It’s been a full year since the launch of the series “Off the Beaten Track,” a series of interviews with people involved in derby off the track. The third entry in the series will be published on September 4th. To celebrate the anniversary I thought I’d repost the first entry, featuring Toronto Roller Derby announcer Crankypants.
He stalks the track during Toronto Roller Derby (ToRD) bouts often dressed in a sports jacket and tie. During the hockey season there will be a logo of his beloved Boston Bruins somewhere on him. His hair is often wild and exquisitely disheveled. He clutches the mic and implores the crowd to get “louder”; his voice, a deep raspy groan, often cracks, and it’s not uncommon for mics to top out or fizzle under the abuse. By the midway point of the first half of any given bout, he’s usually red faced and wild eyed: maniacal. It is no doubt frightening for the uninitiated. But it’s this wild image that makes his smile all that more disarming when it flashes. Breaking that craggily scowl, it’s as genuine a grin as you’re likely to get.
Sean Crankypants Condon has been calling bouts for ToRD since the inaugural season in 2007, but just as so many of the league’s skaters at that time were playing a sport they knew little about, Cranky was helping create a role that had no definition: the trackside announcer.
PICKING UP THE MIC
In the mid 90s, Cranky, like many left-leaning Ontarians, found himself part of the exodus out of the province in defiance of conservative Mike Harris’ election as Premier. Taking courses at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University led to a stint at the campus radio station, CJSF. Despite being in his early 30s at that point, he’d never been behind a mic before. “The microphone wasn’t that daunting to me…I just thought that I was having a conversation with someone I couldn’t see,” he remembers during a recent interview at the Magpie, a comfortable pub in his west-end Toronto neighbourhood. While at the station, along with hosting DJ slots, he did interviews for special events like elections and Vancouver’s Pride.
When he eventually returned to Ontario (“Vancouver wasn’t my kind of town,” he says almost apologetically), he lived in St. Catharines and continued his involvement with local music, turning his attention to booking bands. For a few years he booked acts like Scandalnavia, Lesbians on Ecstasy and Cougar Party to play the southern Ontario town. Cranky acknowledges that there was a trend to his selections, but one that wasn’t originally intended. “Nine tenths were lesbian-gay-queer bands; it wasn’t planned, I just happened to like their stuff, and it wasn’t coming to St. Catharines otherwise.” He got to know the members of the bands and struck up a friendship with one particular singer/guitarist from Cougar Party—Amanda Caskie—that would prove to be an important connection in his life.
Amanda Caskie, better known in derby circles as Jubilee, was one of the girls involved in the fledgling Toronto Roller Derby league (ToRD), a league formed from the merger of a few independent teams in the city, and destined to become—for a few years anyway—the largest flat track roller derby league in North America. It was early in 2007 and the six-team league was about to kick off its inaugural season. They needed an announcer and held try outs for the spot at the Magpie. For that initial tryout, Cranky was the only one who showed up.
He clearly remembers walking into the bar for the first time and having to face skaters Jubilee (of the Death Track Dolls), Seka Destroy and Dolly Parts’em (then D-VAS, now Dolls), and the head ref, Sir Refs A Lot. Aside from a brief stint playing bass in bands, he’d only spent time behind the mic on radio, engaged in those “conversations with people (he) couldn’t see.” “I was totally intimidated,” he says now of the experience, despite the comparatively small audience. Some footage from Hammer City was projected and with only a rudimentary understanding of the rules gleaned from conversations with Jubilee, he called the action that he saw on the screen. He got the job.
ToRD’s 2007 season would actually begin with three different announcers (he was joined by Tomb Dragomir and Buck Fever). Initially they called the bouts from the broadcast booth high above the play, eventually shifting to a table by the sound board and DJ. As the season wore on, Cranky’s commitment to the sport and his embracing of the role became obvious, and by the first Battle for the Boot 2007 (at Rinx), he points out proudly: “I was the only one left standing.” It was at that first championship game that ToRD became the face of the sport for this city and that Crankypants became the face (and voice) of Toronto Roller Derby.
In February 2011, Cranky organized a fundraiser for the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic (a Toronto clinic that provides many forms of support for women experiencing violence). With the help of Diva Zapata (of the Smoke City Betties), Cranky connected with the Clinic and pulled off the fundraiser at the Garrison. A few weeks later ToRD gave the proceeds from a 50/50 draw at a CN Power game to the cause. In the end, his efforts raised a few thousand dollars and inspired an annual event.
Cranky’s desire to hold a fundraiser of this kind had actually been a long time coming. With a brother twelve years older and a father doing shift work at an auto plant, Cranky’s childhood was defined by the relationships he had with his two sisters and his mother. It was in this upbringing that the roots of his sensitivity to women’s issues were planted. Though he says “it wasn’t something that I thought about, (or) that I grew up with a hard and fast political agenda about…,” it had been a growing concern within him, with action finally being prompted after a few women in his life were victims of violence. In spite of his outwardly gruff demeanour, it is this core sensitivity that has allowed him to have a successful and continuing role in the female-dominated community of flat track roller derby.
“It’s not that easy, especially as a guy,” he says about integrating into and remaining a part of the community. “Cardinal rule number one: It’s women’s flat track roller derby. It’s their sport, (and) and you’re a volunteer in service to the league, the players, and the sport.” While he does own a pair of Reidell 265s, and even completed ToRD’s Fresh Meat program, he’s uneasy about Merby. “No offence to guys doing derby, but women are and always will be the experts of flat track roller derby… guys have a lot of sports… these women, just like you’d say about athletes in other sports, were born to play.”
In September of 2010, Cranky’s mother, Barbara, passed away. Only ten days later, on October 2nd , he was back at the Hangar to call a bout. Just before the game started he asked everyone to stand and raise their drinks: “This is for our moms,” he began, “sisters, daughters and nieces. Cheers and thank you.” There were over 800 people at the Hangar that night and sensing the weight of the moment, all shared the sentiment. “That was my most important time in derby,” he says now about that intense period of his life. “There was a lot of love there.”
PROWLING THE TRACK
It was ToRD skater Foxy Sinatra who inadvertently came up with the Crankypants name. Cranky had created Crankypants Management to help facilitate the band bookings he was doing. On caller IDs at the time, it showed up Crankypants Man. Foxy Sinatra ran with it. “Thank you Foxy,” Crankypants says now of the appropriate name (the “Man” was dropped after the first season).
But having a derby name is one thing: Becoming a roller derby announcer was another thing all together. “I’d never seen anyone do it before,” he points out. “Instinct took over.” Eventually, during ToRD’s 2008 season, he rose from the track-side table and began his now customary pacing. This is all part of becoming a piece of the action, which is an important aspect of the flat track experience. “You’re a direct conduit in real time to the players on the track and the crowd and they all function as one; it’s a real back and forth relationship.” It was important in those early days to establish a style. “We all have different ways of doing things,” Cranky acknowledges, “(but we) become part of the fabric (of the league).” He mentions the Montreal duo of Single Malt Scott and Plastik Patrik, Tri-City’s Lightning Slim, and Queen City’s Maul McCartney as examples of announcers who have become a part of that fabric.
Although he’s had some memorable experiences working alongside other announcers at tournaments (“Love Plastik Patrik!” he points out enthusiastically), he prefers to work alone at ToRD bouts. “There’s a rhythm that’s been established with the crowd and the players.” It’s not uncommon for Cranky to have conversations with particular members of the audience, and his pacing and frenetic game calling draw people into the action. He’s also had such track-side access to ToRD for such a long period of time that he can see things that the average fan cannot, and feels like part of his role is to point out players, especially, who may not get noticed as much. “Some players don’t stand out on a larger level, but I see them out there doing their job,” he says, discussing those “utility” players who battle it out in the trenches without getting a share of the limelight (one of his favourite hockey players of all time is Don Marcotte, a defensive forward who grinded out a thirteen-year career with the Bruins in the 70s and early 80s).
While every announcer brings his or her own personality to the role, Cranky is having a direct influence on the next generation of flat track announcers. Toronto Junior Roller Derby has its own announcer, Crankypants Jr., who is a direct derby descendant of ToRD’s track side figure. “He’s such a good kid,” Cranky says, “and his parents are the tops.” Cranky can’t hide his pride at this homage, and has supported the young announcer, offering him simple, but effective advice: “Don’t be nervous; less is more.” In other words, let the game speak for itself. On May 2, 2011, when the Toronto Junior Roller Derby league played its inaugural bout, Crankypants Jr. was there to call it. He’s taken to walking around as Cranky Sr. does and has adopted the “louder” yell that has become Cranky’s trademark. We’re assured that when the elder Cranky’s voice finally relents, there will be another there to carry on the tradition.
THE FUTURE OF FLAT TRACK
“The sport has changed overwhelmingly for the positive,” Cranky declares when asked about how the sport has evolved. And this is high praise for an admitted traditionalist. “The reason the fans stick with it is because this is a hard-core sport, and they have full respect for it; to me that ensures the long term health.” But despite this level of growth, he’s wary of taking things too far too quickly (a serious problem with other incarnations of the sport). “I don’t want to see flat track roller derby in the Olympics,” he says, countering a popular sentiment (and one that Jerry Seltzer claims was always the long-term goal of his derby-creating father, Leo). “We’re still in the early days and people will get this image of the sport happening in these sleek outfits: people expect athletes to look and act a certain way,” he explains, preferring derby to spend a little more time building the ever-expanding grass roots. “I think that (going to the Olympics) would take away from what this sport, this time around, is founded on, which has more of a community aspect to it, more of a ‘we’re going to get up and do this’; it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like…just can you come in and do the job and can I trust you as a teammate?”
Cranky believes that growing too fast at the top will even stunt the current growth at the bottom. “To push for that too hard means that the major cities may represent something that has not built up enough (of a foundation) to succeed on the long term and through that, smaller communities die out.” And it’s obvious that the small (though broad) scale that the sport has been played on so far has allowed for places like Austin and now Olympia to produce competitive teams without having to exist in the shadows of major-city competitors. “If ToRD becomes too big, what happens to Tri-City or Hammer City or even Durham? It’s vital to the community (in small towns like Sudbury for example).”
But he also knows that the sport itself is still in its infancy and has some growing left to do before it’s ready for a close-up on that scale. “The whole culture is going to go through some growing pains over the next few years,” he points out, saying that going to the Olympics too soon would be “like taking a shot of cortisone when you really need leg surgery.”
GIVING AND TAKING
As much as Cranky has given to the sport, he’s gotten back as well.“It’s given back a lot of frustration,” he says, that scowl back for a second, but he can’t hold back the grin. “It’s given me friendships and exposure through these relationships to different aspects of life that I would have never been exposed to otherwise. There’ve been artistic connections, volunteer connections, community connections.”
Roller derby has a way of affecting people’s lives off the track as much as it does on the track, and the effect on Cranky has been profound. “I enjoy the people I know; I know it sounds like one of those crappy axioms, but life is too short to get bogged down in a lot of little stuff. I don’t get aggravated by stuff as much as I used to,” he says acknowledging the real impact being a part of the community has had on him. “I made the best friends of my life through this…it got me to be real about a lot of things, and as I get older…I got to be more easy going about things.” What it all comes down to, he says, is that “we’re building a community.” One whose reach extends far beyond the track.
In the end, like all of us at this point in flat track history, Crankypants feels honoured to have had his small place in the sport’s development. “The chance to be a part of something that long after I’m gone will be a strong and a permanent part of our sports and community culture,” is the biggest pay off for the commitment and hard work it requires. “When I ‘m looking in from wherever I’m looking in from a hundred years from now, I want to know that Toronto Roller Derby is still around in some form, and that all these other leagues (are too).”
As the interview winds down, there is a discussion about how he and the others will be remembered in the future. “Part of my ego hopes,” he begins, “that whenever they make that Toronto Roller Derby Hall of Fame, in some corner of it one of my jackets might be hanging.”
Undoubtedly it will be, a colourful reminder of one of the more colourful characters in Toronto’s early days of flat track roller derby.