Ivy King, the Roller Derby Queen

Ivy King was one of the first superstars of roller derby. King, who started her derby skating career during the mid-1930s, died last week at the age of 90. Noah Adams offers a remembrance of the roller derby queen.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

A roller derby queen has died. She was the original one. Her name was Ivy King.

Ms. PHYLLIS ROMANO (Sister of Ivy King): She was a go-getter. When she wanted something, she went after it.

ADAMS: What she wanted was to roller skate. Her kid sister, Phyllis Romano, says it was always a thrill to watch Ivy skate.

Ms. ROMANO: She used to go to the Madison Gardens roller rink and skate. And she was one of the fastest skaters they had. They use to have races and they would tell her to not come out till the end, because nobody would want to join the race if Ivy was going to be in it.

ADAMS: That was Madison Gardens in Chicago. Eventually, she was able to parlay her skills into an actual job. In fact, she became a star, the queen of roller derby.

(Soundbite of swing music)

ADAMS: The year was 1935, six years into the Great Depression. King was 20 years old, living on the West Side of Chicago. Here father was out of work. She wrapped chocolates at a candy factory, made $4 a week. That's when she heard about a local roller skating contest. A promoter named Leo Seltzer had read in a magazine that more Americans roller-skated than participated in any other sport or activity, and more women than men were skaters. So Gary Powers, executive director of the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame, says Seltzer came up with his idea.

Mr. GARY POWERS (Executive Director, National Roller Derby Hall of Fame): They were sitting in a restaurant in Chicago, one I call Rickets. And some of his friends, they said, Leo, I bet you can't come up with a sport that involves roller-skating. So he sat there in the restaurant. At the tablecloth and jotted down some ideas, and he came up with the idea of roller derby.

ADAMS: And Powers says, it wasn't long before Poison Ivy King; they called her that, became the main attraction.

Mr. POWERS: She was this little gal who was a speedster in a local roller rink. One of the things about her was she always wore these little glasses. And she was just an amazing, amazing skater.

ADAMS: Four or five years, she skated with the roller derby as it changed, traveling across the U.S., meeting celebrities and wracking up three world speed records: the quarter mile, one half mile, and the mile. She was forced to end her career because of an illness.

Over the decades, the roller derby world lost track of Ivy King, until last year, when Powers invited her to Chicago to attend a 70th anniversary party for the sport.

Mr. POWERS: We contacted her and found out that Ivy was living at home, that she was not in a nursing home, that she was just this ball of energy, this amazing personality like she always had been. And she had the most incredible sense of humor. I have to tell you she told me some the dirtiest jokes I've ever heard in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POWERS: And she seemed to delight in making everybody blush.

ADAMS: Gary Powers says at that event Ivy King became a roller derby queen once again.

Mr. POWERS: Here was 5,000 people in the Congress Theater in Chicago. And when we introduced Ivy in the audience, I mean everybody stood up and started chanting, Ivy, Ivy, Ivy. It was just amazing for this woman.

ADAMS: She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Medal. Her family says she showed it off at every opportunity during the last year of her life. Roller derby queen, Ivy King died this month of congestive heart failure. She was 90 years old.

(Soundbite of song At The Roller Derby by The Three Beaus and A Peep)

THE THREE BEAUS AND A PEEP (Vocal Group): (Singing) Make a date. Be the skate at the roller derby. Do do lo lo do lo lo. Do do lo lo do lo lo. Do do lo lo do lo lo do lo lo. Where you find everyone having barrels of fun, yes you will. Hey, there goes Sophie...

ADAMS: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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