Portland’s Joan Ballard approaches 80th Birthday, misses her life as Jessica Rogers, professional wrestler
Joan Ballard is lonely. She recently had to move her partner, Jenny, now suffering from dementia, to assisted living. Sitting at the kitchen table of her childhood home in North Portland, with tears in her eyes, Ballard longs for her companion.
“It tears me up to go there. I bring her ice cream. But I can't take her out for ice cream because I'm not a relative.”
And though more than three decades have passed, Ballard longs for her other great love as well. Her life as Jessica Rogers.
“I miss being Jessica Rogers. It’s like I’m two people.”
Dragging a dark suitcase from under the bed, she heaves it up and sets it gently on a kitchen stool. Propped open against the microwave; it overflows with photographs, magazine articles, and awards that she pulls out one by one to study.
“This is my certificate here. That’s me and Vivan Vachon. See my boots. Slave Girl Moolah, what a show they put on! Marigold Arena, that was in Chicago. ‘You Can’t Trust a Female Wrestler’…that’s me in Wrestling magazine…”
TV programs of the 1950’s like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ and ‘Father Knows Best’ reinforced traditional gender roles of women as homemakers. But restlessness was brewing across the country and some young women were challenging the social norms. Lady wrestlers Mildred Burke, June Byers, and Penny Banner, to name a few, were gaining a national audience. Joan Ballard was soon to join them. These divas shaped the sport of women’s professional wrestling as we know it today.
Joan Ballard, a Jefferson High School student at the time, got her first taste of the spotlight playing softball on Dotty Moore’s Pennant Shop elite women’s team. In a winning season, as the pitching protégé of Hall of Famer Betty Evans, Ballard caught the eye of wrestling promoter Mountain Man Dean.
In 1954, at age 17, she had never seen a lady wrestler, but jumped at the chance to become one. Reflecting on that life-changing decision, Ballard said, “of course, yeah, it was something that was in sports.”
“I fit in when I left. Being free. I was so happy to leave.”
After an initial training period in Salt Lake City, Ballard moved to Chicago where she spent her early years wrestling in small regional venues and at TV stations. There was also a brief period where she, under stage name ‘Rose Diamond’, rode into arenas in Arizona and New Mexico, on horseback, donning full western wear.
“It was almost like a carnival, I hate to say. I was new, but I was good.”
Years of ballet training, natural athleticism, and a sense of timing all worked to her advantage in the ring. Before long Ballard was wrestling in arenas attracting audiences of up to 50,000.
“I went to the big places once or twice and they said ‘she is a real good drawing card.’ It’s like a director seeing a movie star for the first time and saying ‘Hey, she has it. I want her back.’”
Or, as described by a 1973 Wrestling Yearbook tagline, she was “A rough, experienced professional who gives the fan bell-ringing, action-filled matches!”
In 1958, several years into her career, an announcer in St. Louis forgot Joan Ballard’s name. Improvising, he introduced her in the arena as Jessica Rogers, who was in fact an exotic dancer he dated in the 1940’s. Ballard was amused and flattered. Jessica Rogers became her stage name, and her identity, until she retired from the sport in 1980.
With her success in the wrestling arena, Jessica Rogers found her confidence. A people person, she loved the excitement, star status, and the travel.
“Almost all the wrestlers were college educated, they had beautiful bodies, and the women were beautiful.”
Rogers, a 5’4” fiery bleached blonde powerhouse, spent much of her free time sunbathing so that she’d look good in her wrestling uniform, a swimsuit. In fact, on one occasion she nearly missed a key match in Boston, where she was to battle her idol, Mildred Burke, because she and fellow wrestler Dick the Bruiser got locked on a hotel roof, where they were basking in the sun before the night’s event.
“I always thought of people thinking that we’re rough tough, and whatever. It was very important to me to really dress when I was on television, to show the feminine side of the wrestlers.”
But wrestling was rough and tough. With two artificial hips, a dislocated shoulder, and scars across her face to testify, Ballard will tell you, “You get holds or take holds and do what you can do with them. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t always land the way you want. You have to just let your body relax.”
“Over the ropes, through the ropes, and whatever. Jesus.” Ballard laughs.
And it was dangerous at times. In Mexico City after beating local favorite Laura Martinez, an angry fan attacked Rogers, on her way to the dressing room, with a knife. In segregated Alabama, Rogers once hid under the ring, fearing for her life when a riot broke out because she and her white partner were scheduled to compete against two black lady wrestlers.
Often competing three or four times per week, her favorite destination was Hawaii, where she had a strong fan base and was booked often. Staying for six weeks at a time, Rogers loved to share sold-out arenas, and hit the beaches and the zoo with the Roller Derby girls from San Francisco.
With tag team partner, and first crush, Penny Banner, Rogers met Elvis, who she says was also nuts about Penny. When wrestling nearby, Rogers and Banner would visit Elvis at his mansion in Memphis. Pointing to a photograph in her living room of a teddy bear Elvis gave her on one of these occasions; Ballard remembers her jealousy of Penny’s relationship with him.
Despite amassing enough adventure stories to fill a thick book, wrestling life wasn’t all glitz and glamor. “The more popular you got, the more you got booked to fly somewhere, for just one time. And you’re there by yourself all day.”
“That's lonesome. After the matches, I'd go down to the hotel piano bar and I'd have a drink instead of staying in my room. I wasn't really a drinker but it was something to do because I was still dressed up and everything.”
Ballard has mostly fond memories of her wrestling days; “I loved the profession. I never got tired of it. I loved the places I went. I think I got tired of traveling, with time.”
It was hard on relationships though.
“I was booked all the time and had affairs, but when I got serious with someone I wanted to spend time with them. I wanted a home and garden. And I loved to cook and fish.”
Same sex relationships were taboo at the time and Rogers was not openly gay. In the late 60s and 70s, while still wresting, she ran the Tiger Room and Blue Grotto nightclub in Tulsa, OK.
“All my friends were attorneys. And Alan was an attorney. People thought we were a couple. So that’s how we covered up.”
In 1979 Ballard sold her nightclubs and returned home for her father’s funeral. After more than 20 years away, she settled into an apartment near the Stadium Fred Meyer store and discovered a knack for selling cars. Working for Mr. Cooper in Tigard, she proudly recalls, “I got 21 cars out in one month, and I made $6,200.”
She later worked for Northwest Ministries and Friendly House.
“I really loved picking up and driving the seniors. They became my friends.”
In 2004, after her mother died, Ballard moved back to the childhood home where it all started. Her parents never saw her wrestle; and sadly, did not express affection or communicate openly. But Joan believes her Mom knew she was gay and probably “did not want her little ballerina to become a lady wrestler.”
Ballard, by her own account, has lived a wonderful life. But to some extent, feels that she is still stuck in the 80’s. She misses the excitement of her wrestling days and struggles with a sense of lost identity. During her career as Jessica Rogers, she largely avoided mixing with the general public because she’d been advised that doing so would weaken her celebrity status. And though she kept busy selling cars, driving seniors, and taking care of Jenny in recent years, she is still coming to terms with ordinary life as Joan Ballard.
“It's like being a movie star, because I was a star, but not a movie star. And I was highly respected. Living here, everybody works during the day and I don't see anybody. I have no one to tell my story to. I mean, they think I'm nuts.”
She delights in the Cauliflower Alley Club conference in Las Vegas, where the great legends of wrestling gather annually. She visits Jenny at Harvest Home twice a week, volunteers with a local church, and dotes on her Chihuahua, Lulu.
Joan likes to be around people, and wants to learn computer skills so she can stay connected. The Hollywood Senior Center near her house offers instruction.
“I’ve just got to get on the ball and get out of here.”