RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In the next few minutes, we're going to enter the world of roller derby.
Unidentified Woman: All right, Los Angeles, I got one question for you: Are you ready for roller derby action?
(Soundbite of cheering)
MONTAGNE: We are. And our guide is a voice you've heard on NPR, reporter Alex Cohen. Public radio reporter by day, that is. By night, for several years, Alex Cohen was known exclusively by her derby name: Axles of Evil.
On a recent morning, Alex welcomed us to a giant warehouse on the edge of downtown Los Angeles that was once an ice cream cone factory.
ALEX COHEN: This is what is affectionately known as The Doll Factory. And there is, actually, if you can see, a neon roller skate that, when turned on, is hot pink. So it's home to the Los Angeles Derby Dolls, which is L.A.'s banked-track female roller derby league.
MONTAGNE: Bank track: that refers to the sloped track where skaters can get going really fast, which is, of course, at the heart of roller derby.
Alex - oh, excuse me, Axels of Evil has written - with one-time Derby Doll, Jennifer Kasey Bomber Barbee - what they call an insider's guide: "Down and Derby." It's a sport that Alex Cohen never expected to be part of.
COHEN: I'm 5'2" on a good day. I have never been athletically inclined. I was always kind of the theater and speech and debate geek. And when I started doing derby, I was really amazed to see that I actually really like beating people up.
(Soundbite of shouting, chatter)
MONTAGNE: If you know one thing about roller derby, you know it's rough. And Trixie Biscuit, one of the Derby Dolls, at a recent practice, is proud to be one of the roughest.
Ms. K.T. WIEGMAN (Trixie Biscuit, Los Angeles Derby Dolls): I'm a bigger skater than a lot that you'd see. I've always been a bruiser. You know, I was the catcher on the softball team that, you know, go ahead. Slide into me. Try it, and see where it gets you.
MONTAGNE: Trixie Biscuit's real name is K.T. Wiegman. She's a mom who came to derby in her 30's after serving as a sergeant in the Army Reserve. The way she sees it, derby is her destiny.
Unidentified Woman: Oh, gnarly block from Trixie Biscuit against Craven Cadaver, who's jamming for the Arizona Derby Dames.
MONTAGNE: If anyone can be credited with inventing roller derby, it's a man named Leo Seltzer. Roller skating competitions had been around since the 1880s for men. But decades later, Leo Seltzer put women on skates and in short skirts and sent them on the road in his 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby.
Alex Cohen says the derby guys and gals piled into team buses with trainers, announcers and trunks full of skating outfits.
COHEN: It was kind of like a traveling circus. A lot of it was born out of the Depression, so you had young kids who basically gave up their lives, traveled the country, became families with each other. I mean, these were the same skaters that were building the track that they would skate on that evening. And it was just this grueling, grueling endeavor. They got paid no money, but it was their chance at this tiny little sliver of fame.
MONTAGNE: Over the years, among the biggest crowd pleasers had been rivalries between opposite types: the sweetheart and the mean girl.
Jennifer Kasey Bomber Barbee says it all started with two gals back in the 1930s.
Ms. JENNIFER KASEY BOMBER BARBEE (Co-Author, "Down and Derby: The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby"): There was this woman named Gerry Murray, and Gerry Murray was kind of the Betty Grable-pinup of roller derby. She was this beautiful woman and very fashionable with her scarves that she would wear. And then there was another one named Midge Toughie Brasuhn. And she was this 4'11" spitfire plumber's daughter.
And both of these women, you have to understand, at the time, they were 15 and 16 years old when they joined roller derby and - in the '30s and through the '40s when they were skating. And they had these rivalries that were amazing, and the crowd loved to cheer for Gerry, loved boo for Toughie.
(Soundbite of roller derby broadcast)
Unidentified Man: Both girls trying to get in. Here they come, up the back end of the pack. Toughie knocked down.
(Soundbite of a crowd)
Unidentified Man: That was a fast one. Toughie Brasuhn, knocked down, and she is boiling.
(Soundbite of booing)
Unidentified Man: And all this partisan, cheap crowd is giving Toughie a little of their opinion, as she argues with the coach, Buddy Atkinson.
Ms. BARBEE: At one game, the fans were so incensed at move that Toughie had made, that a woman runs up to the track and threw her baby at her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BARBEE: I mean, that blows my mind. Luckily, Toughie's also - very lightning-quick reflexes. She was an athlete, after all, and she caught the baby - thank goodness. For me, that's derby in a nutshell, right there. I want those kinds of fans. I don't want babies thrown at me, but I like that kind of passion.
MONTAGNE: The key to the fascination with women's roller derby is its mix of bold sexuality, females at their fiercest, and also a certain playfulness. Those qualities come out in the derby names: Georgia O'Grief, Tequila Mockingbird, Iron Maven, Judy Gloom.
The one who gets to have fun with all those names is the derby announcer. The best score points with their witty commentary.
Comedian Jimmy Fallon played an announcer in the recent Drew Barrymore movie about roller derby called "Whip It."
(Soundbite of movie, "Whip It")
Mr. JIMMY FALLON (Actor): (as Hot Tub Johnny Rocket) Well, our favorite Whole Foods checkout girl is about to bag her some honey. Oh, ho, ho. Clean up in aisle five, with time left for only one more jam, and the game out of reach. Smashley Simpson is out of here.
(Soundbite of cheering)
MONTAGNE: Women competing on skates first appeared in the movies back in 1946 in a short film called "Roller Derby Girl." In 1972, Raquel Welch strapped on skates in "Kansas City Bomber." By then, derby was fading. But in the last decade, derby has made a comeback. Now there are more than 17,000 skaters in more than 400 leagues.
Fans pack into The Doll Factory here in L.A. to see Sheila Hot Wheels Noonen and other skaters go at it.
Ms. SHEILA NOONEN (Hot Wheels, Derby Dolls): Out here at the L.A. Derby Dolls, you'll get your old-school classic cars fan. You'll get your punk rockers, your hipsters from the neighborhood. You get this really crazy cross-section, because it's this word of mouth. Like, I saw this thing, it was really neat and there was all this other stuff going on. You should check it out.
And people show up because of that reputation, or because of that allure or the mystique. And when they watch the game, it's not, you know, an alligator pit. It's actually a very difficult and highly choreographed game. You have to work very hard for every single minute of that hour-long game. And I think that's what brings people back.
Unidentified Woman: Are you ready for roller derby action?
(Soundbite of cheering and applause)
Unidentified Woman: Come on, Los Angeles.
MONTAGNE: If you think derby might be your destiny, you can take the "Am I a Derby Girl" quiz at npr.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Roller Derby Saved My Soul")
UNCLE LEON AND THE ALIBIS: (Singing) I'm talking about roller derby...
MONTAGNE: "The Insider's Guide to Roller Derby: Down and Derby" is by Jennifer Kasey Bomber Barbee and Alex Cohen - aka, Axels of Evil.
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
UNCLE LEON AND THE ALIBIS: (Singing) Go, go, roller girl. Look at that girl roll. Roller Derby saved my soul.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.