bodysonic dancefloors, LED walls and synchronised lighting arrays, it’s amazing that something so simple as a mirror ball, a source of wonder for Boston electrical workers 115 years ago, can still thrill today.