Last night I was at the Oakland Convention Center with several thousand of my closest friends and the Detroit, Texas, Windy City, and Bay Area teams. Most people were not aware that it was the eve of the birthday of the game they were playing and watching.
That’s really not important. If anything, Roller Derby is so today, it could have been started yesterday. Women who enjoy what they are doing, empowered by the game and their teammates; often their husbands or partners or families on hand.
And the skaters in that first game 76 years ago were so reflective of the times: representative of the Talking Head’s song “We’re on the Road to Nowhere'”, in the heart of the depression, skating endlessly in a marathon to win a few hundred dollars but getting meals and lodging just to stay alive. And women competed which was so controversial. The winning team was composed of a boy of just 16 (he snuck in) and his partner. Only Keith Coppage, official Roller Derby historian and Gary Powers who keeps the Hall of Fame alive, would know who they were.
And the game has changed so much but still has the original essence. From the banked track (the first one was not really banked for skating). Take a look at the photo at www.rollerderbycommish.com. And you will see the skaters standing in a posed position at the old Chicago Coliseum, with cots in the huge infield for them to rest until it became time for them to get back on the road again. Their sleeping quarters and kitchen were elsewhere in the arena. And the audience could take a walkway above the track to go to portion of the infield to sit and watch and eat! And they paid almost nothing to get in, could stay as long as they liked. And there were breaks when the skaters would each do a little entertainment routine and the audience would throw coins if they enjoyed it.
Those were your grandparents. And the ultimate joy for me came when on the one occasion, a side effect of what Gary Powers had put together for the 70th anniversary of the game at the Chicago Historical society on August 13, 2005, the old and new met. A number of members of the recently formed Windy City Rollers (thank you, dear Val) attended the dinner, and there were tears when they met Ivy King and the other plus 90’s who skated in the first go around. and the next night we all attended the game at the Congress Theater and the hardy pioneers saw the new Roller Derby, still in its initial stages with very few leagues. And the championship tourney in Chicago is now the Ivy King cup.
Shortly thereafter all those who skated on August 13, 1935, were gone. But very much like the Divinity painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they touched and passed on The Game.
Guard it carefully.