Hell on Wheels

Is America ready for the reinvention of Roller Derby? Patrick J. Schaefer thinks so, and he's willing to put your money where his mouth is.

Writer Frank Deford once called Roller Derby the most misunderstood of sports, partly because many people who once looked down their noses at it did so because they assumed everything about it was choreographed.

"Not true," says Alfin, the referee with the sprained neck. "This thing is choreographed to a certain degree -- to the degree that the result of a particular play may well be a foregone conclusion. But within those parameters, anything goes. The injuries attest to that.

"The people on that track are serious athletes. One of the ways they can enjoy or utilize all this athletic ability is a presentation of their skills -- that's showmanship. Patrick is trying to impart the idea of the show, because at the end of the day that's what it is. It's athletic theater."

Still, there's a certain tension built into the way Schaefer refers to practice sessions as "rehearsal" while most of the skaters -- many with backgrounds in speed skating, hard-core roller hockey, or so-called "vert" or acrobatic trick skating -- call it "practice."

"Patrick's an old wrestling promoter, and that's the way he's approaching Roller Derby," says Mark D'Amato, who skated with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds in the '70s, and, very briefly, for Schaefer. "There's always been a delicate balance between skating and bullshit, which we call 'heat.' It always seemed to me he was much more interested in heat."

The first RollerSport games took place April 18 at the Deerfield Beach Sports Mall. They drew several hundred curious spectators, many of them allowed into the arena for free to fill the stands, and resulted in enough footage for Schaefer to produce a promotional video and the first two segments of what he hopes will be a weekly TV series aired in the Unites States and abroad.

Many of the skaters have come to the warehouse through Schaefer's scouts in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale and from recruitment fliers. "War on Wheels," one of the fliers announces. "Serious about skating? Looking for a TV career? Come train with RollerSport Challenge, the newest game in town -- due for national and international syndication."

Since RollerSport's debut, two other scheduled games, one at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium, and one at the Miccosukee Indian Bingo hall in Miami-Dade County, have fallen through, and the TV show awaits a launch date. "War Memorial didn't have the dates we wanted, and the Miccosukees had some concerns about rowdy crowds," a RollerSport insider says of the venue problems. Schaefer isn't discouraged by the delays, but some of the skaters are.

"The reality of it is that he has done very little, for whatever reason," says Faith Urban, a onetime national judo champ who quit in June after serving as Schaefer's chief trainer and recruiter. "I don't like people to make big promises that don't materialize."

Only two great American sports have been thought up on the spot by individual Americans. Basketball was born in 1891 when a Jesuit priest named James Naismith nailed some peach baskets to a wall in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1935, Leo Seltzer, a 32-year-old sports promoter, sat down in a Chicago saloon. He started scribbling on a paper tablecloth and came up with Roller Derby.

Of course, many who remember Roller Derby in its late-night TV senescence might argue that while indisputably American, it was neither sport nor anything approaching "great" -- that the spectacle of men and women on skates kicking and punching each other while rolling around a banked track was never more than a lowbrow carnival act, short on athleticism and long on hokum.

"It's what I used to think, too," says Schaefer. "A dirt-kicker sport, same low-class socioeconomic connotations as pro wrestling or stock car racing, right? Wrong. Not this time around."

At first blush Schaefer's dream of launching a newfangled Roller Derby from South Florida could not be worse timed. Last year newspapers around the country carried the obituary of Joan Weston, the last of the great Derby heroines. And just three Saturdays ago at Kezar Pavillion in San Franciso, Ann Calvello, Joan Weston's former bad-girl nemesis and alter ego, took to the track at the age of 75 with a coterie of wheezing oldsters, endearing herself to the audience perhaps, but certainly boring them. Both events served to reinforce the notion that Roller Derby is dead and finally buried for keeps. The original made-for-TV art form no longer appears on TV anywhere in the United States.

But at night the ghost of Joan Weston haunts the land in restless, electronic splendor. Amongst the chat rooms and message boards of the Internet, aging Rollerjunkies dispute games that were played out years ago, insult each other over Roller Derby trivia, and endlessly discuss the half-hoped-for, half-feared possibility of a Derby comeback. Also in Schaefer's favor is the fact that Roller Derby has been pronounced dead at least twice before but resurrected itself.

The Frankenstein monster of sport first came of age right here in South Florida. On a hot night in Miami in 1938, when Roller Derby still consisted of skaters simply going around a track as fast as possible, two players got in a brawl. The crowd loved it. Legendary journalist and author Damon Runyon (his characters inspired Guys and Dolls) encouraged Derby boss Leo Seltzer to make choreographed violence a permanent part of the show. In late November 1948, the Derby debuted on TV and overnight became the rage of New York City, then other cities. At the time the public hungered for TV but put up with a dearth of satisfying programs -- a state of affairs similar to today's rapidly expanding cable-channel universe -- and action-packed Roller Derby filled the programming void. Within three years it was a victim of its own popularity. A contract with ABC called for airings 365 days a year, and largely because of this overexposure, the Derby died its first death.

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