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Roll of a Lifetime

In the headquarters of culture, New York, New York, the idea was born. A television producer on the make was flipping through the New York Times when, turning the page, he encountered the obituary of a Roller Derby Queen.

Like a can of V-8 to the head, "It hit him," said the publicist: "'Roller Derby, my God!' "

He got on the phone with people who mattered, who got on the phone with people who mattered more. Finally, they were pitching the show to the president of The Nashville Network. "Sold; we'll take it!" he said, and the talent agents were sent into the countryside to turn over rocks and find the stars.

They landed late Saturday night at the George Bush airport and drove early the next morning past slow, brown cows, a shop selling smoked sausage jerky and a sign at Candlestick Baptist Church that read, "Except ye, repent." Onward they went, until at last they reached the local capital of in-line skating, Champions Roller World in Spring, Texas. Inside, the skating coach complained of having slept only four hours, the associate producer complained of having gone without breakfast, the publicist from Los Angeles sat huddled in her leather jacket, complaining of the air conditioning's "gale force winds," and the publicist from New York said cheerily how fun it was "to get out into the real world," and added, "You just have to take your vitamin C, that's all."

TNN, whose focus is country music, has lately diverged into shows on stock-car racing and bass fishing. It was thought that ROLLERJAM, with its "timeless combination of speed, action and over-the-top personalities," would blend well into the mix, especially since TNN has no professional wrestling.

But don't call it a redneck sport, said the publicist from New York.
On chairs and benches, about 25 ROLLERJAM wannabes were tugging on their wheels. There might have been more at another time, but Sunday morning was fine for these purposes. ROLLERJAM wasn't seeking Skaters for Jesus, unless they were like the woman in Florida who broke bricks over her head to demonstrate the power of the Lord. She made the cut.

What they wanted was the total package. In Los Angeles, where they had just been, the audition line had been filled with actors, many of who had never skated in their lives. The trick was finding actors who could skate, or skaters who could act. At Champions, when the prospects rolled onto the rink, gracefully floating and weaving, the publicist from New York said, "We were right about Houston." Rumors of an unknown land were true: People in Texas can really skate.

Erwin Miller, an old Roller Derby hero, lined them up against the wall, told them to relax, and then led them around the rink. The object of the game is for each team to try to lap the other, with each trying to prevent it by skating in packs. So on his loud, antique skates, Miller veered off to the center and watched how closely the skaters moved together. Then blowing his whistle, he told each of them to sprint away. Most of them staggered off slowly, lifting heavy legs; a man in a bandanna exploded forward as speed skaters do, and another in a hockey jersey zipped along right behind, squealing to a halt at the end.

Miller lined the skaters against the wall. He thanked them all and called out the numbers of the best. The man in the bandanna, the man in the hockey jersey, and a tall, blond woman were gathered together. Andy Meyer, the smooth-talking associate producer, took them inside the stockroom one by one, and there, among jars of ketchup and pickles, he aimed a video camera at them and said, "You're on."

First, they introduced themselves: Desire ("spelled like Desire") MacDonald was a 19-year-old assistant title examiner in Huntsville. She may be pretty, she declared, "but I don't take crap," and as proof of that, she said she somehow had suffered nine broken arms and six busted chins.

The hockey player was Jim Bourgeois, also known as "Cajun Man," who runs a roller rink in Austin. His hero was Tom Cruise, he said, "because he's a Mack Daddy with the ladies, and I like the ladies; I really do."

Brian Paul, in the bandanna, had traveled from St. Louis hoping he could do something besides sell commercial real estate. He liked speed skating, mountain climbing -- all sports, really. He'd set himself on fire once. He'd do it again, if they gave him some water.

So it was established that they were all fine Americans, and then Meyer said to each of them, "Okay, we're going to do something different now, a little role-play." And this is where things got tough. In the first scenario, each of them was the villain, suspended for breaking a chair over an opponent's back. Don't be afraid to be mean, Meyer said. Then, playing the reporter, he shoved the microphone in front of them and said, "How do you feel?"

Hmm. How did they feel? Not one of them could muster a frown or snarl. Their faces had no expression; their voices, no inflection. "Completely unfair," said Paul, sounding more schoolboy than wrestler. "He started it," Cajun Man whined.

Then the next scene: Suddenly each was the hero who had scored the winning goal. Meyer instructed them to forget all modesty. "Be Deion Sanders," he said. But Paul couldn't help but share the glory. "We just worked together well," he offered, which was your standard, boring sports quote that grew only more boring out of the mouth of Cajun Man: "It was all teamwork." Desire came closest to being Deion. "I'm just glad I came through," she said.

All of this passed over Meyer without obvious effect. At last, he told them to take ten seconds and then to show him what they had inside. "You can do anything," he said, "and when I say anything, I mean there is absolutely nothing you can do wrong."

But why would do they anything wrong? They were the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet. This, as they saw it, was the end of the job interview, the time to reiterate desire, commitment and qualifications. Leaning into the camera, Cajun Man said earnestly that if he made the team, the team would win. And Paul sold himself even harder. He promised to be a good role model "and put 100 percent in; and I'd do whatever you guys needed -- wrestle the alligators, whatever."

And then it was Desire's turn. Showing what was inside of her, she stood up and began playing the air guitar. She gazed into the camera, pouting and strumming, and there was silence until Meyer asked what it was that she played. "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin, said Desire, and Meyer, who kind of liked that, let her go on for a time and even hummed her tune.

In Los Angeles, this last improvisational part had inspired one actor to throw a chair at Meyer, which he enjoyed, and another to offer a soliloquy from a recent play, which he endured. But in Spring, among the ketchup and pickles, not one of them thought to break a chair over Meyer's back, or even to bite off the top of a cherry cola and spray soda in his face. Meyer gave the impression he would have liked nothing more.

By the rink, the publicist from New York had begun telling horror stories of talent searches past, such as the time that Aaron Spelling wanted to revive Charlie's Angels and she got sent on a ten city tour, a nightmare that nearly killed her -- all those women pointing their guns, squealing, "Stop, or I'll shoot!" In one line, a woman began pointing at the man beside her and screaming, "Call the police! He's an escaped convict!" And what do you know -- the police came, and he was. The man could find no better place to hide than in an audition line.

Miller, the skating coach, culled out one last wonderful skater and sent him in front of the camera. His name was Earl Lee Roberts, and he was an Austin electrician. "It sucks" to be suspended, he said, and "I just tried my dangdest" to score that winning goal.

And later, when people far away look at the videos to determine the final cuts, they will see Earl staring at the floor, saying how tough this game was, but that he had done his best and was glad it was over. "And hey," said Earl, looking up in confusion, "how much longer I got to go on with this thing?


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