Jean Porter relied on grace and speed to zip past larger roller derby opponents with such nicknames as Slugger, Toughie and Big Red.
The petite Ms. Porter, who has died at 90, was a dervish on the professional circuit’s banked wooden ovals. A moon-faced beauty with jet-black eyes and a flawless complexion, her photograph appeared in newspapers across the continent as well as in such magazines as Life, Collier’s and Picture Post. Fans of the sport voted her Roller Derby Beauty Queen in 1955 and she was runner-up for the title in the following two seasons.
She portrayed herself as the ingénue in Roller Derby Girl, a five-minute film released in 1949 about a rookie skater in the burgeoning sport. The Paramount Pacemaker featurette, which promised “sock ‘em thrills & spills” in its billing, was screened along with cartoons and newsreels before main features at cinemas across North America. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1950.
The skater was a fan favourite in the sport as an undersized underdog who tried to avoid the elbows, knees and, sometimes, fists of rivals. At a top speed of 35 miles per hour (56 kilometres an hour), collisions were common, injuries a part of the job.
“You get a lot of elbows in the ribs,” she told the Vancouver Sun in 1959. “Pinching is the best trick but you have to watch that the referees don’t see you.”
In the unsubtle marketing of the era, Ms. Porter’s Mohawk-Oneida ancestry was promoted in programs. She was photographed wearing a feather in a headband. Newspaper accounts typically described accounts of her races with such words as “warpath,” “war whoops” and other racist tropes owing more to Hollywood fiction than her own proud heritage.
Jean Helen Porter was born on the Six Nations reserve in Ontario at Ohsweken, a village near Brantford, on Jan. 31, 1930, to the former Marjorie John and MacDonald (Mack) Porter. She was raised in Buffalo, N.Y., where her father was a mechanic and automobile spray painter while her mother was a homemaker and a sewer with Broadway Knitting Mills.
The infant girl spent her first few summers on the rodeo circuit, as her parents joined a country-and-western band led by her maternal grandfather, Thomas John, a sapper with the Canadian Expeditionary Force who was shot and wounded on the Western Front in the First World War. (The family later changed the spelling of their name to Johns.)
In 1946, the self-described tomboy, whose brothers played baseball and lacrosse, became enamoured with roller derby after her family watched a match in Buffalo. She had a successful tryout and was invited to join the circuit for training in Chattanooga, Tenn. Her mother, who at first disapproved of her daughter’s wishes but later became a convert, accompanied her, soon after leaving her in the care of a house mother who cooked and chaperoned underaged skaters.
After a few weeks of training, Ms. Porter took part in her first match at the North Side Coliseum in Fort Worth, Tex.
She learned to skate with her left arm behind her back, which helped her take deep breaths to ease the symptoms of asthma and allergies. She chewed gum to keep her mouth moist as the track’s green slate paint was churned into dust by skaters’ wheels. More importantly, in terms of self-preservation, she learned a valuable and venerable lesson, as she recounted in a memoir on a website run by the former skater Loretta (Little Iodine) Behrens. Said Ms. Porter: “‘Do unto others’ became a motto.”
Roller derby originated as a gruelling endurance event created by Leo Seltzer during the Depression. The writer Damon Runyon helped transform the exhibition into a sport by composing rules in which contact was allowed and points scored for passing other skaters. After a wartime lull, the fast-paced, thrill-a-minute showbiz sport with mixed co-ed teams became a phenomenon driven by exposure on the new medium of television. The razzle-dazzle of the spectacle lured to trackside such movie and television stars as Jimmy Durante, Eleanor Powell, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Milton Berle.
The legal mayhem was occasionally interrupted by a resort to fisticuffs, as happened in a 1951 match in Boston when hometown favourite Ms. Porter, said to have an “atomic temper,” battled rival Annis (Big Red) Jensen. “While coasting round a corner in the sixth (period), Miss Jensen gave Miss Porter an elbow,” the Boston Globe reported. “Miss Porter retaliated with an elbow and a knee. Then fur began to fly. Some solid blows were landed before the referees pulled them apart. Both were fined $10.”
In a 1960 contest at the Mutual Street Arena in Toronto, Ms. Porter and Judy McGuire engaged in a “fist-swinging, hair-pulling duel,” according to a report in The Globe and Mail.
At 5-foot-3, 114 pounds (or 4-foot-11½ and 103 pounds if you believe some of the ballyhoo), Ms. Porter relied on speed and guile to avoid the brutal ferocity employed by such rivals as Annabelle (Slugger) Kealey, Midge (Toughie) Brasuhn and Ann Calvello, the Queen of Mean.
Concussions were common, as were cuts and bruises, not to mention broken bones, including legs, arms, fingers and even vertebrae. Sometimes, skaters were poleaxed into the guardrails surrounding the track. The unlucky caught a wheel in the treacherous gap separating the track from the out-of-bounds infield.
In a 17-year career, mostly spent as a jammer, a skater who attempts to lap the other team, Ms. Porter skated for such teams as the Jersey Jolters and Los Angeles Thunderbirds. She also wore the uniforms of the Chiefs, Ravens and Braves.
Ms. Porter’s naturally demure character served her well in a sport where those who defied traditional notions of femininity were more often portrayed as villains.
“Because of my being Indian, you had to be good, and never draw attention to ourselves,” she once said.
Ms. Porter married Jolters teammate Don (Jughead) Lewis in Buffalo in 1949. They had a daughter and later separated. She retained her maiden name as a competitor.
After leaving the circuit, she worked as a stone setter for a Buffalo jeweller for 19 years. She was a long-time volunteer as a bingo runner and served on the board of directors of the Fort Erie (Ont.) Native Friendship Centre, where she was also known for baking scones and fry bread, while her strawberry shortcake was a popular treat at the centre’s annual mid-winter powwow.
Ms. Porter died on Sept. 8 at St. Catharines (Ont.) General Hospital, about three weeks after abdominal surgery. She leaves common-law husband Roger Werner and a sister, Faye. She was predeceased by a daughter, Linda Dale Lewis, who died of a blood disorder as a teenager in 1969. She was also predeceased by a sister, Carol; as well as brothers Raymond, a U.S. Army veteran of the Second World War; Carmen, a U.S. Air Force veteran of the Korean War; and Orval, known as Brownie, who was posthumously inducted into the Ontario Lacrosse Hall of Fame in St. Catharines in 2001.
Ms. Porter, who was a six-time roller derby all-star, was inducted into the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame and Museum, now based in Palm Springs, Calif., in 2007.
Her lone movie role is often incorrectly attributed to a contemporary Hollywood actress of the same name, a reflection perhaps of the ordinary life she lived away from the hullabaloo of the roller derby track.