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."