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
"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
Weston married another Derby skater, Nick
Scopas, and the two are also part-owner of a race horse and raise show
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 - the skater fans loved to hate -
started skating in 1948 and lasted right up until the end of the Derby
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.
that time she
hadn't even heard of Roller
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
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
"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
"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