In the early ’60s and ’70s, Roller Derby was a very popular sport. It captured the heart of millions around the world. It was more popular than the NBA or NFL, at least it was in California. It even caught the attention of my Dad. Sports of any kind were not a part of my life growing up. My Dad never watched them on TV nor did he ever attend any game that came to town. We had just moved to Santa Monica, California in June of 1969 and our lives had changed dramatically. One evening he was flipping through the TV channels, all 8 of them, and he saw the Los Angeles Thunderbirds Roller Derby team skating around the high banks of the rink. My Dad, mother, sister and I were immediately hooked!
We began watching the games every week and it wasn’t long before we decided to go see the game in person. They held the event at the Olympic Auditorium in Downtown L. A. on Friday nights and that was a straight shot east on the 10 freeway from Santa Monica. I was really surprised at how big the venue was and it was sold out! Seeing it live was so exciting, I began to dream of being a T-Bird one day. We had a two-car garage behind our house which we never used, not even for storage. I would take my record player out there, put on my skates, start the music and skate in circles for hours. Future Thunderbird in training!
We attended the game as often as possible. I would take my brownie camera and a couple of rolls of film and take shots of the skaters. My mother never left the house for the 5 years we lived in California, except for the 4 times that we moved. So I took the photos so she could see the skaters “in person”. I loved everything about the experience, the crowds, the screaming, the heckling, the action, it was amazing. Remember I was only 15 years old! I loved it so much my sister and I started the LA T-Birds newsletter. We would write first-person accounts of the matches that we saw. I included photos of the players and descriptions of the different plays. We actually did well with it and we had hundreds of subscribers.
When I turned 16 I found out that you could begin training to be a Roller Derby skater at that age. I talked to my Dad about it and he said yes! The training was done on Saturdays at the Auditorium. The first day I went I had to just sit and watch what was going on. After practice, I got to meet a couple of the team members. The instructor took me and a young man who was also there to start training into a room and taught us one-on-one some of the moves. I left there elated! I can’t believe that my Dad listened to my incessant talking all the way home.
The next Saturday on the way to training we stopped at a sporting goods store and I bought the 35-degree angle skates required to get on the track. The track was raised up and the banks were angled so with these I could skate around the track and still stand up straight. I was a little intimidated because most of the other trainees seemed to be experts at it. The first few times I tried I fell down, but I got up every time. By the end of the day, I had no problems with the banking. The next week there were a lot of new people there. Apparently, we were all “new” to the sport. Ralphie Valladares (one of the T-Birds) was our trainer. He explained about blocking the opponent, doing a can opener move and how to pass the pack. It was so much fun. Ralphie showed us how to do the Mr. Wilson. This move is falling onto your rear with your feet and legs straight out in front of you. This is the way Mr. Wilson always falls when he steps on Dennis’ skateboard. We were to start at the top of the bank, skate around 2 times, then perform the move. When the first person did it he hit really hard and yelled some obscenities. I have to confess I was nervous.
Then came the moment that stole my dream. There was a trick to this move and every move a skater does. Ralphie told us 95% of Roller Derby was fake and all the “moves” were designed to appear real but, in reality, no one gets hurt. I felt like he just took a large needle and stuck it in the big inflated balloon of excitement I had acquired. I finished out the day halfheartedly and I was so glad to see my Dad sitting in the lot as I left.
I never returned for training. I never attended another live game. I never watched another game on TV. I quit the newsletter. The illusion was gone. However, I did get a cool pair of skates out of it. I had them well into my 40’s and I still skated as often as I could.
I am a professional genealogist, writer, photographer, wife, mother, and grandma. I have two books available on Amazon.com: Your Family History: Doing It Right the First Time and Planning Your Genealogy Research Trip. You can also connect with me via Facebook or Twitter.