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Queen of the Jungle

Roller Derby Queen

Meet a 67-year-old Roller Derby queen who can't get her skates off

By Ami Chen Mills

I WAS WARNED. THERE'D BE LIONS. Lots of lions. So many lions, in fact, that wherever you think to rest your eyes, they rest on a lion. There is an MGM lion made from nails and string. There is the Liz Claiborne lion logo. There is a small Lion's Club banner hanging from the ceiling. And to go with it all, a tribe of real live cats, one of whom is good at playing fetch. Out on the porch, tins of cat food, lion mobiles, Christmas lights and sports memorabilia.

This is the San Bruno home of Leo--double Leo, she's quick to point out--and Roller Derby Queen Ann Calvello, who started skating for the Roller Derby in 1948, back when it was one of the only co-ed sports in America. According to Calvello, she was dyeing her hair purple before Dennis Rodman was even growing hair. Today, at 67, Calvello is going gray. "This here is my natural color," she says, "and it's the first time I've seen it myself."

For the last six decades, Calvello has been skating derby, along with working in wholesale produce, then as a "courtesy clerk," or bagger, at the Millbrae Safeway, a position she still holds, and loves--and sunbathing throughout.

"I'm not like the average person. I'm a double Leo, hon. Most people don't like to be in the sun too much, but the sun gives me energy."

Indeed, Calvello's main item of attire is a deep milk-chocolate perma-tan, from which her frosted lips and white eyes beam like headlights. Today Calvello is wearing a black-and-white tiger T-shirt, skin-tight stretch jeans, two large lion earrings hooked together in one ear and, in the other ear, seven or more smaller earrings.

Her self-designed eccentricities catapulted Calvello to derby stardom in roller derby's heyday, the 1950s and '60s. Although the official Roller Derby shut down in 1973, Calvello says promoters keep trying to start the game up again. And faced with a dearth of experienced derby skaters, they keep recruiting Calvello back into the rink. She's fast becoming famous as one of the oldest derby players in the country, and hopes to make the Guiness Book as the only woman who's played the same sport for six decades.

"Who else is going over rails at my age?" she asks. "But I'm in shape. My legs are like iron. I've always looked younger than I am. I was dating my daughter's musician friends back in the 1950s. I've just a led a different type of life."

Faced with a rapidly oncoming derby game Saturday in San Jose, Calvello has been racing around town doing publicity engagements. Last Saturday, she appeared in a parade in Mountain View ("I got some sun!"), followed by an autograph-signing at the Super Kmart in San Jose and capped by an appearance on the Channel 54 telethon.

If all that isn't enough, Calvello's former derby rival Joanie Weston, a Hayward resident, has come down with a brain virus called creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Reporters have been calling about that, too. "I never did hang around with a lot of women," Calvello says. "Women are phony. But Joanie--Joanie used to surf the Pacific with no wetsuit. She was a fantastic athlete."

Both women played with the San Francisco Bay Bombers, though at different times. Calvello says she left the team because she "wanted to be booed. It's just me. I'm a Leo. I wanna be different. So we were the perfect rivals. Joanie hated to be booed, and I hated to be cheered." She calls Weston's husband now every other day.

The aging derby queen's energy must indeed come from the sun, because she's got a lot of it--and Ann Calvello doesn't sleep. "I don't know how to relax. I'm totally hyper. I hear grass growing when I try to sleep."

Judging just by Calvello's thighs (they are rock hard) and loquacious energy, the Saturday derby game, featuring the Northern All-Stars vs. the Southern All-Stars with Ann Calvello, of course, ought to be riotous. In roller derby, two teams skate a circular track, while "jammers" with striped helmets attempt to score points by passing opposing team members. Players try to block each other and knock each other down while skating like maniacs at super-high speeds. It all sounds dangerous, but according to Calvello, who suffers from a deviated septum and mild arthritis, "The only time I don't hurt is when I'm skating."


Roller Derby Inc., featuring Ann Calvello, gets rolling at 7:30pm, Saturday, May 3, at the Santa Clara Fairgrounds Pavilion.

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From the May 1-7, 1997 issue of Metro

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