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Wheels of Misfortune

CoverWheels of Misfortune

PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY (MAY 4, 2005)
BY KATE KILPATRICK
PHOTOS BY JEFF FUSCO

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View cover illustration by Jeff Cox here.

The old Philadelphia Arena that stood at 46th and Market streets in West Philadelphia right next to the TV studio home of American Bandstand was for decades the city’s premier spot for wrestling and ice hockey matches, pro basketball games, revival meetings, concerts and fights by boxing stars like Sugar Ray Robinson, Gene Tunney and Joe Frazier.

From 1967 through 1976 the Arena was also home to roller derby, an all but forgotten slice of roughhouse entertainment. It was there that the legendary Eastern Warriors, the star team of the league during roller derby’s
glory days, skated and threw nasty elbows before thousands of screaming fans every Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

“The Arena was a hole in the wall,” says Judy “the Polish Ace” Sowinski, now 64, who skated with Philadelphia’s Eastern Warriors in the ’70s. “But it was an excellent place to skate.”

Sowinski, one of roller derby’s most aggressive skaters, was known for throwing punches at opposing skaters, screaming at referees and taunting the crowd. Today she still has the brown hair, blue eyes and tanned skin that her old fans once knew her by. But 30 years later Sowinski projects a more motherly persona as she pours a cup of coffee and places a box of Dunkin’ Donuts on the kitchen table of her Philadelphia home.

“It was crowded every single night,” Sowinski recalls of the games at the Arena. “When the people were excited and screaming and yelling, the building would vibrate, and it made you want to do more and more.”

In the soap opera script that defined the game, the Eastern Warriors were known—Sowinski excluded—as roller derby’s goody-two-shoes. The Philadelphia fans were another story.

“Oh God, they were nasty,” Sowinski recalls. “They’d throw rocks. If a player hurt someone on our team, they were ready to kill.”

Roller derby, coed back then, was rough and tumble. Players on quad skates would race around a banked track set at a 45-degree angle. Rules were few, and the scoring process often appeared arbitrary.

Each team had 10 skaters—five of each sex. Each position had a male and female skater, for a total of four jammers and six blockers.

The jammers tried to score points by bullying their way through packs of skaters and overtaking them. Blockers had to make sure the other team’s jammers didn’t make it through, while at the same time clearing a path for their own jammers. Each jam lasted one minute. The men skated the first jam, followed by the ladies, and they rotated back and forth for eight 10-minute periods.

The Warriors’ leader through the early glory years was Judy Arnold, the “Blonde Bomber,” whom many considered
the greatest ever to skate the banked track. The Warriors were adored, especially by young fans who dreamed of skating like Arnold, Buddy Atkinson Jr., Yolanda Trevino, Jim Trotter, Little Richard Brown and others who played for the Warriors.

When Arnold retired in 1975, Sowinski was recruited from the New York Bombers to replace her. But by then many of the best skaters were ready to move on and leave roller derby behind.

“None of us wanted to do it anymore,” Sowinski remembers. “It wasn’t about skating. It was more about theatrics. A
lot of us were getting older. Our bodies were worn out. It seemed like the younger generation wasn’t willing to learn and work as hard. I didn’t feel like the talent was there anymore.”

CoverNow, three decades after the Eastern Warriors’ heyday, there’s a new national roller derby circuit consisting of all-girl leagues united by a punk rock aesthetic and a DIY work ethic. The girls aren’t professional skaters. During the day they work as clothing designers, Web designers, bartenders and event planners. Some are still in college.

This roller derby renaissance began four and a half years ago in Austin, Texas, when a group of girls who called themselves Bad Girl Good Woman got together, found a rink and trainer, and began to practice and raise money.

They divided themselves into four teams: the Hellcats, Rhinestone Cowgirls, Holy Rollers and the Putas del Fuego. They held their first championship bout less than two years from their inception, and sold out all 1,200 seats. Hundreds of hopeful spectators were turned away.

But like with the roller derby of the past, there was feuding and divisiveness. Most players in the league eventually broke off and formed their own skater-owned and -operated league, naming themselves the Texas Rollergirls.

The Texas Rollergirls switched to a flat track and added more showmanship and audience participation. That’s when, they say, roller derby took off, spreading up and down the West Coast. Some of the new leagues, like the L.A. Derby Dolls, switched back to a banked track.

There are now 22 flat-track leagues in cities across the country including Houston, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Atlanta and New York. There’s even a league in the Cayman Islands. And soon, Philadelphia.

“What we’re planning here is probably the purest form of roller derby,” says 51-year old Greg Spencer, a burly biker-type guy with a graying ponytail and chipped black polish on his fingernails. He and his partner Ken Sikes founded the newly formed Penn-Jersey She Devils roller derby team.

Both men grew up in New Jersey rooting for the Eastern Warriors when they’d come to play at the Camden Convention Center. They got into roller derby, both say, to escape the 9-to-5 work routine. Their original idea was to
open a goth-style coffee shop, but they changed their business to roller derby after learning about the upstart leagues
around the country.

The two spent a year focusing on recruitment—dropping fliers at bars, concerts and rock shows. They held their first open meeting at Drinker’s Tavern in Old City in February. A handful of female derby wannabes showed up. Those girls told their friends, who told their friends, and by the second meeting the next month 32 girls had signed up, eager to skate.

The founders are trying to recruit Jeffrey Hart, a speed skating coach and Warriors Rookie of the Year in 1972, the year the Warriors won the championship, to teach fundamentals. They recently closed a deal with the Cornwell Skating Rink in Bensalem to hold practices and bouts. Both say they’re determined not to repeat the roller derby flop
of the early ’80s, a wacky reinvention of the game that involved alligator pits and pro-wrestling-style storylines.

Spencer says they’re serious about the girls knowing how to skate. “If someone gets hurt, it’ll kill roller derby in Philly right then and there.” Though the She Devils’ season won’t officially launch till next spring, they hope to start exhibitions soon to build hype. Still, they remain determined to go at their own pace.

“If it takes three months—fantastic. Six months—great. If it takes eight months—that’s okay too,” Spencer says. “We don’t want to disappoint anyone. We want fans to walk out with their heads spinning.”

Showmanship will be encouraged—the girls will have racy names and sexy costumes, and flirt with the crowd between jams—but Spencer says spectators expecting a burlesque show will go home disappointed. Roller derby is a rough, high-contact sport, he says—not “a go-go bar on wheels. It definitely has an adult slant, but I don’t want it to go so far
as maybe some of the girls do.”

Many of the punked-out new recruits did want to go further when they signed up, which is why the majority of them recently left the She Devils to form their own skater-owned and -operated league called the Philly Rollergirls.

CoverAt the St. Charles Borromeo Church community roller rink at 20th and Christian streets (where the coat check is a dime, and even hoodies must be checked), roller-boogie-skating teens hit the wood and glide along to hip-hop, R&B and dancehall rhythms. The teens practice skating solo and in pairs, their movements guided by the DJ’s music
selection.

As they skate, members of the Philly Rollergirls filter in wearing studded belts, rock ’n’ roll T-shirts and lots of tattoos. Ivana Rock, a 19-year-old Temple student dressed in bright red Fred Perry short-shorts, and Gori Amos, also a full-time college student, in cut-off denim shorts and green-striped tube socks pulled high, start circling the rink. Nearby Brenda Skarr, a 33-year-old ginger-haired Web designer, practices her falls on one and both knees. The smooth-skating roller-boogie teens watch, unable to figure out exactly what the hardcore girls in their midst are all about.

In just the last month the Rollergirls have recruited 33 players (some defections from the She Devils), enough to form three teams: the Heavy Metal Hookers, the Hostile City Honeys and the Candy Snipers. After they’ve recruited more players, they’ll add the Dumpster Divas. (Recruitment meetings are held at Tattooed Mom’s on South Street.)

There remain numerous business issues, like the question of insurance, for both the players and the events themselves. But they’ve found a rink in Camden where they can hold practices and events, and they already have a logo—one they unanimously agreed upon: a laced-up Liberty Bell-shaped roller skate inside a Converse All-Star-like circle. They also have events planned, including a bake sale on roller skates, Jell-O wrestling in kiddie pools and full-contact musical chairs.

During a recent meeting, they decided they need fliers to hand out at events.

“I have an idea,” says recruit Gori Amos. “At the bottom it should say: ‘Were you the only girl in the mosh pit?’”

Everyone likes the idea, and several girls volunteer to design and print the fliers.

“Roller Girls is a democracy,” says 23-year-old Helen Damnation, already sporting her new handle. “We all have the same goal—to knock each other over on roller skates.”

CoverOn a Friday night last month small groups of hipster types from Williamsburg and the Lower East Side exit the 4 and 5 trains at 138th Street in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx. Emerging from the subway, they look around at the unfamiliar surroundings and head up the block to the Skate Key Roller Rink, home of the Gotham Girls Roller Derby League.

The season’s opening bout features the Brooklyn Bombshells against the Manhattan Mayhem.

A sign at the rink’s entrance reads: No Gangs No Colors No Drugs No Beads. Unfortunately, there’s also no beer. Skate Key’s liquor license was suspended for a year following recent stabbings and shootings at the rink.

Brooklyn Bombshells skaters—Suzy Hotrod, Anne Phetamean, Ariel Assault, Donna Matrix and Lil Red Terror—are dressed in skimpy sailor uniforms (in honor of the Brooklyn Navy Yard). The Mayhem’s skaters—Baby Ruthless, Roxy Balboa, Joey Hardcore and Sybil Disobedience—are wearing orange mock prison dresses in honor of Rikers Island.

The scorekeeper, a Gotham Girls skater who also happens to be a Playboy model, wears a cowboy hat, a pink miniskirt and pink-and-black-striped legwarmers.

Fans of the old Eastern Warriors would hardly recognize the scene. For one, it’s a flat track instead of the traditional banked track, and there aren’t any railings to prevent skaters from barreling into the crowd of spectators. The rules have also changed. Each team has three blockers, one jammer and a pivot, who yells out plays to her teammates. Jams now last up to two minutes.

And between the three 15-minute periods, the girl with the most penalties from each team must compete in a penalty round, which in this case means a one-minute pillow fight between Suzy Hotrod of the Brooklyn Bombshells and Joey Hardcore of the Manhattan Mayhem.

Although roller derby in Philadelphia remains more a movement than a bona fide competitive sport, both fledgling leagues say enthusiasm is high. Bars like Drinker’s and Tritone have already volunteered space for meetings and fundraisers, and the Rollergirls have found a major corporate sponsor in Pabst beer.

Local designers have offered to design the uniforms, and several skating shops have agreed to help out by providing padding. Even the skateboard community has given its support by welcoming derby girls to skate in FDR Park. “The skateboarders are very pro-roller derby, mostly because they hate Rollerbladers,” explains Rollergirl Helen Damnation.

While Philly is enjoying its own roller derby revival, the game is taking off across the country. The United League—an organizing body for roller derby leagues that conducts business as a Yahoo group—is planning a roller derby convention in July to settle on rules and bylaws. And roller derby is about to have its own reality show.

The producers of Laguna Beach have begun documenting the all-girl roller derby league in Austin, Texas. Roller Girls will air on A&E in the fall.

When Gary Powers opened up The New York Times on the morning of May 18, 1997, he turned to the obituary page and read that Joan Weston, roller derby’s “Golden Girl” and the former captain of the San Francisco Bombers, had died from the human form of mad cow disease. She was 62.

“It just floored me,” Powers says. “I was sobbing hysterically.”

Powers immediately went online and learned there was a tight-knit roller derby community of former players and fans. He began collecting all things roller derbyrelated, and turned his Brooklyn home into a tribute to the forgotten sport and its legendary skaters.

Last summer Jerry Seltzer, an original roller derby owner (his father had invented the game), granted Powers permission to turn his Brooklyn home into a museum, the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame.

Today Powers’ three-story home is filled with memorabilia: roller derby helmets (including a yellow plastic helmet worn by roller derby’s famous “Queen of the Penalty Box” Ann Calvello); Gerry Murray and Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn hair bows (which once sold for 29 cents at five-and-dimes); Philadelphia Panther and Warrior jerseys (in cases) alongside photos of the players who wore them; and bookcases full of photo albums and videotapes spanning roller derby’s history, all arranged chronologically.

On a small shelf sits a framed photo of the famous skater Ronnie Robinson (fighter Sugar Ray’s son) who, Powers says, “died four years ago yesterday.” There are roller derby movie posters and a comic book series: Boy Loves Girl: Don’t Miss Romance at the Roller Derby. There are magazine covers featuring top skaters, and a Philip Morris cigarette ad cartoon in which a star player isn’t skating well because he’s been smoking the wrong brand of cigarettes.

“Roller derby was really huge,” Powers says. “Everybody wanted to be a part of it.”

Powers says many of the women fans were escaping bad marriages. “Roller derby was always a morality play,” he says. “The bad guys come in and do horrible things, but the good guys always win in the end. It was very appealing to a lot of people.”

Powers uses the money he raises selling old roller derby videotapes, mostly on eBay, to assist retired skaters, many of whom he says are scattered around the country living on fixed incomes.

Most old-school roller derby purists, Powers included, say they wish the new all-girl leagues well. “We just hope they honor what went before them,” he says. “I never want the accomplishments of Ann Calvello, Joanie Weston or Charlie O’Connell to be dismissed.”

Sowinski, the former Eastern Warriors star, agrees—kind of.

“No disrespect to the new leagues, because I hope to heck they make it,” she says. “But I don’t want to see ‘Roller Derby Is Coming Back’ headlines because it’s not roller derby. If you’re skating on a flat track, how could it possibly be roller derby? You don’t just put on a pair of skates. You don’t learn overnight. It took us years.”

Still, Sowinski would like to see roller derby return, and is even willing to help the girls learn proper balance and endurance—“so they can stay up for 20 minutes without croaking,” she says. “If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it correctly.”

CoverThe new roller derby, with its fishnet stockings, quad skates and punk rock soundtrack, isn’t repeating roller derby—it’s reinventing it. Whether it will ever be capable of drawing thousands of spectators, as it did in the old days, is another question.

“I’m beyond excited,” says 21-year-old Katie Leaper, who’s still deciding on her skater name. A nanny in Villanova, she joined the She Devils this spring. “My family all think I’m nuts.”

Roller derby in Philadelphia already has one hardcore fan in “Toothless George,” the Rollergirls’ official “helper monkey No. 1.”

“It just seemed like something Philadelphia needed,” says Toothless George. “I love Philadelphia. I’ve been here 10 years. But Philly’s getting stuck in a rut. You go to the same bar, see the same bands. I think Philly really needs a kick in the ass and something new.”

He says he and his circle of friends are roller derby’s target audience, and they’re looking forward to the bouts—and the promise of live local bands at halftime.

Toothless George (named because he lost some front teeth after a skateboarding accident) owns a printing company, and helps out with the merchandise. He attends meetings and open skate practices, but insists on remaining in the background since, he says, “Part of the appeal [of the new roller derby movement] is that it’s all girls.”

The Philadelphia roller derby pioneers have already been welcomed into the punk rock sisterhood. When two of the Rollergirls met Letha Injection of the L.A. Derby Dolls at a recent concert in New York, they were told, “You just got a couple hundred sisters. If you’re ever in town, you’ve got a couch to sleep on.” And support from the Gotham Girls has been enthusiastic. Brooklyn Bombshell Suzy Hotrod already makes periodic visits to Philly to help with skate clinics and teach new drills.

Ginger Snap, the 28-year-old head pivot for the Manhattan Mayhem who got her handle when her teammates heard the sound of her arm breaking during practice on an asphalt rink, is also excited. “We want Philly to get up to speed as fast as possible,” she says. “We want to play them.”

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