Kansas City Bomber, MGM’s 1972 roller derby movie featuring Raquel Welch, 10 year-old Jodie Foster and early 1970’s Portland, Oregon was released 50 years ago today. Considered a “noteworthy” Oregon Film, it is also a classic roller derby genre piece. If scenes of sweaty, viscious, always hawt Raquel Welch going around and around and around and then slamming into other 1970s chicks on roller skates, hard!, is your flavor of kink, well then you should be “all in” and watch this film! Below is the trailer. Just revel in it for a few minutes. Come on; do it…
I really, really don’t want to say it, but Kansas City Bomber is not a good film. The pacing is slow, which seems kind of weird for a roller derby feature. The crew captured a few camera shots that made me think “oh that was goood…” but there maybe two of them. Welch’s stunt double just wore a backwards wig over their face the entire time, and Helena Kallianiotes’s double looked like something out of a graveyard nightmare. Kevin McCarthy is just fucking creepy. The filmmakers include a handful of shots that nod to an authenticity of derby life- skaters adjusting their bearings and checking the tension of trucks and plates before a bout- but the tenuous conection that the film has to “real life derby” ends there. Most of the camera work around the track is uninspiring, which is too bad, as they filmed bouts at the Expo Center for a few weeks. The plot is tired, and I’d say it is just this side of “boring,” This was the second time I had viewed the film, and I really had to resist the urge to turn it off about an hour through. It is that not good. Oh, and they drink Olympia beer quite a bit, in a town that at the time was flowing in Henry Weinhard’s, so that was kind of annoying. The Oregon Film website has a pretty good synopsis of the plot if you want to delve a little deeper. The real star of this film for you, Dear Ass Kicker, will be 1972 Portland.
But of course, you came here for the histories, so we’re going to get into the histories of the film a little bit here.
At this time in Oregon Film History, Republican Governor Tom McCall wanted to encourage film makers and television producers to film in Oregon, using our jaw dropping scenery as a location, and dumping (usually) Califiornia cash into economically deprived Oregon communities. 1969’s Paint Your Wagon (also maybe the most expensive movie ever made in that era), and 1971’s Sometimes a Great Notion are examples of the type of productions that McCall wanted to continue to solicit. Kansas City Bomber seemed to almost maybe kind of fit the bill. But perhaps not…
In 2015, Douglas Perry of The Big O wrote a good piece on the film. His article focused more on Oregonian sources, and rightfully so. There’s some good stuff in there. In this 50th Anniversary piece, I’m going to lean more to the Oregon Journal, as their articles haven’t been as accessable for as long as the other’s.
Shot in about ninety-ish days, the picture wasn’t the biggest budget to ever hit Oregon, but according to the Oregon Journal, the film executives anticipated that they would spend about a half a million dollars in the Beaver State. One report had the total budget at a million dollars.
Obviously, Kansas City Bomber hosts some pretty cool shots of early 70s Portland. Much like how Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy shows a nostalgic, “Old Portland” from the late 1980s (which is kind of funny, because it is set in the Portland of Kansas City Bomber era!), I think this film will bring memories back to some of the boomer Portland groups on Facebook dot net. But it IS pretty fucking cool to see Portland (mainly North Portland) from that era in some of the scenes that were filmed in restaurants, on the street in Kenton, and along the Columbia. Here’s a great THEN AND NOW comparison of the scenes in 1972 and the same shots in 2019. I really like the way they put this together. Definitely worth your time!
This was Welch’s 18th film, and she wasn’t fucking around. She underwent a strenuous training regimen in California to get ready for the role of “the gum-chewing Portland girl skater.” Initially determined to do 95% of her own stunts, she practiced skating with coaches daily from early in the morning until late at night. Unfortunately, all of this hard work wasn’t reflected in her skating scenes that were chosen for the feature. On Feburary 16th, Welch fell during a training session, breaking her wrist and necessitating a big ol’ plaster cast. Shooting in Portland, which was to begin momentarily, was delayed for six weeks. Not that it slowed her down too much; the star had a chance to fly off to Budapest for Liz Taylor’s 40th birthday. In addition to others, Ringo Starr autographed her cast. She was so. Fucking. Baller.
“her role… won’t call for glamor.”
Lol! It’s Raquel fucking Welch!
Oregon Journal, March 23, 1972
On Feburary 15th, 1972, over 700 hopefuls stood in line at the Jantzen Beach Thunderbird Inn, waiting to be auditioned for extra or bit-work in the film. The expected wage was $10 per day. Elliot Schick, production manager for the film said that he had never seen such a large turn-out, even in cities more populous than Portland. Once Welch had recovered and filming resumed, unpaid spectators were invited to attend the “derbies” at the Multnomah County Expo Center, free-of-charge as the needed “bodies” for the scenes. These “fans” were enticed with the prospect of seeing Raquel Welch, actually maybe being seen in the finished feature, and winning door prizes! The rollery derby matches filmed at the Expo would have hourly drawings for free televisions, radios and even $100 bills. Over $2,000 a day in “gifts” were handed out. Alas, these prizes didn’t quite draw as the producers had anticipated; on May 4th, only 450 “attendees” showed up at the Expo, while the crew had expected 3,500. The Portlanders that did make the final cut of the film demonstrate that P-Town was pretty… photogenic at the time.
By the end of filming (late May), it was repoted that Welch, “battered from head to toe,” had suffered the broken wrist, rib and pelvic injuries, a gash on her head, and “her body is said to be covered with silver-dollar-sized black and blue marks.” Welch suffered these injuries due to her commitment to her art; she told the other skaters, “Don’t handle me with velvet gloves! I’m one of the girls!” Welch felt that if her co-stars didn’t go all-in on their derby destruction that the skating scenes just wouldn’t work. And unfortunately, they just don’t quite work.
Kansas City Bomber opened in Portland at downtown’s Broadway Theater and at the 104th Street Drive-In on August 2nd, 1972. The drive-in owner, Roger Paulson, offered free admission to the first 25 movie-goers who showed up on roller skates, and only a half-a-dozen skaters took Roger up on it. Nationally, the feature was booked in about 150 theaters, with first week ticket sales at around $700,000, and roughly $5 million by the close of the first month. The success of Kansas City Bomber begat the 1972 Roger Corman classic, Unholy Rollers.
Period reviews of the film were… much more favorable than mine? The Oregon Journal called the picture, “edge-of-seat action” (it’s really not…), “an electrifying, rough, tough and realistic color movie glimpse of the brutal, vicious professional roller skating game” (I mean…, they did film in color!), and a “no-holds-barred story with rich color photography almost documentary in it’s realism” (yup! It is in color!). While you wouldn’t at all catch it from the Portland media reviews, Paul Mavis (I think correctly) observed that “Kansas City Bomber has this undeserved rep as some kind of no-talent, shabby little drive-in flick that came out of nowhere and somehow sneaked into theaters.”
“Miss Welch plays her dramatic role to the hilt.” And that is almost true! Save some shots of The 1972 Kenton Club, Welch is the only redeeming thing about this film. But alas, she can’t carry the piece. She just seems very, very tired. I really wanted to enjoy her passsion, her hard hits, and all of her around and around and arounds…
“being good in a bad film doesn’t do anything for your career.”Raquel Welch on her craft in Kansas City Bomber.