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.
Click through to read “Rollerderby Queen,” originally published in the SF Bay Guardian on May 19, 1998.
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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