On the Rink of A Vervous Breakdown

Playboy pinup Shelly Jamison turns TV big wheel in a mind-blowing new roller derby

Momentarily oblivious to the sound man who's cramming a battery pack down the back of her dress (a skintight creation that could pass for a sequined sausage casing), former Channel 10 newscaster Shelly Jamison ponders her new position in the show-biz firmament.

"What would my reaction have been if someone had told me I'd wind up being a roller derby announcer?" she wonders aloud as a hair stylist torments her tresses into the tonsorial equivalent of an unmade bed. "Well, I'd probably have had the same reaction I'd have had a year earlier if someone told me I'd be posing for Playboy: disbelief, major disbelief." Next month TV viewers will no doubt share that reaction when they get their first gander at RollerGames, a ball-bearing bacchanal that promises to make pro wrestling look like Masterpiece Theatre. An MTV-styled permutation on the roller derbies of yore, the syndicated series, shot on grimy Terminal Island south of Los Angeles, is heavy on flash and trash, featuring six teams of cartoonish goons who careen around a massive figure-eight track, a hazard-laden concourse replete with a fourteen-foot-high "Wall of Death," a three-foot-tall "Jet Jump" ramp, and an alligator pit modestly billed as "probably the most-talked-about addition to professional sports since the NFL introduced the instant replay."

And if that isn't enough to draw the suckers into the tent, audiences will also be bombarded with laser lights, bikinied cheerleaders, muscle-bound "Roller Gator" dancers and weekly half-time acts like Deborah Harry and Lita Ford.

What? No dwarf tossing?
"We're saving that for next season," laughs the 27-year-old Jamison. She landed the RollerGames gig in May after producers David Sams and Michael Miller (the team credited with marketing syndicated versions of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!) spotted her picture in a USA Today story documenting her controversial spread in the July Playboy that was her long-awaited ticket out of Channel 10.

"I was really unhappy working there," Jamison says of Channel 10, explaining that her grueling 4 a.m.-to-noon schedule left her little time to see her newborn son, Jake. Claiming to be overworked, underpaid and generally disillusioned with TV news, the producer and sometime on-air personality eagerly jumped ship when Playboy (impressed by some test shots submitted by Jamison's husband Ron, a Phoenix firefighter) offered her a six-figure sum to pose au naturel for a pictorial titled "Broadcast Nudes." "I'd have had to work at Channel 10 five years to make what Playboy paid me," she rationalizes. "It was a tough decision, but once I made it, it was really a relief." Jamison won't say what RollerGames pays but claims she's earning more in the four-week shoot than she did in a year at Channel 10.

Although soundly criticized by tut-tutting members of the Phoenix media (she chuckles that her most vitriolic detractor was a TV personality whose desk hides a "hippopotamus ass"), Jamison was crying all the way to the bank. During a whirlwind promotional tour of the Big Apple she stayed in the best hotels, dined in the finest restaurants and was chauffeured around the East Coast in a limousine. And although she ultimately turned them down (having just purchased a home, she wants to stay in Phoenix), the producers of A Current Affair reportedly offered her a glamorous gig as a globe-trotting reporter.

But as she tapes the final episode of the thirteen-show RollerGames series, there are no limos, no limelight, and--save for impersonators of Burt Reynolds and Cher who've been planted in the audience--little glamour. Instead, tarted up to the teeth, she slinks around the set (in an old NASA hangar), rubbing shoulders with the most motley assortment of characters this side of a carnival or biker bar. A dilapidated relic fancifully dubbed Harbor Star Stage, the unsightly building stands smack dab in the middle of Terminal Island, an environmental wasteland surrounded by oil refineries, a federal prison and a harbor full of rotting tugboat corpses. As the series' resident trackside announcer (a role jokingly referred to around the set as "the Vanna White of RollerGames"), if she ultimately finds herself blending into the bedlam of this blue-collar blockbuster--not an unlikely possibility on a show where the rock 'em-sock 'em action often resembles Spartacus on skates--so much the better.

"I'm the calm in the eye of the storm, but that doesn't really bother me," says Jamison, arching an eyebrow as a couple of hard-boiled roller babes swagger by, deep in a discussion about plans to break an opponent's face. "I actually like the fact that I'm a little removed--it allows me to distance myself a little bit from some of the things going on around here," says Jamison. "Don't get me wrong, though--I've really had a great time doing this show. Believe me, it's been a real education."

Still, a little knowledge can be a dubious thing--particularly when the sources of that information are members of teams like the Violators, the Maniacs, and Hollywood Hot Flash, a skatebound platoon of power-plowers who risk life and limb for the edification of gore-crazed geeks. "This is a sport, a real sport," Robert "Icebox" Smith, a Frigidaire-framed member of the T-Birds team insists during a pregame press conference. "This is not like wrestling. Those guys are just actors. They're good actors, but they are actors." Reporters also elicit invaluable quotes from fellow teammate "Dar the Star," who, when questioned about the origin of her rather unusual name, reveals the rather startling information that "a long time ago there used to be this thing called the Daughters of the American Revolution." ("That's a crock," sneers a rival skater. "Her real name's Darlene--and she knows it!") One of the more photogenic roller ruffians (imagine Elaine Joyce crossed with a weather-beaten Barbie), Dar also breathlessly explains why she's loath to toss an opponent into that much-discussed alligator pit. "I feel sorry for the alligators," she coos, and you almost expect to see a tear welling up beneath a glittery eyelid. "They're such beautiful creatures . . . "

"How would she know?" counters a skeptical backstager, who reveals that for safety's sake, the pit actually is empty during regular play. According to the insider, the gator-wrestling sequences are staged with stunt men on a closed set and will be edited into the final footage.

DESPITE THE HIGH-POWERED hoopla surrounding TV's resurrection of roller derby, it's virtually impossible to find anyone within the RollerGames ranks who's willing or able to shed any light on the origins of this illustrious sport. "Don't ask me," shrugs Shelly Jamison, who claims her sole knowledge of the sport, pre-RollerGames, is limited to vague childhood memories of televised matches. "Everybody keeps talking about all these fans out there, but I've been here a month and I still haven't been able to get anyone to tell me who these people are or where they're watching it."

Jamison at least has the benefit of dim memories. Many of the more youthful rookies are skating in the dark. "We never got to see roller derby in our house," laughs Dar the Star. "Are you kidding? My dad wouldn't allow it." Those sentiments are echoed by 22-year-old "T-Bird Twins" Kristine and Jennifer Van Galder, a honey-haired duo who looks as if they'd be more comfortable singing the praises of Doublemint gum than risking life and limb in the rink. "We never ever saw it on TV--ever," Kristine says adamantly. "If we had, I don't know whether we'd have gotten involved with this." Explaining that she originally thought she was being offered a job in a rock-music video when one of the producers approached her in a restaurant, Kristine plans to bail out of the roller racket long before she needs orthopedic skates. Ticking off a laundry list of trackside injuries, she says with a wan smile, "I really had no idea what I was getting into. This is definitely not something I'd want to continue with for ten or twenty years like some of these skaters."

And good luck trying to wangle any historical insights out of derby veterans like "Ms. Georgia Rose Hase," a lifer who first hit the track in 1956. A brusque woman with a penchant for severely tailored pantsuits of the country-western persuasion, Hase evidently sees no future in discussing the past. Instead, she prefers to spew self-serving rhetoric about the trials and tribulations of playing den mother to the members of Bad Attitude, the team she manages. "My girls know that when I speak, they had better do as they're told," she haughtily announces as she cocks a commanding finger at several tough-looking young women lurking in the background. Like a pack of obedient pit bulls, the women flock around their mistress, snarling on cue for a camera operator. But the minute the shutter snaps, it's business as usual and they retreat to a make-up table to ogle a nude poster that the Burt Reynolds look-alike left behind. Perhaps the most accurate account of the roller derby phenomenon comes from sportswriter Frank Deford, who chronicled the sport in his 1971 book Five Strides on the Banked Track. According to Deford, Roller Derby was invented by Leo Seltzer, a sports promoter who recognized the game's potential when a fight broke out during a roller marathon he'd staged during the Depression. Cannily realizing that audiences would lap up the sight of rinkside mayhem, he eventually turned the game into TV's first junk sport. During the early Fifties, ABC aired the games as often as three times a week. Fiercely protective of his trademarked brain child (Deford reports that Seltzer successfully sued a toilet-paper manufacturer who'd made the mistake of unfurling rolls of its product for a "roller derby" commercial), Seltzer shrewdly cross-collateralized the "sport," syndicating televised matches to TV stations around the country, followed by tours of towns where the show aired. Although Roller Derby (and similar rival outfits) have played the country continuously for years, the sport enjoyed its biggest TV popularity in the early Seventies, a last hurrah immortalized by the 1972 Raquel Welch flick Kansas City Bomber.

For better or worse, Jamison claims she's been too busy attending creative meetings and writing her own scripts to keep abreast of the new wave of mayhem that's sweeping across the RollerGames track. Although naturally curious about the personal lives of the skaters ("You can't help wondering what kind of person would want to put themselves through this kind of agony"), Jamison was surprised to discover that the skaters were even more curious about her. "It was like the skaters were afraid to mention the P word," she says, referring to her Playboy layout. "There evidently was this rumor that I'd done it but everyone approached it very circuitously. Once I finally said, `Yeah, I did Playboy,' they finally loosened up and brought in the magazines for me to sign. "I think a lot of them had a hard time figuring out what I was all about. When they found out I had a son, it opened up another side of me that they didn't realize. Up until then, they probably pictured me lounging around the Playboy mansion in the nude and here I was, a wife and mother." Aside from the USA Today story that first caught the producers' eyes, Jamison claims her Playboy notoriety had little to do with landing the RollerGames contract. "This is the kind of show where whatever happens, happens, and they needed someone with a TV background who could think on their feet. They wanted someone who could be loose, have fun and roll with the punches, so to speak--even though I made it clear that I didn't want to roll with any punches literally."

(That would be fine with Jamison's mom, Arizona Republic restaurant critic Elin Jeffords, who attended a recent taping. "This is no place for a child," she said through clenched teeth at trackside as a flying helmet narrowly missed her sixteen-month-old grandson, Jake. Then, totally mortified when a particularly grungy gent playfully lifted the toddler's shirt and blew on his stomach, she finally had enough and hied the child back to the hotel. "Look at this!" she later demanded, holding up a blackened washcloth with which she'd cleaned the tyke. "What is this stuff anyway? Roller smegma?")

Because of the logistics of staging RollerGames (in addition to sixty skaters, each episode features bands, specialty acts and a live audience) the show is shot out of sequence. So there's no telling exactly how much screen time Jamison will receive each week. But it's almost a certainty that in one night she'll receive more exposure than she did during her five years at Channel 10. (The show, which will be seen opposite Saturday Night Live in most of the 150 markets, will premiere locally on Channel 3, September 16 at 11 p.m.)

"Believe me, when I made the decision to do Playboy, it wasn't a case of `Well, I'll show Channel 10,'" Jamison says as a make-up man dusts her decolletage. "Let's face it. What did this show Channel 10? Nothing. But basically I ended up with a big chunk of money and I was able to walk away from something I really didn't like.

"This isn't `Shelly gets the last laugh on Channel 10.' Who knows? The last laugh could be on me."

And last month, when she finally checked out of the Long Beach hotel that had been her home for the past month, it was.

"Here I was with no make-up, wearing an old tank top, carrying a diaper bag and the bellhop says, `Why have you been staying here so long?' I told him I was working on RollerGames and the kid's face lights up. He tells me that there's someone else from the show staying there, too--only `she's famous.'

"I asked him who it was, and he says, `Shelly Jamison. She was in Playboy. Do you know her?'

"I said, "Hey, you're looking at her.' And you should have seen his face

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