Roller derby is really a blast from the past

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Like some kind of cultural retrovirus, roller derby never completely goes away.

Interestingly, it started in 1935 in Chicago as an endurance event, as male and female skaters wheeled 'round and 'round for 57,000 laps -- the near equivalent of a transcontinental trip.

When promoters saw how much spectators enjoyed crashes, they added body contact and point scoring. According to the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Neb., roller derby was so popular in the early 1940s that it appeared in more than 50 cities, playing to more than 5 million spectators. Millions more would watch on TV, where at one point it was on all three networks, several times a week.

Some would say roller derby reached its peak in 1972, when Raquel Welch starred in the movie "Kansas City Bomber." By 1975, Roller Games, which had bought out Roller Derby, came to a stop, and the fake-fight-filled phenomenon that had evolved faded. Still, it never totally fizzled.

In 1977, the International Roller Skating League was born, and as late as the mid-1980s, traveling teams still were selling out the Civic Arena. (No record of an actual Pittsburgh team could be found in the Post-Gazette/Pittsburgh Press archives nor at the Carnegie Library's Pennsylvania Room.)

In 1985, ESPN matched up professional wrestling with roller derby for a Tuesday night doubleheader called "Slams & Jams."

The "international" league, which lasted a decade, never could shake its reputation for being staged. But in the late 1980s in California, an American league sprang up that now is part of what the Bay City Bombers' site calls "the fastest growing sport in America."

Some say roller derby is, like basketball, one of the few truly American sports. There's a Roller Derby Preservation Association. There's even a National Roller Derby Hall of Fame, the Web site of which is critical of today's all-girl teams for not "paying true homage to the sport."

Looks like roller derby always will be part of the culture, as evidenced by its morphed resurfacing in TV shows such as "Rollergames" (1989) and "Rollerjam" (1999) and movies "Rollerball" (1975) and "Rollerball" (2002).

A&E just canceled its reality show "Rollergirls," which debuted Jan. 2, but Paramount reportedly is working on a movie about the current resurgence.

Never billing itself as anything but fictional was the short-lived 1978 NBC sitcom, "Rollergirls."

The terrible team it was based on: The Pittsburgh Pitts.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette

Members of the Steel City Derby Demons roller derby team line up during their first practice at a Shaler roller rink last week.


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