One of the few times in San Francisco I was invited anywhere as a “celebrity guest” (nightlife columnist, no idea why) was to blow the whistle to start the first game of rollerderby in the modern era, in May of 1998. Yes I am extremely proud of this.
Ann Calvello, the de facto star of the event in question, remains rollerderby’s queen bee, though she passed in 2007. Aged 69 at this exhibition gig in 1998, she still skated and fought like a sassy champ, four decades after she got her start in the business. “She was punk before there was punk,” one fan says in a five-minute documentary about Calvello, which looks like it was made in 1998 as well.
A different clip shows Ann Calvello getting rowdy in white lipstick and a baby blue beehive mullet — long before anyone else colored their hair funny — throwing ‘bows with Judy Arnold as part of the San Francisco Shamrocks. Cut to 3:41 for the drama; it’s the 1960s version of ladies’ wrestling on wheels basically.
In 1935 Chicago, Leo Seltzer patterned his original “rollerderby” sport idea as a marathon, like bike races. Skaters practically lived at the track and had to travel long distances to entertain the Great Depression crowds. Then, after three years of national fame and huge crowds, World War 2 came and wiped rollerderby out.
Jerry Seltzer, second generation, led a rebirth of the sport in the ‘60s. Seltzer kept it co-ed and developed the regional team concept. Top athletes had a nine-month season of three to four races a week. Even then it was a DIY sport with no huge sponsors or established league networks.
In 1971, 35,000 people gathered in Oakland for the largest single game of rollerderby’s second wave. One classic rollerderby documentary calls it “an exercise in orchestrated mayhem unequaled since the Indian battles in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.” In 1973 the enterprise folded when the gas crisis hit.
Here’s the thing: Despite what the new documentaries say, and even Wikipedia, it’s this writer’s opinion that modern rollerderby got its start at this very gig where I randomly blew the first whistle, in the Cacophony Society’s home city of San Francisco in May 1998.
The below documentary “Hell on Wheels” says the third wave of rollerderby started back up in Texas in 2001 with the Texas Rollergirls. They say a man named Devil Dan said he came up with it in Austin, and the first bout took place in 2002.
But I was there at this show in San Francisco in ’98?! And people tried out for teams the next day, including yours truly and housemates? And there were at least two more exhibition games in the Bay that summer?
Anyway, that all happened on a traditional banked track, and then the Texas innovation was a flat track, easily built, easily transported, easily packed away.
This new iteration of American rollerderby, made possible by the Texas Rollergirls’ flat-track breakthrough, changed everything. There were no other full-contact team sports opportunities for women. And women love to rollerskate, we love a punk aesthetic, we love inclusion, and we love matching outfits.
Nowadays, the Wrestlemania factor of histrionic fake-violence has toned all the way down, and rollerderby athletes are a whole lot nicer to each other than they used to be. Rules outlaw any elbows, leg sweeps, stomping, or other dirty tricks. Mostly it’s a huge sisterhood of ladies who want to be athletic and entertaining at the same time, lightly body-checking each other with shoulders or squishy womanly hips in a human game of bumper cars.
The craze even spread to England, where for some reason they pronounce it “roller darby.” The 2017 British documentary called Roller Derby: Skate Fast, Hit Hard shows the rollerderby life as sort of a Fight Club for women — a break from reality, complete with catchy pseudonyms, for office drones and busy moms. They have a motto: “By the skater, for the skater.”
A 2014 doc from Canada called As Raw As It Gets: Growing Up Roller Derby shows that now we are old and there’s a new generation, a Junior League infestation of rollergirls and -boys happening in North America. Of course Las Vegas has a convention for it: Roller Con.
The short documentary This Is Derby and the TEDx talk Hard Hits and Hard Lessons
both highlight the re-emergence of rollerderby as a vastly-woman-majority network of leagues all learning to cooperate and make something big happen together. It’s heartwarming — sort of the opposite of what the Seltzer clan envisioned, but no doubt they and other old-schoolers are proud of their invention’s trajectory.
There are so many ways Generation X has facilitated an emerging of a collaborative society within the ruins of festering capitalism. Usually in my world we refer to it as “Cacophony.” These types of subcultures Do It Themselves, and also hinge on the concepts of leaderlessness and of the user’s slightly altered personality who exists in an alternate zone of reality. It’s not escapism so much as “serious play.”
Also, consider that none of this type of grassroots fractal growth would’ve been possible in the pre-Internet days. The oomph it requires to form democratic meet ups which turn into huge networked sporting events? We could guess 80 percent of logistics take place online.
There was a spiritual lightning storm in the air in Kezar Stadium that night in ‘98, a collective realization that Something Was Happening. This was a brand new (ok, renewed) opportunity for women to be super tough, still feminine, and competitive — to get off the sidelines and play a full-contact team sport with each other.
Twenty years later, they say rollerderby has become the fastest-growing sport in the world, with teams on six continents, two thousand amateur leagues worldwide, a feature film (Whip It), a World Roller Games in Nanjing, China in 2017, and a real shot at being an Olympic sport in 2020.
We say we hope rollerderby lives forever this time.
Scroll down or click through to read “Rollerderby Queen,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on May 19, 1998.
Dilettante: Rollerderby queen
by Summer Burkes, 05.19.1998
ROLLERDERBY, the long-dormant sport closer to World Wrestling Federation games than a skate-off at the Rolladium, may be just campy enough in these cynical, kitsch-loving times to make a comeback. Invented in 1935 by a Chicago promoter named Leo Seltzer, it enjoyed considerable popularity through the final years of the Great Depression.
Later, with World War II in full swing, gas shortages made it difficult to travel to rollerderby games, and the sport waned. In the aftermath of the war, with games televised every Sunday night and attended by all manner of celebrities, the sport returned.
Another gas shortage in 1973 laid it to rest, seemingly for good. Now, almost 30 years later, helmets and elbow pads tossed aside during the me decade have been strapped on once more, and the wheeled version of fraudulent blood sport has returned to bruise again.
The memories I have of watching rollerderby on television as a small child are vague women and men in helmets and knee pads, skating in circles on a banked track, beating the living tar out of one another. Although I’ve recently learned that there are actual “rules” that make it a semi-legitimate sport, my childhood recollections were basically correct.
At the first local rollerderby match in years Saturday night at the Kezar Pavilion, the latter-day champs skate, fight, spit on the audience, tell each other to fuck off, fly over railings, flash the referees, elbow one another in the face, and enjoy every minute of it.
At this rollerderby triple-header, the California Bay Bombers, the New York Demons, and the Santa Cruz Royal Rollers all match each other in three games. Kezar is half full with veterans and new fans of rollerderby: punk rockers, Haight rats, suburban families, and lone jocks.
Vendors hawk programs and T-shirts at the door, someone sings the national anthem, an announcer gives relentless commentary, and techno music blares just like any other sporting event.
What’s odd about the rollerderby, besides it being the rollerderby and all, is that everyone who makes an appearance on the track is old enough to be one of my parents. It makes sense, though: the sport’s been lagging for so long that they have yet to find new recruits, and the current athletes are a dying breed.
Balding men and suntanned, bleach-blond women wheeze around the track during the warmup laps; parts of the crowd doubt the athletic ability of the aging stars. But when the actual games begin and the ominous sound of 80 echoing wheels in motion fills the venue, there’s no doubt that these folks can still kick some ass.
The players are introduced as the games commence: they have funny names like Scruff, Jojo, and the Maverick. The grande dame of the rollerderby, Ann Calvello, receives special fanfare and adulation. At 68, she’s been a rollerderby skater for 50 years and counting.
With rainbow-colored fluorescent hair, rawhide-tan skin, and white lipstick, she predates Dennis Rodman in the athletic ham department. And with a mean pair of skates, when the games begin, she’s the roughest woman out there, hitting, stomping on, and generally assaulting anyone who looks at her sideways.
A rollerderby game has two halves, and each half has four alternating 12-minute matches for women and men. Teams consist of five members each: two “blockers,” two “jammers,” and one “pivot” man or woman. The object of the game is to lap players from the opposing team.
The games are made up of 60-second “jams,” in which all players from both teams knot up into a pack, the whistle blows, and the jammers and pivots try to break free to lap the track and score. The blockers, of course, block. Along the way, violence happens. In addition to Calvello’s capers, we see tripping, hair-pulling, sucker punches, and Geraldo-esque chair-throwing antics. And when anyone gets “railed” and plops onto the gym floor below the track, the crowd goes wilder than Peggy Hill watching a NASCAR wreck.
Although people actually get hurt now and then with all the skates flying around, it’s pretty obvious that rollerderby is a fake sport. People are fined ridiculous amounts of money for fouling other players; when one skater throws a chair out onto the track and causes a pileup, the referee (a portly fellow named Icebox) lets him go, declaring, “It was an accident.”
The fights are histrionic, short, and orchestrated with restrained glee; we’re able to catch Calvello and others secretly asking opponents they just dropped if they’re OK. Three matches later everyone survives intact. The oldsters may be sore tomorrow, but they’re victorious tonight.
Rollerderby is a wacky dinosaur, completely unlike baseball, tennis, basketball, football, or any other sport that requires serious dedication and humorless skill. It’s a Fox Channel sport: three hours of high-speed athletic artifice mixed with melodrama, violence, and humor.
Throw some live bands into the mix, sell alcohol, and dim the lights, and rollerderby just might rival Incredibly Strange Wrestling as the Pepsi Generation’s next pet pastime.
Or maybe they should combine forces with the Jerry Springer or Ricki Lake shows. Who wouldn’t want to see the Chicago team Our Boyfriends Are Cheating on Us stomp the shit out of the Nashville White and Proud squad? Just a thought…
This is the ninth entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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