Louisville's Secret Past: Disco-Ball-Building Boomtown

During the 1970s disco craze, Louisville, Ky., produced 90% of the mirrored balls made in the U.S., turning out thousands a month. Production has slowed these days, but the city is hoping for a revival. Photo: William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

LOUISVILLE, Ky.— John Travolta was in fine form, still sharp in his legendary white suit, finger pointing skyward in a cardboard pose while speakers blared the pulsing rhythm of “Disco Inferno.”

There was a smoke machine. There were neon lights. Then, with a crowd of politicians and boosters watching, a cable lifted into place one of the city’s largest civic monuments, a glittering 11-foot wide, 2,300-pound disco ball.

Disco ball
Disco ball

The giant mirror ball, billed as Kentucky’s largest, was a testament to the city’s manufacturing heritage and history of craftsmanship, said Mayor Greg Fischer, while providing “a convenient excuse to party.” He declared April 1 Disco Ball Day.

To most people, Louisville’s manufacturing heritage extends to bourbon, baseball bats and, maybe, bluegrass music. But during the late 1970s, the local Omega National Products factory about cornered the market in disco balls, churning out 90% of the dance ornaments made in the U.S. The company shipped thousands a month to nightclubs, concert halls and roller rinks.

“That was the heyday, I’m telling you,” said Yolanda Baker, 69 years old, the last of the Omega crew still making the mirrored globes by hand. (See photos of Ms. Baker at work.)

At the height of the craze, about two dozen women joined Ms. Baker at the factory, often with the Bee Gees blaring from a tape player, as they turned Louisville into America’s disco-ball capital.

These days, production is down to about 15 or 20 a month, nearly all the work of Ms. Baker. “It’s definitely lonely,” she said.

Louisville is now trying to reconnect with the glory days captured in the movie “Saturday Night Fever.” The question is whether disco balls can achieve the same pop longevity as bluejeans, electric guitars and hot rods.

During the late 1970s, the Omega National Products factory in Louisville, Ky., about cornered the market in U.S. disco-ball production. “That was the heyday, I’m telling you, said Yolanda Baker, 69 years old, the last of the Omega crew still making the mirrored globes by hand.

During the late 1970s, the Omega National Products factory in Louisville, Ky., about cornered the market in U.S. disco-ball production. “That was the heyday, I’m telling you, said Yolanda Baker, 69 years old, the last of the Omega crew still making the mirrored globes by hand. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Yolanda Baker runs a mirror through a cutter to make the skin of a disco ball at the Omega National Products factory. At the height of the disco craze, about two dozen women joined Ms. Baker at the factory, often with the Bee Gees blaring from a tape player, as they turned Louisville into America’s disco-ball capital. These days, production is down to 15 or 20 a month, nearly all the work of Ms. Baker. “It’s definitely lonely,” she said.

Yolanda Baker runs a mirror through a cutter to make the skin of a disco ball at the Omega National Products factory. At the height of the disco craze, about two dozen women joined Ms. Baker at the factory, often with the Bee Gees blaring from a tape player, as they turned Louisville into America’s disco-ball capital. These days, production is down to 15 or 20 a month, nearly all the work of Ms. Baker. “It’s definitely lonely,” she said. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Metal cylinders that will form the skeleton of disco balls.

Metal cylinders that will form the skeleton of disco balls. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Strips of square-cut mirror and adhesive are used to cover the disco balls, which are made by hand.

Strips of square-cut mirror and adhesive are used to cover the disco balls, which are made by hand. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Baker applies adhesive to a 36-inch disco ball for the next layer of mirror squares.

Ms. Baker applies adhesive to a 36-inch disco ball for the next layer of mirror squares. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Omega National Products at one time shipped thousands of the mirrored globes every month to nightclubs, dance halls and roller rinks.

Omega National Products at one time shipped thousands of the mirrored globes every month to nightclubs, dance halls and roller rinks. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Finished disco balls, two 20-inch and one 22-inch, on the factory floor.

Finished disco balls, two 20-inch and one 22-inch, on the factory floor. William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

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Local resident Kim Grider swung by to gawk and snap pictures of Louisville’s giant ball during its two-week stopover at a waterfront park. “I’m proud that we’re the disco-ball capital of the world,” she said. “We need to carry it like our torch.”

In 1917, inventor Louis Woeste of Newport, Ky., got a patent for the “myriad reflector,” a sphere with mirrored facets that “produce a scintillating and spectacular effect” when suspended and illuminated.

Mr. Woeste and a partner advertised in a 1922 edition of the journal Electrical Merchandising: “The newest novelty is one that will change a hall into a brilliant fairyland of flashing, changing, living colors.”

Kentucky’s myriad reflector finally caught on in the 1970s, riding the coattails of disco, when it became the “centerpiece of the action,” said Tim Lawrence, author of “Love Saves the Day,” a book about American dance music of the era. Dancers “were seeking an alternate reality,” he said, “and the mirror ball helped them experience it.”

Nicky Siano, a DJ at such legendary 1970s New York City venues as The Gallery and Studio 54, said he would keep the disco ball motionless early on and start turning it only when the music began its crescendo. Dancers would jump up to touch it, he said, and “you would see it swinging back and forth and the whole room swinging with the ball…big, huge smiles on their faces.”

Toni Lehring, mirror sales and service manager at Omega, said company photos show one of its disco balls hanging at Studio 54.

By the 1980s, overseas manufacturers churned out cheaper versions, former Omega President Bruce Woodward said. Styles changed, a backlash built and before long disco was dead.

Picture-taking in front of the 11-foot wide, 2,300-pound disco ball on display at Louisville's Waterfront Park during the Kentucky Derby Festival.
Picture-taking in front of the 11-foot wide, 2,300-pound disco ball on display at Louisville’s Waterfront Park during the Kentucky Derby Festival. Photo: William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

Omega turned its focus to such products as elevator interiors and wooden roll-top desks, Mr. Woodward said. The company still makes the flexible mirrored sheets used in disco balls, but mostly for clients who use them to decorate everything from bikinis to cowboy saddles.

Steve Lieberman, who has designed lighting for nightclubs across the U.S., used Omega’s mirrored sheets for a 6-foot-wide disco ball he designed for a nightclub at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J. The high-tech ball—built by AG Production Services, a sound and lighting company—has 1,500 perforations that allow LED lights inside to project images on the ball.

A 12-inch Omega disco ball has a retail price of about $ 135 these days, while a similar-size import from China lists for $ 25 on Amazon.

“Some looked like they hadn’t been sanded, just very rough looking,” Ms. Baker said of the competition. “I don’t know why anybody would buy one.”

The idea for the sparkling civic monument to Louisville’s former disco dominance originated with a group of local professionals who throw an annual party—the Sherby—on the eve of the Kentucky Derby.

“Who doesn’t like a big disco ball?” said Kevin Jaggers, a Sherby organizer. “Whether red state or blue state, everybody can agree on disco balls.”

After all, the company that makes Louisville Slugger baseball bats—nearly 2 million a year—has a museum downtown featuring a 120-foot bat.

The Sherby group consulted with Omega and hired a metal fabricator to build the 11-foot ball. To cover the $ 50,000 price tag, they held fundraisers featuring dance contests. “People came in full ’70s leisure suits,” said John Brittain, an organizer. “There was chest hair and gold chains flying around.”

Like other places that have seen a hometown product fade— Kodak KODK 2.90 % cameras in Rochester, N.Y., or B.F. Goodrich tires in Akron, Ohio—it can be tough to re-create the magic.

In fact, disco balls might only be making a comeback in Louisville.

That hasn’t discouraged Mr. Brittain and his friends. They now want to build the world’s largest, a staggering 67 feet in diameter, to crush the record set in 2014 by a nearly 34-foot disco ball that was raised at a music festival on England’s Isle of Wight.

At this year’s Sherby, the 11-foot disco ball hung from a crane while people drank and danced in the street, not far from the Omega factory.

“It’s the life of the party,” said Patrick Loughran, gazing up at the gleaming facets.


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