The Life And Death Of Stu ManChu
(My Time With The DuPage Derby Dames) Part 1
"LAY – DEES and GEN – TEL – MEN !
Roller Derby fans of ALL ages!
Good evening and WELCOME to Coachlite Skate Center in BEAUTIFUL Roselle, Illinois.
Tonight, we are going to whisk you away to the enchanting Bavarian Alps for a Roller Derby doubleheader, that the Munichers call Das Doppel-Grosse-Knocken-Blocken-Und-Trinken-Stein.
But here in Roselle, we are just going to call this one KNOCKTOBERFEST!"
In my heart of hearts I have always wanted to be able to be a sporting announcer. Announcers get to be loud, they get to be over-the-top, they get to be the center of attention. In 2012, I got my wish and for one Saturday a month, I got to play the part of Roller Derby announcer. They called me Stu ManChu.
When I was not being Stu ManChu, I was a regular working stiff like everyone else. When I got home from work at around 8:20AM on September 12, 2012, I found my wife's car unexpectedly in the driveway. Virginia always had practice with the DuPage Derby Dameson Wedsdays and she usually stayed out late with some of her fellow skaters over chicken wings and beer. My instincts told me that something was wrong. I feared that she was home because our dog Teague, who has cancer, was in trouble. Instead, as I walked in, Virginia told me that she was no longer a Dame.
I felt like someone had ripped my heart right out of my chest. For the past year, Virginia and I had lived and breathed Roller Derby, spending much of our free time to make this young team a success. With one walk up the driveway and through the door, it was over.
My life with the DuPage Derby Dames was conceived on Sunday April 3, 2011
. That afternoon, Virginia was thrown from her horse fracturing a vertebrae
and four ribs. Virginia healed pretty quickly, as she always does, but her injuries were serious enough for her to spare her loved ones further anxiety
by giving up riding for a while.
Around that time, an ambitious young woman was readying herself to make a second attempt at starting a Roller Derby league in the western suburbs of Chicago. She went by the moniker of Millie Brawl, as is the custom in Roller Derby to go by clever nicknames. Millie's first attempt at starting the DuPage Derby Dames at the Aurora Skate Center resulted in her skaters leaving her to reform without her as The Aurora 88's.
Millie moved one town north to Batavia, Illinois and began to recruit new Dames at Funway Entertainment Center. Virginia learned about the league from a friend whose wife skated for the Windy City Rollers. Virginia joined up in June.
The newly formed Dames grew over the summer and I came to know their acquaintances over a pair of fundraising events. Soon the Dames had to overcome a pair of challenges. First, Funway would not give the Dames any rink time to hold bouts on the weekends. With the beginning of the high school sports season, the Dames practice days were cut back to once a week to make room for a roller hockey team.
But before these issues with Funway could be addressed, a second power struggle emerged within the Dames' ranks and came to a head during their first trip to skate against another team in Marion, Illinois against the Southern Illinois Roller Girls. This faction , which included a number of the new board of directors and the coach, attempted a coup at a league meeting after the bout. Virginia, who had yet to really assert herself in the league, decried this action and stood up the dissenting faction. The coup fizzled and most of this faction then defected to the Aurora 88's instead leaving the Dames with a depleted roster right before their upcoming away bout against the Dark River Derby Coalition in Quincy, Illinois.
I went down to support this second-ever Dames bout on November 5, 2011. Virginia had thrusted herself into a position of leadership by standing up for Millie Brawl and found herself nominated as team captain. The team was very green, and without some of their more experienced skaters, the Dames were badly out-skated by the savvier home team. Feelings were definitely bruised from the loss, and by the perception of biased refereeing. Most of the Dames declined to go to the after party in favor of partying at Quincy's former Holiday Inn Holidome. It was definitely a bonding experience though and the Dames and I got to know each other that weekend. Moreover, these remaining skaters finally found that that they had a dedicated and unified core. A core without a home rink and without a coach, but without any dissenters.
Back home, the Dames nominated and voted for a new five-skater board of directors to manage the buisiness of the league and Virginia was elected to the position of "sergeant-at-arms" with the ultimate authority to execute the decisions of the board and the new skater relations committee. Every skater now had to become a member of some sort of committee: skater relations, marketing, bout, training, ect. Hangers-on and slackers would no longer be tolerated and every skater would have to have her dues on time, attend 75% of practices and 50% of official league functions to be a skater-in-good-standing.
Many communities no longer have a local roller-rink and their local leagues skate in whatever venues that are able to accommodate them. But the larger Chicagoland area still has a good number of them still open. With their new bureaucracy in place, the Dames tackled their next major obstacle, the lack of a home bouting space. The Dames reached out to all of the rinks within a practical radius but only Coachlite Skate Center in Roselle, Illinois was willing to give the Dames a shot.
Coachlite agreed to let the Dames skate for twice a week for a nightly fee to be paid for by skater's monthly dues. As the Dames began to practice, the board of directors successfully negotiated for their inaugural home season for 2012 of eight bouts on Saturday or Sunday nights.
This would be a big gamble for Coachlite, as they were counting on their new young business partners to at least match the revenue that they would make on the open-skate that they would otherwise have during these bouts. Virginia, as a small business owner, was invaluable at negotiating on the league's behalf. In their new venue, Virginia also took on an increased role in training. A large group of new “fresh-meat” skaters were trained under Virginia’s tutelage and passed their minimum skills tests under her supervision. Many in this group helped restock the Dame’s core of rostered skaters depleted from the last defection.
Yet the Dames still had no coach and not enough qualified referees or officials at this time to hold a bout. One of the prestigious hallmarks of the greater Roller Derby community is that they are skater-run, do-it-yourself operations. Chicago is the city where Leo Seltzer began the sport of Roller Derby and have two leagues belonging to the Womens Flat Track Derby Association, the Windy City Rollers and the Chicago Outfit. Millie Brawl called upon the greater Chicagoland Derby community for help. Numerous members of the Outfit and the WCR lent their time and their experience to the Dames, helping them run guided scrimmages and putting them through some pretty intense exercises. But if it were not for the help of one particular person, the Dames would not have been able to move forward at this critical stage of development.
This person was Phil Doe, a very qualified referee associated with the Chicago Outfit. While unable to commit to coaching the Dames, as that would have been a conflict of interest with The Outfit, Phil was invaluable in lending years of refereeing experience to their scrimmages, explaining the complicated rule set of the WFTDA so that the Dames could identify their weaknesses and hone their strategies as the holiday season began.
The first home bout was less than a month way when Virginia approached me about becoming the Dames announcer. I was at first hesitant, but I agreed and set to learning the rules of Roller Derby. I have always enjoyed entertaining and hamming it up and I figured that, since I was an experienced at getting up on stage and playing music before a crowd, that it would translate well to announcing. At least, I thought, that I would not freeze up and choke. But the first couple of times I tried to keep up with the action of a scrimmage, I found myself completely flummoxed and tongue tied
At first, I was too caught up with playing DJ with my iPod, starting and stopping the music in time with the jams. I quickly learned to stop fiddling with the music and to focus on a few key elements of the game. When the jammers lined up, I needed to call out their names and numbers with fanfare before the first whistle. I had to learn that so much about Derby announcing is not giving away the position of the jammers to the blockers. I had to learn to shut up until the first jammer broke through the pack to earn lead jammer status.
I had to keep another eye for the referees' hand signals and an ear open to hear who had committed what penalty. I had to catch blockers making good blocks and big hits. I had to watch the jammers' combinations of strength and agility to get past the blockers on their scoring runs. All of this I had to observe and identify who they were and enunciate clearly and fluidly all of this into the microphone as the action happened. Roller Derby is not an easy thing to keep up with!
The innaugural bout was January 7, 2012
and I felt like that I was at least minimally confident to perform the tasks of announcer. At one scrimmage, the Dames told me that they had come up with a Derby name for me. I groaned and was reluctant at first, but soon realized that if the Dames were christening
me as Stu ManChu, that I would bear that name with pride!
This first home bout featured Dames vs. Dames in The Infamous Jungle Room Brawl, an Elvis themed bout to commemorate The King's birthday. We even hired an Elvis impersonator to sing the national anthem and to perform the halftime show. It took every eligible skater to form those two rosters. Other Dames who had yet to pass their minimum skills test helped to be non-skating officials to keep track of the score and penalties. Friends and families volunteered for a variety of positions.
I had prepared all of my announcing notes meticulously, scripting my introduction, sponsor plugs, halftime announcements and conclusion. Phil Doe had saw to it that we had a full staff of referees from the regional Derby community. We rented 300 chairs and had them all set out. The track was laid out in painter’s tape on the floor. At six o'clock the doors opened and to our relief and delight we had a full house! Every chair was taken and over a hundred more were standing.
I was nervous as hell but I got through my introduction. As the first couple of jams were underway, I did not choke and I did not freeze. Another skater's husband showed up to co-announce, but as he did not have any scrimmage practice, he did freeze up. He did do a good job at color commentary and we found a rhythm as the bout progressed. And what a bout it was! The skaters attacked each other like they were competing for roster spots. The crowd ate up every one of the big hits and pile-ups. I helped to keep the crowd levels high as I played a playlist of fast Elvis songs on the house PA. Upon the final jams of the bout we had 500+ people, yelling and hollering , many on their feet. The sensation was incomparable, to have been part of something that started from a common aspiration and culminated in such a roaring, rousing success.
The Dames had made their mark! Now the Dames refocused on filling holes in their organization. The overwhelming feeling, now that the home season was underway, was that the Dames would not be able to move forward without an experienced coach. Up until that point the Dames had a training committee, which Virginia was on, and the Dames were training themselves. They found their new coach shortly before their next bout. (This person will be referred to as “Coach” in this publication).
The next month would up the antie for the Dames. February 18, 2012 was the first home bout against another league, the Wisconsin River Valley Roller Girls from Wausau, Wisconsin. We had a Mardi Gras themed bout called the The Bourbon Street Beatdown. I scored some green beads, a green hat and a $5 CD called The Sounds of Bourbon Street at Party City. I had all of the Dames sign the hat at a karaoke fundraiser the week before.
A roster of the most talented 14 girls was selected to skate for the Dames first inter-league bout on their new home turf. Phil Doe invited Brian Mumbles, the announcer for the Windy City Rollers, to co-announce with me. This was a great learning opportunity for me. Brian's home venue was the 6,958-seat UIC Pavilion. In the upcoming bout, Brian showed me a lot about what not to announce. He was cool and authoritative and kept a cadence explaining the details of the game in time with the action.
The Dames were overmatched, however, and as Brian Mumbles observed, things got ugly by the end of the match as the Dames turned to brawling as they were outskated. They lost 207 to 69 to remain winless in three bouts against more experienced teams. Attendance was also not as strong as in the inaugural bout, and the Dames realized that they would have to cut some expenses in order to stay in the black.
One of my trademarks in Roller Derby announcing, the result in a lost translation of sorts, was of a piece of advice I got from one of our quest referees named Reff-Raff. There is a common expression that many announcers use, according to Raff, to emphasize the scoring of a grand-slam. For example, an announcer might say, "...and Kid Vicious skates past the Valley Vixens blockers AND their jammer, 'the dynamite hits the floor', Roselle, make some noise!"
Yet, somehow I had messed up this "dynamite hitting the floor" bit. I remembered the explosive part though, and I began to exclaim, "BOOM goes the dynamite!" Raff and Phil Doe were amused by my blunder and it stuck. Soon it became the Dame's favorite expressions in my announcing repertoire.
The next bout at home was played on March 11, 2012
against the McLean County Missfits
. The Dames had some newer skaters start to come through their ranks to strengthen their roster. The Battle of The Big Top
was a circus themed bout and the Triton College Circus
graciously performed our halftime entertainment. No co-announcer was available, so I was alone in the DJ booth for that bout. After my bout with Brian Mumbles, I really started to gain confidence in keeping my announcing rhythm and not so nervous about waiting for the action to take place before saying something.
Roller Derby is a fast paced sport and even the skaters and their coaches can get confused by what the referees observe and call or fail to call. The most challenging task was to understand the rules enough to explain to the crowd what was going on in the track in these times of confusion. There were certainly more than one occasion per bout where the skaters were just dumbfounded on the track, as were the skaters on the bench and myself. I am sure that the crowd was as well, and I often failed to keep the crowd informed during those early bouts.
While the Dames were improving in skill and strength, they were still overmatched and the Missfits beat them 113 to 69 that March bout. One week after the loss against the Missfits, the Dames took an opportunity to play against in Leaf River, Illinois against the River Demons when their scheduled opponents had to cancel. A mixed roster was put together, including several skaters who had not had the opportunity to bout since the Elvis bout. Leaf River is a tiny town of only 800 and it was amazing that about a third of the town came out to see the bout. Not so amazing was the squishy floor for wrestling that they skated on. The Dames were badly beat 38 to 122.
Around the time of the March bout, there emerged some troubles in the Dame's ranks. Before one practice at a public open skate, one of the Dames, in full gear, collided with a child whose lip was injured. This could have had serious consequences against the rink owners. To show that the Dames were serious about discouraging dangerous behavior in a public setting, the skater was suspended for two weeks for "conduct unbefitting a skater". Unfortunately, that skater and Virginia already had strained relations.
Shortly after this incident, an anonymous petition was brought forth against Virginia claiming to represent over a quarter of the skaters. This petition called for Virginia's removal from the board of directors. Among the grievances in this petition was that Virginia was disrespectful against other skaters, that she used her board position to intimidate other skaters and to create divisions within the league. It even accused her of physical attacks on other skaters.
This was most troubling, as Virginia's bouting and scrimmaging statistics did not include a single misconduct penalty, nor had any skaters been hurt while she was on the floor. Moreover, no actual signatures were applied to this petition so their numbers and testimonies could not be verified. This petition did not conform to the skater relation bylaws and never came to a vote due to this lack of signatures.
Virginia took to this attack poorly, as she was also stressed from the largely thankless tasks of mediating business details of the league. This petition baselessly attacked Virginia's reputation as a skater for what she suspected were bogus and personal reasons or as a challenge to her position on the board of directors. Virginia can be unapologetically brash at times and she does not have much political savvy. This experience left her feeling like there was a bulls-eye on her back that she could not defend herself from for her remaining time on the league.
Unexpectedly, Coach demanded that her accusers come forth to be held accountable on the Dames closed Facebook group, but in the face of the coach's inquiry, no-one came forward. As written in The Dame's bylaws, such conflicts are supposed to be mediated by a member of their skater relations committee. Because he defended Virginia, the board did not do anything about Coaches breach of policy. This negligence would have future consequences. Consequences which would ultimately result in the end of my days as Stu ManChu.
*Disclaimer: The organizations, people, and places named in this publication are real. The author has made a good faith effort to only present facts which could be verified as true so as not to unjustly damage the reputation of these organizations, people, and places. For their additional protection, some names have been altered.