Roller Derby in Southern California has taken some bruises in it’s time, but it’s still rolling
In 1972, more than 50,000 people crowded into Chicago’s Comiskey Park to see roller derby team the Los Angeles Thunderbirds compete against the Chicago Midwest Pioneers.
The teams were made up of both men and women, the audience was enthusiastic and the match broke attendance records for roller derby at a time when the sport was shown on TV stations nationwide.
That Chicago match was the high-point of the sport, said John Hall, a former Thunderbird and one of the stars of the era.
“It was a game that was fast-moving, exciting,” Hall said from his home near San Diego. “It had action of physical blocking; it had strategy of people scoring points.” Enthusiastic fans would cheer their favorite skaters or boo rival players, and Hall would laugh. “For the many, many fans … it gave the fans the ultimate in enjoyment and excitement, and the skaters fed off that. I felt a high that you couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Unlike today’s amateur roller derby leagues, the sport in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s had professional, paid athletes, some, like Hall, who earned enough to support themselves. The Thunderbirds skated five games a week, 42 weeks a year. They traveled around the country and abroad, to Japan, Mexico, Australia. ESPN, then in its early years, covered roller derby matches. But by the late 1980s, the popularity of the sport had fallen off, as did TV coverage.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime,” Hall said. “Now I just sit back and watch people try and revive it. And I hope they do.”
Old-School vs. New-School
Roller derby and rival division roller games (of which the Thunderbirds was the flagship team) events were a lot different than the women-dominated, amateur game that’s been growing in popularity over the last decade or so, veterans of the professional era of the sport said.
Today’s leagues exist in every county in Southern California. In Long Beach, there’s the Badfish Roller Derby. Orange County has the South Coast Roller Derby. In Los Angeles, there are women’s and men’s leagues – the L.A. Derby Dolls and the men’s league Drive-By City Rollers. And that’s just a few of the leagues.
In San Bernardino, there’s the IE Derby Divas, who play “bouts” against teams from Orange County, Ventura County, Coachella Valley and elsewhere.
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“It’s kind of exploded,” said Fontana resident Vanessa Cortez, a.k.a. “KO.KO. Brown” on the derby track. “The sport has grown immensely over the last few years.”
The IE Derby Divas have been around longer than some leagues, since 2006, and it’s taking steps to become more official. It’s now an “apprentice league,” with the goal of becoming a member of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association, the rule-making body for today’s incarnation of the sport that ranks teams nationally and internationally.
The women who come to derby do it for a variety of reasons. But Cortez said a common theme is life at a transition point.
“You have women who maybe are having a hard time at work, and they need an outlet, a place to destress a bit. (We have) women going through divorce,” she said. “This, I kid you not, is the beauty of the sport. We have nurses to doctors on our league. … We have stay-at-home-moms. We have a wide array of women.”
“We’re for the skater by the skater,” she added, meaning league members organize events and training. Like the nicknames for the skaters, each step to being a competitor has a saucy title, from the beginning “Betties” who take eight weeks of training to the “Vixens” to the full-fledged “Divas” who play in “bouts” against other teams.
“People tend to say that it’s feminism taking a stand,” she said. But for Cortez, a sports coordinator for Fontana, it’s not about that.
“I legitimately just like to skate.”
On a ‘First Date’
On a recent hot evening in Sylmar, the women of the San Fernando Valley Roller Derby practiced blocking on the flat track behind a nondescript industrial building. At the center of the track were about 20 less experienced skaters. They had come to the league’s “First Date” – a monthly event to try out derby before committing to practice and vying for a spot on a team. The San Fernando Valley Roller Derby allows women as young as 18 to play. Their oldest skater is 50.
For those who haven’t seen the movie “Whip It,” roller derby works like this: four women “blockers” try to stop the “jammer” of the opposite team from breaking through their line. If the jammer makes it through and laps the blockers, she can start scoring points. It’s not for the fragile.
Cat “Skate Bishop” O’Grady was teaching the newcomers the two most important lessons: how to stop and how to fall. “Fall small,” rather than splaying yourself across the track, she said. Get up quickly, lest you become a roadblock (or road kill) for the skaters behind you.
Flor Vergara laced up her skates and shuffled a few feet across the pavement. Vergara, who lives in San Fernando and works at her family’s tuxedo business, came to the “First Date” for a challenge and to get back some of her former athleticism.
“I used to be very athletic when I was back in high school and had less responsibilities,” Vergara said. “I’ve always heard ‘Girls can’t do tough stuff,’” Vergara said. “(But) why not? We all need some aggressiveness in our life!”
Many of the experienced SFV Roller Derby skaters said it’s that outlet for energy, plus exercise and friendship, that draws women to the amateur leagues, despite the effort and occasional injury.
Winnie Hui, a.k.a. “Misfortune Cookie,” of Glendale works in accounting and got into the sport when a coworker in the league roped her in.
Broken collarbone, broken ankle, even a broken tibula and fibula are some of the worst injuries Hui has seen. “It is what you would expect out of a full-contact sport,” she said. But the fun is that, “You get to hit people and not get in trouble.
“You get to hit your friends,” she said, laughing. “You’re kind of like a family within the league. You may hit people, but then once you get up, you’re both laughing about it and nobody’s mad.”
More than 20 women showed up for the “First Date.” Some had never skated before or hadn’t hit the rink since childhood. By the end of the “First Date,” Vergara had gone from inching a few feet on her skates to gliding slowly but steadily around the rink.
“It was awesome. I had an amazing time,” said Vergara as she rolled off the track. “I will definitely be back.”
Even after the heyday of roller derby and roller games had passed, former Thunderbirds, it seemed, couldn’t get away from their love of skating.
Hall and former teammate Ralph Valladeres, who died in 1998, opened a roller rink in Pico Rivera in Los Angeles, where anyone could skate. Those who paid a little extra could try a banked track in the back, for a taste of roller derby. After the neighborhood’s economy declined, they closed the rink, and it was torn down in 1986, Hall said.
Recently, however, there has been an effort to revive classic derby, from former Thunderbirds Honey Sanchez (who was married to Valladeres) and her son-in-law Dave Martinez, a retired police officer.
On May 12, Sanchez and Martinez hosted a roller derby game at the Industry Hills Equestrian Center, a classic banked-track event with both amateur derby skaters and old pros.
“We wanted to keep in more of the skating action, not so much theatrics,” said Martinez, who lives in Whittier. “You want to see skating action.”
He thought he’d feel lucky if 200 people showed up to the event. Over 1,000 did. It wasn’t the huge crowds of the 1970s, but the enthusiasm was there, especially from women skaters of today’s leagues.
Martinez trains women in those amateur leagues, but, like Hall, he said today’s derby is so much different than that of the past. However, those amateur skaters might be a key to bringing back the old-style games.
“Several times a week, I get emails, ‘When are you going to start teaching classic roller derby?’” and a lot of those messages come from amateur derby players, he said. “I commend their commitment. … We have, and will, continue to open it to any and all skaters … to learn our game, the classic roller derby game. Because the rules are so much different.
“Our biggest problem now is finding a location we can afford put a track up” for those types of competitions.
“We all want to see it get back to where it was.”
Hall sees today’s amateur derby as more of a hobby than a sport.
“Fans go to a game to be entertained, to see excitement, to see action, speed,” he said. “I applaud the skaters who are doing their game as a hobby,” but to help the sport have a successful comeback, events need to be more about the fans, as in the professional days where there was a “wink and a smile” and communication between players and fans, when fans felt involved in the competition.
“I hope they get the game squared away to where it’ll be more popular.”