Many Derby Stars Would
Return to Banked Track

The Roller Derby pack forms. The pivot skaters are at the front in black helmets; blockers are in the middle in solid colored helmets; and the jammers (scorers) are in the rear in striped helmets.

(This is the second of a series of articles I wrote on Roller Derby while working for a weekly paper in the Sacramento, California area. This appeared in print Aug. 21, 1991)

    When David Lipschultz started the Roller Derby back up in 1977, it was a dream come true for many of the skaters who had been in the old Jerry Seltzer-owned Derby that preceded it.
    Names like Charlie O'Connell, Joan Weston, Tony Roman, Larry Smith, Francine Cochu and Ann Calvello returned to the banked track that had made them famous.
    For most of the skaters, the Derby was a way of life. They took pride in their profession and they loved skating.
    Although the most recent incarnation of Roller Derby died in December of 1987 - if Roller Derby were brought back today, a majority of the old skaters probably wouldn't hesitate to return to a rough-and-tumble life on the banked track.
    Fans might wonder where some of their favorite skaters are today. Certainly, they are a lot older than when they were in their prime back in the 60s and 70s, but many still live in and around Northern California.
    Long-time San Francisco Bay Bomber coach Charlie O'Connell owns a bar in San Leandro. O'Connell last skated in 1978 and then retired as an active skater on the advice of doctors.
    O'Connell had suffered so many broken bones in his arms that doctors warned him that he risked loss of movement if future breaks occured.
    Indeed, the final few years of his skating career saw him with protective braces covering both of his forearms.
    O'Connell is married to another former skater Judi McGuire.
    "The Golden Girl" Joan Weston is another Bay Area bar owner. Long a fan-favorite, Weston skated and also ran the Roller Derby training school in Hayward for a time in the Lipschultz-era.
    Weston married another Derby skater, Nick Scopas, and the two are also part-owner of a race horse and raise show dogs.
    On a sad note, former Bomber speedster Tony Roman died of cancer around Christmas on 1988. Wife Carol Meyer lives in the Fremont area. The once dynamic skating duo had three daughters and a son.
    Ronnie Robinson, the son of boxing great "Sugar Ray" Robinson, currently lives in the New York area and has opened a Roller Derby training school, with designs on bringing the game back - even if it's only on the minor-league level.
Ann Calvello

    Ann Calvello - the skater fans loved to hate - started skating in 1948 and lasted right up until the end of the Derby in 1987.
    Calvello, who turned 62 on Aug. 1, just recently retired from Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco. She was one of the original Bay Bombers back in 1954.
    Calvello is a story in herself.
    With her father in the Navy, growing up wasn't easy for Calvello, who found moving from city to city the rule, rather than the exception.
    Finally settling in the San Francisoc area in 1941, Calvello often went to local roller rinks and got hooked on flat-track speed skating.
    At that time she hadn't even heard of Roller Derby.
    In 1948, Roller Derby great Buddy Atkinson Sr., visited some of the roller rinks to recruit skaters for a three-month tour of Europe.
    Calvello signed up and skated under the banner of the International Roller Speedway - getting her first taste of Roller Derby action.
    After returning to the United States, Calvello joined up with the Oakland Roller Derby in 1949. She's been skating ever since.
    Although there hasn't been an actual Roller Derby League since 1987, even at age 62, Calvello would be one of the first skaters in line if the Derby were to start back up tomorrow.
    "I've kept in good shape and can still skate," said Calvello in a phone interview. "If they want me, they know where to find me. They have my phone number."
    Most skaters bristled when asked about the realism of Roller Derby. Calvello, who frequently sported polka-dot-dyed or multi-colored hair styles on the track, downplayed the whole issue as to whether games were fixed.
    "I think a lot of the criticism about it being phony," said Calvello, "came from when we were out on the road. A lot of the kids that were on the road with us had no business being there. They couldn't skate and didn't look very convincing."
    Calvello's voice still carries the fire that marked her long skating career and made her the skater fans loved to hate.
    "I never did like being cheered," said Calvello. "It was more fun having them boo me. I didn't like being on the home team."
    Calvello was a member of the "home team" when the Bay Bombers started up in 1954, but she's also skated for a number of other teams including the Chicago Westerners, Hollywood Ravens, Jersey Jolters, Red Devils and Midwest Pioneers.
    When the Seltzer-owned Derby died in 1973, Calvello was in Hawaii recovering from a knee operation.
    "There was no warning," said Calvello. "I thought it was the worst thing that could have happened. I never even knew the Derby was gone until some other skaters told me."
    Calvello came back to skate for the Lipschultz-owned Derby from 1977-87, happy to once again be back in action.
    "Dave was very young at the time," said Calvello, "but he tried very hard to give everyone a chance to skate."
    Calvello sounds bitter about the twice-demised Derby leaving her without a job, but she admits she'd be back if it started up again and they wanted her.
    "I certainly don't miss the one-nighters through ice and snow - and all the driving. We drove everywhere. But it was part of the job and it had to be done. I miss the skating though. I loved to be before the crowd and in the limelight. Just once before I'm gone, I'd love to be able to skate again before a packed house."
    Rumors abound about the Derby starting back up again. Several promoters have breezed through the Bay Area in years past claiming to want to start Roller Derby up again, but none has lasted more than a few games.
    Seltzer has even reportedly been approached about a new league which would be pure sport and feature only men skaters rather than having mixed teams.
    "It would never work," said Calvello. "No one would watch it. The fans want Roller Derby the way it's always been. To come back, Roller Derby needs a good promoter who is willing to spend the money to put it on."
    Perhaps it won't be in front of a packed house, but Calvello and some other Derby skaters will get a chance to skate in front of their loyal fans once again with a benefit game scheduled in September at a high school in Vallejo.
    Another group of skaters headed by Ronnie Robinson, Pete Boyd and Bob Woodberry (all former Northeast Braves team members) have a game scheduled in Wheeling, West Virginia on Sept. 14.
    The Derby may be gone as a national sport (at least for now), but the game will always live on in one form or another.

© 1991/2000 by Joe Blenkle
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