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WHOLLY ROLLER: A Brooklyn Resident pays tribute
to the bygone sport of Roller Derby

by Alec Applebaum
from TIME OUT NEW YORK
(Feb. 26-March 4, 2004)

From the outside, Gary Powers' Victorian home looks typical for the South Midwood section of Brooklyn. Not unlike neighboring residences that dot the tree-lined streets surrounding Brooklyn College, his seven bedroom abode features a well-manicured front yard, a driveway and a deep porch. But inside, Powers, a Broadway ticket agent, has converted much of his domicile into an unlikely shrine to Roller Derby. Framed newspaper clippings, jerseys, publicity photos, ticket stubs and posters line the wooden staircase and walls. In his study, a television plays a tape of helmeted athletes skating past, and often into, each other.

Welcome to Roller Derby's unofficial Hall of Fame. Powers found himself the Midwood digs when his collection outgrew his Park Slope co-op two years ago. Eventually, he says he would like to schedule public visits to his home. But for now, he's content to showcase his treasure trove of tickets, bios and eBay purchases on his new website, RollerDerbyFoundation.org. "Imagine a sport that just basically disappeared," he says. "I don't want what they accomplished to disappear."

Powers' passion for Roller Derby dates back to 1967, when he saw a match on TV and got hooked. A few years later, after his father suffered a fatal heart attack, Powers became depressed and contemplated suicide - but says his love for the Derby game him a reason to live. "It was sport, theatre, colorful," he recalls, explaining the Derby's curious allure. Powers, a native of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, also embraced the Derby's "morality play," in which one team played fair and the other didn't. "Good wins in the end," he says.

In 1971, Powers coaxed Roller Games, a campy offshoot of the original National Roller Derby league, to play a match at Pottsville High School's Lengel Gymnasium. Two years later, the original Roller Derby folded - but not Powers' interest.

After staying in touch with penpal fans and working at theatres in Boston and New York throughout the 1980s and early 90s, Powers' passion intensified when he read a May 1997 NEW YORK TIMES obituary of former Bay Bomber star Joanie Weston, who died of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease at age 62. Saddened, Powers took to the internet to learn what had become of Ann Calvello, Ronnie Robinson and other boyhood Roller Derby favorites. He found an online band of mourners and decided to preserve the legacy of the skaters who had brought him so much joy.

Although Powers says his collection began with a jersey that he purchased for $5 from a high school classmate, he didn't become a serious collector until 1997, when he started buying and selling memorabilia on eBay. He distributes the proceeds from his sales to retired skaters who've fallen on hard times. Last winter, he even bought 200 phone cards to subsidize long-distance chats between some 75 skaters. "A lot of them are on very limited incomes," Powers says. "This is my way of helping them reach out."

Perhaps Roller Derby's most notable fallen star is Ann Calvello, who played for variious teams - including the Brooklyn Red Devils, the New York Chiefs and the Midwest Pioneers - from 1948 thru 1973. Now 74, Calvello was bagging groceries at Safeway in San Bruno, California, when filmmaker Elizabeth Pike tracked her down to star in the 2001 documentary, DEMON OF THE DERBY. Powers subsquently befriended Calvello when, for the making of DEMON, he helped raise nearly $10,000 in exchange for one of her old jerseys. "In 2001, (Gary) flew me in for my birthday, with other skaters, and he inivited fans," says Calvello, who regularly chats with Powers by phone several times a week. "He's a great, sincere guy, and he always sends skaters birthday cards."

Powers is also popular among a new generation of Roller Derby fanatics who practice at the Empire Roller Skating Center, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Last summer, David 'Lefty' Leibowitz and Karin Bruce cofounded Gotham Girls Roller Derby, which aims to field teams by summer. But while GGRD skater Janine Fleri says "a lot of the girls would love for (Gary) to be involved" as the Derby redevelops, Powers demures. For him, the old-school Derby - coed, nationwide and historic - feels like home.



November, 2004
THANKS TO ALEC APPLEBAUM & TIME OUT NEW YORK for their article on our efforts for skaters. Because of Alec's article, news of our fundraising efforts, 'giving back to skaters,' continued to reach more and more fans all across the country. During the summer of 2004, Jerry Seltzer, former owner of the original Roller Derby (his father Leo created the game in 1935) granted us permission to reopen the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame, so now my home IS the Hall of Fame's 'official' home. Everyone who loves the game and its great athletes is invited to view the collection and join us for one of our famous skater/fan get-togethers. Hope you can join us one day soon!

The National Roller Derby Hall of Fame would not be possible without the encouragement and support of fans and former skaters, most notably Phil Berrier, (the late, great HOFer) Ann Calvello, Judy Arnold, Marc Stern, Domenic Rom, Jeff Jones, Judi McGuire & Charlie O'Connell, Jan Vallow & Sherri Erich, Gerry Murray, Mike Gammon, Richard Brown, Jeff Hart, Larry Lewis, (the late former fan) Steve Chiaverini, Joe Peters, Gino DeCarlo, Julie Patrick, Norma Rossner, Vinnie Gandolfo, Pete Boyd, Bob Woodberry, Jimmy Ciota, John Hall, (late, great HOFer) Gene Gammon & his widow Mona, Monta Jean Payne, (late great HOFer) Billy Bogash & his widow Georgia, Nellie Wilson, Sammy & Vee Skobel, Patti 'Moo Moo' Cavin, Frank Macedo, (late great HOFer) Russ Massro & his widow (HOFer) Mary Youpelle, Beverly Wallace, Cathie Read, Ann Penderghast, Carmella 'Tiny' Grosso, Pam Patolo, Gloria Mack & Billy Gardner, 'WhirlyBird' Harlean Khien, Al Dube, the family of former skater LeRoy Gonzales, Lydia Clay, Joanne & Bill Laurino, Pauline 'Cookie' Kadyra & Sue Cola, Gail Fund, Don Drewry, Delores Doss & Ray Chang, (the late referee) Ed Potter & his widow Betty, Nick & Kathy Scopas, Dee Wilson, Judy Sowinski & Angela, Frank Commesso & (the late) Jack Reade, Greg Rollie, (the late Derby HOFer) Johnny Karp & his widow Kay, George Copeland, Billy Prieto, Jim Fitzpatrick, Joe Panzarino, Buddy & Dru Atkinson, Annis Jensen & Barbara Baker, Candy Jones, (the late former skater) Jackie Garello, Jerry Cattell, (the late husband & wife skating team) Gerri Abbatello & Joe Chaump, Dee Morrissey, Bill Griffiths Family, Gerardo Ramirez, Ken Arruda, Joe Finger, Frank Noone, Gary Brown, Ken Moore, Art Mensor, Steve Fainer, Gregg McNight, Harvey Hoffman, Joey Vernicek, Joe Kosmal & Bob Conner, Todd Kramer, Mike Maksymiw, Mike DeMeo, Rick Reynolds, Edward Meek, plus countless others whose generosity and support has made all we do possible.