Roller derby elbows its way back into view Cable's TNN thinks America is ready to embrace a new generation of the action-filled pseudo-sport that was once its TV favorite.

December 13, 1998|By Andre Mouchard | Andre Mouchard,Orange County Register

Perhaps you hadn't noticed, but America's secret national pastime, absent from the television airwaves for several years now, is back and ready to throw another elbow in your face.

The once beloved sport-entertainment known as roller derby is mounting its latest comeback as "Roller Jam," and will begin airing on country music channel TNN Jan. 15. And this latest incarnation, both promoters and derby veterans agree, could be the sport's last shot to resurrect itself.

Unlike its more violent cousin, pro wrestling, roller derby faded away a few years ago and hasn't mounted much of a comeback.

America's No. 1-rated TV show in 1950, and a staple on local stations for more than 30 years, derby's tube time these days is limited to reruns on ESPN Classic. Those usually air well past midnight.

It's also seldom played anymore. The only live derby games of note are exhibitions, staged about twice a month in the San Francisco area. The skaters are mostly ex-pros, grizzled men and women in their 40s and 50s who use old-style skates (not the in-line variety) and old-style theatrics (plenty of elbows and name calling) to rouse crowds that, at best, number a few thousand.

Kids, once the staple of derby's broad fan base, don't know much about the game anymore. Since the old derby schools went belly up in the 1960s and '70s, nearly two generations of potential Shirley Hardmans and Charlie O'Connells have grown up knowing nothing about what skaters lovingly call "the banked oval."

All of which is why nearly everyone in the derby world - even those who think that they've been unfairly ignored by the TV types behind "Roller Jam" - is hoping the new show rekindles interest in their old game.

"If they screw this up, it's over; the sport's gonna croak," worries former skater Jim "Alligator" Greene.

The producers of "Roller Jam" say that won't happen.

"Viewers are ready for this," says Stephen Land, a one-time derby fan who came up with the idea for the new show after reading the 1997 obituary of longtime derby superstar Joan Weston.

Land's show sounds like a spandex-suited, in-line skate version of the same game that alternately thrilled and bored America from 1935 to the early 1990s. "Everything will be faster," Land says, "but we want the same spirit."

His Nashville-based company, Pageboy Productions, already has about 100 skaters on its payroll. Training in a rink in Orlando, Fla., the group of ex-American Gladiators, truckers, body builders and at least one tree surgeon has spent much of this year learning everything from elaborate skate moves like "the whip" and the "underpass" to less tricky stuff, such as falling on one's keister without serious bruising. Taping begins next month.

If the two-hour, 26-show "Roller Jam" finds big ratings, Pageboy will back a league, putting teams in cities where viewership is highest.

"First, we've got to create a great TV show," Land says of prospects for live derby, a movie and other add-on products. "But yes, we're looking at all options."

The producers know there's one thing the old derby had in spades that they have to find fairly quickly: soul.

"Nobody was cooler than skaters like Joanie Weston. And nothing was cooler than roller derby. That's a given," Land says. "We can't copy that or reproduce it. We've just got to go out and be ourselves and, hopefully, capture people's imaginations."

Ralph Valladares had soul. He died in November at age 62. Too much cancer and chemo and a bum liver. But before he passed away, Valladares lived life as possibly the greatest derby star ever.

The short, fast native of Guatemala started skating during derby's heyday, in the 1950s, for the old-style league known as Roller Derby. In 1961, he and a few other Derby stars jumped to a glitzier league known as Roller Games. He skated with the Games well into that league's death rattle, when it was staged, briefly, as a TV-only sport with a figure-eight track and an alligator.

He skated in front of a few movie stars, such as Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall, and millions of meat packers, taxi drivers and waitresses. He skated alongside superstars from the game's early days, such as Billy Bogash, and relative latecomers such as O'Connell and John Hall.

He also shared the track with decidedly non-derby types: midgets from Mexico, wrestler Andre the Giant, a female Australian shotputter. He skated for several teams but spent the last three decades with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds.

Valladares' bosses - Roller Games' owners Bill Griffiths Sr. and Bill Griffiths Jr. - even sent Valladares off as a sort of roller derby Marco Polo. He skated in almost every continent and founded teams in Sydney, Australia, and Tokyo.

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