Originally Posted on March 28, 2010
When I was a kid, Saturday morning television offered up alternatives to the run-of-the-mill cartoon programming. Get away from the three networks and you will find sporting matches that were pure schlock and entertainment. Yes, they had pre-World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestling, but I think that was on some UHF channel that took some effort to tune in at times. The one such sport that did come in clear on a VHF channel down the dial was roller derby.
Back then, in Los Angeles in particular, they staged bouts between teams of men and women inside the old Olympic Auditorium and were broadcast on KTLA-TV (and, later, on channel 52 out of Corona, California). The Thunderbirds were the premier roller derby club in the country (from a L.A. perspective, of course) and provided some interesting times to behold on television.
I never quite understood the attraction to roller derby, as much as I abhor the attraction to professional wrestling. It wasn’t until some of my former co-workers began to promote their participation in a local all-women roller derby club that it all came back to me. The Thunderbirds aren’t dead (actually, they’re still going and doing their matches at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona), they happen to be rolling along inside the Minneapolis Convention Center almost every month.
Today, you will find roller derby teams everywhere, mainly thanks to a movie called Whip It. All-women teams showing they can kick butt on a short, flat oval track temporarily set up on convention center floors for the entertainment of hipsters all over. From what I gather, they’re attracting plenty of fans.
Recently, the guys were re-introduced to the sport as willing participants. Strangely enough, I happen to know a couple of them. One such participant I have known for 14-15 years – and it doesn’t surprise me he would be involved in it. Every time I turn around, he’s doing something that had to sink in for a couple weeks to comprehend. But, I get what he does – this one took a bit longer to comprehend, I’ll admit though.
Having never seen roller derby live, I shrugged my shoulders and attended an all-male match in suburban Coon Rapids, just north of where I live. That night featured the Twin Cities’ own all-male roller derby team, the TC Terrors.
The best way to describe the scene is “lo-fi.” This is the kind of cool that combines the suburbs and the underground urbanista set. However, this evening featured a few of my friends from the bear community along with family members of one of the TC Terrors including his partner and members of his partner’s family. The majority of the crowd was made of participants from the region’s all-female roller derby organizations stretching out to Fargo-Moorhead.
The venue, Cheap Skate, is a lo-fi joint across the street from Anoka-Ramsey Community College. There’s nothing elegant about it. The Terrors fix up the place with minimal embellishments, except to turn the skate rental area into a bar. You can also get custom t-shirts on the spot to support your favorite skater.
There are two ringmasters, both male, dressed up pretty cheesily. A friend, someone from one of the local Twin Cities Goodtime Softball League teams, pointed out to one of the MC’s shoes: A blue sparkly finished pair of old school Nikes. The soundtrack was pumped by a DJ that combined everything from the hardest of 1980s New Wave to today’s light punk. I swore I heard Plastic Bertrand and Sigue Sigue Sputnik in the mix. A live band played at halftime.
Never having understood the sport, once it was demonstrated before the bout – I quickly understood. The scoring seems a bit crazy, but I assume that once the jammer was pointed by one of the referees, it would mean a certain amount of points somehow. About past midway into the bout, I actually got what was going on the track. Eventually, I took cues from my friends whom I sat aside during the match.
The Terrors actually split into two teams for a “championship” bout, billed as a “Civil War,” as part of a fundraiser. In the end, it was a lopsided victory by the black-shirted Skate Pauli Boys over the blue-shirted Destruction Workers. One of my friends, Angus Beef, was on the Skate Pauli Boys, while the injured Killsbury Doughboy, an old friend of mine, was with the Destruction Workers.
When I left Cheap Skate, I was still trying to wrap my head around what I witnessed. On one point, as long as I’ve known the Killsbury Doughboy, nothing surprises me anymore as to what he is involved with. And, that’s a good thing! It is also good to support my friends in their endeavors – even if it’s the first time experiencing it.
Perhaps roller derby is the cool thing to do - not just for the participants. But, is it a fad? Well, you might say it’s enjoying quite the renaissance even in lo-fi venues as well as convention centers turned into rink/stages. Only the spirit of Whip It will sustain this sport - for both genders.