From conception to Resurrection at the Roller Derby (From the 2011 Winter issue of SONOMA magazine)
Sonoma County's Cindarollers of the Resurrection Roller Girls wait for the whistle to launch their next bout.
Three giant bruises, enormous bruises, gargantuan bruises, spreading east and west from both hip bones. They’re my black and blue badges of honor, awarded after wiggling into roller-skates for the first time since I was 8, which may have been—all in all—one of my less clever ideas. Outfitted in more safety equipment than I ever wore as a kid, I take to the track in an attempt to execute the skill set of your run-of-the-mill Roller Derby player. Basic skills, rudimentary skills: go, then stop. Maybe shove somebody real hard along the way. But I quickly learn it comes down to mastery of the graceful fall, or at least learning how to fall without breaking my neck. After less than an hour I’m spent, hip bones throbbing with rapidly spreading bruises. I mean badges. These Derby women are not messing around. Good times, people, good times. “Somebody’s bruised up every night. It’s not if you’ll get hurt, it’s when,” Mama Martini says with sinister glee. A mother of four who home-schools her kids, she manages to pull out her skates three nights a week for practices and bouts. That’s Derby for game. Mama Martini rides with the Cindarollas. Heads up Sonoma: the Resurrection Roller Girls are bringing back the scantly clad glory that is Roller Derby. And not a moment too soon. Comprised of three teams, the Cindarollas, the Combustin’ Betties and the Fallin’ Angels, the Resurrection Roller Girls are spearheaded by one of the sport’s living legends.
Sonoma’s been home to Jerry Seltzer since 1993, but the whirr of wheels against track was the real soundtrack of his childhood. Skating was the family business. His father, Leo, lived for Derby. He guided its evolution from cheap entertainment for Depression-era audiences into one of the most visible sports in America. Derby, in the early days, was a natural for the fledgling technology called TV, and was beamed out to fascinated audiences 52 weeks a year, from 1950 to 1953. “We were a little overexposed,” laughs Seltzer, who took over from his Pops in 1958. “But we were cheap, consistent entertainment.”
But Derby was something more, too; it was a movement, a counterculture rebellion for people who didn’t fit into the buzz-cut, poodle-skirted mainstream of 1950s America. The sport had a voice, and that voice wanted to break ties with the conventional athletic world. Physically gifted misfits had found their niche.
It was the commoners’ sport: Anyone with speed and guts was welcome. Derby was all about equal opportunity. Women—beauty queens even—proved they had the same power as men. African-American players were a fixture in the league, even in the dark ages of early civil rights. And gay people were welcomed, too. “In 1968, the Pioneers in Chicago was almost all gay, the men and women’s teams both,” Seltzer says.
That air of acceptance, and a tight-knit sense of camaraderie brought Derby back to life in the 1990s, long after the sport and Seltzer himself went broke in 1973, forcing the closure of the league.
When it was reborn once again in Texas, American life had changed. Now, in a
post-punk-rock world, sex and violence were the main Derby draw. Tattoo-heavy teams sporting names like Assassination City and Dallas Derby Devils featured players like Rosie Road Rash, Pinot Envy and Switchblade McCutty. This was not your grandmother’s skate party. Traditional jerseys gave way to miniskirts, hot pants and fishnets. “It’s nice to have an alter-ego to put on when you play,” Mama Martini says. “When you’re a mom, you’re a mom; when you’re a wife, you’re a wife; in Roller Derby, you are whoever you want.”
With a new image and new rules, the game was rebranded and relaunched as Roller Jam. In 2000 Seltzer was hired to be the sport’s commissioner. He remains an active promoter today and has launched SelzterBrand.com, a Derby-centric site that sells gear. “I’m thrilled to be a part of it,” he says. “The great thing about this sport is that it’s organic. It grew from one team to two to five to today with 1,105 leagues in 38 countries.”
Female-dominated, the sport continues to expand its influence. Toronto hosted the first-ever Roller Derby World Cup this December, with teams from 17 countries getting in on the action. Seltzer’s Pop always dreamed of Derby going legit, perhaps maybe even one day being recognized as an Olympic sport. And Seltzer still hopes that dream might come true. How might his Pop feel about Derby today? Seltzer throws a thumb over his shoulder at a cluster of skaters with ink on their arms and says, “He’d be put off by all the tats, but the fact that his game survived? Oh, my God. He would love that.”
(From the 2011 Winter issue of SONOMA magazine)