In 1935 Joan Weston and Roller Derby were both born. When they finally met, it was a match made in heaven.
Weston’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and she was raised by her maternal grandparents. They worked six days a week at the restaurant and gas station they owned in Southern California. Despite their preoccupation with earning a living, they created a strict but loving environment.
Weston idolized her father who had movie star good looks, and she fondly remembers a summer spent with him before he was killed in a car accident. Not knowing how to channel her grief, she blamed her mother for her parents’ divorce. This compounded the emotional distance between them.
Even though they weren’t Catholics, her grandfather insisted on a Mount St. Mary’s College education. Her grandmother was amenable to that until Weston decided she wanted to become a nun. Weston then appeased her by directing all her energy into sports. A natural athlete, Weston excelled in every sport she tried, but that didn’t mean her grandmother would let her try anything. She balked when Weston wanted to take up trick horseback riding as being too dangerous. Softball seemed like a good compromise, and Weston played school and league ball. This proved to be a good match, and in one college game Weston hit eight home runs.
Upon graduation, there weren’t many options for female athletes. When Weston watched the Roller Derby she saw her future, and she couldn’t wait to take her skating from the sidewalk to the indoor banked track. Her five feet ten inch, 150 pound frame and bleached blonde hair were the perfect body and image. She moved to northern California to learn the sport and join a team.
Weston’s sheltered upbringing hadn’t prepared her for the unrefined behavior and profanity of the skaters. She felt so intimidated and out of place that she almost quit. Knowing that her mother, a truck stop waitress, would understand that life a lot better, Weston called her for encouragement. Her mother’s advice was that Roller Derby people were no different than anybody else. “People and sex are like franks and beans,” she said. “They go together.”1
It wasn’t the Roller Derby people or the lifestyle that attracted Weston. She simply loved to skate, and skating at 30 miles an hour gave her a sense of freedom. At the beginning she had to overcome some clumsiness, however. In her first outing she tripped and fell in front of nine skaters, all of whom fell over her.
After playing on various teams for several years, Weston gained her Roller Derby Queen reputation on the San Francisco Bay Bombers. She started wearing the orange and black in 1963 when she was 28 years old. Her fans called her the Blonde Bomber, Blonde Amazon and Golden Girl.
Skating was so much her life that she skated full time (over 250 games each year) for 18 years and part time for another 24 years. She played the Pivot position which gave her an opportunity to play defense and offense as necessary. Even though the Roller Derby was not a mainstream sport, Weston was the highest paid female athlete in the 1960s. She earned less than her male counterparts, however, by nearly $20,000.
Derby teams toured the country to compete at local arenas, traveling by Greyhound bus or car. One year Weston put 60,000 miles on her car. The players stayed in Holiday Inns that dotted the trail. Each night her best friend was waiting in the room for Weston to return. Malia, a spotted mutt who was born in a box on a Greyhound bus, knew when Weston should be arriving and was peering out the window when her car pulled into the parking lot.
It wasn’t easy to maintain romantic relationships while on the road. When she was 20 she got engaged to another skater who was drop dead handsome. The Roller Derby publicity department milked the relationship for all it was worth, but after 18 months it ended. There were two other engagements that ended badly. One suitor insisted Weston stop skating, but she sacrificed the relationship instead of her career. With so much heart break, when she was 37 years old, Weston declared she would never marry.
In 1965 the Roller Derby management promoted her to captain of the acclaimed Bay Bombers supplanting Annis (Big Red) Jensen. On tour, Weston wore the white shirt of the home team.
About that time a rivalry blossomed between Weston and Ann Calvello, another super star skater who wrote the red shirt of the rival teams. Weston vs. Calvello became the biggest rivalry in the history of the sport, and it was personal. Games turned into good vs. evil slug fests, and Calvello never missed an opportunity to provoke and punish Weston’s teammates with illegal kicks and punches. This fueled Weston to seek revenge. Calvello’s cheap shots incensed audiences who would throw things at her and occasionally even damage her car. Each skater played her part to perfection, but in the end, the audience demanded that good triumph over evil. Even though Weston was the predictable victor, audiences packed the arenas the next night to see what would happen.
Injuries are a fact of life in Roller Derby, and Weston, like all players, suffered her share of debilitating ones. In an interview she recounted knee cartilage surgery and a dislocated collar bone. Trips to the dentist were frequent as dentures replaced missing teeth. In one game she got into such a heated argument with the referee that two of her teeth flew out of her mouth right past the ref’s ear.
Because of the violence, Weston’s mom could never accept her daughter’s career choice, or even watch a Roller Derby game. Her grandmother had the courage to watch only one. The star athlete found her support within the ranks of the sport. Eventually she married skater Nick Scopas, and their relationship lasted until death parted them.
If they weren’t proud of her job, Weston’s family could be proud of what she accomplished. The Blond Bomber was voted Roller Derby Queen four times, received the Most Valuable Player award in 1968 and was inducted into the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame.
In the 1970s a skaters’ strike, the gas crisis and increasing costs made managing the Roller Derby too expensive for Jerry Seltzer, son of founder Leo Seltzer. The original Roller Derby league skated their last game on December 3, 1973. Seltzer sold everything Roller Derby to other promoters.
Weston and Roller Derby started life and ended together. She was 38 years old and her body didn’t bounce back from injuries as quickly, so this was the perfect time to retire. It was not the end of skating for Weston, however. She channeled her experience and expertise into training young skaters and staging exhibition games.
Weston’s life wasn’t all skating all the time. She loved Hawaii and won the 1962 outrigger championship on a canoe called Malia, the name sake for her dog. Her love of softball exceeded her tenure skating and she played in leagues in northern California.
Weston contracted Creutzfeldt – Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder. She died at age 62 in Hayward, California, survived by her husband. Twenty-five years earlier she was asked if she had any regrets. She said she did, but that there was one thing that compensated: stardom. “Stardom is recognition, approval, power. Do you know what it’s like to be able to bring 20,000 people to their feet–to make them hate or love you? That’s where it’s at. Power!”2
QUESTION: Who are your sports idols? What is it about what they do that you respect?
©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved
Weston’s last interview: http://rollergames.ning.com/video/joan-westons-last-sit-down
Interviews with Ann Calvello & Joan Weston: http://myspace.vtap.com/video/Ann+Calvello%252C+Joan+Weston%253A+Is+Roller+Derby+Real/CL0125573612_477e96dc8_V0lLSTQ4NDI1OTZ-aW46MX5xOmJyfmJ3OldJS0k0ODQyNTk2