You just never know

Today I heard from an old friend – Stephen Land.

Stephen and Ross Bagwell came up with the concept of modern Roller Derby in 1998 with inline skates on a banked track: Rollerjam. (see Roller Derby to Rollerjam at

It starting out with the best skaters and a legitimate-type game…..unfortunately it was rushed on the air (TNN, now Spike) before the skaters really understood the game and although it started with high ratings, they fell rapidly and the producers felt to save the show it was necessary to bring in writers and well… know the rest. And the concept of the jam starting from the line came from Rollerjam.

But Stephen always loved the concept, and when I talked to him today and brought him up to date on what was happening now, he was blown away.

He was very excited about the fact that there could be a legitimate game and he may just show up in Denver, along with the Commissioner.

This might just be the time for a professional league with continuing support for the amateur leagues that have brought this wonderful game back with their money, sweat and tears.

Understand, I want to be part if it as I am part of what you all are doing and keep both the legitimacy and the support of WFTDA and all of the leagues and ruling bodies out there.

It may not happen, and what you are doing today is certainly enough, but if it is able to go to a professional game, I hope that it is with the concept of the love of Derby.

See you all in Denver.


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… 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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I love Roller Derby every day

Photo by Kathi_B from Stock.xchng

When someone can announce a few weeks ago that July 16 is “I love Roller Derby day” and it simply means people should acknowledge it in their own way, and yet over 6000 people signed on and many others in almost every country where the game is played participated.

If I appear redundant in stating just how amazing the rebirth and growth of the game is, please consider the following:  Roller Derby died out in the early seventies, a sport that was an outgrowth of the 30’s marathons and six-day bike races, and because of the fact there was no ball or pellet, had women participating, and was touring like the Globetrotters, was never seriously accepted by those who followed the so-called real sports.

Then other promotions, including roller games which did the image no good,  and Rollerjam, which could have been successful but many elements didn’t come together (more in that in another blog); and the “writers” (yes they wrote a script)  made it worse than WWE and made a parody of the game.

Then suddenly it is reborn in Austin, Texas, not at all in its present form, and with no genius like me to guide it.  Today there are well over 686 women’s leagues, 31 men’s, and 30 junior Roller Derby leagues with some 30,000 participants. They are all amateur, supported and paid for by the members, in 25 countries, with competitors who almost all have other jobs or children, or both, and not only sacrifice for the good of the leagues, but also contribute time and money to community and charity organizations.

Awareness is increasing:  the recent Whip It movie with Drew Barrymore, the two national TV commercials with Alleve and Cheerios shows that in the large media markets Derby has made an impact.   And in various cities the attendance at their games (I have trouble with “bouts”, but that is me) has shown the appeal of the sport goes well beyond friends and family.

If you search “I love Roller Derby” on facebook, read some of the entries.  The love is amazing.  Thank God this cult does not require everyone to drink Kool Aid!  But I wonder, because these are women competing in a full-body contact sport, because of the clouded history of the game, and maybe because it is all amateur controlled from top to bottom, why isn’t more of society aware of this fast growing phenomenon?

Oddly enough, I don’t think it makes that much difference to a lot of the participants.  They certainly want to be recognized for what they are doing, but ultimately it is for each person’s own satisfaction.  Many are afraid that if it becomes to0 big or widely televised, the game will lose its feeling of amateurism and grass roots appeal.  By the way, if you would like to watch games from everywhere, tune in to the, where they have live streaming of a large number of games.  This is because of the sacrifice of Hurt Reynolds and others in his organization to allow everyone to see these matches.

As I said before, there are regional and national championships sanctioned by the WFTDA for flat track games, so you have leagues from all over the US and Canada (and lately the UK) competing with each other.  And like the original Roller Derby, most of the participants did not know really how to  roller skate and had to go through a rigorous training program; and also had to learn the game which has confusing rules:  No ball, both teams on offense and defense at the same time, block the opposing skaters, help yours.  The concept makes your head swim, but they really are on it now.  I have seen skaters that could have made it in our game, and remember, ours were full-time and paid for their participation; no money for today’s skaters.  And banked track leagues, although in the great minority, are increasing.

The future will get more sophisticated for the leagues:  there will be cable television, sports coverage, national merchandise, and the emergence of stars that are known by the public.  Would you rather watch this fast, fun sport or darts on TV?

The end of the month I am attending Rollercon, the national annual gathering of the Derby girls (and boys) in Las Vegas.  I will get a chance to meet many of my facebook friends and to give them whatever counsel or advice they want from my experience.  And I keep thinking, what other sport has ever disappeared for 37 years and come back bigger than ever with such an organic growth?   Dad, you would be so proud!

August 13 will mark the 75th anniversary of the first “game” at the Chicago Coliseum.  The Derby skaters today are fully aware of the historical significance of this date, and many are planning activities including skating marathons to raise money for benefits or other acknowledgments in their cities.  In addition, the WFTDA national Championships will be held in Chicago this November.  And in October, Cliff Avery of the original Bay Bombers and others are planning a major dinner and event in San Francisco and all who want to attend are invited.  Maybe we should just continue to keep the whole revival a secret.

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The Tao of Roller Derby

Obviously I am not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I am thankful for the various stages of my life, because I think I understand the new Roller Derby.

I was born three years before my dad invented the game.  I grew up with it and eventually was drawn into the management and excitement of the promotion of the game.  I was able to see it go from a defunct attraction to a huge game with millions watching each week on television and then saw it go crashing down in the early 70’s, and I had to get on with my life.  The next 30 or so years I worked in various enterprises.

During that time, I learned about Rock and Roll, sports teams, theater, concerts and more, and the people and personalities that went along with them.  I loved music and probably saw hundreds of performers and concerts in that time and got to understand why people attended these sometimes overwhelming events.  I left that part of my life in 1997 and did other things (related earlier).

Then Gary Powers, someone I had never met, contacted me.  He was planning the 70th anniversary of Roller Derby in Chicago (Gary is the ultimate fan; he has the RD Hall of Fame in his house in Palm Springs).  It was to be held at the Chicago Historical Society.  On the night of the event, some 80 people were on hand, including 3 participants in their 90’s who were in the very first Roller Derby.  Also on hand, were about a dozen members of the Windy City Rollers, members of the new league of Roller Derby women.  (And one, the great Val Capone, would become my first Derby Wife).

I had been hearing rumbles of the new Roller Derby but frankly had not been really aware.  Since we had shut down in 1973 so many attempts to revive it had followed, most following the terrible example of roller games with clowns and humiliations and more – don’t misunderstand me, roller games had some great skaters, but Roller Derby was different.  I had worked as a consultant on Rollerjam in the early part of this century which had great in-line skaters, but unfortunately that had also turned into a travesty, so I was through looking for any successful revival of my father’s game.  He loved it so much; he wanted it to go from the exaggerated skating to a fully legitimate game which would eventually be in the Olympics, but he never got to see that happen.

The night after the event in Chicago Gary, the skaters and I were invited to the Congress Theater in Chicago to see the first flat track game I had ever seen.  We were greeted by loud alternative music which went on all game long and women who skated the game I knew but in a very different way.   And there were pillow fights, and suitcase races, and other facets I did not like, but the women were wonderful and so respectful of what those before had brought to them. The Windy City Rollers named their league championship “The Ivy King” cup.  I didn’t know that eventually these non-skating fooleries were ended.

I started following the growth of the women’s leagues and attended Rollercon, their annual event in Las Vegas the following July along with Loretta Behrens who also has followed the leagues avidly.  I met so many bright and wonderful women (about 2000 in attendance from as far away as Australia and UK) and started to understand what this was all about.  These were women who were attracted by a culture they did not have in their every day life.  A friendship and sisterhood that set them off from others, often characterized by tattoos and costuming and derby names (Val Capone, Juanna Rumble, Venus Envy, etc) and a connection with each other that certainly transcended sports.

Roller Derby was the ultimate empowerment.  They had their own game which was only skated by women at that time (I asked one player from Texas why they didn’t let the men who were all around and helping them skate also: “they’re our bitches”).  I spoke to one woman who was a therapist (I was amazed at how many therapists, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers were among the throng) why she was doing it.   She told me that all Derby women were in it for some reason to make their lives better, to escape their daily problems, etc.  It does sound strange when you think that these women, many who had never skated before, engaged in an extremely difficult boot camp, training and learning sessions, to achieve the goal of being able to compete in a full body contact sport and displaying their bruises and injuries the same way that Prussian officers used to show their dueling scars.

But it goes way beyond that;  unlike our games which were professional promotions aimed at an audience, these were women who formed their own non-profit leagues, paying monthly dues or fees, raising money not only to continue but also for the community and charity commitments.  They are hard driving, hard playing athletes who go to bars after the “bouts” for fun and dancing with friends and fans.  And they are doing it for themselves, not for an audience.

It is a little hard especially for men to understand that these women (on the whole) are dressing and acting the way they do not to entice anyone but to please themselves.  The games are 100% legitimate, and almost in spite of themselves they are attracting paid audiences, with over 7000 attending recently in Seattle and crowds of 4000 or more are not unusual in Chicago, Toronto, Australia and elsewhere.  There are all kinds of different Derby now, flat track under the auspices of the WFTDA; USARS, OSDA, skated under the old rules; banked track and who knows what else.  There are now 13 banked track leagues, 31 men’s leagues usually under the auspices of a woman’s league and more.

As of this moment in time there are some 540 leagues worldwide, with up to 30,000 women competing in 16 countries, and I feel it will double within 2 years.  There are now inter-city and inter-state competitions and even inter-country, with championships each year.

It is not enough to say that theirs  is a sisterhood between the women, it seems to go deeper than that.  What is commonly expressed is that “I hate Derby, but I can’t live without it” or more commonly, “Derby saved my life” .  There are two new excellent books you can get that explains the authors’ personal experiences: “Down and Derby” by Alex Cohen and Jennifer Barbee, and “Going in Circles” by Pamela Ribon.

I don’t think Leo Seltzer would have ever thought that Roller Derby would have been as it is today, a real life event for its participants, many of whom have daughters participating in junior Derby or husbands or boyfriends as referees or other participants.

Don’t dismiss what is going on, as it is not going away this time.  And if you are unhappy or happy, overweight or not, or anything else, get off your butt and do it.   Even if you don’t make the team, it just might make your life better.