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October 21, 2014

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Letting the good ol’ times roll

Roller derby on banked track returns to valley, bruises and all, after decades-long hiatus

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Leila Navidi

Referee Don Lastra signals the beginning of a period of play as the Las Vegas High Rollers play the Los Angeles Black Hawks in a roller derby match at the Las Vegas Roller Hockey Center Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. Lastra, or “Ref Don,” has been refereeing roller derby for 40 years.

Roller Derby

Referee Don Lastra signals the beginning of a period of play as the Las Vegas High Rollers play the Los Angeles Black Hawks in a roller derby match at the Las Vegas Roller Hockey Center Saturday, Oct. 31, 2009. Lastra, or Launch slideshow »

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They got started late, and when the recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” kept malfunctioning, I thought the couple sitting in the front row dressed out of “A Clockwork Orange” was going to sing Jim Croce’s “Roller Derby Queen” — the roller derby national anthem — so the match could get under way. Or assault somebody.

It was the first banked track roller derby match in Las Vegas in about 40 years, as near as anybody could remember, and there was bound to be a glitch or three.

But Francis Scott Key ultimately prevailed and a few minutes later the women skaters from the Las Vegas High Rollers and the Los Angeles Black Hawks — or Chicken Hawks, as one leather-lunged spectator seated on the rail had scrawled on a makeshift banner — were doing the familiar derby 5-stride around the banked track.

Stride, stride, stride, stride, stride ... coast through the turn. Stride, stride, stride, stride, stride ... coast through the other turn.

BAM!

Did you see that? (Not so) Sweet Stephanie Garcia of the Black Hawks just clotheslined Lali O. of the High Rollers. Sent her right over the rail, she did.

Is that legal?

Of course it’s not legal. It’s roller derby, silly. Referee Don Lastra skated over to Danny Wolf, the public address announcer and roller derby historian, and said Garcia would be fined $100. I don’t think the fine was real, either. Didn’t matter to the crazies sitting behind the dasher boards at the Las Vegas Roller Hockey Center. They shook the Plexiglas as if Joanie Weston herself had just skated into Commercial Center with Charlie O’Connell himself on her arm.

Roller derby was back.

Maybe it wasn’t the San Francisco Bay Bombers or the Midwest Pioneers or the Northeast Braves skating before thousands of fans at the Cow Palace or old Comiskey Park in Chicago or some dingy armory or auditorium in Boston’s inner city. But it looked, sounded and even sort of smelled like the old roller derby, perhaps owing to the 30-year-old skates held together by blood, sweat, tears and a little duct tape that High Roller Frank Apadoca was wearing.

For Lali O. it was a dream come true. Several years ago, before she was the High Rollers’ captain, she and her husband, Patrick, purchased the banked track used in the opening scene of the “Charlie’s Angels” movie. They set it up in the back yard of their northwest Las Vegas home, where Lali dreamed of skating with the Bombers, dreamed of skating in a real roller derby match in her adopted hometown.

Now that she has accomplished both, will she call off the jam? Not a chance, Lali O. says. Plans are for an entire roller derby “season” after the holidays. Her new dream is to bring the derby to a local casino but, to paraphrase the old TV western, it’s “Have Track, Will Travel.” Or, meet the new roller derby. Same as the old roller derby.

“I haven’t seen that called since Danny ‘Carrot Top’ Reilly against the Chicago Hawks at the Olympic Auditorium in 1979,” Wolf cackled over the public address system after Lastra penalized one of the Black Hawks — or was it a High Roller? — for “sitting in an unauthorized area” in the infield.

Cliff Butler of the High Rollers probably remembers that match. “I can’t tell you how many teams I have skated for,” said the 60-something Butler, whose derby career spans five decades and began with the Bombers in 1961.

Now, you can add one more. The trip from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he is a supervisor for US Airways, was five strides around the banked track compared to riding in the back of a station wagon with your knees tucked under your chin during the derby’s halcyon days.

“We used to travel 25,000 miles in 4 1/2 months,” said Butler, who coaches and trains the Mission City Brawlin’ Betties Roller Girlz, one of those flat track, all-female teams in which players skate in fishnet stockings that has rekindled a spark in, or, for some, spawned a yearning for old-school roller derby on the banked track.

More power to ’em, says Mizz Georgia Hase, who created the role of the female “heel” manager that pro wrestling has taken to the next level — and about four levels beyond that. But Mizz Georgia is still partial to “real” roller derby on the banked track, where not even Raquel Welch as the “Kansas City Bomber” would dare skate in fishnet stockings, even in the movies.

Hase, who behind the scenes is the antithesis of her evil general manager persona, was telling me that attracting and training young skaters is absolutely crucial to the derby’s survival when one of the Black Hawks — or was it a High Roller? — came hurtling right through the rail to the sound of splintering wood followed by a dull thud.

A guy wearing a Viking suit scurried past where we were talking, cordless drill in hand.

It was hard to tell whether he was with the trick-or-treaters or with the roller derby — although, come to think of it, it didn’t really seem to matter.

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