Saturday, January 31, 2009

Go Ahead ‘n Ask: Tucson Roller Derby Rolls On ‘n On ‘n On By King Daevid MacKenzie

On Saturday (Feb. 7) at 4:30 p.m., Bladeworld at 1065 W. Grant becomes the hub of My Universe for a few hours. That’s when Tucson Roller Derby cranks up its 6th season of action.

Actually, the first to be on the flat track will be the Derby Brats, TRD’s highschoolers’ league, who skate against the Los Angeles Derby Dolls’ junior league all-stars for a full 60-minute bout. The TRD women will be taking to the track at 6:30, with a round robin schedule of 15-minute mini-bouts allowing all four of the teams in the league – the Furious Truckstop Waitresses, the Copper Queens, the Iron Curtain and the 5th Season Champion VICE Squad – to take each other on. The TRD also has an all-star unit, the Saddletramps, who hold bouts against other leagues’ all-star units. For you uninitiated types, this ain’t your mama’s Roller Derby. Growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, I got two and a half TV hours of that version every Saturday. First would be the “Roller Derby” brand out of SFO over WBAY-TV/2 from Green Bay, with Sherri Erich and the late great Joan Weston leading the Midwest Pioneers against Quebecois Francine Cochu’s Cincinnati Jolters or whatever outlaws the infamous Ann Calvello picked feuds alongside. That would usually be at 1:00 Saturday afternoon. Then at 6:30, following AWA “All-Star Wrestling” and some cheesy AIP drive-in horror flick, KFIZ-TV/34 from Fond du Lac aired the 90-minute version of “Roller Game of the Week” from Los Angeles’ KTLA/5, with the inimitable Dick Lane commenting on the latest exploits of “Psycho” Ronnie Raines, before and after joining the L.A. Thunderbirds circa ’71; “Little” Danny Reilly, whose Reilly’s Renegades were outlaw thugs with no fixed hometown; and the immortal Shirley Hardman of the T-Birds’ women’s squad.

It was that T-Birds’ women’s squad that was pretty much pseudonymously immortalised in the 1972 movie KANSAS CITY BOMBER, with Raquel Welch as the queen of the banked track and a brief appearance by Jodie Foster as Raquel’s daughter. Jodie claims to have not seen the film until only a couple of years ago, at which time she declared it to be a celluloid turd. Phil Ochs, the great folk singer of ‘63 Greenwich Village, was asked to write and record a theme song for the movie; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer rejected it, but Ochs had A&M Records put it out as a single anyway. He wanted to stage a world premiere for the song on the T-Birds’ track at an Olympic Auditorium TV taping (say it with me, everyone: “Richmond 9-5171!”), but T-Birds owner Bill Griffiths refused.

But all that is digression. The TRD and Derby Brats’ game is not “Psycho” Ronnie Raines’ game of almost 40 years ago.

Mind you, there are similarities. The most notable is that the game is still played on quad skates, not inline rollerblades. And scoring remains the same, having a designated skater, the jammer, on each team try to lap as many members of the opposing team as possible within the oval track during a jam, usually 2 minutes if the league belongs to the Womens’ Flat Track Derby Association. Last time I checked, this is the only sport where opposing players can score points at the exact same split-second.

The full name of the WFTDA should clue you in to two of the biggest differences from the ‘70s game: although there is a men’s Derby unit in Tucson, the vast majority of current-day municipal Derby leagues are of all women skaters, and although there are some banked-track leagues here and there, WFTDA member leagues like the TRD skate on the same flat surfaces that roller hockey is played on.

The third big difference is that, unlike the kayfabe days of “Psycho” Ronnie Raines, the current-day bouts are played for real. They aren’t a “work,” like Hulk Hogan’s choreographed rasslin’. The trappings are a wild spoof of the old days, with skater names straight out of Batman’s roster of supervillains. VICE Squad staple Whiskey Mick and my Arizona Bruisers pal Helen Wheels, now part of the Iron Curtain, are among my current TRD favourites. But these women have a sacred fire burning in their collective soul, and they guard it with a legitimacy and ferocity worthy of the toughest NFL Cardinal or Charger.

Of course, this sport also has a unique appeal for lesbian and bisexual women. It’s a relatively rare milieu wherein they don’t have to take any guff whatsoever about their bedpartnership. Unfortunately, the WNBA still draws homophobic wisecracks – the allegedly “progressive” radio station I was on in Phoenix last year saw staffers crack some of the nastiest I’ve ever heard off-mic. But these ‘phobes know a rollergrrl will legitimately kick their ass the split second they pull too much of the same crap with them.

This grassroots flat-track Derby revival (the TRD is a non-profit skater cooperative) largely traces itself back to one of the Austin, Texas, leagues circa 2002, according to TRD historian and co-founder Kim Sin. The following year, Ivanna S. Pankin co-founded the AZ Roller Derby in Phoenix, and never wanting TUS to pass up anything PHX gets, the TRD was developed almost simultaneously. Since then, the AZRD has seen three different breakaways, the Derby Dames and Renegades leagues and last year’s short-lived Arizona Bruisers team (that last outfit eventually absorbed into the Dames structure). The Derby Brats remain Arizona’s only highschoolers’ Derby unit.

The TRD website,, has any other info you’ll need about Saturday’s bout. KDM sez to check it out.

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