Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Memories of the roller derby

I see there’s a new movie coming out about the roller derby (WHIP IT, directed by Drew Barrymore). I wonder if today’s young cineplexgoers will have any connection to this elegant sport. For me, growing up in the 60s in LA, the roller derby was a big part of the local landscape. Our team -- the Los Angeles Thunderbirds -- outdrew the Lakers for a couple of years. If only Hollywood royalty like Jack Nicholson and prison elite like Mike Tyson had fancied the rink instead of the hardwood, folks in the southland might be driving around with T-Bird flags on their cars.

What is the roller derby? It’s a banked oval track. Two teams of five skaters go around and around. One member from each team wears a beanie called a “jammer cap” and accrues points by passing opposing team members. There is a lot of hitting, pushing, elbowing, and tripping in this finesse competition. And confusion because you have both offense and defense taking place simultaneously.

That would be enough. But wait! There’s more! It’s a coed sport!!! The T-Birds had a men’s squad and a ladies’ squad. That’s right. Women hitting and elbowing and clotheslining each other. Let’s see Kobe Bryant compete with that.

There was this bogus league that included the T-Birds and three or four other teams. T-Bird games were live on Channel 5 at least once a week. So they never traveled. And they rarely lost. I’d like to say they were world champions every year but it seemed the annual post season playoffs took place every six weeks. I believe New York had a league too. There might have been leagues in Kansas City and Mobile too. It wouldn’t surprise me.

The T-Bird's announcer on KTLA was colorful Dick Lane. With his catch phrase “Whoa Nellie!” after every blow to the kidney, Lane delighted Angelinos with his exciting call. Dick walked us through the finer points of the sport – which cheap shots were legal and which were not. I think setting an opponent on fire was the only infraction worthy of a penalty.

We all had our favorite T-Birds. Mine were Ralphie Valladeres, John Hall, and Danny Reilly. One of the players wore glasses (might have been Reilly, not sure) and I found that hysterical considering players were getting whacked in the chops during the National Anthem. On the women’s side I loved them all. Terri Lynch, Honey Sanchez, Gwen Miller and the rest of those angelic creatures could really gouge.

The home of the T-Birds was the downtown Olympic Auditorium. Built in the 20s for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, this was a big ominous barn where boxing and wrestling matches were held along with the roller derby.

I only attended one game in person. Several of my friends and I ventured to the Olympic one night to see the big grudge match between our beloved Thunderbirds and the dreaded Detroit Devils (who could have been the Texas Outlaws the week before, who knew?). The place was packed. You were very close to the action. And the acoustics were LOUD.

Three memories stand out. The T-Birds won (guess I caught ‘em on a good night), there was an old lady next to me (had to be 90) who stood on her chair and screamed obscenities. And then this – the greatest announcement I’ve ever heard at a sporting event: The P.A. announcer said, “Fans, do not throw anything onto the rink. You have no guarantee it’ll hit the player you’re aiming at.

Whoa Nellie!

******

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39 comments:

J S Swanson said...

I grew up in Rockford, IL and in the late 60s/early 70s I was a devoted Roller Derby fan. The men didn't do a thing for me - they were actually playing to win. But the women! They were the only reason to watch. Such theatrics! The shows aired Sunday mornings & we got to see plenty of shows featuring the Thunderbirds. However their women couldn't hold a candle to Joanie Weston - The Blonde Bomber with the S F Bay Bombers and her arch rival - Ann Calvello. I think Calvello was skating for the Chicago Pioneers at the time. I even attended a match held in the gymnasium of the local Catholic High School. Calvello was there - hair dyed a bright blond hair with purple polka dots. Alas, by the time some team hired a really large woman and put her in a 747 jersey, I realized it was time to move on ...

Paul said...

Actually, Barrymore's movie is based off the current roller derby league in LA. It's called Derby Dolls. It's women only, there are four teams, and they play about once a month. LA's league is banked track, but most of the others across the country are flat track. It's actually a really fun time. They have some very fast skaters and can hit pretty well.

Scott in Harbor City said...

I went to a derby at the LB Sports Arena...probably 1977.

How about Big Johnny Johnson ( and Ronnie "Psycho" Rains? And I remember a HUGE woman that wore uniform 747! How about "Skinny Minnie" Miller.

And I think I remember an episode of Charlie's Angels where Farrah went undercover as a roller derby skater.

J S Swanson said...

I just did some more research & I believe the woman who wore the 747 jersey was Earlene Brown. She skated for the T-Birds. Prior to that, she was a World Class athlete who specialized in shot put & discus throwing. In fact, she even earned a Bronze medal as a discus thrower @ the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Knowing this, I wish I could have seen the nearly 6 ft tall, 250 lb Earlene give Raquel Welch a " bear hug " in Kansas City Bomber ...

tb said...

I too watched the T Birds religously. Dick Lane was always giving that phone number (sponsor?) 'RICHMOND 9 something, something..." every five minutes. There was one time the T Birds were on the verge of LOSING, and my panicked big brother couldn't bear to watch so he broke the knob off our tv trying to turn it off fast. "Ooh, you're going to get it when Dad comnes home..."

benson said...

Back in a time before infomercials, this was the programming on those UHF stations that were popping up.

These posts really bring back some memories.

Reno said...

In '49 or '50 there was a kinescoped wrestling show announced by Dick Lane, in which he also used the Whoa Nellie! schtick.

Sean said...

Never got to see the "classic" T-birds other than when they would show up on shows like Charlie's Angels, but do recall the late-80s/early-90s attempt to revive roller derby in syndication. "Rollergames" featured Ralphie V. still competing as he coached the T-birds around a banked figure 8 track that had an aligator pit.

William C Bonner said...

I've seen the Rat City Roller Girls here in Seattle. It's a fun event. http://www.ratcityrollergirls.com/teams.html

Emmett Flatus said...

Why does Keezar Pavilion (sp?) come to mind?

Dimension Skipper said...

It's in the blogger.com rules and bylaws that you can't have a roller derby post without referencing Jim Croce's "Roller Derby Queen"...

YouTube vid (3:53) with spoken intro
(Song performance begins at 1:13)

YouTube vid (2:41) of just the song performance
(Better quality and with lyric included under the "more info" expansion link)

Just yesterday I found (and re-watched) a VHS recording I'd made a few years ago of The Legacy of Jim Croce when it was aired by the main PBS station in the Philly area. It was great to see again as I always loved Croce's music. He could do love songs, he could do humorous songs, and in RDQ he simply combined the two perfectly.

Jim Croce—The Offical Site

VSC said...

I'm a regular lurker at this blog and very much enjoy it. I am compelled to let you all know that the company I work for is actually bringing out a Roller Derby DVD that includes two documentaries and original game footage, you can find details here: http://www.videoservicecorp.com/Documentary/The-Roller-Derby-Chronicles/

Mike M. said...

Ken always makes us Valley kids who grew up in the 60's and 70's nostalgic. I think back and realize how lucky I was to grow up during that period. The Thunderbirds were a staple at our house. I think the manager then was Shirley Hardiman or something like that and she opened a seedy club in the West Valley at one point. I also remember how excited we were when "Kansas City Bomber" came out at the movies. My dad wouldn't take us to see a live game, though, because the Olympic Auditorium was in a bad neighbor hood.

WV=ranto: What Glenn Beck does on Univision

pat said...

Oh, man! Does this take me back and give me a laugh! Thanks, I needed that. We LOVED watching the T-Birds on TV. My parents used to go watch them at the Olympic frequently in the 60's. I think I saw them skate there once and I want to say I saw them at Anaheim, Convention Center once.

John Hall, chocolate pie, white suit...'nuff said.

benson said...

Dimension Skipper, you made me nostalgic. I was in high school during Croce's time in the spotlight. His love songs really hit a chord with me and my friends. And the songs still sound great.

Mary Stella said...

Pffffft on the L.A. T-Birds. Eastern Warriors all the way!

One of my early career aspirations was to be an Eastern Warrior. This idea did not please my parents. They didn't want me to be one of the girls who rode the High-Diving Horse at Steel Pier either.

Love Jim Croce's music. I was in high school when he died. Sad, sad day. Oddly, his death is always linked in memory to Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs. Both events happened 9/20/73.

tb said...

Oh yes - Kansas City Bomber. This young reporter was quite mesmerized by Raquel Welch braless. Saw that one a couple of times!

BrIan Phillips said...

Thank you for not only a nice trip down memory lane, but until this day, I didn't know what the rules were! I always came in on the middle of roller derby on WOR and I used to wait for someone to go over the rail.

Does anyone remember the song "My Mom" from "The Electric Company"? Mom wasn't there, because she was a Roller Derby player, as evinced by Judy Graubart's photo in full regalia. Take THAT, Racwuel Welch!

Anonymous said...

ok, I just learned 2 things: guys also play roller derby, and they used to use they real names. I was under the impression it was female-only, and they all used crazy names like Mercy-Less B. Ann, Porn Scar and Mimi Kane Bow Chica Wow Wow (picked at random from the International Rollergirls' Master Roster).

Is this a modern thing? if so I say Horray for Progress!

Anonymous said...

tb said

"I too watched the T Birds religously. Dick Lane was always giving that phone number (sponsor?) 'RICHMOND 9 something, something..." every five minutes."

It was "Richmond 9-5171. Ring it right now." I can't remember what I ate for breakfast, but I can remember the nuimber of the Olympic's ticket office. But I wasn't watching roller derby. I was watching Dick Lane narrate as the highly intelligent Destroyer, master of the figure four leglock, beat the shit out of Classy Freddie Blassie. Ah, were has entertainment on television gone?

Rick said...

Regarding Jim Croce: he delivered my most treasured concert experience. He was opening at the Santa Monica Civic for some female singer/songwriter whose name escapes me--though her publicized belief she was the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary I will always remember with a helpless snicker.

Anyway, Croce did his opening act...and the nutcase would NOT come out of her dressing room. Croce performed for what seemed like 2 1/2 hours, finally exiting only because he claimed he'd sung us every song he knew well enough to perform before an audience.
I remember in particular a rollicking wildly off-color Robert Burns lyric that had about 25 short verses.

He seemed to be a great guy. And what a remarkable performance it was by a real professional.

D. McEwan said...

The name Dick Lane always conjures up my paternal grandfather's home. It seemed like whenever I came over, I heard Dick Lane yelling "Whoa Nellie!!" on Grandpa's small B&W TV, as he hosted the wrestling (Lane, not Grandpa).

As a teenager I was briefly fascinated by roller derby, and like JS, only the women. There was something more transgressive about women slugging each other on skates. Men doing it would just be vulgar.

I had no idea there were rules, and I never figured out how they scored it. But it hardly mattered. You watched it to watch women beat the shit out of each other on skates. Who cared who won? Who knew who won. When they said it was over, you switched to something else.

As for Jim Croce, I had the pleasure of seeing him open for Woody Allen at the Valley Music Theater in the early 70s. he was charming and wonderful. Of Dick Lane, Roller Derby, and Jim Croce, only Croce was a pleasure without guilt.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

I also grew up in the L.A. area (the San Fernando Valley). Mike M. is correct. Shirley Hardman was the "captain" of the T-Birds. She was very manish. She opened a small bar in Reseda (on Vanowen and Tampa) called "The Penalty Box". Hardman lived right in that same neighborhood. One day she was found floating dead in her swimming pool. Maybe someone on another team had had enough of her.
Go know...

Jack said...

The great thing about the old Roller Derby league was the parity! I don't believe there was ever a match that wasn't decided in the final jam. Either the visiting team stealing the win by cheating or the home team scoring 4 in an incredible fashion to grab victory from the jaws of defeat...

Anonymous said...

Ken, as a former resident of San Bernardino, you may remember that the Inland Center was right across the street from the Orange Show grounds.

Roller Derby was played every Tuesday night at an exhibition hall on the Orange Show grounds. I had a friend who worked at the Inland Center and we somehow stumbled into the Roller Derby one night after he got off work. It was halftime and they didn't check tickets to get back into the stadium, so we walked in for free.

We were mesmerized by the insanity of the crowd. It was shocking that they chose to overlook the obviously fake competition. They believed! They cheered their favorites. They scramed obscenities at the other team. It was absolutely bizarre.

So we made it a Tuesday night ritual to go watch the fans at Roller Derby after my friend got off work. Note that I said "watch the fans," not "watch the game." The fans looked like they came straight from shooting "The Name of the Rose." But, c'mon, we're talking about San Bernardino here.

The same fans sat in the same seats every week screaming the same obscenities and the game always had the same result -- the Thunderbirds made a miracle comeback in the closing moments of the game and the winning points were always scored by Little Ralphie Valladeras.

We thought it was the funniest thing we'd ever seen. Definitely worth the price of admission.

Finally, Shirley Hardman, who was always the "tough chick" for the other team, actually lived in San Bernardino and drowned in her home swimming pool a few years later.

JD said...

The Thunderbirds were actually part of an offshoot group called "Roller Games," which was a rowdier version of Roller Derby. It was sort of a hybrid of roller derby and pro wrestling, complete with "heel" interviews and match races that had special stipulations, like loser takes a pie in the face. "Roller Derby" was started by Leo Setzer and owned by his family. "Roller Games" was owned by a guy named Bill Griffiths. And, yes, I know 'way too much about this.

Anonymous said...

kayd
I grew up in the san fernando valley and got the chance to watch the t-birds several times with my father. I practiced every day after school to become part of the team! Of course my mother was never going to let this happen but she let me practice for years until I found another dream. Great memories! (and I loved big John)

Richard said...

I too grew up watching the roller derby on television and live games. My grandparents loved this sport. They lived up on a high hill in Tijuana, Mexico and easily received KTLA reception at night. THis was before the T-Birds. We used to watch the Los Angeles Braves with Red Smart and Joyce Beasely, Punky Gardner, Specs Saunders, a very young Ralphie Valladares, Lou Sanchez, and Joan Weston, and the rest of them. This was when the roller derby was, or appeared to be, a legitimate sport. So all the extended family members gathered in our grandparent's living room to watch the game. My grandmother loved Dick Lane! She would yell at the red shirt skater that would beat up her LA Braves team. THey even used to drive from Tijuana to LA to watch the games live. They took me several times with them. What I remember was the excitement and sounds...the excitement of watching the live action on the bank track which to a small kid was really high off the ground. The sound of the wooden wheels on the wooden track. The fast skating and the hard hitting. It was all so exciting. So much so, that I dreamed one day I would be a roller derby skater. In 1976 my dream came true. I hooked up with Lou Sanchez, who was forming a league in El Paso, Tex. and joined his training school. I eventually got put on his team - the new LA Braves. One comment I have about the new "roller derby" all girls leagues sprouting up all over the country. It may be a fun time, but I don't consider it real roller derby. Because it's flat track the girls are forced to fall forward on the knees, I'd rather see them take the blocks to the chest and fall backwards on the behinds. That is a more natural movement. The excitement people get from these new gals is that they dress so trashy and show a lot of skin. No real jersey uniforms to give the game a sense of legitimacy. My opinion!

Anonymous said...

"Whoa Nellie" was announcer Dick Lane's signature line. Dick Lane was in motion pics, as the Boston Blackie, prior to doing Roller Derby and Wrestling. Wrestling had Bobo Brazil and was it Tony Morales?

@TB - the phone number: Why it was Richmond 9-5171, of course. :)

-dusty nathan
misterwriter111@hotmail.com

K-Hardman said...

Hello.
My name is Kelly Hardman I am the niece of the great, late Shirley Hardman….I have been writing a little memoire about her life which of course was mostly about skating…she was definitely a character and I am hoping someday that a movie be made based on her life that represents the real roller derby. Lorain, "Little iodine” Berrins would be of great help as well as some others I have been chatting with. It is nice to read about real fans and to hear some of the great stories, very fascinating. Shirley may have been a real fire ball in the ring but she was very much a humanitarian in real life, she loved kids and animals. She was one in a million that’s for sure.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Shirley Hardman with the Texas Outlaws? I remember a blond gal with a pony tail hair do. She was always after Honey Sanchez who I believed eventually married Ralphie Valladares.

Wasn't Little Iodine with the Detroit Bombers? There was also Liz Hernandez and I think a gal who went by the name of Toni Tag.

Ed

Anonymous said...

But the star in L.A. was Terry Lynch. ;)

SanDiegoSue said...

Anybody remember the night that it was Terri Lynch's birthday? All her T-Bird team mates brought in a huge cake. When she leaned over the cake to blow out the candles, Shirley Hardman came rolling out of nowhere and shoved her right into that huge cake. She came up with icing all over her eyelashes. What a Hoot!!

francie said...

does anyone remember the night a girl ran up from the crowd and threw lester quarrels briefcase out to the fans?

Patrick of Santa Monica said...

Great to read Kelly Hardman's comment. I grew up in LA and watched Roller Games every week without fail - even subscribed to the Roller Games Gazette. I was a member of the Judy Sowinski/Liz Hernandez Fan Club when both women skated for the T-Birds. Liz was my favorite; she was pretty, fiery, and the fastest woman on skates.

But Shirley Hardman was the skater everyone loved to hate. She was the perfect "lady heel" when she skated with the Texas Outlaws (though I understand she later joined the T-Birds) and managed to be villainous and totally entertaining at the same time. I don't think anyone worked the crowd better. I remember one night when T-Birds Judy Sowinski and Carmen ("Sugar") Thompson had to act as handmaidens to Shirley Hardman and Baby Rocko because they'd lost a match race to them. So during the telecast they had to do things like spray perfume on Hardman and Rocko, fan them and keep them cool - stuff like that. But naturally Hardman and Rocko became imperious and obnoxious, so when they demanded water, Sowinski and Thompson emptied buckets of water on their heads. My friends and I telephoned each other immediately with shouts of "Did you SEE that??"

When Shirley Hardman was skating, you knew the action was going to be unforgettable.

legaleagle1300 said...

As an aside, you just have to know that the "Destroyer" would correct you and note that he was "The Incredible Sensational Destroyer!"

Loved the Derby, Dick Lane and, of course, the wrestling.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. I remember Shirley. My ''Aunt Marge'' loved her. I sometime would watch with her when I stayed over her house in LA when I was a kid. Very entertaining.

I wish s one of the sports stations would air this again.

Great memories.

Anonymous said...

"Specs" Saunders I believe was the one wearing glasses. He also "ran" around the rink on his skates.

Anonymous said...

Shirley Hardman was the captain of the Texas Outlaws