T-Bird owner Bill Griffiths trades on our nostalgia for Roller Derby. Yet at the same time he wants us to realize that his team has changed. "Our slogan is, `You don't have to look tough to be tough,"' he says. His publicist talks about the new "classy" Roller Derby image.But tough is what we all remember about the Roller Derby. Especially about the women. And it will be "tough" that brings people out to see the L.A. T-Birds when they come to the Salt Palace this weekend.
"Does `classy' mean the women skaters don't chew gum any more?" I ask. "Ugh. NO! Of course not! Vulgar pastime!" Griffiths says, sounding for all the world like my mother sounded when she caught me, at age 10, watching Roller Derby on our black-and-white TV.
"Well how about the hair pulling?" I ask hopefully.
"Oh, sure, we've kept that," he says. "But it's harder with the new punk styles."
Join me please in a moment of silence for the demise of the bleach-blond ponytail. One good yank on a ponytail could send the skater in front of you sprawling while launching you past her headed straight into glory on eight wheels.
I remember those moves. Women elbowing, tripping, pulling hair, and fighting their way through the pack. For some reason I don't remember the men. Just the women, whizzing round and round and round in circles (I spent hours on skates doing exactly that could have watched it for hours, too) and then the jammer, the one with the helmet, breaking through, passing the other skaters.
One point for each adversary passed. The scoring was simple. The scoring hasn't changed.
"But Roller Derby has changed," Griffiths kept repeating when he brought skaters Darlene Langlois de la Chapelle and Ralphie Valladares through Salt Lake on an advance tour earlier this week.
Valladares, a 5-foot-2 native of Guatemala, signed his first professional contract with the original Los Angeles Roller Derby team, the Braves, when he was 17. He's been a skater-manager for the T-Birds since Griffiths bought the team in 1960.
Valladares says he'll stop spinning his wheels for good after this weekend's performance. He's been skating for more than 30 years.
"How are the T-Bird's retirement benefits?" I ask.
"Oh, great," Griffiths answers for Valladares. "But Ralphie is staying on as full-time manager, anyway."
Then he'll have time to do what the other managers who don't skate do stand in the middle of the track and hassle the opposite team. He could even pull the other team members off the track. It's not against the rules. The Devil's general manager, Georgia Hase will probably do it on Friday and Saturday nights.
"But Ralphie will never do that. He's a gentleman," Griffiths assures us.
As for Langlois de la Chapelle, she's an actress. When he saw her skating between scenes in a kung-fu movie, a stuntman suggested she look into Roller Derby.
"I love to skate. My parents could never afford to buy me a car and my bike got stolen," she says. "So I skated everywhere.
"I though I was pretty good when I went to try out for the T-Birds. I found out I wasn't."
"I remember you told me you could do a somersault," says Valladares. "And you did it. I thought that was pretty good."
Valladares and Griffiths weren't looking for great skaters, they say, just someone with a good attitude. "An intense desire to excel and a team player," is the way Griffiths describes Langlois.
Only just don't call her a Roller Derby Queen. "All the girls are queens, and worthy of being called queens. But people just say that tongue-in-cheek to be disparaging. In the old days nice girls didn't do Roller Derby. I don't like to hear the word `queen'," says Griffiths. He seems sincerely hurt.
But the old image is difficult to shed, because basically the sport hasn't changed.
The team still consists of five men and five women skating against another team, women against women, then men against men in alternating periods. Each period lasts eight to 10 minutes. The score is cumulative.
Something else hasn't changed either: The element of theater.
Griffiths glides around that subject. He says Langlois is a good actress which "helps" in Roller Derby. He draws out the name of the half-time exhibition ("Super Battle Royale") as if he knows it's a bit of a put on.
"Roller Derby is contrived. Or at least it used to be," says Deseret News business writer Roger Pusey who moonlighted as a Roller Derby announcer one season, in the early 1960s.
"Sure those kids would take some hard falls sometimes. But when they were elbowing each other in the face, they'd pull their punches. They'd have to. Otherwise you'd have broken noses every night.
"At the old Fairgrounds Coliseum you'd have a bad team and a good team playing two weekends a month. The bad team would win on Friday night and the good team would win on Saturday. You knew what you could count on, at least in those days. It was a lot of fun."
Still fun, Valladares says.
One thing that has changed are the female skaters. They are more shapely. Younger. Less tough-looking. Their tights and satin shorts are padded to be sure, but with just the merest bit of foam and leather enough to prevent a broken tailbone but not enough to obscure their figures.
They are actresses, accountants, singers and mothers who just incidentally can skate at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, according to Griffiths. "Women of the '80s," he says. They work weekends at Roller Derby from January to August.
Griffiths says society has changed as much as Roller Derby has. We are more accepting.
He says, "About 1980 when disco-skating was really popular, the glamour carried over to Roller Derby." Valladares adds, "You know it used to be nice people never went into pool halls. Now they call them family recreation centers, and everybody goes."
Well, it's still called Roller Derby and nice people go. As many as 8,000 men (who remember it from their youth), women (52 percent of the audience, according to Griffiths) and children turn out when the T-Birds tour. Families out for some wholesome entertainment. Choosing Roller Derby.
Which is dandy for the team's owner but what's going to happen to girls who like to skate and chew gum and are aspiring to join a truly tacky profession?