By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
The place really stinks. We're talking man-stink here, the smell of sweat-soaked guys who've shed sour uniforms after two hours of blade hockey inside an insufferably stuffy former airplane hangar-turned-sports center called the Bladium. But as they file in and throw down their duffel bags near where some of the hockey players are cleaning up, the Bay Area Derby Girls appear not to notice. It's 10:30 p.m., and the self-professed B.A.D. Girls of the fledgling all-girl roller derby league are hurriedly taping raw ankles and toes; donning pads, socks, and skates.
The two dozen women preparing to take to the training floor claim an assortment of day jobs. Among them are office workers, a teacher, several bartenders, a commercial real estate manager, a pastry chef, and a professional dominatrix. A few are mothers. But on the two nights a week that they drive from as far away as San Jose to practice as rock music blares inside a cavernous hangar at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, they assume tough-girl alter egos with skate names to match. There are Surly Vixen, Annie Agony, Midwest Mangler, Holly Terror, Ghoulina, and Faster Pussycat, but no Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
"Hey, check this out, dude," says Melissa Chamberlain, 28, aka Miss Moxxxie, a fashion merchandiser at the Gap. She loosens her belt and unselfconsciously drops her jeans to reveal a set of nasty bruises that arc downhill from her pink candy-striped panties. As the other women gather round, Christina Henderson, 23, a lanky grade-school teacher who skates under the name SkAtOmAsoChIsT, joins in the show. "Look at these," she says. In a flash, she, too, lowers her pants and swivels her hips to expose blue and brown welts on her right thigh. After all, what good are skate trophies if you can't share them?
This isn't your daddy's roller derby, the perennially popular blue-collar slugfest-on-skates ubiquitous on local TV back when many baby boomers were still teenagers. (Think: San Francisco Bay Bombers.) Original roller derby, the banked-track spectacle with its matched teams of men and women, choreographed moves, and campy infield brawls from which the World Wrestling Federation borrowed shamelessly, ran its course in the 1970s, despite numerous attempts to revive it.
The Derby Girls are a different breed.
They're in the vanguard of some 28 female-only roller derby leagues that have sprung up in cities across the country, many of them within the past year. A few, including ones in New York, Los Angeles, and Austin -- where the all-girl craze got started -- are regularly drawing 1,000 or more fans to bouts at skating rinks and transformed warehouses. The women skate on teams with names like Holy Rollers, French Kiss Army, and Putas del Fuego (Spanish for "Fire Whores"). Short skirts and fishnet hosiery are the costumes of choice. Cheap beer flows, and punk rock or (in Texas) rockabilly bands typically perform between halves of skating, as well as after bouts.
Thus far it is an alternative-sports phenomenon that has remained under the mainstream radar. But things may be about to change. The A&E cable network is set to unveil a reality TV show this fall or early next year built around the Lone Star Rollergirls, one of the Austin leagues. A Las Vegas hotel is reportedly having a banked track built for a future Sin City Rollers attraction. And in recent months the all-girl troupes, including the Derby Girls, have fielded inquiries from the Pabst Brewing Co. -- a prime sponsor of roller derby in its heyday -- about potential marketing deals, several of the groups say.
"In [original] roller derby it was really the women who drew the crowds and the men who made it feel legitimate, so maybe the women's time has finally come," says former roller derby godfather Jerry Seltzer, 73, of Sonoma. Seltzer broke the hearts of derby fans in 1973 when he abruptly shuttered the old Intercontinental Roller Derby League, which for most of two decades was based in the Bay Area. It was his late father, Leo Seltzer, the league's original owner, who founded the sport in 1935.
With their rebel personas, body piercings, tattoos, and party-hardy lifestyle, the Derby Girls are as much subculture phenoms as skaters. They've yet to find a permanent skate venue, are still months away from real competition, and haven't even divided into teams yet. But they've generated a buzz with their own glam calendar featuring sexy photos of a different Derby Girl for each month of the year; they have their own Web site (bayareaderbygirls.com); and they attract male and female admirers who are forever posting adoring messages on their Internet listserv.
Although they've yet to settle on which of various permutations of roller derby rules to play by, like any self-respecting bad girls, they've already adopted a group hand-sign, dubbed "The Shocker," which one of them colorfully describes as "two in the pink, one in the stink." Achieved by hiding the thumb and ring finger, "the Shocker allows for the index and contiguous digit to penetrate the vagina, while the pinkie attends to the rear," explains Andrea Bozeman, 23, aka Iva Vendetta, a Web content writer with a master's degree in English literature from the University of Chicago.
The women have also picked up the endorsement of original roller derby's most famous bad girl, Ann Calvello, 75, of San Bruno, whose green hair and quixotic temper during a four-decades-long career have helped make her an icon within the all-girl derby milieu. (Teams in one of the Texas leagues play for the Calvello Cup.) She showed up to offer her best wishes at a recent Derby Girls benefit held at a San Francisco nightspot; it raised $5,000 for the budding league. Much of the money came from a "spanking booth" in which male fans lined up for hours for a chance to pat scantily clad Derby Girl bottoms at $1 a pop. "I don't know if these girls are roller derby's future," says Calvello, "but I sure as hell like their style and what they're trying to do."
The hour is late -- almost midnight -- and new coach Lydia Clay, 63, a veteran of roller derby during the 1960s and '70s, is putting the women through their paces. It's Clay's second workout with the Derby Girls after agreeing to help them in return for gas money for her commute from Hayward. "These girls have heart, and I love that," says Clay, a whistle dangling from her neck. As the one-time team captain of the Red Devils (a perennial nemesis of the old Bombers) during derby's second golden era, Clay has skated before countless thousands of fans, from the Cow Palace to Madison Square Garden.
The mere fact that the women are willing to commute long distances to practice at such a late hour (the only time they can secure a rink to themselves) says much about their commitment. Except for Amy Jo Stewart, 24, aka Stitches Stew, who skated for two Arizona teams before moving to San Francisco last year, the women are without derby experience. A few hadn't put on skates for years before the Derby Girls formed and, for now, offer more devotion than talent. At the start of practice Clay has turned diplomat when the women press her for an appraisal of their collective abilities: "Let's just say that we've got a lot of work to do."
The girls are a long way from "bouting," as roller derby competition is called, and they know it. For that matter, they haven't even settled on which of the various renditions of the game they want to end up playing. In roller derby, the aim is to have a sprint skater, called a "jammer," circle the track and pass members of the opposing team (scoring a point for each one she passes) while opposing "blockers" try their best to prevent that from happening. Most of the nascent women's leagues have five players to a team: a jammer, three blockers, and a "pivot," who calls the plays and sets the pace for the team. At least one league, the L.A. Derby Dolls, after whom the Derby Girls appear to want to pattern themselves, uses only four players -- three blockers and a jammer.
Clay wisely decides to break the girls in slowly, ignoring for now the fine points of blocking and other aggressive maneuvers associated with competition in favor of helping them increase speed and get more comfortable skating in a crowd.
Even so, a few of the women are already banged up. A week earlier, one of the "new girls" fell and fractured a hip bone her first night out. "Injury is inevitable. You just try and be as careful as you can," opines Sandra Daly, aka Sandra Dee Molish, who, at 36, is the oldest Derby Girl. Hobbled by a nagging toe injury, she's one of the group's stalwarts, rarely failing to show up for practice despite being unable to skate for weeks. As a professional dominatrix, Daly's injury has also cost her in other ways. "I've had to send a couple of my clients with foot fetishes elsewhere, since I obviously can't slip into heels," she says matter-of-factly.
Considering their disparate backgrounds and lack of time together -- most of them have known each other barely six months -- the Derby Girls appear to be a remarkably close-knit bunch. "It's kind of amazing, but it didn't take us long to bond," says Heather Swain, 25, who goes by the nickname Spider. Like many of the women, the perpetually smiling Swain is into punk rock, admits to drinking heavily on occasion, smokes, and is generously adorned with tattoos. Among them is one that spells out "Max," who, she volunteers, "is the guy I was married to for a couple of months when I was 20."
She's been a Derby Girl since last December, when fellow skater Bozeman walked into Brain Wash, the combination San Francisco cybercafe and laundromat where Swain is a bartender, and began talking up the group. "I knew right away this was for me," she says. "It's a great way to get your aggressions out."
Bozeman (Iva Vendetta) is among the group's more zealous ambassadors. "Derby Girls is about skating and doing something physical, but it's also about a sense of community among women who by nature aren't traditionally joiners," she says. "Plus, bottom line is we're just having lots of fun." Her love of skating mirrors a life on the fast track. Having graduated from high school at age 15, she left her native Los Angeles to study at Oxford University in England before completing an undergraduate degree at Oakland's Mills College. She moved to San Francisco last year after graduate school in Chicago.
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."
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.
The next year, however, Jerry Seltzer's league ran out of steam, undone, he and others insist, by high gas prices during the Arab oil embargo (skaters traveled mostly by car) and wage strife. After a particularly disappointing turnout in New York, Seltzer closed the league. A few of the game's stars, such as one-time Bombers Charlie O'Connell and the late Joan Weston, continued to skate with one or another of the imitator leagues that sprang up.
But the sport never revived.
L.A. entrepreneur William Griffiths, who dubbed his flavor of derby "Roller Games," tried to pick up the pieces, but alienated fans by introducing a style that was as much carnival sideshow as sport, replete with fat ladies, midgets, and pie-throwing. Another reincarnation, Rollerjam, introduced on the TNN cable network in 1998, had skaters (using inline skates as opposed to traditional quads) jumping over alligator pits and assuming roles as soap opera characters. It also bombed.
Yet, die-hard fans of original derby, including several promoters who've for years advanced "leagues" that are little more than occasional exhibitions, haven't given up on a roller derby comeback. Some appear not to know quite what to think about the new all-girl phenomenon. "In the end it will depend on just how much athleticism the women bring to the sport, besides their showmanship," says Will McCoy, 48, a self-described classic roller derby fanatic from the East Bay who works in marketing for World Wrestling Entertainment. "A lot of us who love roller derby hope they're on to something."
Gathered for a league meeting before a recent practice, the B.A.D. Girls are quickly taking inventory of what they need to talk about. Their fund-raiser, at a place called Studio Z, has been a success, but there's a downside. A furtive photographer has infiltrated the spanking booth, taking anally-retentive pictures that have turned up in a local smut rag, and some of the women are chagrined.
In all matters they are a do-it-yourself bunch. A few of the skaters are ready to report back what they've found out about setting up a limited liability corporation. There's also the matter of insurance to discuss. Two of the women are chosen to represent the league in July at a Chicago conference of all-girl leagues that, like the Derby Girls, skate on a flat track. The aim is to try to unify rules and eventually set up interleague play.
The women clearly want to find another place to practice, one that will allow them to train more often and at a more decent hour. Eleven Derby Girls have just come back from a weekend junket to Los Angeles as guests of the L.A. Derby Dolls, who -- like the Lone Star Rollergirls and another group in Phoenix -- have their own banked track. Among those who've made the trip, there's strong sentiment that, if and when they find another venue, "banked" is the way to go.
But that decision is for another time.
For now, the women are weighing a proposal from former skater-turned-roller derby promoter Pam Schwab, who has a banked track in storage and is looking for someone to split the rent for a place to set it up, so she can open a training school for her International Roller Skating Derby Inc.
Schwab's enterprise is among several commercial remnants of roller derby's past. Her former business partner, Dan Ferarri, has something called American Roller Skating Derby, an assemblage of mostly older skaters whose next exhibition is slated for the San Jose Civic Auditorium in July. And then there are the Bay City Bombers, a "league" owned by San Francisco software engineer Tim Patten. After years of occasional bouts in places as varied as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and the Solano County Fairgrounds, Patten has sold two of his three banked tracks -- one to the Rollergirls in Texas -- and says he intends to organize an all-girl troupe of his own.
These operations and two similar ones in the Los Angeles area avoid using the words "roller" and "derby" consecutively in their titles, lest they invite trademark difficulties. That's because the "Roller Derby" mark is claimed by the Roller Derby Skate Co. of Litchfield, Ill., a skate manufacturer whose chairman is Jerry Seltzer's cousin.
Such matters, however, are of little consequence to the Derby Girls, who do not appear to have a commercial bone in their bodies. As committed grass-roots do-it-yourselfers, the women -- like those of other all-girl leagues -- are into roller derby for fun, not profit. Schwab's overture is a bit too entrepreneurial for their taste. After discouraging the promoter from attending one of their practices, they suspect that a middle-aged male skater who subsequently showed up unannounced may have been a spy. "What we're doing is something altogether new and different," says Stewart (Stitches Stew), the group's best skater. "This isn't about making a lot of money; it's about skating fast and having fun."
On the rink, the women are whizzing from end to end at breakneck speed as part of an endurance drill Clay has them performing. The idea is to go from a dead stop at one end of the rink and skate in a straight line to the other end as fast as possible. A few minutes into the routine one of the girls goes down hard. Sarah Jean Jeromin, 25, aka Mad Maxine, somehow neither throws on the brakes nor gets her arms up in time and slams face first into the hard acrylic rink enclosure. In an instant, her fellow skaters are on the scene with first aid and water. A paralegal in a San Jose law firm, Jeromin appears momentarily stunned, but, considering that her front teeth resemble cracked floor tiles, she's amazingly collected.
She asks for her purse, pulls out a camera phone, and snaps pictures of the damage to her mouth as calmly as if checking her makeup. Sandra Daly (Sandra Dee Molish) drives her to a hospital emergency room while another Derby Girl follows in the injured skater's car. Another skater, who lives nearby, offers to put Jeromin up for the night. But Jeromin is intent on driving home to San Jose, where, the next morning, a dentist extracts her two front pearly whites. By afternoon, the photos she has taken of herself are posted on the Derby Girls' Web site, along with a plea for donations to help her buy new teeth. She's told that they may cost $6,000, but Mad Maxine seems just as concerned about something else: "They say I may not be able to skate for a few days."