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August 30, 2014

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Not your old man’s roller derby

Gonna tell you a story that you won't believe

But I fell in love last Friday evenin'

With a girl I saw on a barroom TV screen

Well I was just getting' ready to get my hat

When she caught my eye and I put it back

And I ordered myself a couple o' more shots and beers

The night that I fell in love with a roller derby queen

Round and round, oh round and round

The meanest hunk o' woman

That anybody ever seen

Down in the arena

- "Roller Derby Queen"

Jim Croce

When Jim Croce sang about his "Roller Derby Queen" in 1972, the original Roller Derby Queen, Joanie Weston, still was skating with the San Francisco Bay Bombers.

Roller derby as a sport, though no longer at its zenith, still was going strong, what with a feature motion picture - remember Raquel Welch circling the banked track with her jersey unzipped to there as the "Kansas City Bomber"? - and a book about the sport's halcyon days by the esteemed Frank Deford having been released about the same time.

But it wasn't long before the crowds begin to dwindle and the sport, at least as our dads and granddads knew it, began to morph into something resembling pro wrestling on wheels. If yours wasn't a household name - like Weston or nemesis Ann Calvello or Charlie O'Connell, who was such a legend in the Bay Area that his Bombers' No. 40 jersey was retired while he was still playing - you were replaced by some leggy blond, brunette or redhead who couldn't skate but sure looked good with her jersey unzipped to there.

By the mid-1980s, this theatrical reinvention of roller derby had thrown its last folding chair. In a manner of speaking, it had cut off it s own jam. Oh, like a crazy uncle at the holidays, it occasionally resurfaces. But one of the last times it was seen on TV, the leggy blond s and brunettes and redheads were skating on a figure 8 track with an alligator pit in the middle, if that tells you anything.

Flat track to somewhere

During the past couple of years, roller derby has enjoyed a renaissance as a grass - roots ... well, if sport is too strong a word, then how about just calling it a pastime or activity? ... played by women on a flat track.

This latest incarnation, featuring dozens of leagues and hundreds of teams (ours is called the Neander Dolls), has been described as "part sex appeal, part sport, part freak show." But after witnessing it myself at last week's annual RollerCon convention, I concluded that those parts are not always mixed equally.

The game I watched on Fremont Street featured teams called the T s and A s. At least half the players had body piercings and/or colorful tattoos that were surpassed only by the colorful monikers under which they skated - Stalker Channing, Rocky Hard Place, Booty Licious (and her teammate, Cherry Licious), Saba Taj.

A few were decent skaters, some were average and others skated like Adrian on her first date with Rocky. But when they lost their balance and went flying into the crowd, guys guzzling beer from plastic footballs would help them back up, being careful not to touch their T s and A s, at least some of the time.

If you were around when Joan Jett played the old Huntridge Theatre, that's sort of what this new roller derby reminds me of. Just add wheels and a jammer's helmet.

It may not be your old man's roller derby, but I suspect Billy Idol would love it.

Take it to the banks

Before I could say "Midwest Pioneers," I learned my old man's roller derby isn't entirely dead, although you've got to drive a little ways to find it.

The next night I found myself watching members of the San Diego Derby Dolls skate laps around a real banked track under the watchful eye of a real roller derby legend.

About a year and half ago, Patrick Outhoummountry - I just call him The Long O - purchased the roller derby track that was used in the opening sequence of the "Charlie's Angels" movie and reassembled it in his back yard in northwest Las Vegas, where the horse stables used to be.

The Long O said the primary reason he purchased the big banked track is so his wife, Lali, who skates with the modern-day Bay Bombers, would have a place to practice. He envisions developing a team of real-deal skaters right here in Las Vegas, then taking his rink to a warehouse or better yet, a casino, where they would skate against real-deal skaters from other cities - just like the T-Birds and the Texas Outlaws used to do, only without the loser-leaves-town match races.

"This is a way bigger high," said the Derby Dolls' Bea Witched - her friends and Uncle Sam know her as Samantha Blaz - as she coasted into the infield a little out of breath. "It's faster than flat track, much more of a challenge."

Loretta Behrens nodded. Once known as "Little Iodine," she was one of the stars of roller derby during its televised prime in the 1950s and '60s. She brought along most of her Chicago Westerners uniform, including the tiny emerald shorts and the black skating tights with the pads in the seat, which seem to get the Derby Dolls' fishnet stockings in a bunch.

But afterward, when Little Iodine began to regale the young 'uns with stories and anecdotes about roller derbies past - the real roller derby - you should have seen how Bea Witched and her teammates were listening. It was like girl scouts gathered around a campfire with their troop leader.

For that brief interlude, it was no longer Billy Idol's roller derby. It was my dad's, and his dad's and , yeah, maybe even Jim Croce's roller derby.

Somewhere, the three of them and Joanie Weston were smiling.