B.A.D. Girls

Iva Vendetta, Miss Moxxxie, Ghoulina, and the other Bay Area Derby Girls are into piercings, tattoos, partying, sexual innuendo, and whatever they decide roller derby is going to be

Most of the women have posted profiles of their skate personalities on the league's Web site. Bozeman's reads like a fraternity house fantasy. "Status: Extremely easy. Dream job: International go-go dancing sensation. Likes: Figs, feminists, vice, sass, stilettos, smarts, bruises, style, masturbation, goat cheese, irony." She sees her skate identity as a way to unleash what she calls "the night side of my personality," adding, "and I think that's true for a lot of us."

Jennifer Seidman, 34, whose skate name, Lickqua Courage, hints at the fact she owns a bar, makes a similar point. "I'd say we're all alpha-type females," she says. "The women attracted to roller derby are obviously athletic but aren't necessarily the type of women who like to hang out at the gym. This is athletics with an edge to it."

It was at Seidman's Acme Bar in Berkeley last September that the Derby Girls got their start. After a friend who skates in an all-girl league in Arizona convinced her that the time was right to start a league in the Bay Area, Seidman put out the call and 20 women showed up for an exploratory meeting. Only three of the originals stuck with the group. "Several of our girls have children; others have jobs that require them to get up at 5 in the morning," she says. "It isn't easy. This isn't something you do unless you're committed to it."

Derby's Heyday: The former Intercontinental Roller 
Derby League, based in the Bay Area, drew huge 
crowds until the 1970s.
Courtesy of the Roller Derby Foundation
Derby's Heyday: The former Intercontinental Roller Derby League, based in the Bay Area, drew huge crowds until the 1970s.
Derby great Ann Calvello with ex-Bomber Gloria Mack 
Gardner, January 2005.
Gary Powers
Derby great Ann Calvello with ex-Bomber Gloria Mack Gardner, January 2005.

It was especially tough at the start, she says, when the only place the women could find to train was at a skating rink in San Ramon, where they had to share the floor with regular roller skaters. It didn't take long for management to ask them to go elsewhere. They ended up at the Bladium, where they're able to rent the blade hockey rink at a discount provided they use it late at night after the hockey guys have called it quits. Their practices -- on Tuesdays and Thursdays -- don't ordinarily begin until 10:15 p.m. and sometimes later, depending on whether a hockey match runs long. By the time they pack up and head home, it's well past midnight. "You can't be on the fence about this or you'll never make it," says Terra Groh, 28, aka Terra NüOne, who works the cosmetics counter at a San Francisco Nordstrom. "Some days it's all I can do to keep my eyes open."

Dreamed up in Chicago in 1935 by impresario Leo Seltzer, who needed an attraction to fill an auditorium he had leased, original roller derby owes its chops to legendary sports writer Damon Runyon. It was Runyon who suggested transforming what had been a roller-skating variation of the marathon endurance walks that were popular at the time into something fast-paced and often brutal. His idea: to have two pairs of rival "jammers" break out of a pack of 10 skaters and sprint around a 100-foot banked track while their three teammates deck rival blockers to clear a path.

Roller derby was an early TV sensation. Between 1948 and 1952 the sport -- which was wholly owned by Seltzer -- played on all three commercial networks, sometimes two and three nights a week. "Roller derby was the first great sports spectacle of the television age," says Gary Powers, a New York ticket seller who founded the Roller Derby Foundation, which seeks to preserve the history of the game's golden era.

But the early success came at a price.

After becoming overexposed, the game ceased to draw large crowds at its mostly East Coast venues, prompting Seltzer to pull up stakes for Europe, where promoters were clamoring for it. When roller derby returned to the United States in 1953 Seltzer chose Los Angeles as its base. The ostensible "home" team -- the Los Angeles Braves -- was continuously pitted against another team nominally from the coast -- the California Bombers. The latter would morph into the San Francisco Bay Bombers in 1958, once Seltzer's son, Jerry, who was only 26 at the time, took over the family enterprise and moved roller derby operations to the Bay Area.

By then, Leo Seltzer, whose dream had been to see roller derby take its place as a "legitimate" sport, had grown disillusioned with the game. "My father was the original derby purist," recalls Jerry Seltzer, a retired ticket company executive. "He really didn't care for the fighting, the frills, and the scripting."

Except for a stroke of luck, original derby might have died before it ever took root in the Bay Area. The Seltzers were about to pull the plug on their cash-strapped league just as KTVU-TV took to the airwaves in 1958 and agreed to Jerry Seltzer's pitch to put derby on the air. Seltzer offered the broadcasts to the station for free, with the proviso that he be allowed to retain rebroadcast rights. He then distributed free videotapes of the telecasts to some 200 TV stations across the country. With no TV revenue, roller derby was essentially an infomercial aimed at drawing crowds whenever the Bombers, Braves, Midwest Pioneers, or Brooklyn Red Devils rolled into town on tour.

The formula burnished a distinctly Bay Area image of the sport among generations of TV viewers accustomed to seeing tapes (presented as live action) of games from Kezar Pavilion. In 1972, the year Raquel Welch advanced her talents in Kansas City Bomber, a roller derby bout between one of Seltzer's teams and that of an upstart roller derby league based in Los Angeles drew 52,000 fans to Chicago's Commisky Park.

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