Hailed by its announcers as “America’s fastest growing spectator sport!”, Roller Games (and its rival league, Roller Derby) peaked in popularity during the early 1970’s when it was in national television syndication. During this Golden Age, I’d religiously tune into the “Roller Game of the Week” on KTLA every Sunday night to hear that flamboyant trackside announcer Dick Lane, at least once a game, bellow: “Whoooooaaaaaaaaaa, Nelly!”
The Roller Game of the Week–hosted by this legendary team of the aforementioned Lane and his sidekick Bill “Hoppy” Haupt and his terminally bad hairpiece–each week featured the beloved Los Angeles Thunder Birds pitted against a rival bad guy team such as the Texas Outlaws, New York Bombers or Reilly’s Western Renegades. What would normally transpire during the course of the Roller Game of the Week was an all out orgy of screaming, violence and overall bad behavior which usually culminated in a last second victory by the T-Birds, just when it appeared that all was lost!
As each Roller Game of the Week concluded, my brother and I—both of us by now worked into a lather by the spectacle we’d just witnessed—would wrestle our way to my bedroom, relentlessly punching each other as we made our passage. Then in our stocking feet–on the slick hardwood floor with a little table placed strategically in the middle of the room to approximate the center of the roller rink–my brother would whip me out on a jam and I’d slide swiftly across the bare, hardwood floor on imaginary roller skates, throwing elbows and delivering hip checks, crashing into the walls and alarming our parents as we skated around in our socks, beating the crap out of each other.
Such was our passion for Roller Games!
But as the early 80’s rolled around, the wheels had come off the figurative skates of the Roller Games industry, due in part to the emergence of Vince McMahon’s WWF, with the likes of such steroid-pumped superstar wrestlers as Hulk Hogan and the Macho Man, Randy Savage. Although a few feeble attempts to revive Roller Games have been attempted in recent years, its glory days most likely will never be recaptured. The last serious attempt was the short-lived RollerJam of a few years back, featuring juiced guys and shapely gals in sexy uniforms in a high-octane MTV generation version of Roller Games. But for all its flash and hype, RollerJam just couldn’t capture the cheesy charm of its low budget predecessor.
Memories of the glory days of the banked track now bring a nostalgic lump to my throat as I think back to those roller stars of yore that soared around the track like comets in the night’s sky, shining bright under the hot lights of the Olympic auditorium in Los Angeles. But of all those faded stars from the halcyon days of Roller Games, none burned brighter than the L.A. T-Bird’s own “Psycho” Ronnie Rains, who was once described by an L.A. Times reporter as “a man who combines handsome physical features with the charm of Charles Manson.”
Rains, a Los Angeles native, began competing as a flat track roller skater at age 11. As an amateur, Ronnie was 3-time national speed skating champion, along the way defeating some of the best skaters in the world, as he hitchhiked around the country competing in national championships. In his early twenties, Rains made the jump to the banked track, hired to his first Roller Games contract in 1963 with the New York Bombers. During the 60’s, he spent several years with the Australian T-Birds, where he met his future wife, Australian skater Colleen Murrell. The best pure skater in the sport, Rains could skate backward on one skate better than most skaters could go forward on two, combining speed, agility and a manic personality, which captivated Roller Games fans around the globe.
In 1969, Ronnie returned to the New York Bombers as player/coach, assuming the classic role of the heel. On account of his over the top antics, opposing fans began taunting Ronnie with the nickname, “Psycho”, which continually made him go berserk and cover his ears to drown out the deafening chorus of: “Psycho, Psycho, Psycho!” Conversely, Ronnie had the ability to work crowds into a frenzy, often inciting riots at other team’s arenas.
Throughout his colorful career, Rains fluctuated between the roles of “good psycho” and “bad psycho”, just as many of today’s wrestling stars flip-flop between these good guy/bad guy personas as a marketing ploy. For many years, Rains–with his fondness for kicking opposing skaters in the face–was one of the reigning rogues of the game. Because of such bad guy tactics, Ronnie was the recipient of a bomb threat at his apartment in New York one time, and on another occasion was nearly shot by some irate fan that felt “The Psycho” needed to be put in his place. One time Ronnie enraged one spectator to the point that it caused the fellow to stand up without his crutches for the first time in years.
One of Ronnie’s most infamous routines — circa 1972 — centered around a German WW1 Kaiser helmet, the kind with a spike on top. Instead of the traditional helmet that jammers would normally use, “The Psycho” would wear this Kaiser helmet when he went out on a jam, the result of which made him seemingly invincible as he’d crash into opposing skaters and scatter them like bowling pins. For some reason, it never occurred to Ronnie to wear the helmet during the last jam of the game to score the winning points, thus his evil-hearted Bombers would always end up losing to those perennial good guy L.A. Thunderbirds. Eventually, Ronnie stopped wearing this magic helmet when it was officially banned by the Roller Games Commission on account of its evil mystical powers! That same year, Ronnie had a role in Kansas City Bomber starring Rachel Welch. Portraying the heel captain of a dastardly team called the Renegades, Ronnie’s antics proved to be the most memorable and hilarious of all those Roller Games skaters appearing in the film.
Ronnie skated with the New York Bombers until 1973, when he switched sides and joined the L.A. T-Bird’s, re-inventing himself in the image of the good natured psycho with a heart of gold. At the height of this “good guy psycho” phase Ronnie was much beloved in Los Angeles. In fact, it was the L.A. fans that turned around “The Psycho” nickname and started using it in a positive light, as over time Ronnie grew to appreciate the appellation.
A regular Harpo Marx on skates, Rains was a true comic genius. One minute he’d be racing around the track at 40 miles an hour, dodging in and out, throwing a shoulder here or an elbow there, knocking his opponents over the rail or into the infield. The next thing you’d know he’d be reaching down into the crowd and sweeping middle aged ladies off their feet, pulling them up to the railing and planting a big smooch on their cheeks.
Rains brought a creativity to the sport the likes of which hasn’t been seen since. He had a thousand gags and gimmicks, like his famous “swivel hip” routine where he’d start doing this crazy little dance to juke opposing defenders, mesmerizing them just as a teammate, like little Ralphie Valladares, would come soaring around the corner on a jam and score! Other diversionary tactics including spinning in circles, making faces at his opponents, or biting them on the ankles.
Sometimes Ronnie would grab an opposing player and, much to their chagrin, start doing the jitterbug, high stepping and clowning, which would totally confound his roller-skated nemesis. Another stunt the Psycho mastered was to lay flat on his back and then scissors-kick an oncoming opponent, launching them over his head, where they would somersault in mid-air then land flat on their backs, grimacing in pain. On other occasions, Ronnie would suddenly grab the microphone from the track announcer and start eating the cord.
As Ronnie told Roller Sport Illustrated in 1974, “No one can ever predict what I am going to do next because I don’t even know what it is. I’ll be out there skating and suddenly an inspiration will hit me. A voice will descend to me from high above, far beyond the reaches of the arena, and like a lightning bolt it will instruct me with my next move.“Just because I am the one chosen for these daring and essential deeds, the whole world is ganging up on me. Can you believe that as far away as Japan the people are up in arms against me and want to have me committed to an institution?”
During his heyday, Ronnie transformed the banked track into his own personal canvas, painting these wacky landscapes. Occasionally you’d find him during a lull in action, sitting on the rails doing a pantomime of a motorcycle rider, complete with vocal sound effects, or an imitation of a channel swimmer or Superman. Other times he’d be sticking his tongue out at a referee.
Eventually, the other teams in the league become so alarmed at Ronnie’s unpredictable behavior that they hired a man named Jess Adams to compile the infamous “Adam’s Report” to determine Ronnie’s sanity. Afterwards, when a reporter questioned the veracity of this report, implying that it was just another classic Roller Games ruse, Ronnie replied: “The Adams Report was on the up and up. It was all for real. The owners wanted me barred. They said I was psycho, when I was just eccentric.”
In 1973, one of the Psycho’s more memorable stunts took place at the Rose Bowl during a 4th of July fire works halftime display. For several weeks “The Roller Game of the Week” had been hyping how Psycho Ronnie was going to strap on a jet pack during the halftime show and fly out of the stadium. As promised, that’s exactly what he did, (well, sort of) lifting off about twenty feet above the ground and spinning in circles, then returning back to earth. On that same night there was a tribute to that irrepressible trackside announcer, Dick Lane. During the fireworks show, a bust of Lane (laced with explosives) was ignited and burst into flames to the amazement of all those in attendance.
Each “Roller Game of the Week” featured a halftime interview where inevitably the star player on one team would challenge the other team’s star to the obligatory “Match Race”. Usually the interview culminated amid a flurry of fisticuffs and threats of career ending injuries, as the venerable Bill “Hoppy” Haupt would announce to the home viewing audience that a “5 laps anything goes match race!” between the two skaters would be held the following Saturday night at the Olympic Auditorium. Like clockwork, these halftime interviews would spark a mini riot in the crowd, as the camera panned the packed arena and Hoppy would yell out: “Better call Richmond 9-5171 right now before the tickets sell out!” Then–filled with anticipation of Psycho Ronnie going mano-e-mano with his nemesis to settle once and for all who was really the superior skater–I’d race to the phone and order tickets. Only later did I discover that these Sunday night telecasts were free admissions, which explained why the stands were always filled to capacity. This tried and true formula was the brainchild of legendary T-Bird owner Bill Griffith, Sr., who utilized such P.T. Barnum theatrics to promote his product. It was a formula that worked well for many years, but as the mid-70’s rolled around, interest in Roller Games began to wane.
By the early 80’s, the Roller Games league folded and Ronnie moved on. For a while he ran a gardening business in L.A., then later a flower shop, and soon faded from popular memory. Still, the legend of “The Psycho” burns bright with a few die-hard fans, who fondly remember when he reigned supreme over the banked track, flashing an infectious smile while pounding opposing skaters into submission. In fact, a small but fanatical following can be found these days on Internet messageboards and newsgroups, keeping the memory of Ronnie’s skating days alive.
In fact, it was at one of these very Internet newsgroups that, much to my surprise and delight, I learned of Ronnie’s current whereabouts. As it turns out, he is alive and well in Portland, Oregon, where he and his wife, Colleen, own and operate a Tommy’s Burgers that is decorated with pictures and newspaper clippings from Ronnie’s Roller Games career. On any given day you can find him there, reminiscing with customers about those heady days when he was known to the world as “The Psycho”, the greatest Roller Games player to ever lace up a pair of skates.
For more about Ronnie “The Psycho” Rains visit: groups.yahoo.com/group/ronnieraines/
Postscript: The Tommy’s Burgers Controversy
As we were going to press, I discovered a series of articles from 2003 chronicling some rather questionable business practices involving Ronnie Rains and the use of the “Tommy’s Burgers” trademark, a famous Southern California restaurant chain.
According to “Miss Dish”, food critic for the Willamette Week Online (www.wweek.com), ”The signature (Tommy’s) dish is a burger with a healthy dollop of a sweet meat-only chili, cheese, onions, pickle, tomato and mustard, and the chain artfully displays the blueprint of its masterpiece with a poster titled “Anatomy of an Original Tommy’s Burger.” ”
When Miss Dish visited the Portland “Tommy’s Burgers”–which formerly operated out of a building at Southwest 20th Avenue and Morrison Street, but switched to a cart after the restaurant closed—she discovered that it sported the same “Anatomy of an Original Tommy’s Burger” image as its SoCal counterpart. When Dish asked one of the owners if they were connected to the California Tommy’s, he replied: “We’re from California…I knew Tommy.” Afterwards, Miss Dish’s research showed that this Portland version of “Tommy’s” had no affiliation to the “Original Tommy’s” of Southern California.
After this article appeared, the Portland “Tommy’s” received letters from the Original Tommy’s lawyers. Subsequently, the name was changed to “Ronnie’s”, and then shortly after to “Salt & Pepper”.
Moral of the story: You can’t keep a good psycho down!