Women in the Roller Derby: Groundbreaking Athletes or Entertaining Celebrities?

By Colleen English

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jerry Seltzer led his father’s invention, roller derby, to renewed success. Formerly a Depression Era endurance sport (I have discussed the early origins of roller derby here), roller derby became an entertainment spectacle that featured drama, feuds, and athletic talent. Journalist Jack Fincher credited Seltzer with making roller derby more colorful, more appealing, and easily accessible to the country, and thus creating an entertaining crowd-pleaser.[i] Despite its success, many questioned the legitimacy of roller derby as a sport. Writer John Grissim, Jr. asked whether roller derby was “carnival, put-on, or sport?”[ii] In addition to focusing on the entertainment aspects of roller derby, many openly questioned whether or not the outcomes of the bouts were fixed. Roller derby bouts were often compared to the staged events of professional wrestling. Although Jerry Seltzer denied that the outcomes were predetermined and, according to sportswriter Frank Deford, skaters became enraged at suggestions that the contest was fake, some derbiers admitted that some of their vaudevillian antics were not totally spontaneous. In reality, most viewers saw roller derby as an entertaining sideshow.

Seltzer’s version of roller derby pitted the Bay City Bombers (the “home” team) against a “visiting” team, often the Midwest Pioneers or a group of All-Stars. The Bombers, led by stars, such as Joan Weston and Charlie O’Connell, who Jerry Cassidy of the New York Daily News described as “Ty Cobb on wheels,” were seen as heroes.[iii] They were the team to root for. On the other hand, the All-Stars or the Pioneers, were depicted as villains and led by skaters like Ann Calvello, with her multi-colored hair, the tattooed Bob Hein, and Ronnie Robinson, son of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson. Seltzer’s scheme succeeded—in 1969, the Oakland Tribune estimated that roller derby had 25 million viewers.[iv] However, this format, with its attention to drama and rivalries, reinforced roller derby’s status as an entertainment spectacle.

Though roller derby had a reputation as a sideshow and entertainment spectacle, the sport itself required immense physicality. Speedy jammers (skaters who could score points by passing members of the opposing team) faced strong blockers (defensive players who attempt to prevent jammers from scoring). This format, in a much different way than the early endurance contests of the Transcontinental Roller Derby days (a Depression era endurance craze, modeled in part, after walk-a-thons and six-day bicycle races), was physically demanding. Roller derby became a tough sport, with constant and intense physical contact.

The combination of entertainment spectacle and tough sport poses a unique question about women in roller derby. In the 1960s and 1970s, women were featured in prominent roles in the sport. At a time where female athletes achieved little recognition for their talents, the question arises, should the women of the roller derby be considered groundbreaking athletes or entertainment celebrities? Looking at two of the most prominent skaters of the time, Ann Calvello and Joan Weston, and how they were portrayed, may give us some insight.

From the beginning of roller derby, women played a key role. When he “invented” the Transcontinental Roller Derby, Leo Seltzer knew that women skaters could help attract a larger female fan-base. Seltzer wanted all the spectators he could get to fill the Chicago Coliseum (and later, other arenas) and saw women as a potentially large part of the market share. Thus, even in its early approximations, roller derby offered equal opportunities for women—even though women and men rarely skated against one another, women skated just as often as the men.

The equality in representation continued through roller derby’s ups and downs. By the 1970s, skating teams still consisted of equal numbers of women and men, though the practice of separating male and female skaters on the track remained. Furthermore, in the 1960s and 1970s, oftentimes, audiences were drawn in particular to female skaters. According to George Tashman, writing for the Berkeley Gazette, a spectator claimed to “get excited about [roller derby] because it’s about the only exciting sport in which women play on an equal basis of the men.”[v] W. Steward Pinkerton agreed in the Wall Street Journal, asserting that the fans came to roller derby to watch the women skaters.[vi]

Sportwriter Frank Deford, in Five Strides on the Banked Track, written in 1971, took a slightly nuanced view of women in roller derby. In this book, Deford dedicated only two chapters to individual skaters, and both of these skaters were women—Ann Calvello and Joan Weston. Though a portion of a chapter is dedicated to the well-known skater Charlie O’Connell, Deford makes the choice to only include full chapters about two female skaters. Despite Deford’s somewhat progressive attitude toward the role of women in roller derby—he noted their perpetual inclusion—he still saw them as a potential distraction and as not part of the “real” game. Deford goes as far as to blame women for derby’s reputation as a spectacle, writing that “there is no doubt that it is the women who give the game its tawdry, sideshow image” and that fans may initially come to see the women skaters but “stay to enjoy the faster, harder, men’s play.”  So, while Deford clearly prioritizes the female skaters, at least for their entertainment value, he does not necessarily praise them for their viability as athletic stars.

Yet this is precisely what makes Deford’s commentary on Calvello and Weston so interesting. In his descriptions he highlighted not only their role as entertainers who draw spectators to the bout, but also their skating talents and leadership roles on their respective teams. Deford painted both women as examples for younger skaters, even in their roles as villainess and heroines. However, Deford sees Calvello and Weston as exceptions (along with a few other dominant and athletic skaters). He describes most of the “girl skaters” as “ . . . shy and withdrawn, neat and fastidiously feminine . . . not tough, not promiscuous, not necessarily foulmouthed, not a hard drinker. The chances are that she was also not even an athlete until she chanced upon the Derby.” But, when describing two of roller derby’s most famous skaters, he provided, in some ways, a complex picture of these women.

On the one hand, Deford described the athleticism and leadership talents of both Calvello and Weston. Deford highlighted Calvello’s leadership qualities as captain of the villainous All-Stars and calls her “alert and perceptive and pistol-quick.” He also emphasizes Calvello’s role as a villain and dirty fighter. Her injuries are also a highlight of his description; Deford describes her as having a cracked nose and stitches on her eye. The sportswriter describes Weston with more grace—calling her the “best skater” and a “good athlete” who “could have succeeded in any sport.” Deford goes on to underline some of her athletic credentials—such as the fact that she “once hit .730 in a softball league in Los Angeles” and that “she probably would have naturally taken after Sonja Henie” had she gone into ice skating.

While Deford does stress some of the leadership and athletic qualities of both Calvello and Weston, the pages he spends talking about this pale in comparison to those that describe their appearance, demeanor, and love lives. Part of the villain Calvello’s appeal, according to Deford, is her vibrant uniform, long earrings, and most notably, her multi-colored hair. Calvello regularly dyed her hair various shades, including green for St. Patrick’s Day and even colored it with polka-dots. Although Deford noted that Calvello “is not, surely, just another pretty face” he does clarify that “she is still slim and attractively winsome” and that “she looks much younger than she is.”  Deford also takes great interest in Calvello’s love life, mentioning her belief that her astrological sign influenced who she dated and that she had a number of public romances, including a marriage to a roller derby referee, a tumultuous relationship with Bomber skater Charlie O’Connell, and “a sustained erratic romance” with fellow skater Eddie Krebs.

Deford’s description of Weston erred more toward the wholesome qualities ascribed to the Bay City Bomber “home” team. He portrayed her as a “Viking queen in full battle regalia” with “bleached blond pigtails” and a “scarf knotted around her neck.” Deford also remarked that she was “big and strong” but that “she carries it well, and is pretty in a healthy, ruddy way.” Furthermore, in Deford’s interview with Weston, she mentioned her injuries and expectation of regularly needing stitches to repair wounds. However, she was careful to note that she didn’t “want any meat surgeon working on” her, she wanted her “face clean” unlike her opposite number, Calvello, who remarked about her own stitches, “What can help this face?” Deford did not delve into Weston’s romantic life (she remained unmarried until the roller derby folded), though he does comment on her loneliness and the fact that she brings her dog, Malia, on tour with her as a “buffer . . . against all the strangeness.”

Deford’s depictions of Calvello and Weston demonstrated that he (and likely most spectators) saw these skaters as nearly polar opposites—one the wild, histrionic villain, the other the pretty, mild-mannered heroine. While their athletic abilities are not wholly ignored (at times Deford is even complimentary about these women’s performances), it is clear that their opposing dispositions and perpetual rivalry were most important, while their skating skills were of secondary significance.

The question still remains—can women roller derby skaters, such as Ann Calvello and Joan Weston, be seen as groundbreaking pioneers for women’s athletics or entertaining celebrities? It seems that, I think, these women can be undoubtedly seen as both. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see women, like Calvello and Weston, as pioneering for their participation in one of the few equally gender balanced sports, and one that involved intense physicality. These women did not shy away from physical contact (and in truth, many instigated it) and were an integral part of the evolution of roller derby. While they were often still objectified based on their appearance and femininity and many writers diminished their athletic talents, female derbiers found much more acceptance and opportunity in this pastime than in many other sporting activities. However, at the time, these women were mostly recognized for their entertainment value. Of course, this value was closely tied with their athletic abilities (if they were poor skaters, they would never have made the roller derby), but they were primarily entertainers. Combined with the entertainment history of roller derby, it seems that the role of all skaters, and especially the women, was to provide a high-quality spectator experience, through fighting and rivalries. Thus, while history shows that these women carved a new place for women athletes, it seems that at the time, their highest value was as entertainers.

Colleen English is an Assistant Professor of Kinesiology at Penn State Berks. Her research focuses on the philosophic and historical dimensions of sport, with emphasis on gender. She can be reached at cue113@psu.edu or on Twitter @colleen_english.

Notes:


[i] Jack Fincher, “What Has 160 Wheels, 20 million hits, and crashes into itself?” Signature, February 1972.

[ii] John Grissim, Jr., “Is it Carnival, Put-On, or Sport?” San Francisco, April 1969, pp. 26-29, 40.

[iii] Jerry Cassidy, “Chiefs of Gammon Take Whirl Series,” New York Daily News, May 27, 1973.

[iv] “Round and Round it goes—to the Bank,” Oakland Tribune, July 8, 1970, p. 35.

[v] George Tashman, “20 million Fans for Roller Derby,” Berkeley Gazette, Decemeber 12, 1970.

[vi] W. Stewart Pinkerton, “What Has Green Hair, Muscles, and a Temper? A Roller Derby Star,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 4 1971.

 

3 thoughts on “Women in the Roller Derby: Groundbreaking Athletes or Entertaining Celebrities?

  1. Leo Seltzer invented, not “invented” Roller Derby, first presenting it to the public in Chicago on August 13, 1935. It was developed into the game of five skaters to a side, two teams on offense and defense at the same time with points scored by jammers lapping the field in a two minute time period on a banked track, the major essence of today’s flat track contests. Frank Deford followed two teams on the road (the Bay-not city-Bombers and the All Stars) in the 1969 exhibition tours. These two women, portrayed as the good and evil, actually skated on their teams during the regular season as part of the six team league. There were so many other great women captains and skaters: Margie Laszlo, Carol Meyer, Cathie Read, Jan Vallow, Sandy Dunn and more. There is no denying the home team/visiting team aspect of the tour; that is what the fans in cities that watched on TV wanted to see, and skaters played up to it…But to deny that these women were really athletes does them a disservice. Not many today could go through the year-long training most did to join a team, including the ability to skate at a game speed pace (no stopping was allowed in games; it was penalized) for an hour and other rigorous aspects to learn to leap over fallen skaters, how to fall properly and more…and since a team was composed of 8 men and 8 women in total, most skated the entire 15 minute period either as a jammer or blocker in rotation, from 4 to 6 games a week. Of course they were paid, and the sport was one of the few in which women could make a living. And they played before huge crowds ranging from 19,500 at Madison Square Garden to 35,000 at the Oakland baseball Coliseum to 50,000 at White Sox Park. Was there showmanship? Absolutely, but these women inspired others to excel at sports. I am proud for my part in the 15 years I operated the league, just as I am so proud of today’s women in roller derby who make up the majority of the almost 1900 leagues throughout the world in 58 countries (see derbylisting.com) who play as amateurs for the love of the game, at often at great hardship and sacrifice. Leo, who died in 1978, would be doubly proud of these women.

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  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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