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Blood on the Tracks

[whitespace] Roller Derby
Robert Scheer

So, just how tough is Roller Derby queen Ann 'Banana Nose' Calvello?

By 'Killer' Kelly Luker

Hmmm. We are studying the wardrobe closet, trying to determine just what to wear for the Big Showdown. There's the glittery pink tutu with matching headband, of course. Then again, the tiger-striped sarong with coordinated bustier might work. In the end, we opt for sedate, settling on American flag bicycle shorts with a delicate red T-shirt. After all, trying to outshine my opponent will be an exercise in futility. And by the time we take a few licks around the track, it's all gonna be blood-spattered anyway.

Join us, won't you, while the reigning Queen of Roller Derby, Ms. Ann "Banana Nose" Calvello, elbow-jabs, blocks, whips and sends Yours Truly flailing over the railing.

The events leading up to this Main Event began long ago. It's 1970, and I'm settled in for my traditional Saturday afternoon religious services. There's the tuna-with-Miracle Whip sandwich and a bowl of Laura Scudders by my side, and the TV's warmed up. Finally, the object of my worship wheels into view--that team of the baddest gals to ever don a uniform, the Bay Bombers.

Long before Wrestlemania or American Gladiators, there was Roller Derby, a spectacle of elbow-smashing, face-crashing, body-flipping psychopaths streaking around the Cow Palace on roller skates at breakneck speed. Although allegedly engaged in a sport, neither the men's nor the women's teams ever forgot that first and foremost this was entertainment. And for some of us teenagers out there, these lethal ladies were role models.

While I was trying (and failing miserably) to act ladylike and please boys, here were the women I really wanted to be. Big, tough Joanie Weston--"The Blonde Bombshell"--probably never wasted a minute of her life feigning interest in some coma-inducing date. "Elbows" Anderson never had to park herself on some therapist's couch, wondering what it all meant. And then there was "Banana Nose" Calvello--she of the hair streaked pink and green, nails painted glitter-blue and shod in different-colored skates (this is almost three decades ago, mind you). Did Calvello toss and turn each sleepless night, stewing over what others thought of her? I think not.

Eventually, Roller Derby wheeled into the sunset, the victim, some say, of lousy marketing, lousier managing and changing times. Most players retired. The Blonde Bombshell passed on to the Roller Rink in the Sky. But great ideas have a way of picking themselves up from the track and knocking off the dust.

Imagine my joy, then, to discover that the Last True Sport was to be resurrected in my hometown of Santa Cruz. Figuring it was never too late to have a battered childhood, I called up the great Banana Nose herself--so named for the schnoz so often bashed and broken--for a little mano a mano skating. Just her, just me. If she dared.

Mouths of Babes

Which leads us to the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium about three hours before Calvello's team, the L.A. Turbos, faces the Santa Cruz Royal Rollers. Wearing a pair of rented skates, I stumble onto the track for a few quick practice spins.

Suddenly a hush descends on the gathered, and the Roller Derby Queen herself enters, ripped T-shirt, skintight jeans, tattoos and all. Yup, Ms. Calvello is still setting the pace for righteous babes at 67 years old. Forget the turgid support-hose prose of When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple. With Calvello leading the way, we all shall sport spike heels and multiple piercings.

Before the Showdown, we must first talk. I stumble off the track, winded and exhausted from a half-dozen turns. As I collapse in the bleachers next to her, Calvello is charged up and ready to go.

"I been going since 6am this morning, honey," she notes, glancing smugly at my labored breathing. Calvello will also tell you that she's the only athlete still going at it after six decades. And why not? She was probably born hot-wired, spitting out exclamation-clad one-liners from the crib.

A Baboon's Ass

Calvello breaks her rapid-fire delivery long enough to autograph a fan's program, her multihued nails flashing beneath a spatter of glitter. A question about the lion tattooed on her deeply tanned hand leads us to a show-and-tell of each other's skin art. Her many lions and cats--including the roller-skating cub speeding toward her pelvic bone--far outnumber my snakes and birds, but our dermatological jungle provides for a '90s bonding moment.

Calvello still wears chalk-white lipstick--"Honey, red would make my lips look like a baboon's ass!"--but her natural gray hair has grown out, asymmetrically cut, of course. The word "conformity" never got a warm reception in this gal's vocabulary.

Roller Derby, and especially the Bay Bombers, had already reached its peak in the late '60s. By 1973, it was no longer televised and in the next couple of decades only bounced to life occasionally for some fundraisers. Calvello never made any money in Roller Derby.

Calvello loves skating against the hometown Santa Cruz Royal Rollers tonight--"I don't like being cheered; I like being booed!"--but admits she often doesn't know who's going to show up on her team, the L.A. Turbos, until right before showtime. Remember, the renaissance isn't in full bloom yet.

Our eyes meet and I try to ignore the glimmer of pity in hers. Struggling up the edge and over the railing--for cryin' out loud, how hard would it be to put in stairs?--I steady myself on the plywood track. Calvello jauntily flips that lean body up and over, then speeds off around the oval. This is not cowardice, I tell myself. I'm only taking a moment--OK, two--to assess the situation before dashing off behind her.

Quiet has once again descended in the bleachers, and folks gawk at us with a look similar to those driving by a bloody car wreck. They know it's gonna be ugly, but they can't turn away. Calvello circles by once, then twice. As she nears the third or fourth round, I see her lips forming into something I probably don't want to hear, and push myself off from the railing.

This is all I'll say of our encounter that evening: Even if she let me--and though she eventually wiped the floor with me--it felt good sending a senior citizen flying over the railing, OK?

The Santa Cruz Royal Rollers take on the New York Demons on June 20 (7pm) at Kezar Pavilion, Golden Gate Park, SF. Tickets cost $12 ($7 kids and seniors).

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From the June 1-14, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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