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Blood on the Tracks

Ann Calvello
Robert Scheer

Queen of the Jungle: Ann 'Banana Nose' Calvello, longtime maven of the Roller Derby--she's been its high priestess for over four decades--takes a breather between knocking our fearless investigative reporter over the guardrails and competing against the SC Roller Royals on Saturday.

So, just how tough is legendary Roller Derby queen Ann 'Banana Nose' Calvello? Only another tough cookie can discover the whole truth

By Kelly 'Nuke 'Em' 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 Spandex American flag bicycle shorts with a delicate red T-shirt. After all, trying to outshine my opponent this evening is 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 it's allegedly 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 in the 'burbs, these lethal, jammin' ladies were role models.

While I was trying (and failing miserably) to act ladylike and please the 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. I just knew that "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 feet 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 of the players retired. The Blonde Bombshell passed on to the great Roller Rink in the Sky. But great ideas have a way of picking themselves up off the track and knocking the dust off.

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

roller derby
Rolling with the Punches: Experiencing a comeback, Roller Derby--a crossover pop culture hit during the '50s and '60s--makes its way to the Civic Auditorium Saturday for a night of boshing, thumping, flailing and jamming.

Photo by Robert Scheer

Mouths of Babes

WHICH LEADS US TO THE Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium about three hours before showtime between Calvello's team, the L.A. Turbos, and the Santa Cruz Royal Rollers. After having swung by the Roller Palladium on Seabright for a pair of skates and a few quick spins around the rink, I stumbled onto the Civic's recently erected track. It's early--just me and a few 8-year-olds take our turns round the circumference. Cute little tykes, I think to myself, perfect for tossing over the railing as a warm-up exercise. Unfortunately, the parents who keep glaring at me suspiciously are much bigger.

Suddenly, a quiet hush descends on the gathered, and the Roller Derby Queen herself enters, ripped T-shirt, skin-tight jeans, tattoos and all. Yup, Ms. Calvello is still setting the pace for righteous babes at 67 years old. Forget that turgid support-hose prose "When I Am an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple." No, with Calvello leading the way, we all shall wear tatts and spike heels and multiple piercings. Hopefully.

Before the Showdown, we must first talk. I stumble off the track, winded and exhausted from those half-dozen practice 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.

As Calvello bends over to loosen the trucks on her skates (one red, one black), she fills in the early history of the sport. It began as an idea jotted down on the tablecloth when brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer were out to dinner. This was the '30s, and dance marathons were all the rage. Think, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

"I got it," says one Seltzer to the other. "How about marathons? On roller skates? Around a track?" Or some such thing, and the first event of the International Roller Speedway was unveiled Aug. 13, 1935. Calvello didn't join up until 1948, when the Seltzers came looking for a few good skaters to tour Europe.

A good Catholic schoolgirl from the days before Vatican II--"Now they look like hookers, for chrissakes!"--Calvello got permission to travel abroad. From Paris and Belgium, the exuberant young skater went to Manila, then Guam, living in ramshackle Quonset huts--"rats this big, honey!"

Within six months, Calvello had made captain--"And I didn't even care about Roller Derby!"--by elbowing the foolish and unwary out of her way. A marriage came and went, as did a few boyfriends--"I was dating younger guys way before Linda Evans!"--and by the late '50s, Calvello and Miffy "Big Red" Jensen started up in the legendary Bay Bombers.

The Skin Jungle

CALVELLO BREAKS HER rapid-fire delivery long enough to autograph a fan's program, her multi-hued 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--peaked 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--"We skated for free, for free!"--and gets by working a few different part-time jobs. So nothing stood in the way of giving the derby one more shot at resuscitation.

Robert Scheer

Rail Against the System: Santa Cruz's very own roller derby team, the Royal Rollers, go head to head with the L.A. Turbos on Saturday for a few rounds of hand-to-hand, full-body contact.

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 exactly in full bloom yet.

And though a certain local sports columnist chided both teams for their ample geriatric representation, brittle bones and aged lungs are starting to sound like a definite plus about now. The interview is winding down, Calvello's skates are laced up and the track is waiting.

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 fateful 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 SC Royal Rollers take on the L.A. Turbos on Saturday (7:30pm) at the SC Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., SC. Tickets cost $10 ($5 kids and seniors).

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From the July 23-30, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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