Dilettante: Rollerderby queen
by Summer Burkes

“Dilettante” column originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on 05.19.1998. Re-intro 5.23.18 here.

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.

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May 19, 1998: omg rollerderby

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.

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Didn’t mention this part in the column in 1998, but that’s me, this writer, in the flowery shirt, with the ref, inside the track at the start of the game…

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.

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Organizers invited me as a ‘celebrity guest’ (?!) to blow the whistle to start this legendary exhibition match, which launched a new wave of lady sports with over a million new athletes worldwide 20 years later nbd

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.

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Tweeeet! Yall better believe this still counts as one of the proudest moments of my spectacle-driven life

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.”

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Right before this postgame shot, the one and only Ann Calvello the Rollerderby Queen told me to get my “tickets out” but then when my friend snapped the picture, Calvello did NOT have her tickets out. Absolute legend

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…

Next week, Björk…

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Tryouts happened the next day as part of their effort to rescuscitate the sport. I gave it a whirl but this was before Obamacare and the technically part-time job at the paper didn’t give me health insurance, so I decided against it.

This is the ninth piece in my “twenty years ago this week” project; this post’s intro here, and Dilettante’s first installment is here

Oh and ten years after this article, on 5.27.2008, the SFBG‘s next nightlife columnist Marke B feels around the ultrabananas SF electro scene

Follow Summer Burkes on Twitter.

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