They had names like Toughie and Thumper, performed in endless
Armories and Hippodromes, told refs, "You don't know buttons
from beans, pal," and generally inhabited a Runyonesque world in
which the simple act of falling down was called "taking a
Brodie," after a celebrated Brooklyn Bridge jumper. And you fell
down often in the coed, cartoon-violent Roller Derby. Toughie
and Thumper? Those were the women.
Damon Runyon himself helped write the Roller Derby's rules, to
the extent that there are any, with the game's founding father,
Leo Seltzer. The sport was a staple of American television for a
quarter of a century, beginning in 1948. "There were virtually
no TVs at that time, except in storefronts and bars," recalls
Jerry Seltzer, Leo's son. "You'd get 400 people in the arena,
put 'em all together on one side and make it look like a full
house. The next night people couldn't get in the door, the lines
were so long." At the sport's peak, around 1969, 15 million
viewers tuned in each week to see a skater named Joan Weston,
known as the Blonde Amazon, perform unspeakable acts on behalf
the Bay Area Bombers.
Thank heaven, then, that the Derby is back. Or will be.
Beginning this week, on Soundstage 21 on the Universal lot in
Orlando, the World Skating League will tape matches to be
telecast every Friday night on cable's TNN. Rollerjam, as the
program is called, will premiere on Jan. 15 with six teams,
among them the New York Enforcers, with their fearsome
Five-Borough lineup. "Each borough," explains Enforcer Tim
Washington, "has its own unique style of kicking your ass."
The original Roller Derby took a Brodie in 1973, and the average
age of new Derby skaters is 25, or precisely the number of years
the sport has been off the air. "So it's like bringing back
quilting," says Stephen Land, a Rollerjam executive producer.
"The Derby is, by and large, a forgotten art. One isn't born,
after all, with the ability to do the whip."
Alas not. Which is why Land leased a warehouse in Sanford, Fla.,
in which 80 men and women skated eight hours a day on a banked
track for more than six months, learning whips, jams and blocks
while the rest of the world went about its mundane business. It
was like the Manhattan Project. Only more violent.
From this corrugated metal crucible crawled Sean Atkinson,
a.k.a. the Atk Attack--a former Golden Gloves boxer whom Land
describes as "frighteningly violent"--as well as the
aforementioned Washington ("He's a cousin of Marvin Hagler") and
all other manner of wheeled menace: There is a former dancer in
Madonna's employ and several erstwhile American Gladiatrixes.
All of which is to say that the new Derby, on in-line skates,
will be a more athletic affair than the old Derby, with its
four-wheeled roller-disco skates and Ballantine-bloated
participants. "Most of the athletes in the old Derby, we had to
teach them how to skate," says Jerry Seltzer, now the
commissioner of the World Skating League. "At halftime they
would smoke and have a beer. At the end of the night Toughie
Brasuhn would go out and tear up a bar."
Toughie was 4'10". Her real name was Midge. So imagine what
havoc the Atk Attack might wreak as America careens toward the
millennium. "After we lay down this first show," said Land last
week as he was preparing to tape the Rollerjam premiere, "we'll
either be terribly thrilled or horribly frightened."
He paused, then said hopefully, "Maybe both."
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO [Drawing of woman elbowing another in Roller Derby ]