Perhaps you hadn't noticed, but America's secret national pastime, absent from the television airwaves for several years now, is back and ready to throw another elbow in your face.
The once beloved sport-entertainment known as roller derby is mounting its latest comeback as "Roller Jam," and will begin airing on country music channel TNN Jan. 15. And this latest incarnation, both promoters and derby veterans agree, could be the sport's last shot to resurrect itself.
Unlike its more violent cousin, pro wrestling, roller derby faded away a few years ago and hasn't mounted much of a comeback.
America's No. 1-rated TV show in 1950, and a staple on local stations for more than 30 years, derby's tube time these days is limited to reruns on ESPN Classic. Those usually air well past midnight.
It's also seldom played anymore. The only live derby games of note are exhibitions, staged about twice a month in the San Francisco area. The skaters are mostly ex-pros, grizzled men and women in their 40s and 50s who use old-style skates (not the in-line variety) and old-style theatrics (plenty of elbows and name calling) to rouse crowds that, at best, number a few thousand.
Kids, once the staple of derby's broad fan base, don't know much about the game anymore. Since the old derby schools went belly up in the 1960s and '70s, nearly two generations of potential Shirley Hardmans and Charlie O'Connells have grown up knowing nothing about what skaters lovingly call "the banked oval."
All of which is why nearly everyone in the derby world - even those who think that they've been unfairly ignored by the TV types behind "Roller Jam" - is hoping the new show rekindles interest in their old game.
"If they screw this up, it's over; the sport's gonna croak," worries former skater Jim "Alligator" Greene.
The producers of "Roller Jam" say that won't happen.
"Viewers are ready for this," says Stephen Land, a one-time derby fan who came up with the idea for the new show after reading the 1997 obituary of longtime derby superstar Joan Weston.
Land's show sounds like a spandex-suited, in-line skate version of the same game that alternately thrilled and bored America from 1935 to the early 1990s. "Everything will be faster," Land says, "but we want the same spirit."
His Nashville-based company, Pageboy Productions, already has about 100 skaters on its payroll. Training in a rink in Orlando, Fla., the group of ex-American Gladiators, truckers, body builders and at least one tree surgeon has spent much of this year learning everything from elaborate skate moves like "the whip" and the "underpass" to less tricky stuff, such as falling on one's keister without serious bruising. Taping begins next month.
If the two-hour, 26-show "Roller Jam" finds big ratings, Pageboy will back a league, putting teams in cities where viewership is highest.
"First, we've got to create a great TV show," Land says of prospects for live derby, a movie and other add-on products. "But yes, we're looking at all options."
The producers know there's one thing the old derby had in spades that they have to find fairly quickly: soul.
"Nobody was cooler than skaters like Joanie Weston. And nothing was cooler than roller derby. That's a given," Land says. "We can't copy that or reproduce it. We've just got to go out and be ourselves and, hopefully, capture people's imaginations."
Ralph Valladares had soul. He died in November at age 62. Too much cancer and chemo and a bum liver. But before he passed away, Valladares lived life as possibly the greatest derby star ever.
The short, fast native of Guatemala started skating during derby's heyday, in the 1950s, for the old-style league known as Roller Derby. In 1961, he and a few other Derby stars jumped to a glitzier league known as Roller Games. He skated with the Games well into that league's death rattle, when it was staged, briefly, as a TV-only sport with a figure-eight track and an alligator.
He skated in front of a few movie stars, such as Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall, and millions of meat packers, taxi drivers and waitresses. He skated alongside superstars from the game's early days, such as Billy Bogash, and relative latecomers such as O'Connell and John Hall.
He also shared the track with decidedly non-derby types: midgets from Mexico, wrestler Andre the Giant, a female Australian shotputter. He skated for several teams but spent the last three decades with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds.
Valladares' bosses - Roller Games' owners Bill Griffiths Sr. and Bill Griffiths Jr. - even sent Valladares off as a sort of roller derby Marco Polo. He skated in almost every continent and founded teams in Sydney, Australia, and Tokyo.
Valladares also married one of his T-Bird teammates: Honey Sanchez. Twice. But even Valladares couldn't keep roller derby alive in the 1990s. Like wrestling, the derby staged its fights and its outcomes. But the derby - even the theatrical version staged by the Griffithses - might have been too much of a sport, with too much skating and not enough punches to satisfy a world increasingly hungry for violence. In 1994, after staging an exhibition tour through Canada, the T-Birds went into what the owners termed "a hiatus."
"Our marketplace just got tight," Griffiths Jr. says. "Our hope is that the new game will get people back into thinking about the sport."
Yet the Griffithses are worried. "Roller Jam" producer Land hasn't called, for consulting or anything else. And the old derby promoters fear the new version of the game could, somehow, ruin their reputation.
"I just don't want them to go too far over the top," Griffiths Jr. says. "We bent the line, but they might break it."
The game, started as Depression-era entertainment, was, socially speaking, ahead of its time - multiracial and coed. The game also was (and remains) the only team sport to give men and women equal billing.
The rules were fairly primitive. A skater called a "jammer" got points by lapping skaters on the other team. In the old Roller Derby, teams could employ as many as two full-time jammers and a third possible scorer, called a pivot, who could either work as an offensive or defensive player. And in the old Roller Derby, every skater wore a helmet.
The scoring period, called a "jam," lasted 60 seconds or until the lead jammer ended the scoring by putting hands on hips.
In Roller Games, the rules were even more basic - one jammer per team, no pivot player, and only the jammer wore a helmet.
But in both leagues, scoring wasn't easy. First, the track was banked, so any ill-timed swoop during a jam could wipe out the offense. But the bigger hurdle was all the other skaters, called "blockers," who could do pretty much anything short of gunfire to stop a jammer from scoring.
Knee the jammer in the back as she passed? That was a trademark move of Jan Vallow, Roller Derby's ultimate bad girl. Elbow the jammer in the head before he passed? Valladares, a jammer, said his nose was busted more times than he could count.
Now 60 and a real estate agent in southern California, Alligator Greene's 12-year roller derby career was nothing if not a long, deep hate-hate relationship with the fans. He was a so-so skater, but he was a great "black hat," a guy who could turn an otherwise civilized crowd into a roiling, frothing mob.
Greene made a career out of semifake fights and chest-beating drama. His M.O. was simple. He'd circle the track a couple of times, offer one of his trademark salutes and then elbow the other team's best skater in the chops.
"God, it was fun," he muses.
Yet he complains that Roller Games died because it became "too flashy."
Ask him about "Roller Jam" and he offers old-style honesty.
lTC "I'll hate it so much I'll probably have to take a damn nerve pill and a stroke pill," he screams. "It's gonna be terrible and wonderful all at the same time, you know."
His ambivalence is understandable. Greene today serves as the sport's caretaker. He writes, edits, prints and distributes the Derby/Games Newsletter, a semi-regular publication that he says goes to 600 ex-skaters and hard-core fans.
Every other year, Greene and others help organize skater reunions. Last year's event, at a restaurant in Pasadena, Calif., drew about 250 ex-skaters and their relatives. Not a single punch was thrown.
"We're a pretty close-knit group," Greene says. "Whatever fights everybody had from the old days have been forgotten, for the most part. I'd say a lot of us look back on our times as skaters as the best days we ever had.
"That's what the kids in this new thing better understand," Greene adds, his voice rising again. "Cheers and boos are pretty much the same thing. In the derby, it's all fun."
Pub Date: 12/13/98