TNN's RollerJam fuses the nostalgic appeal of a pop-culture artifact with the slamming action of extreme sports. But can it fly?
By Coury Turczyn
FEBRUARY 1, 1999: By any measure, Mark D'Amato has one ugly mug. And right now it's snarling in disgustdark eyes flashing, thick brow furrowed, lips sneering beneath a graying goatee. Standing tall in his antiquated "quad" skates, muscles bulging obscenely from his skintight black lycra uniform, he looks like one of those scavenging mutants from Road Warriorcomplete with a sweaty bald head and arcane tattoos emblazoned on his massive shoulders. Gripping the padded railing of the World Skating League rink, D'Amato appears ready to fling himself bodily at his antagonist: a little old lady in the fifth row.
The game hasn't actually started yet, but the septuagenarian has decided to pick a fight with the brutish captain of the New York Enforcers. She rises out of her seat, thick glasses flashing, and shakes her fist at him, shouting an insult. D'Amato squints, possibly assessing how difficult it would be to scramble up into the stands on skates. Taping will start in about 10 minutescan he really afford the time to take her down? His teammates whiz by on their practice laps. No, best that he expend his anger on the hapless blond heads of the California Quakes. D'Amato gives grandma one last glare before skating off. She sits down, crossing her arms in victory, another villain put in his place.
Roller Derby, if you haven't noticed, is back. Here at Universal Studio's Stage 21 in Orlando, Fla., the rebirth of a pop culture phenomenon that saw its apex 25 years ago is being witnessed by 250 cheering, booing, screaming spectators. Suddenly, the house lights go down and the show begins. Pulsing disco lights splash the gray plastic track with spinning wheels in cool blue hues, and a crunching rock song blares from the massive sound system.
"Welcome to ROLLLLERJAM!" screams an announcer over the P.A. The crowd roars back as cameras get shots of their rabid anticipation. Some hold crudely-made signs: "Shake the Quakes," "Brian Rules," and "Karen Will You Marry Me?" (the latter clutched by a hopeful little fellow who looks like no stranger to pocket protectors). As team members are introduced, the audience cheers or hisses appropriately; even though the first episode of RollerJam aired just the night before on TNN, people have already picked out the heroes from the villains.
Of course, it's not all that hardthe Enforcers are pure evil, dressed completely in black, with no respect for the game's few rules regarding physical contact. What's more, most of them are pretty darn ugly. There's the burly Jannet Abraham (a.k.a. "The Minister of Pain"), an ordained minister from Detroit who performs "spiritual power" demonstrations by breaking bricks over her head. Then there's big Tim Washington (a.ka. "Titan"), a cousin of Marvin Hagler who boasts of his "Redneck Radar" while gleefully pointing at his massive forearm. But no one is booed more than team captain D'Amato, the grizzled veteran who refuses to wear modern inline skates and is known for his signature move, "The Screamer," in which he slams down opponents with a flying scissor-kick to the abdomen.
"There are only two things that make me happy: violence and revenge," D'Amato grimly declared in the opening show Friday night. And he looks like he genuinely means it.
But then in skate the good guys, the California Quakes, and cheers mingle with whistles. With their shimmery blue uniforms and cocoa-brown tans, the Quakes symbolize all that is beloved in America: good genes and toothy smiles. Skating out front is "The Bod Squad," a trio of young beach babes who perform their trademark victory dance, "The Quake Shake," as they cruise around the rink, tossing their blonde curls and snapping fingers. The team is led by Sean Atkinson (a.k.a., "Atk Attack"), a third-generation Roller Derby player who doesn't exactly exhibit the same wholesome appearance as the other Quakeshusky, goateed, with slicked-back hair, he's known as much for his big mouth as his skating abilities.
"The Enforcers? They're old!" he howled Friday night on national television. "Yabba dabba DOOOOO!"
It promises to be a thrilling battle. And that's exactly what the producers from Knoxville are banking on as they watch nervously from the sidelinesthat after a year of brainstorming, developing, training, and spending, their show of combatants on wheels will excite enough viewers to bring them cable TV success. But for fans of classic Roller Derby, the stakes are even higherthis is the last, best shot the sport has for making a comeback into the public consciousness. After decades of being little more than a campy memory, Roller Derby finally has a chance to once again captivate millions with the fine art of The Whip.
Stephen Land distinctly remembers The Moment. It struck him one Sunday morning in May of 1997 while he was reading The New York Times at his Riverbend home in West Knoxville. As he scanned the obituaries, he came across one for none other than Joanie Westin, the legendary Blonde Bomber.
"I was sitting there reading the article, and I just had this flood of emotions," says Land, sitting back in his mod office in the Old City. "I could remember as a kid watching Roller Derby on Channel 26, with these larger-than-life people and hard-hitting action. I had some really cool memories of it. And the natural thought was, 'I wonder why that's not on television anymore?'"
Fortunately, Land was in a position to do more than just wonderas the owner of Jupiter Entertainment, a local production company behind such cable network shows as The Grand Tour and City Confidential, he could actually do something about it. First, he discovered that although Roller Derby wasn't completely deada few efforts like the American Roller Derby League in California were limping alongit no longer had a strong television presence. In the '40s and '50s, Roller Derby had been one of television's most popular draws, along with pro wrestling. Now it was nonexistent. How crazy would it be to put it back on the air? He called up his mentor and longtime cable TV production guru Ross Bagwell, Sr., of Bagwell Entertainment, and floated the idea past him.
"I kind of chuckledthat would be a hell of an undertaking," recalls Bagwell, who had formed and sold Cinetel Productions to Scripps-Howard several years ago. "But I thought it was feasible. His concern was that it was a little bit more than most people could chew, period. It was a whole lot of work. So I agreed to help him pull it together and make it work." The duo soon formed a partnership, Pageboy Entertainment, to create the show.
Fortunately, their timing was right. With the burgeoning popularity of inline skating, the renown of glitzy pro wrestling leagues like the WWF and WCW, not to mention the societal thirst for all things retro, a Roller Derby renaissance wasn't out of the question. As Land got deeper into researching the idea, he discovered a sort of underground network of Roller Derby fans who kept the game alive with newsletters and web pages, with old skaters trading stories and hopes. Foremost among these Derby old-timers was Jerry Seltzer, the man behind the original league, whose father had invented the game. Land gave him a call and asked for his advice on bringing Roller Derby back from the dead.
"I thought it was a terrible idea," Seltzer recalls, a slight smile creasing his lips. With his neatly trimmed gray hair and bemused expression, he looks more like a retired bank president than the canny promoter behind what used to be one of the most popular spectator sports in the country.
At its height in the late '60s and early '70s, Roller Derby aired on over 110 television stations around the country and played to sell-out crowds in virtually every major city. Originally, when Leo Seltzer invented it in 1935 to put an attraction into the Chicago Coliseum, Roller Derby was an endurance race similar to other Depression-era dance marathons or walkathons. Couples would skate for days on end in a mock "transcontinental" race, figuratively skating the distance between Chicago and San Franciscoor 57,000 laps. Some of the couples would also put on acts, singing and dancing for money thrown onto the track by spectators. But it wasn't until things got a little more competitive that the Derby took off.
"The faster skaters would break out and try and get laps so they would get ahead in the race, and some of the slower skaters started to band together to try and hold them back," says Seltzer. "And at first, they didn't want to let them do thatbut then the people liked it so much, they kind of allowed blocking. Then they came down to MiamiI think it was 1936, early '37and Damon Runyon, a very famous sports writer, saw it and he sat down with my father and hammered out the rules, almost exactly as they are today."
For decades, Roller Derby was hugefamous teams like the Bay Bombers and the New York Chiefs would tour the country, selling out venues such as Madison Square Garden. Home teams were quickly formed wherever the Derby was skating that weekif it was in Nashville, then it was Nashville vs. New York. Throngs of fans would cheer or boo players with names like Bomber Great Charlie O'Connell or Josephine "Ma" Bogash. By 1973, however, Seltzer decided to pull the plug.
"The television network was the hardest thing to maintain," he says. "The syndication cost a great deal of money and there were no satellites, so we were shipping tapes from city to city and station to station. Some places they'd be on at 10 in the morning, other places at four in the afternoon, and there was no consistency. There really wasn't enough of a network to sustain interest in the attraction. In '72, '73 we hit that gas crisisa lot of buildings didn't operate because of heating, and a lot of people didn't go out because they were scared. It just kind of pushed us over the edge. We made a conscious decision in 1973 that it had run its time, at least in its present incarnation, so we shut it down."
Through the '70s and '80s, many pretenders to the official Roller Derby throne appeared, trying to recapture the game's spirit. Seltzer feels that most of them failed.
"There have been a number of imitators, some picking up the worst aspects of the game, I would have to say. There was even one shown on television where they had a figure-eight track, a wall of death, and an alligator pitbut they couldn't skate. That was the bad part. I kind of turned that on, looked at it, and said, 'Well, if it's ever coming back, it isn't now.'"
Seltzer's lack of optimism didn't phase the partnership. This was because they already had a deal in their pocket; unlike other would-be Roller Derby resuscitators, Land and Bagwell had gotten a network deal before trying to start a new league. In May of '98, Land and Bagwell pitched the idea to CBS-owned TNN, home to Club Dance and NASCAR.
"I was sitting in a meeting with Brian Hughes, the head of programming," recalls Land, "and I said, 'Brian, I've got a great idea for a new series. Here's what you need to doRoller Derby!' And there was this terrible silence. It seemed like an hour. We just sat there. And finally, he goes, 'Roller Derby, yeah, that could be cool.'"
There was just one major problemthe network wanted it ready by December or January. And there would be no pilot. Pageboy Entertainment had to create an entire league, recruit and train new Roller Derby players, build a track, design logos and uniforms, put together a television crew, and shoot the thing right the first timeall in about seven months. Which was nuts, as Mr. Seltzer suspected. First of all, where would they get players for a sport 25 years dead? They quickly started from scratch, with casting calls around the country, appealing to speed skaters, roller hockey players, extreme sports enthusiasts, even American Gladiators.
"One isn't born with the ability to do The Whip. This is not something that is a universal trait that is out there," Land says. "There have been a number of attempts to bring back Roller Derby in the last 25 years and generally it's involved getting a lot of older skaters that skated back in the '60s or early '70s, and trotting these people back out on the same show, the same track, the same everything. That wasn't our visionwe wanted something new."
Initially, they recruited mostly speedskaters, but lost many of them during training"They didn't like taking the hits," Land says. Pageboy hired former Roller Derby stars to guide the neophyte players in the ways of the Double Tomahawk. Out of 200 people who went through the training school, about 80 skaters made the cut. But once the teams were formed, the producers realized they had a different kind of show than what they originally had envisioned.
"It changed a lotsometimes it was just going to be wrestling on skates, other times it was going to be this kind of pure, nostalgic revival thing, and then everything in between," says Geoff Proud, the show's post-producer (all the editing and sound is done in Knoxville) and one of the producers involved in developing RollerJam. "I think we had originally thought it would be a little more over the top than it ended up, believe it or not. But when we assembled the skaters and got the thing going, we realized that these guys are real athletes and they could pull off more of a physical show and less mugging and clowning around."
Finally, after spending millions of CBS' money, the producers were ready to tape the first show last November, the week after Thanksgiving.
"I told my wife as I left [for Orlando], 'Either I'm going to be mortified and embarrassed beyond belief, or I'm just going to be ecstatic,'" says Land. "Ross and I basically just crossed our fingers and said 'roll tape.' And we were delighted. What seemed to validate it for us was this live audiencethere were hundreds of people from Universal sitting there, and they're screaming and cheering, kids jumping up and down. And afterward, they came up to the skaters and asked for autographs. We looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, this is real.'"
Presiding over the affair was none other than Jerry Seltzer, whom Land and Bagwell had hired to become the World Skating League's official Commissionera tip of the hat to Roller Derby's past. "I am pleased to see it back in production in this form with these people, because it's top-drawer all the way," says the now-convinced Seltzer. "It makes me very happy."
The Universal Studios theme park rises out of the suburban marshes of Orlando like an oversized alligator amid a swamp full of piranha. Around it, for miles and miles, is a dense grid of indistinguishable hotels, mini-plazas, chain restaurants, and would-be attractions like Skull Kingdom or Mystery Fun Houseall fighting for Universal's leftovers in a feeding frenzy of tourist flesh. The streets themselves are void of actual humans, clogged as they are with rental cars and airport shuttles. It's an urban planner's worst nightmare come to life; the tourists love it.
But Universal isn't just the place to ride the Back to the Future car; it's actually a working studio. Come in through the employee entrance and it's just like all the studio backlots you've ever seen in the movies: rows of warehouse-like soundstages, harried production assistants zipping around in golf carts, an older security guard at the gate with a clipboard looking for your name. In the 21,000-square-foot Stage 21, nine cameras are recording two hours' worth of brawling, screaming actionskaters careening into each other at speeds up to 35 mph, flying over railings head over heels, grappling on the polymax plastic surface like WWF wrestlers.
"Will you knock her down already?!" screeches an eight-year-old boy in the stands, kicking the spectator sitting in front of him.
"You don't even know what you're cheering for," his mother says tiredly.
"Way to fall there, Stacey!" derides a white-haired gentlemen as California Quake Stacey Blitsch picks herself upright before launching herself at New York Enforcer Chellie Rossell in a hair-pulling cat fight. Scrapping women are a major draw, just as they were in Roller Derby's Golden Age. The fights always overshadow the actual score of the contest, and raise the question of whether the games are legitimate competitions. Most people assume they're little more than tightly-scripted plays, human cartoons with cartoon violence.
"We're in the entertainment business, no question. And we do manipulate competition," admits Land, who labels RollerJam "sports entertainment." "But what you see out there on the track is real. There is no way to choreograph and script everything that goes on out there. It moves so fast. Our announcers do a lot of spin, and a lot of what we promote are the rivalries, the friendships, the love affairs, and all that. But what you see out there is real. We have people with cracked vertebrae, broken arms, broken nose, blown out MCL, cuts and bruises...Health insurance was one of our larger line items. It was big. Because it is so dangerous. A lot of insurance companies just hung up: 'You want what?'"
Ask the players, and you'll hear war stories to rival those from Desert Storm. "In the second game, I got knocked into the kick rail by one of the blockers on the other team and my leg was bleeding, and I was bruised for about three weeks. The other day, I twisted my knee and I was out for about three days," reports Andrea "Showgirl" Franklin, a tired-looking Florida Sundog who was a personal trainer and competitive speed skater before RollerJam.
Sean Atkinson is one of the few players with strong Derby credentials, having virtually grown up at the rink. A third-generation skater in a family of Rolly Derby stars, his mother Dru Scott skated while pregnant with him for seven months. His grandfather is Buddy Atkinson, Sr., a two-time Roller Derby Hall of Famer, while his father is multiple All-Star and MVP Buddy, Jr. He knows the track well.
"It's serious," insists Atkinson, who's much more calm and well-spoken out of the rink. "Everybody asks if it's real. Well, I wish you could come home with me after a game, because I can barely walkthe aches and pains are there. I don't want anyone getting seriously hurt, nobut it is serious. We don't know the outcomes of the games."
Some players profess to enjoy the rough nature of the game, even the supposedly "clean" skaters on good-guy teams. The Sundogs' Denise "The Barracuda" Loden, for instance, not only speedskated but did nails before joining the Derby. ("I made women beautiful, and now I'm in the business of messin' them up.") Now she counts the physical contact as her preferred aspect of the sport.
"For so long, when I was a speedskater, you would get disqualified if you even nudged somebody," she says. "And when I started doing this, it was the total opposite. I mean, you're allowed to do pretty much anything within certain limits...to go out there and mess 'em up. So I like that. That's my favorite part."
And then there are the rivalries, the most spectacular of which are usually between team captains such as Atkinson and D'Amato, who seem more interested in bruising each other than scoring. Among the women players, one particular point of contention is "The Bod Squad," whose nickname seems to inspire disgust.
"This Bod Squad thing I hate the worst, because if you watch them skate, they're not that talented," says Loden, wrinkling her nose in distaste. "Staceyshe skates pretty good, but the other two, they don't skate very good at all. They do look like they just rolled in off the beach and thought that they could skate RollerJam. Stacey and I go at it all the timeshe thinks she's a little better than she is, so I have to put her in her place."
The young, blonde, curvaceous Stacey Blitschwho often adorns her cheek with a glittery foil star, like a cheerleaderis the leader of "The Bod Squad" and is often the target of antagonism. The former American Gladiators contender says she's aware of her fellow players' dislikeand that it's genuine, both on and off the track.
"Some of them are a little jealous, I think, because we're out there, we're skating good, and people like us," she says. "Some of the other girls don't really like me because they think that I hit too hard, that I'm too rough. But that's just the way I am. There are some girls I just can't stand. And I probably bring it out on the track with meI'm the type of person who usually gets revenge. If someone pisses me off, I'm not going take it, you know? I don't take shit from nobody."
Such displays of violence do sadden Commissioner Seltzer, who even went so far as to suspend the ever-popular Mark D'Amato after one of his rampages.
"I think a lot of skaters are trying to make names for themselves," he says, perhaps with a wince. "Joan Westin didn't have to do a lot of that because when she came into town everybody knew who she was. The skaters are aware they're on television, even as Deion Sanders or Dennis Rodman are. The only thing is, we haven't got them together with Latrell Sprewell to teach them how to choke their coach."
It's not often that a new television show doesn't get slammed by at least a few of the major media outlets. But in the case of RollerJam, it's been greeted with almost universal kid glovesthe crustiest, most cynical critics have been practically wiping away tears of gratitude.
In a large Dec. 11 cover story, USA Today mused that the Roller Derby revival "...might represent a comfort zone, an uncomplicated refuge from jaded pseudo-sophistication and cyber-cyncism." "A piece of Americana restored," declared The Hollywood Reporter. Even America's sports authority, Sports Illustrated, sent a Valentine: "Dusted off and spiffed up, the Roller Derby is aiming to regain the hold it once had on TV...Thank heaven, then, the Derby is back." Then there were stories by Newsweek, Entertainment Tonight, Associated Press, Gannett, the ABC Evening News, NPR...
TNN's head of publicity, Rosemary O'Briena Cosby Show veteranis both elated and amazed; how often does a new cable TV show get overwhelmed by free publicity? "This kind of a project comes along so rarelyyou feel it, you know it's something special," she says with sincerity.
And so far, audiences seem to be agreeing. According to Nielsen Media Research figures, RollerJam 's January 15, 8 p.m. debut drew more than 2.9 million viewers; in comparison, the number-one rated basic cable show for Jan. 11 through 17 was TNT's World Championship Wrestling with 4.4 million viewers. But RollerJam was also the most-watched cable show during its time period among men ages 12-34. That's a highly desirable demographic TNN hasn't seen much of before, boding well for its 26-episode season.
Back at the rink, the taping is overthe audience has shuffled out to stand in line at the T2-3D ride, the DJ has stopped blasting dance tunes over the P.A., and the exhausted players have headed back to the dressing rooms. It all seems so unnaturally quiet after an afternoon of blood and skating.
Standing off to the side in a darkened corner, an old fellow with a cane stands looking at the empty track, head cocked as if still listening to the audience roar. Buddy Atkinson, Sr. started skating the Derby back in 1937. He ended up spending the rest of his life as a Derby manplaying for the Philadelphia Panthers, the Brooklyn Red Devils, the Chicago Westerners, even the famed New York Chiefs. He skated for 20 yearsfirst as a "home" player then as a "visitor"and then went into coaching and training and managing teams.
"When I started I was 126 pounds, a little short guy, and the skaters used to beat the hell out of me," he says, eyes glinting. "And the people all loved me then. But when I turned redshirt, man, they hated methey called me 'the cry baby,' 'you dirty old man.' But you felt alive, and all the people knew you. Whether you were a villain or not, they liked you."
Is he happy to see the return of his livelihood, the sport that once captured the nation's fancy? He immediately dispenses any air of nostalgia.
"Oh yeah," he says, "for my son, especially, and for Sean. Because they were looking for something that's gonna goand I think this thing's gonna go big."
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