A look back at Philly's wild, wild Warriors In a rough sport, local fans were roughest

Posted: January 20, 2008

Anyone who watched roller derby at the old Arena or saw their wild games on Channel 48 will recall that the Philadelphia Warriors had a thirst for mayhem.

"I had three bodyguards whenever I came to Philadelphia," said Gootch Gautieri, a former player and official with the New York Bombers. "One time, I was in a grudge-match race against Ruberta Mitchell, and an idiot fan jumped on the track and attacked me. I kicked him in the face with my skates and put him in the hospital. He had no business assaulting me."

The Warriors arrived here in 1967, nearly two decades after the sport had debuted in the city in 1948.

"When we got to Philadelphia in '67, we had very good TV ratings. But the first few months, we had small audiences," former star Buddy Atkinson Jr. recalled. "After a few months, we started selling out the Philadelphia Arena."

It has been several decades since the Warriors and roller derby disappeared from Philadelphia and the other cities where it flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. But there has been a revival of sorts. At least two amateur teams play in the area - the Philadelphia Roller Girls and the Penn Jersey She Devils - though fans of the old game might have difficulty recognizing the new version.

The game that the Warriors played had co-ed teams, banked tracks and theatrical storylines. Most of today's roller derby teams are for women only. Players usually wear miniskirts and fishnet stockings, have outrageous nicknames, and skate on flat, hard surfaces.

Those old Warriors team had stars such as Mitchell, Atkinson, Judy Arnold, Little Richard Brown, Mike Gammon, Judi McGuire and Judy Sowinski. And their vocal fan base wanted to see blood.

"The Philly crowds always wanted us to smash someone," Arnold said. "You could only do so much."

Roller derby, begun in Chicago in 1935 by promoter Leo Seltzer and famed sportswriter Damon Runyon, originally was played straight.

But it had grown tired by 1961, the year California promoter Bill Griffiths spiced it up and created the Roller Games circuit.

In it, opposing teams and skaters feuded in a way that presaged the modern world of professional wrestling. Storylines became part of the game. Referees were urged to look the other way when fights broke out.

"I got my hands busted a number of times," Gautieri said. "I got my neck fractured. I got my eye kicked in, and that blonde, Judy Arnold, body-splashed me."

Fan attendance jumped, and it increased further with the halftime "match race," an anything-and-everything-goes street fight on wheels. The match races, unlike the games, were never televised, the better to sell tickets.

The Warriors had moved to Philadelphia from Hawaii, and some of their players had difficulty adjusting to the climate change.

"I was never on the East Coast before," Arnold said. "I only had spring clothes. I never owned winter clothing before. I used to sleep a lot because I didn't want to go out in the cold."

In 1972, Arnold, Brown and Sowinski appeared in the roller-derby movie Kansas City Bomber, starring Raquel Welch. Brown and Sowinski were skaters, and Arnold was Welch's double.

"I did the skating scenes for her," Arnold said. "I give Raquel Welch a lot of credit for skating. It's not easy to skate on that banked track. When she had her skates on and posed for a picture on the banked track, she fell and broke her wrist. That held up the film for three weeks."

During the televised games, the skaters who were going to have match races at coming events screamed and assaulted each other during halftime interviews. As Roller Game announcers such as Channel 48's Elmer "Elbows" Anderson offered play-by-play commentary, they frequently reminded viewers of the coming match race.

Match-race participants received 1 percent of the money brought in for that game on top of their regular salaries.

One of the Warriors' biggest highlights was winning the 1974 World Series in Madison Square Garden, beating the New York Chiefs.

"It was a very proud moment for me and the team," Brown said.

The problems began in December 1973 when Roller Derby folded. Griffiths formed a new league, the International Skating Conference (ISC). Roller Derby stars such as Joanie Weston, Ann Calvello, Charlie O'Connell and Ronnie Robinson joined the ISC because there were no alternative leagues.

The ISC folded in 1975, and the following January, the Eastern Roller League was established, with the Warriors as one of its members. But its existence was just a glimmer; that league went under in May, and the Warriors disappeared.

comments powered by Disqus