Originally created 03/10/99

Roller Derby returns in glitzier, sexier form



ORLANDO, Fla. -- The camera rolled and California Quakes skater Sean Atkinson, taking a cue from a producer, jumped out of his seat in the stands and started taunting a member of an opposing team.

Soon, Atkinson and his opponent were rolling around on the skating track, exchanging fake punches and body slams.

The roaring studio audience ate it up. Producers of "Rollerjam" hope cable TV audiences will, too.

The show is the latest incarnation of Roller Derby, the low-rent piece of Americana that entertained audiences for four decades before it ground to a halt in 1973.

Taped at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando, "Rollerjam" began airing on The Nashville Network in January (it airs Friday at 8 p.m. EST) and the premiere reached about 1.2 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, cable's highest-rated show, "WWF Wrestling" on the USA Network, reaches about 4.6 million homes.

"Rollerjam" is taped at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando and is shown Friday at 8 p.m. EST on The Nashville Network. Its January premiere reached about 1.2 million homes, according to Nielsen Media Research. By comparison, cable's highest-rated show, "WWF Wrestling" on the USA Network, reaches about 4.6 million homes.

In Roller Derby, men and women speed around an indoor track, scoring points by passing members of the opposing team, who try to stop them by shoving, elbowing and slamming them to the ground.

Although it basically follows the same rules, the next-generation of Roller Derby is a tad glitzier and sexier than its knock-'em-down predecessor, immortalized in the 1973 Raquel Welch film "Kansas City Bomber." The skating is also faster, sometimes up to 35 mph, because the teams use inline skates instead of roller skates.

"Even though it's 60-plus years old, it appears very modern for people raised on MTV and the Extreme Games," said Jerry Seltzer, commissioner of the World Skating League, which calls itself Rollerjam's organizing body.

Seltzer's father, Leo, started the original Roller Derby in 1935 as a way for Depression-era audiences to forget their troubles. At first, the game was based on distance and endurance and physical contact was banned.That changed two years later when audiences took to the shoving and pushing.

Roller Derby was first televised in 1948 on CBS in New York. Television later made stars of such skaters as Joan Weston, known as the "Blonde Bomber," who skated for the San Francisco Bay Bombers in the 1960s.

"They were mean and lean," reminisced Diane Frederick, a Detroit postal worker, fan of the original Roller Derby and spectator at a recent taping of "Rollerjam." "The women were meaner than the men," she added.

TV producer Stephen Lamb says the inspiration to resurrect Roller Derby in its current form was Ms. Weston's death in 1997 at age 62, from an incurable nervous disease.

There are now five teams, each with five men and five women, that have already taped shows at Universal: the Enforcers, the Quakes, the Florida Sundogs, the Nevada Hot Dice and the Texas Rustlers. A sixth team, the Illinois Riot, is being put together.

Skaters include a cousin of boxer Marvin Hagler; a woman whose publicity material describes her as an ordained minister, bodybuilder and bodyguard; a former American Gladiator contender; several competitive speed skaters; a former homecoming queen from Iowa; and the "creamed corn wrestling" champion from Daytona Beach's Bike Week.

"When I found out I could knock people over, I said 'Yes!"' said the Sundogs' Denise Loden, 32-year-old former speed skating champion. "I let all that aggression out."

Ms. Loden is romantically involved with Atkinson, the Quakes skater whose father and grandfather competed in the original Roller Derby. The couple's true-life romance has been incorporated into the show's storyline.

So have the frequent outbreaks of shoving, wrestling, body slams and trash-talking between opposing teams that often make "Rollerjam" look like the World Wrestling Federation on skates.

"You're just jealous because my muscles are bigger than yours, and I work out harder than you," the Enforcers' Jannet Abraham shouted at Atkinson after he wrestled with her teammate, Mark D'Amato, on the track. "Your workout is at the dinner table."

Atkinson didn't challenge Ms. Abraham, 5-feet-9 and 197 pounds -- the preacher known to her fans as the Minister of Pain.

"The violence is part of it," Atkinson said, smiling after his tussle on the track. "We're in the Jerry Springer era and I think that sells."