We’re starting a Roller Derby team,” said Maya Morlock as she handed me the flyer. It was to announce a fundraiser at Snugs for the fledgling New Paltz Pirettes on July 27. “Wanna see New Paltz have a derby team?” it read. “Starts at noon and never ends!” it noted.
“Roller Derby?” was all I could say, thinking back to the day when, as a kid, I was bagging potatoes in the local Grand Union when Judi McGuire walked in. Yes, that Judi McGuire, our hometown girl, who, for Roller Derby wanna-be’s was in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s the Princess of the Derby, the Mighty Mite (she was barely five-feet tall) married to the Crown Prince, Mike Gammon (who was not much taller), who was the son of the King and Queen of the Roller Derby, Gene Gammon and Gerry Murray, all of whom skated around the banked track at the 69th Street Regiment Armory in New York for the fabled New York Chiefs. They did battle with the likes of the Brooklyn Red Devils’ misanthropic Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn and the impassable Ken Monte (Toughie’s scowling husband), and then “Golden Girl” Joanie Weston and “Mr. Roller Derby” Charlie O’Connell of the Bay Bombers out of San Francisco. Ronnie Robinson, son of boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson, was one of the first Black skaters (for the Chiefs) in the Derby, which up until then was considered more-or-less a “red-neck” sport. This was when the “Derby” consisted of six teams (male and female) and was on local New York TV throughout the 1950’s. It was the prime-time for American Roller Derby.
For the uninitiated, Roller Derby began in the height of the Great Depression of the 1930’s with struggling film publicist Leo Seltzer — or maybe even his brother Oscar (it’s unclear) — both out of Chicago, as a combination six-day bicycle race and roller skating. They were trying to take advantage of the new roller-skating fad. The brothers organized the Transcontinental Roller Derby, a month-long “race’ where 25 two-person teams (male and female) circled a wooden, oval, banked track thousands of times, 11 1/2 hours a day, covering 3000 miles. It became very popular throughout the cash-starved country, drawing thousands to events, which spawned local teams that began to alter Seltzer’s idea and slimmed down the event to two teams facing each other and scoring points. And by 1939, the organization (the Roller Derby Association) had four pairs of teams touring the country at the same time, always billed as the home team versus a team from either New York or Chicago. The format of five-person teams on the track at the same time with a team scoring points when its members lapped members of the other team — and the basic premise of Roller Derby was born.
Roller Derby came to TV on November 29, 1948 for a 13-week run on CBS and paired teams from New York (Murray and Gammon) and Brooklyn (Brasuhn and Monte) and thus Derby legends were born. Always theatrical, the early Derby used showmanship and faux foul-play to rev-up the crowds — kind of like “professional” wrestling did (and still does) — with players like Brasuhn and Monte jabbing elbows into opponents faces and sending opponents flying into and over the perimeter railings. The matches became cast as good vs. evil to play to the increasing crowds. The National Roller Derby League began to fade in the mid-1970’s, but not after setting an indoor record at Madison Square Garden of 19,507 and an outdoor record of 50,118 fans at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. In 1973 the league was disbanded due to high overhead as the price of traveling teams accelerated. League sponsors eventually bailed out.
There have been many attempts to revive the Derby, especially in the South where it has tried to recapture its “red-neck” roots as Roller Jam, but has had limited national appeal. A real revival started in earnest in 2005 with 50-or-so all-female leagues (the BGGW — Bad Girl Good Woman) and with 135 by mid-August 2006. The RollerGirls reality TV show, chronicling the lives of female skaters from the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls was a big push. By mid-2009 there were 425 amateur leagues, including 79 outside the US. Roller Derby was getting big again.
So then, why not New Paltz? The Hudson Valley already has the Misfits (out of Ulster County) and the Horrors (out of Dutchess), both members of the WFTDA (Women’s Flat Track Derby Association), and every woman under age 30 has seen Drew Barrymore’s classic Whip It, starring Ellen Page…so, Why not New Paltz?
So Morlock and fellow Derby-enthusiasts Emily Vetrano and Erin Healy decided one day to recruit eight-to-ten young women and have a team. It was, “Hey, you want to do Roller Derby with us?” says Healy, of asking every young woman the trio saw. “There are lots of athletes in town and it’s super-empowering. It’s become associated with strong women. Getting in shape. Hanging with tough broads,” adds Healy. “For a few it was their first time on skates, but they wanted to skate, to learn the game.”
To help the women along, the Hudson Valley Misfits’ Death D. Lynn (“Babs”) has been coaching the skaters — officially now the New Paltz Pirettes — at Skate Time in Accord a few nights a week. It’s been slow learning, but Vetrano thinks “with all the practice time we should be ready to compete come spring.” One thing The Pirettes will need is a home-base in New Paltz, somewhere the team can practice and show their stuff. Otherwise the support is there. “We took in over $1,000 at our fundraiser at Snugs, so New Paltz does want to have a Roller Derby team,” said Morlock. “This will help pay for the equipment we need, help the team come together and get us out looking for a place to skate in town.”
Along with Morlock, Vetrano and Healy, the cast of the New Paltz Pirettes consists of Robin Epes, Maria Rigden, Silvie Lagodka, LeeAnne Richards, Gabby Perezorta, Carmen Doyon, Shannon Adria, Stephanie Aulia, Amanda Carey and Theresa McGillicuddy…And aaargh! They be snarlers all, these Pirettes…Aaargh! ++