Resurrection?


Around the turn of the century (sounds weird, huh?) I received a call from Stephen Land of Jupiter Entertainment.  He had read the story Frank Deford had written for the New York Times on the sad death of Joan Weston, and he wanted to talk to me about the revival of Roller Derby.

Photo by mordoc from Stock.xchng

Stephen was not the first one I had heard from since the REAL Roller Derby had disappeared in the 70’s, but he seemed the most sincere and credible.  I had had a call in the 80’s from a promoter in New Jersey who said he had a ton of money behind him, could get TV and believed that together we could bring it back.  I told him I has working between Los Angeles and San Francisco with Ticketmaster and BASS and he was welcome to come and see me with a proposal.  When he asked me to send him a ticket, I knew that guy was really for real (outta here!).

But Stephen was different, so I went to Knoxville to meet with him and his partner in this venture Ross Bagwell, a well-known name in the TV production and television industry.  I said that I was really not interested in starting Roller Derby again as it had been and they both said they wanted to make a game that would make Leo proud.  I don’t think I listened carefully enough because one of them said that if it didn’t work well they could always bring in “The Iron Sheik”.  I guess I thought they were kidding.

So here it was late summer, they had a TV commitment on TNN (which has gone through two transitions and name changes, now Spike), but their show had to be on the air in January.  I admit I was alarmed…..how to get skaters, get a track built, all the logistics, etc.  I contacted Buddy Atkinson Jr and he was willing to take it on.  The decision was made to make the game more contemporary by having all the skaters in in-line skates (bad idea) and that a special High-velocity banked track would be designed.  Now Buddy has built a number of tracks, the standard upright steel and masonite, and he had a new design which he felt could be built for about $25,000.  Instead, the head of the TV construction took over, and they ended up with a quarter-million dollar track that was not only hard to skate on (I can’t believe how the skaters did the fabulous skating they did), but had no resiliency when they fell as a masonite suspended track has.

The word went out for speed skaters and others, and I have never seen talent like that which showed up.  World class sprinters and distance skaters in fabulous shape (Debbie, Stacey, Gallagher, Sean, Janet, Denise and others, I can’t name you all).  Unfortunately, with the time necessary to get a building to build the track, the skaters on hand, the training didn’t start until after Halloween (correct me if I am wrong).  The skaters were all guaranteed $1000 per week, and the games were to be taped at Universal Studios.  I think I fooled myself into thinking that because these were such skilled skaters they would be ready.  The problem was the game;  none of these people had ever seen Roller Derby and there were no instincts available to know where the jammers were (two on each team), how the blockers were positioned, etc.  So there was a compromise:  some plays would be planned in order to make the game better (I weaseled here), situations would be set up so there would be good guys vs bad guys and away we went.  Buddy did a great job training them, but we just hoped we could get lucky.

The first telecast garnered the highest rating the network had ever had, but the game was dreadful.  It looked like they were skating in mud, even the planned jams fell apart, so much confusion, etc.  About the fifth game it got considerably better, but the TV audience had vacated.  The decision was made to bring in some quad skaters who would bring “color” into the game because of their experience in previous skating (only Richard Brown had skated some Roller Derby), and Mark D’amato became the dominant villain.  I admit, I was made the commissioner and had a few scenes in the “office” (oh, the lure of acting).  I kept trying to convince Stephen and Ross that since the games were being seen in many cities, and a number of them had decent ratings, that scheduling games might be the answer.  They were so concerned about getting a good TV show, they felt it wasn’t the time.

The decision was made to schedule a week at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas to add a little elan to the games.  The crowds were decent, but I knew that Stephen and Ross were not happy with the “production” so writers were given free rein to WWE it, and boy they did…….races where the women tore each others dresses off; instead of a penalty box, skaters were forced to go into a cage off the track……bad guys came in helicopters and took off with a woman captain, etc.

When we returned to Orlando I told the two men that I could not stay with it anymore.  They are really good people and treated me and everyone connected with the project fairly.  As I recall, Ross kind of left also and went to his home in Jupiter, Florida.  It was their money that was in the production and I know they were trying to recover it.

A referee replaced me as the commissioner (most people didn’t recognize him with a suit on….he was a professional actor and did a good job).  But I have to tell you of the nicest thing that came out of the whole thing:  I asked Stephen if he would do Ann Calvello the favor of having her skate in her 7th decade and having it on TV.  Ann came in, had a match race with the commissioner, and creamed him.  Happy birthday, Ann!.

Well, I thought, this was even worse than roller games and now there would never be any Roller Derby, let alone a legitimate game.

Well, once again, as Butch Cassidy said “Who are these guys and where did they come from?”  Thank you Derby Girls and Boys.

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8 comments on “Resurrection?

  1. Jerry – Roller Jam had great potential, but I agree, it should have been skated on quads. Although the track looked good, it should have been more like the old school tracks that had more bounce.

    It’s sad that it eventually turned into a circus on wheels. When you see that much talent out there on the track, you just know the product could have been so much better. But, we’re talking TV Show, not sport. Right?

  2. too bad it didn’t work out. should have gotten some input from veteran skaters like billy bogash, bert wall, gene gammon, russ massro and hal janowitz. their opinions could have gone a long way and maybe made rollerjam successful.

  3. I must admit that I wasn’t all that interested in reading that section of “Roller Derby To Roller Jam” (I’m still fawning over the earlier history of Derby), but from this blog I feel obliged to really give all of it my utmost attention. As always the honesty and knowledge that you impart in your blogs fuels and feeds my desire to know and learn as much as I can, and so far you have been a great teacher! You always come through with the goods!
    Thanks 🙂

  4. Please keep sharing your Roller Derby thoughts and experiences with us, Jerry. Having the opportunity to add your perspective to the “big picture” of the history of the game is priceless. For me personally, Roller Derby ended with Roller Derby. I just never got into the inlines…I’m a quad girl forever.

    But after becoming involved with TXRD and bringing them to Corpus Christi twice for games, I just felt like the guys who wanted to deserved a chance to skate too.

    I think that having been such an activist regarding womens rights, I have always felt that the goal should be equality, not exclusivity.

    While I marvel and admire what WFTDA and other organizations have accomplished since the games rebirth, my heart jumps to see games from the late 40’s through early 60’s. For me, there is nothing more exciting than a fast, strategic, hard skated game without any silly shenanigans breaking up the action.

    Lucky for me, there is a group of skaters in Philly that feels the same way.

    So please don’t stop providing us your insight. My experience has been that you can’t get to where you want to go without knowing where you’ve been.

    Hearing from you is like getting the story from the horses mouth! I love your blog!

    Much Respect~

    • So please don’t stop providing us your insight. My experience has been that you can’t get to where you want to go without knowing where you’ve been.
      You said it, Rose! Couldn’t agree more!

  5. Jerry,

    Thank you for your truthful report on Roller Jam.I have so much respect for you and also for buddy Atkinson jr. It is sad the the Roller Jam activities were not successful as originally intended. I know that if I had beem on board with Buddy Jr. , together we could have made it work. buddy did a fantastic job in a short time, but, it was too much involved for one person. You , Buddy and I share the same beliefs, thoughs and ideas about a ‘ true Roller derby Game9 totally legit ) , and maybe someday we will have the opportunity to join forces and make it happen.

    Yes, at present, there are many talented skaters , females and males , that would welcome the opportunity to skate a true Professional Roller Derby game. Without the three of us, I have doubts if it can be done. Together we have over 120 years of experience in every facet of skating and banked track skating….Yes…maybe, someday we will again ‘ be together’.

    Respectfully,

    John Hall

  6. When the so called rebirth of Roller Derby was announced, as with “RollerJam” there was so much media involved and money behind it that a hungry Roller Derby fan like I was so happy to see it return. I thought your name alone even added credibility to the rebirth. I thought the concept would finally bring your father’s invention back to prominence and maybe us all some justice in the “accepted” major sporting world. Sadly it never happened.

    As an old school fan I think that’s what hurts the most. My acquaintances know I follow major sports and yes, even Roller Derby. Having been a cheerleader of sorts and it’s biggest defender it was so hard to see RollerJam take a “Brodie” so fast due to lack of foresight and history. Ironically we never seem to learn from history and that the “WWE” still of entertainment just does not work in today’s Roller Derby.

    I don’t doubt the skating talents of the RollerJammers and even those right now in the San Francisco Bay Area’s American Roller Skating Derby. What I do have a lot of concern is promoters who feel you have to make a circus show out of it and not respecting the athletes or others who want to make it a sport. The show is just downright boring. I too left RollerJam half into the first season never to view another event. How ironic I was attending a convention near the MGM when RollerJam just happened to be in town too! Went to a “taping” and found the audience and production part much more interesting then what was being shown to those in attendance. How sad too to notice half the audience departed prior to the halftime or intermission since calling it a halftime only glorifies what the show was not…a sport!

    In closing I had the pleasure to meet and had lunch with Erin Miller, a retired skater who helped coach some of the RollerJammers and he gave me a lot of insight into the show, and how he got out of it because of the direction it gone to. In closing I think when we think credibility and image, one should consider sadly what those in general or with no knowledge perceive when they see the product. When one views it as nothing more then a cheap sideshow, just not worth the price of admission. Roller Derby then instead of taking strides forward, sadly gets dumped over the rail! A product like that is deserving of a major penalty and fine!

  7. (Sigh) What strikes me, having written that portion of the book and being dazzled by everything I saw there (thanks Jerry) was the feeling that we *both* were hoping against hope it wouldn’t be what that deep sinking feeling told me it would be. I still remember your bemused comment one night, “Well, at the very least, it’ll outclass anything Roller Games could do,” and we both chuckled but the writing was on the well. Still… it was nice to see skating in classier surroundings. Those folks from CBS Cable were great, and everyone at Jupiter couldn’t have been more professional and kind. And some of that skating…!

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