Hell on Wheels

A documentary about legendary bad girl Ann Calvello, the undisputed Roller Derby Queen

If you subjected yourself to the recent remake of Rollerball, the 1975 Norman Jewison flick that combined international politics with a fictional sport that blends the worst of pro wrestling, ice hockey, and roller derby, I offer my sincerest apologies. For a real piece of the action, look no further than Fireproof Productions' Demon of the Derby: The Ann Calvello Story, a feature-length documentary about the legendary skater that premiered at last year's Film Arts Festival. In the 1950s and '60s, when the game's fans numbered more than 20 million, the undisputed Roller Derby Queen was Ann Calvello. A badass both on and off the court, Calvello was the sport's Dennis Rodman or John McEnroe, dying her hair blue, green, or pink for kicks and wreaking havoc in a pair of mismatched skates. Though such attention-getting antics in spectator sports are now par for the course, they were groundbreaking back in the day, particularly for women.

An in-depth look at this full-body contact sport -- including vintage footage of the larger-than-life figure who embodied its spirit -- Demonis long overdue. Roller derby was the precursor to extreme sports, the WWF, and competitions like American Gladiator. Games aired weekly on television and regularly sold out venues such as Madison Square Garden and the Oakland Coliseum. Calvello joined the professional league in 1948 and was primed for the spotlight. A natural showboat, she collected as many nicknames -- "Banana Nose," "The Fiery," and "Meanest Mama on Skates " -- as lion trinkets (she's a Leo, and proud of it). She knew it was better to play the baddie than to be ignored, and she enjoyed being the team member the audience loved to hate: Screaming matches with the refs, antagonizing the crowd, body-slamming players, and throwing temper tantrums (not to mention the occasional chair) were all a part of her repertoire.

Roller Derby Queen Ann Calvello stomps out the competition.
Roller Derby Queen Ann Calvello stomps out the competition.

After the circuit closed in 1973, Calvello returned to a "normal" life that included bagging groceries at the Millbrae Safeway and selling tickets at 49ers games. Despite a recent brain tumor operation, the 72-year-old spitfire, a longtime resident of San Bruno, hasn't mellowed a bit. She still cuts a bold figure: White frosted lipstick contrasts sharply with her skin, which is tanned a deep shade of chocolate, though her hair is now dyed a demure platinum. Recent attempts to revive the sport have had limited success, but Calvello is still making history as one of the oldest derby players around. She and her local documentarians will attend both 8 p.m. screenings this weekend. The 8 p.m. Saturday show features a "Dress as Ann Calvello" contest that the lioness will judge herself, so put on the frosted lipstick and get ready to roll.

 
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