Philly's roller-derby Warriors had a pack of fans

Judy Sowinski, "The Queen of Mean," works with young skaters.
Judy Sowinski, "The Queen of Mean," works with young skaters.
Posted: November 12, 2010

There was a time when sold out crowds gathered each week at the Arena, in West Philadelphia, and later the Spectrum to watch Judy Arnold and her Philadelphia Warriors wreak havoc on the roller-derby track.

It was a sport that in its heyday could draw more fans than basketball or hockey did, and was a television staple that combined athleticism and showmanship with nonstop action.

"The fans in Philadelphia went crazy for roller games," said Gary Powers, curator of the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame and Museum, in Brooklyn. "Roller-derby skaters were some of the most popular athletes in the country, even if the mainstream media relegated them to the back pages of the sports section."

The Arena's been closed for nearly 30 years, the Spectrum is on the verge of being torn down and Arnold, 66, is now a motivational speaker.

But the city's love for roller derby remains. Two leagues - the Philly Roller Girls and the co-ed Penn Jersey Roller Derby - are playing to growing crowds. Tomorrow, the Roller Derby Hall of Fame will hold its induction ceremonies here.

Scheduled events start at 10 a.m. with a two-hour "master class" and include an open house featuring former Philadelphia Warriors players like Arnold and an evening induction ceremony.

The daylong celebration will be held at the Penn Jersey Roller Derby's practice facility, at 18th Street and Indiana Avenue, in North Philly.

The game has evolved from its early days in the 1930s, when it began as a skating marathon. Much of the roller derby played now is on a flat track. But the game was played on a banked track in Arnold's day, a practice the Penn Jersey Roller Derby is trying to bring back. It was also co-ed, generally with men and women alternating track times.

"It was the only sport where women competed under the same rules and conditions as the men," said former Warriors star Richard Brown, 63, of West Philadelphia. "I think that was one of the big appeals.

"I used to think that people used it as an outlet: When they'd be mad at home and couldn't argue with their family, they'd come to the arena and yell and scream and take their frustrations out on the skaters."

Because then, like now, the sport was tough: Jim Croce sang about the "Roller Derby Queen . . . the meanest hunk o' woman that anybody ever seen."

Today, some of the roller games stars of old admit that some of the fights were staged.

"I think most people realized that, and if they didn't, they do now," said Arnold, who now lives in Northern California. "But there were legitimate fights and broken arms and legs, and we absolutely loved what we did."

Judy Sowinski, who was known as the "Queen of Mean" back in her roller-derby days, said the sport became so popular here because people liked "seeing women beating the hell out of each other."

"I was usually the one doing the beating," said Sowinski, 70, of South Philadelphia.

For years, Sowinski played the villain to Arnold's hometown hero. Years later, she stepped into Arnold's skates, leading the Warriors on the track.

"I loved skating against her," said Sowinski, who now coaches with the Penn Jersey Roller Derby. "It was a strong competition."

Powers compared the old style roller games to "sports entertainment like professional wrestling." The games became "morality plays between good and evil," and they inspired struggling youngsters like him, he said.

"The idea behind it was that good would always triumph over evil," he said. "No matter what was going on in your life, you'd be able to overcome it."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|