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The Lioness in Winter 

At age 72, Ann Theresa Calvello, the Roller Derby Queen, is the subject of a movie -- and as salty as ever

Wednesday, Aug 29 2001
"She was the bad girl and I love that," says Ken Moore with the bright eyes and soft cadence of a boy from Tennessee. "Bigger than life and a good skater. And mean as a snake."

Moore's eyes drift across the two feet of warehouse floor that separates him from his childhood champion and boyhood infatuation.

"She's still larger than life," he says delicately, excusing himself and taking up position in the small clutch of fans who encircle Ann Theresa Calvello, the Bay Area's notorious Roller Derby Queen and subject of the recently completed documentary film Demon of the Derby: The Ann Calvello Story, which will premiere at this year's Film Arts Festival on Nov. 11 at the Castro Theater.

"Ann is holding court," says film producer Christine Murray. Even after working with Calvello for three years, Murray is still clearly smitten with the 72-year-old spitfire.

"Ann skated for 50 years and she still hasn't stopped," says Murray. "She's still loud and brash and sexy and highly theatrical. She doesn't compromise herself. She doesn't allow anyone to dictate who is she, at any age."

"In an era when June Cleaver was a role model," continues Murray, "Ann Calvello was dying her hair green."

On the dance-floor-cum-roller-rink, skaters with flickering in-line wheels and brightly colored hair twirl and glide to gut-shuddering house music, and a young woman with a bright blue streak in her hair laughingly tells her companion to "fuck off" before skating circles around him. It's unlikely the young woman is aware of the debt she owes Calvello; given her age, it's unlikely the young woman even knows who Calvello is, but at one point Ann Calvello was a superstar, as outrageous and widely loved (and despised) as any superstar produced by the modern age. Along with sold-out crowds of 55,000 spectators and a nationwide television-viewing audience, future mothers and grandmothers cheered on Calvello as she hurled epithets, beat up referees, and skated like a snake-haired Fury risen from the underworld to exact punishment. In arenas and in homes, Calvello paved the way for future wild women, and made it easier to buy hair dye in colors nature doesn't use.

"Aw, my shit stinks just like anyone else's," grouses Calvello, running a heavily ornamented hand through her short platinum hair. "The key is to love people, to treat everyone like a human being."

A preview of Demon of the Derby flickers on the screen overhead. In it, Calvello -- with her proto-Coppertone tan, white lipstick, and periwinkle-hued locks -- screams at a shrinking referee while the crowd behind her roars. A few seconds later, grainy black-and-white footage shows a teenage Calvello driving another skater into the railing, raining blows upon the "hometown" girl's head.

"[Calvello] was always best as a visitor," says fan Moore. "Then you could really hate her."

Roller derby began in 1935 as a Great Depression endurance contest, 57,000 laps -- the distance between L.A. and New York -- on an oval-shaped, banked track. Slowly, the notion of physical contact and a simple point system -- one point for every opposing team player passed -- emerged, and by the mid- to late 1950s, roller derby had hit television big, partly due to the style, bravado, and ferocious tactics of a young Bay Area honors student of Sicilian/Austrian descent who joined the sport in 1948.

Ann Theresa Calvello was born Aug. 1, 1929. She's a Leo, a fact you are not likely to forget: Lions adorn every finger; great golden lion amulets hang around her neck; cats dangle from her ears and crawl across the frames of her glasses. She has eight tattoos, all of them lions. Leos like gold and orange, and so does Calvello. Leos also like the sun; consequently, Calvello sunbathes for no fewer than three hours per day, which accounts for her off-putting but signature ochroid hue. Both Christine Murray and Demon of the Derby co-producer Elizabeth Pike are Leos, which accounts for Calvello's willingness to work with them -- that, and a fervent desire for some long overdue recognition.

"Some people made a lot of money off of roller derby," says Calvello. "I've been bagging groceries. Now, when I skate, people make tapes and sell them on the Internet, and the older I get the more valuable they get. It's not the money, it's the principle of the thing, you know?"

"I don't mind getting fucked," says Calvello, "but I like to get kissed first."

Pike recalls her first encounter with Calvello at a roller derby comeback game held at Kezar Pavilion in 1998. Pike's only previous exposure to roller derby had been on Laverne & Shirley, but Calvello fascinated her. Along with a lot of other fans, Pike followed the derby "bad girl" to a nearby bar, where she spent the night watching Calvello drink champagne cocktails out of a golden chalice. Finally, fortified by enough pints of cider, Pike pitched the idea for the documentary.

"All right, kid, here's my card," said Calvello, handing over a fluorescent orange card printed with a lion and the words "Roller Derby Queen."

A stained-glass lion hangs in the window of Calvello's modest San Bruno apartment, which she shares with one-time lover Billy Prieto. Golden lion-shaped knockers adorn her door. I'm worried that I'm late.

"Right on time," says Calvello, opening the door with a hand weighed down by a turquoise lion ring the size of my palm. "I like that."

I'm not a Leo (Calvello likes that less), but I am an Aries, like Demon of the Derby director Sharon Marie Rutter, which is a strong fire sign, according to Calvello. So far so good.

Calvello moves me through her tiny apartment, pointing out black-and-white photographs -- of her and Troy Donahue, her and Bobby Vinton -- awards, trophies, and a few of her more prized gifts from fans, like the colorful statue made in her likeness by local artist Juan Ramos. But it's impossible to take it all in: Calvello's apartment is like a three-dimensional scrapbook from an astrologer's wet dream. Every surface and nearly every inch of every wall is festooned with lions given to her by adoring fans: lion magnets, posters, sculptures, stuffed animals; lion clocks, paintings, mosaics, and statues; lion rugs, blankets, mugs, and piñatas.

"There're only two famous Leo women I don't like," says Calvello, standing with her feet firmly and widely planted. "Whitney Houston and Kathie Lee Gifford. You know, their shit stinks just like anyone else's."

Calvello leads me to a kitchen table completely engulfed by birthday cards from her "Cub Club." Since a Web site for Demon of the Derby went up with contact information, Calvello's old fans, and a slew of new ones, have been getting in touch. Calvello answers every missive by hand, with one result being that many of her admirers will be flying out for the movie premiere.

"I have too much energy," says Calvello, leaning against a sliding glass door while I sit down in front of a crockpot bubbling with potpourri. ("I don't cook anymore," says Calvello by way of explanation. "I got divorced in 1956.")

As Calvello's cats -- Luanna, Baby Girl, and Isis -- slink between lions, she launches into the history of a career that spans nearly six decades, a couple of wars, and more than a few heartaches. Only once did Calvello try to walk away from the game -- in 1952, when she got married to a handsome referee named Roy Langley, but she left him and their baby daughter Teri Ann to go back to the rink. "If these skates could only talk," says Calvello, picking up her famed mismatched black and red pair. "They've been up a few asses."

Calvello, while warm, funny, and articulate, never once offers a hint of the vulnerability that Sharon Rutter is able to capture so beautifully in Demon of the Derby when, at the age of 71, Calvello prepares to skate in the 2000 Roller Jam.

"Ann's most passionate love affair has been with roller derby," says Rutter, who shot more than 170 hours of video with Calvello over the course of the project. "The most important relationships in her life have been with other skaters and roller derby fans. To capture her honestly and express the core of her had to be through roller derby."

Even while talking about her absentee father, her daughter, the tumor that was recently removed from her brain, the death of her younger siblings, and a life in a post- roller derby world that includes bagging groceries at Safeway and selling tickets at 49ers games, Calvello is "on" -- a hard-bitten roller derby character, larger than life and equipped with instant soundbites like "Joe Namath is the Ann Calvello of football."

"There's no difference between me on or off track," says Calvello. "It's all me. I always say it like it is."

"Ann is a heroic and complex figure," says Rutter. "After all the time I've spent with her, I am left with the same fundamental feeling I had when I started this project: Ann Calvello has lived her life exactly as she sees fit.

"I think the film honors that."

Rutter recalls dressing up as Calvello one Halloween. She remembers feeling powerful and strong, as if she could say or do anything she wanted.

"How sad," Calvello says. "You should feel like that every day."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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