O'CONNELL: Right. You and me and all these guys. You'd be just a working stiff.
GROLL: But it isn't just that thing, Charlie. The minute I saw it, the speed, the contact, I knew it was...I fell for it.
O'CONNELL: That's another reason not to tear it apart. We all just love to skate. I know that, too. Look, I know that.
The Roller Derby still lives and prospers, a downtown, blue-collar game that rocks and whirs on its way, exciting its own, nurturing its young, expanding all the time with hardly a care for the ordained representatives of "respectable" sport who carefully ignore it. Roller Derby is, in fact, managed by young suburban-living executives who understand television and urban demography and know how to manipulate the realities of the '60s. At the same time Roller Derby is still a breath of the Depression, with the carnival air of the dance marathons that spawned it. It is still one-night stands and advance men, launder-mats and greasy spoons. The players themselves, like Barnum's elephants, construct and dismantle their track, and carry it—and their puppy dogs—along to the next town. It is a game played by kids who come right out of high school or off the assembly line or the farm—the way they used to do in all other sports before everyone started going to junior college, at least, and drawing bonuses and signing endorsements and founding player associations. Maybe the Roller Derby today is like all sports years ago, or maybe the Roller Derby is just something that has always been like nothing but itself.
The heart of the Roller Derby is the Bay Bombers' team. It is the home team for most every Derby fan in America. The Bombers play various villainous opponents in Oakland and San Francisco, San Jose, Richmond, Santa Rosa and other towns in northern California. From April through September, the Sunday night Bombers game at Kezar Pavilion is video-taped and sent out to 79 stations all over the U.S. (plus Japan), which schedule the tapes at their own convenience.
Half the Roller Derby is still a women's contest, and the audience is predominantly female. There is no doubt about that. Above the steady whir of the plastic wheels on the Masonite-banked track, the noise at the Roller Derby is screechy, but with sighs, not the raucous, gruff sounds that mark most other sporting events. The Bombers' opponents, "the visitors," are usually called the Pioneers or the Cardinals. On the winter tour last year the opposition was billed as the All Stars. Most of the time. Occasionally the All Stars would go under another name; they were the New England Braves, for example, when the tour hit Providence and Boston. It doesn't matter. Everybody still roots for the Bombers, and their live and TV audience is matched by very few teams in any sport.
The tour is a triumphal procession, including only those towns that feature the Bombers on TV. Last winter's, the most ambitious in history, took the Bombers and the All Stars to 55 cities in 62 days: they traveled more than 15,000 miles with 13 carloads and one semitrailer that carried the track and was driven by Jimmy Pierce, a teamster who was also one of the referees. In order, the tour went: Reno to Lincoln to Omaha, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Steubenville, Detroit, Toledo, Providence, Boston, Worcester, New Haven, Dayton, Canton, Steubenville, Cleveland, Chicago, Richmond, Norfolk, Greenville, St. Louis, Peoria, Moline, Dayton, Hammond, Boston, Worcester, Providence, New Haven, Norfolk, Camp LeJeune, Washington, Greenville, Salem, Akron, Cleveland, Moline, Madison, Peoria, Toledo, Dayton, Detroit, Boston, Providence, Waterloo, Minneapolis and Duluth.
Obviously the schedule makes no sense whatsoever. It winds, goes back and forth, up and down, here and there and doubles back again, 13 cars in search of an arena. Charlie O'Connell, the greatest male star in the game, who is, in fact, always referred to as "Bomber Great" Charlie O'Connell, says that Jerry Seltzer, the Roller Derby president, planned the trip by throwing darts at a map. "Blindfolded, over his shoulder," O'Connell adds.
The players call the boss "Drip and Dry," which is the name Ann Calvello gave Seltzer because his coat appears to ride on a hanger, even when it is on his shoulders. Ann has dyed pearly blue hair and drinks out of a large silver chalice that she acquired when she was skating with another outfit in Australia. She was the women's captain of the All Stars last year and has been skating for 22 years. "Don't ask me when I turned pro," she said to the comedian in the nightclub in Waterloo, Iowa, "I would rather you ask me when I turned professional. It sounds better that way." The comic was dying on stage anyway until Calvello—she is usually called by just her last name—joined his act. "I'm 38," she told him and the audience, "the same way I am around. Only after this trip I'm down to a perfect 36—12-12-12."