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.
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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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