Hell on Wheels
Only four Roller Derby tracks remain on the North American continent. One of them squats in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse just west of I-95 and south of Cypress Creek Boulevard. A tall, talkative entrepreneur named Patrick Schaefer bought the 60-by-90-foot oval last year for $12,000 from the San Francisco Bay Bombers, a defunct skating team that for decades was a household name to millions of Americans. Then he trucked the blood-spattered, sweat-stained relic across the country and installed it in northwest Broward without fully considering the fact that his warehouse has no air conditioning.
"Because of the heat in here, we have a real cramping problem," says Andrea Franklin, one of two coaches hired by Schaefer to teach recruits the fine points of kicking, blocking, punching, biting, and hair-pulling -- and of course, the high-speed, close-quarters coordination required to skate on a banked track. The housewives, landscapers, schoolteachers, and computer software salesmen who show up for combat twice a week employ in-line skates, not the bulky quad skates of the '50s. Schaefer has altered and simplified some of the Derby rules, and named his outfit RollerSport Challenge to avoid trademark trouble. But otherwise it's the old Roller Derby, which Schaefer fervently believes is ripe for resurrection.
Before tonight's 90-minute practice is done, Franklin will have on her hands worse problems than muscle cramps. She'll be dripping blood from her right knee; Gail Perfect, another top skater, will need stitches to close a gash in her chin; and referee David Alfin will wind up in a neck brace. At one point skaters James Rinaldi, Tony Skye, and Rob Todoroff gleefully duke it out at the top of a curve and shatter a wooden rail at the bottom edge of the track.
Outside, a thunderstorm turns the parking lot into a pond. Inside, Desmond Kameka, the 40-year-old men's coach, teaches "the whip," a technique whereby one skater accelerates another through the banked curve by grabbing his or her arm and yanking. "Sensation! Sensation!" Kameka screams like a Broadway director. "Ya gotta make it look good! Let's see you sell it, people!"
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Schaefer's teams -- the Star Riders, the Track Force, the South Florida Smugglers -- learn how to stomp loudly on the Masonite track when making elbow or knee blocks; how to produce flamboyant, exaggerated reactions when they get bashed in the straightaway or blocked in the turns. In short, they're learning Schaefer's favorite mantra: entertainment value.
In a typical scrimmage, two opposing teams in star-spangled uniforms and shiny metallic helmets skate for four six-minute periods; one member of each team, the "jammer" identified by a silver helmet, tries to lap the pack and make it past an enemy "target skater" to score a point. Each five-person team comprises both women and men.
"The guys are the biggest hams," says Schaefer's wife, Rita. "They got a taste of show biz at the first event, and now it's in their blood."
Rick Mure, a lean landscaper with a tattoo on his arm depicting God casting the Devil into Hell, is well-known to security guards at Pembroke Pines shopping malls for his habit of sneaking into asphalted areas late at night to practice trick skating. He also boxes, kickboxes, and plays roller hockey. But the fledgling Derby is his current passion.
"I kinda fell into it, that kind of mode, of scrapping with people, hitting 'em," he explains. "That's the kinda kid I am, from the school of hard knocks. What I lack in skill I have to make up for in aggressiveness on the track. And that's what I like."
Schaefer, the man who would reinvent Roller Derby, looks out of place in a collared shirt and cowboy boots and confesses he's never been on skates himself. He also admits he's more interested in theater than sport -- but that proclivity is more than a simple matter of taste. A few years ago in Tampa, Schaefer launched the World Roller Federation, which relied on genuine competition with a minimum of buffoonery. It bombed.
"The only time we got a fan pop -- that's what it's called -- was when someone got knocked over a rail, or tempers flared," Schaefer recalls. "That's when people cheered, crumpled their Coke cups and threw 'em. So we said, this whole thing has been a dumb idea. If people want to see skating, let 'em go down to South Beach. We're gonna give 'em wrestling on wheels."
So in addition to plenty of contrived fisticuffs, Schaefer is developing cartoonish "characters" whose evolving antics will rivet fans through game after game. There's Sabrina Wentworth, a villainous sexpot widow who plots a hostile takeover of RollerSport Challenge. There's the Preacher, a taciturn giant who will show up toting the Scriptures and periodically smack skaters over the head with them. ("The Bible-beaters will go apeshit!" Schaefer predicts.) Kameka's girlfriend, skater Debbie Klammer, shows up at some practices in pigtails and tinted granny glasses. Schaefer explains: "What we do over a series of games is we gradually turn her from this little, hicky country girl with pigtails -- the farmer's daughter -- into this gorgeous, sexy sophisticate. I want guys to pay 26 bucks to sit trackside and hope she sweats on 'em."
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.
In the '60s Leo Seltzer's son, Jerry, brought it back. He was helped along by the invention of videotape, which allowed for easier syndicated airings. By 1970 Variety, the authoritative entertainment-industry trade publication, proclaimed Roller Derby the fastest-growing attraction in the land. Two million fans per year paid to watch America's hometown team, the San Franciso Bay Bombers, during its road tour of 100 cities. Another three million tuned in to 125 TV stations that carried canned shows taped at Kezar Pavilion and other Bay area locales during the 20 weeks per year when the Bombers stayed home, battling an endless succession of buffoonish bad guys and gals.
On TV the Derby rated consistently higher than hockey or baseball and ran nose-to-nose with basketball and football, according to Deford's history of the Derby, Five Strides on the Banked Track. It always did better than news, talk shows, and most feature films.
Five years into the disco decade, Hollywood capitalized on the Derby's mass appeal by releasing Rollerball, a United Artists hit starring James Caan ("In the near future the world is controlled by giant corporations. To satisfy the public's lust for violence, the corporations sponsor 'Rollerball,' a brutal combination of hockey and Roller Derby.") By 1988 the Derby was moribund once more, its demise mirrored by the forgettable, low-budget Roller Blade. ("Roller-skating amazons battle an evil warlord who commits torture and slavery in post-nuclear war Los Angeles.")
"In those days we would do two days a week in the city, then three more nights in the outlying suburbs," Mark D'Amato recalls. "You'd have the Sunday live telecast with all the hype -- who was gonna kick whose ass, what various characters were up to. Then we lost that Sunday telecast, and pretty soon we were down to one or two events a week, and then it was all over."
Roller skating, which began as an aristocratic fad in England and later caught the popular fancy stateside, has now returned in the form of in-line skating. But something else interests Patrick Schaefer: In the 1990s NASCAR auto racing has been the fastest-growing sport in the United States. And last year pro wrestling pulled in $6 billion in merchandizing revenues alone. Blue-collar passions have turned respectable and astonishingly lucrative. Schaefer -- a Cincinnati transplant, an ex-cop with a law degree, a onetime freelance promoter of pro wrestling -- says he sees his opening.
His attempt to bring about a successful revival is not appreciated by some Derby diehards. "On the Internet and in the trade papers, they say Patrick Schaefer isn't in this for the love of the game, he's in it for the money," Schaefer himself says. "I have never dignified comments like that with an answer, but I've felt like saying, 'Do you think the old-time promoters were in it for the love of the game?' Not hardly."
Schaefer freely admits it's been difficult getting RollerSport Challenge out of first gear. His company has sunk between $300,000 and $400,000 into equipment, leases, and video production, he says. The cash was raised from 32 shareholders, "none of whom have asked for their money back."
Federal regulations allowed Schaefer to raise up to $1 million during a set time frame -- one year -- but that year ran out on May 15, and now the money almost has, too. Also this spring Schaefer decided to back away from a jelling deal with American Independent Network, a Texas-based national TV provider, worried that RollerSport would get aired at the wrong times in the wrong places. "It would have been like Giorgio Armani coming out with a new line of suits and debuting them at Kmart," he huffs.
Bob Kronowitt, Schaefer's partner, is almost giddily candid about how tough times have been. "Here!" he says, throwing his personal bank statement across a desk. "Take a look!" The checking account balance reads $4.16.
Now Schaefer and Kronowitt have settled on a different way to raise capital for what they promise will be RollerSport's true blastoff. The company is going public. "It's got sizzle," Schaefer says, speaking of the stock-to-be, which he promises will debut soon on the OTC bulletin board, an electronic market of America's tiniest public companies.
On the one hand, Schaefer is confident new investors will take to RollerSport Challenge. Company assets now amount to more than a rented office and warehouse and a secondhand Derby track, more than the scattered enthusiasms of a score of skaters. The Derby has always lived and died by television, and Schaefer has three TV deals confirmed.
The first and most important letter of agreement is with TransAmerica Media, a Miami-based company that plans to make RollerSport Challenge a household name in Central and South America and throughout the Caribbean. The second is with TCI, a cable company, which hopes to air RollerSport in eight of the top ten American TV markets, including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Media One, a Pompano Beach firm, will distribute the shows in Broward County in exchange for local airing rights and advertising space at events.
"We've tested the waters, and there's strong interest in Latin America," notes Jose Del Cueto, president of TransAmerica Media. "It used to be wildly popular down there. They called it lucha en patines -- wrestling on wheels." He adds: "Patrick has really struggled with this for a couple of years now, and I think he'll pull it off. Depending on the quality of the shows, this has the potential to reach a couple hundred million people."
On the other hand, Schaefer acknowledges that some would-be investors will balk at RollerSport packaged in the form of a penny stock deal. Three and a half years ago, Schaefer and Kronowitt met one another when they each sold companies they owned to a firm named Madison Sports & Entertainment. They were paid with Madison stock, which at first went up -- then down, really fast.
"I am not going to say that Madison was a scam," Schaefer says today. "What I am going to say is that there are questions as to whether the company ever really intended to do what it said it planned to do. It was all allegedly -- and I'll stress that word -- designed to drive the stock up so that insiders could profit. The whole experience was very unfortunate. Bob and I got taken for a lot of money, and now we're sitting on a lot of worthless paper." At the time Madison executives contended their hardships were the normal business setbacks of a start-up company.
Guy Beaven, a penny stock broker turned author, puts the experience in context. In his 1995 book titled Hello Suckers, he describes the Fort Lauderdale-Boca Raton corridor:
It is a little section of the world where every bar is packed with brokers of every description and vice, their Mercedes-Benzes waiting for them outside in the parking lot. In fact, the entire Sunshine State is a haven for confidence rackets of every description. The reason is simple enough. The population is growing faster there than anywhere else. It is also where many older folks go to retire with their pension funds and retirement accounts and life's savings. Those who migrate here are already existing on a fantasy. Add lots of money and a swindler and suddenly you've created a fertile ground for fraud.
Schaefer contends: "By putting out premature or misleading information, you can drive the stock up. At RollerSport we have never done that. We put a press release out saying Desmond Kameka, ranked in the top ten in the International In-line Skating Association, is now skating with RollerSport Challenge. It's true. We put a release out saying we have a signed deal with TCI Cable. It's true. In the mid-1980s there were like 400 penny stock deals coming out every day, and a lot of people are still the guests of the government because of them. Maybe because Bob and I got burned in the past, we've been overly cautious."
Meanwhile, in a suburb of Orlando, there's activity that both challenges and pays tacit tribute to Schaefer's dream. The World Skating League, a new company with rumored backing from CBS and TNN, has finished building its own Derby track and is now recruiting skaters. Leading the recruiting drive is Faith Urban, Schaefer's former point woman. She notes that World Skating League athletes get a paycheck, unlike those at RollerSport.
"These people are players," Urban says of her new bosses. "They have the smarts, the expertise, and certainly the money. We may fall flat on our faces, but it won't be because we didn't give our best effort."
Urban says the company plans to shoot its first six TV shows by January, then launch the network series on TNN. A memo appeared in Schaefer's warehouse recently, expressing concern that World Skating was trying to cherry-pick RollerSport's best skaters.
"I in no way see a competitive problem, and that's not PR nonsense," says Mark Hickman, vice president of production for Ross Television Productions of Knoxville, Tennessee. "Roller Derby has gone so far out of the public mind that I think anything any one of us does will only benefit the other." Hickman says it was Derby queen Joan Weston's obituary in the New York Times that inspired his current efforts -- her death reminded his backers of how popular the Derby had once been. Hickman declines to say exactly who those backers are.
From his home in California's wine country, the last person to guide Roller Derby to a comeback is mulling an offer to do some consulting work for Hickman.
"I think, under the right conditions and very properly financed, it's possible," Jerry Seltzer says of a Derby comeback. "When I did it 25 years ago, it was much easier, believe me. We would play live games, videotape them, and send them to stations. Simple. Now the costs and technology are so different. There's cable TV, which complicates matters. Arenas you could rent for $1000 back then probably wouldn't open their bathrooms for that kind of money."
Orlando's World Skating League plans to emphasize skating athleticism and virtuosity over wrestling on wheels, sources say. A good idea?
"I'm going to answer that a little cryptically," says Seltzer, now age 66. "My father always wanted to see the Derby in the Olympics. He always believed it could survive without the histrionics. But every time it's been run with a strong sense of how to bring people into the box office. I'll say I would like to see it come back as legitimate a game as possible. Anyway, it's kinda like crabgrass. It just keeps coming back, one way or another.
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