Ann Calvello, 76; Popular Skater for S.F. Team in Roller Derby

Times Staff Writer

Long before Day-Glo hair dye, body piercings and tattoos became familiar fashion statements, Ann Calvello made her mark with a loud look, trashy mouth and rough skating style as a member of roller derby's San Francisco Bay Bombers.

Calvello, who skated into her 70s and was feisty until the end, died Tuesday of liver cancer at Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame, Calif., said her longtime partner, Bill Prieto. She was 76.

As a young woman in San Francisco, Calvello was drawn to the banked track, the bruising skaters and the raucous crowds of roller derby. At 18 she joined a touring team and became the "Demon of the Derby," on the rink as well as in the 2001 documentary on her life.

"Fans loved her; she could do no wrong," Tim Patten, a roller derby team owner who hired Calvello to skate in the 1990s, told The Times on Thursday.

Part sport, part entertainment, roller derby in its heyday of the 1950s and 1960s was filled with melodramatic characters, and for decades Calvello played the part of the villain, the skater whom opposing fans loved to hate.

"She loved to whip the crowd into a frenzy," said Jerry Seltzer, who began promoting roller derby in the 1950s after taking over the league that his father, Lou, began in the 1930s.

Jim Fitzpatrick, a fellow skater who later became a roller derby referee, said of Calvello's persona: "She was creative, way ahead of her time. People would say to her, 'You're the Dennis Rodman of your era.' 'No, no, no,' she'd say, 'They're the Ann Calvello of their era.' She's the one who created all this stuff."

Honey Sanchez of Norwalk, who skated with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds starting in 1957, remembered Calvello as a fierce opponent. "You couldn't turn your back on her. She was sneaky. If she wanted you down, she'd pull you down by the hair."

Despite the pitched competition, Sanchez and Calvello developed a friendship off the rink. Because Sanchez, her husband, Ralphie Valladares, and Calvello all were born under the astrological sign of Leo, they celebrated their birthdays together when they were on the road.

Said Patten, owner of the Bay City Bombers, a current team in San Francisco: "There's a sweet, sweet soul inside [Calvello] that cared for people deeply. She wasn't that raving lunatic on the track, although of course she made that up, so there was a part of her there."

She wasn't done skating, even at 71. In 2000, she competed in "Roller Jam," a televised match on the Nashville Network.

"Since she started skating in 1949, she wanted to skate in seven different decades," Seltzer said.

Calvello, a native of Newport, R.I., is survived by Prieto; a daughter, Teri Conte of Sherman Oaks; and two brothers.

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