There is a book long out of print “A Very Simple Game” by Herb Michelson – the oral history of those associated with Roller Derby. over 30,000 copies were sold in 1971 and 1972, and you may find a copy with the original cover in a library, or bootlegs elsewhere. And don’t worry about sharing, I owned the publishing company (Occasionally Publishing)
But I am going to give you the first chapter as told by Leo Seltzer (b 1903, d 1978).
I don’t like to use the name Promoter. A Promoter is the type of man who goes out and uses everybody else’s money. I always gambled my own money, even though I took some hard losses many times. But we didn’t call on outside people . I have never considered myself a capital P Promoter. I was just a man who took a creative idea and tried to move it towards a successful end. I like to gamble my own money, because I’d feel terrible if anybodys invested with me and they should lose. I would figure they’d feel it was my fault. But if I lose my own money, I look in the mirror and see only myself. I don’t think my son Jerry considers himself a Promoter, either. I think he’s done a fantastic job.
I am very lucky because I find in this day and age that no matter what the average man creates, whether it is a large CPA office or a law firm or anything else, he always has a great idea that he is building up to a goal for his son or sons to step in and take over. But most of these sons seem to revolt and want to go into other fields. The man has built a great entity and he doesn’t have anyone to follow him. So here I built a great idea called Roller Derby and went through the blood and sweat of pioneering it, and all of a sudden I have a son who picks up the marbles and has gone a great deal further with the same idea and great ingenuity. And I am amazed at seeing he’s done this after seeing a great many families whose sons didn’t want to do what their fathers did.
I could see there could be a little bit of resentment, but it doesn’t exist between Jerry and myself. Some sons would say they wanted to create their own idea. But what Jerry has done is creat HIS own idea, and I think everybody in the San Francisco area understands that. Jerry is one of the most outstanding, let’s say, entrepreneurs in his field. I see some of him in me, and yet I think he came along more slowly than I did. I was out there fighting for my life, I didn’t have any backing. Jerry didn’t either, in a way, but I think he is a more concise, conservative person than I am. I am more the idea man who plunges into something and finds out later that I might have been wiser to go a little slower. I threw everything I had into Roller Derby and sometimes fell right on my face. I never had to borrow anything, but I took a lot of baths.
I could make a long novel out of what brought my family from Romania to Helena, Montana, where I was born. I had two older brothers born in Romania and my dad didn’t want to be living that type of life so he left the old country around 1900. He was a master craftsman making carriages, and in those days the big major companies like McCormick in Chicago would go looking for these master craftstmen all over Europe because they knew these were the top men in their arts. They could buy them very cheap because the wage levels were so low, so different. And they made a number of tremendous promises. My father knew this, so he came over to this country because he wanted to escape the military servitude that they had to go through. He had served his time, but he didn’t want the youngsters to go through it. Fortunately, he got into this country. But he found the McCormick promises to him were false, so he migrated up into Montana.
The exact reason he chose Montana I don’t know. But he got into the mining machinery field , ranching, and the fur fielddanced courses in agriculture. I don’t know, to be honest with you, why I was attracted to the land. But I was then and always have been. I am even today a ham horticulturist. I love gardening: I love all that stuff. In spite of that I took an extension course in law. I was going to the University of Oregon extension in Portland and taking courses in law and agriculture courses at the same time, which was quite a contrast. But then I went to work, though, to make sure I was making the proper money. My father had gone into the hotel field in Portland, then back into the machinery field, but by sheer accident I got into the motion picture distributing field with the Universal Film Company. Actually I found it very much to my liking. I progressed very rapidly from the sales department to the exploitation end. I think I was the youngest salesman and exploitation man in the United States. I handled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for the entire Northwest at the age of seventeen. It was maybe 1925 and I traveled throughout the entire Northwest area talking to exhibitors or selling pictures. I would talk to all of these small theater owners who opened their movie houses only two or three days a week and were either full time grocery men or something else. It was quite a revelation.
They would have their operations room up in a loft, and I had to learn how to run machines or to fix the cyphers in the pipe organ so they would sign the contracts. So I became an all-around theater man. Later, my father-in-law had one of the first nickelodeons in Portland. I mean he had it before he became my father-in-law. I can still picture it. It was a storefront and they had to whitewash the walls to show the pictures. They had a chap -later he became a very eminent dentist – who worked his way through college by helping the porjectionist operate this hand-cranked arm on the projector. The had to grind the film by hand, you know.
The films were only one reel-long and in between they would show these slides, you know, about keeping quiet or removing your hat. They would grind the films into a big gunnysack and then have to rewind them. It was all really in the embryo stage. I worked a little there, cleaning up the thater or as an usher. But my main movie experience came from Universal. Except that after a while with them, I decided I didn’t want to work for somebody else anymore because I found that every time there was a progressive move, it was a relative of the president who got the job. So I decided to go in for myself and first of all went into the building of suburban theaters. Built a string of thm in Oregon up there. From that move I decided to go further, and I went back East.
I ended up, after several stops, settling in Chicago and started sports promotions in the early thirties. I used the Coliseum, which I was renting then but later bought in 1941, for the shows I was interested in – sports shows, complete all-around dancing shows, six-day bicycle races, and other things too, like breaking in orchestras. Different things of that nature. It was a conglomerate of the entertainment field. Some of the shows were successful and some were not, but they were all very much of a lark.
I had had sports contacts back in Oregon that I suppose really got me started doing sports shows at the Coliseum. For example, having gone to the University of Oregon, I know one of the names that had made itself great all over the country, Howard Hobson. Hobby Hobson. I had played against him in Oregon before he bacame on of the great basketball stars all over. He was then coach of an all-championshp team; they called them The Tall Firs and they traveled. And I helped them get into the Chicago Coliseum there on Wabash aVenue. Later Hobby coached at Yale. He was really my first big sports contact. It didn’t take long, though, for me to know all the important sports people in Chicago.
Practically every night or so, I would grab something to eat at Ricketts on the Near North Side. All the sports figures of that time were there. The writers and radio sporscasters and the athletes would cut up touches. It was like Toots Shor’s was in New York. And one day I was reading in the Literary Digest magazine a story about participant sports. That was the magazine, I think, that said Landon would beat Roosevelt. The story I was reading told about how many thousands or millions of Americans played such and such a sport. I was surprised, I’ll tell you, to read that more people were roller skaters than anything else. So that night when I was in Ricketts I talked to a few of the boys and I bet them what the greatest participant sport was in the United States at that time. Some of them, of course, said baseball or basketball and when I told them it was roller skating they were as surprised as I was when I read it. So a couple of them started kidding me and said they bet I couldn’t come up with some kind of game, some kind of sports promotion built around roller skating.
And I sat down with a few of them and we started making designs on a menu or a tablecloth or something. Naturally, with the bicycle racing marathon so fresh then, the marathon idea entered my thinking. Plus the business of using girls, because those statistics I read showed women and girls roller skated too. And I just felt that that using girls might make sense because other women might want to see a sport that had women participating. They could empathize. It would be something new, something for men and women.
I see now that using women was the big thing. What we’ve got going now is a game whose success, in part, is built on the cynicism of the men because they can’t believe it’s a real sport. So they don’t accept it or at least don’t admit they accept it. But the women, thank God, bring them along and at the games these men go wild.
Just starting the Roller Derby was a great challenge. Fortunately, when I opened it in the Coliseum I had a great following because of my other promotions there. It was sort of a season of special events, like the Theater Guild or something. This following made our first race a great success. We had a giant map about 100 feet long with a layout of a route going across the country for this first race. Lights and everything. It was colorful. We had a lot of things like a big-time band from the Chicago area led by the great black musician named Erskine Tate. And he provided considerable entertainment. There was a specific destination each night for the skaters – you know from Chicago to Detroit and Detroit to Cleveland and Cleveland to Pittsburgh and so on. They would skate so many laps until they reached that point and the lights on the big map would follow them. The top ones who got in first, who had the best times, would get the prizes, and each night the competition had get to that destination, to skate so many miles. If they didn’t they would be dropped out. That first race in Chicago was successful. On the strength of this, I thought I had the country’s hottest thing.
Then we ran into a bad episode with attendance in Louisville, but we went on to our next stop in Miami anyway and pitched a tent right in the heart of the business district on First Street. It was an empty lot at the time; now there are big syscrapers there. We even had our skaters washing their own uniforms and hanging them on a costhesline dangling out of the tent. That must have been quite a sight. We had been there a few nights when a chauffeured car drove up to the tents and a man wearing a porkpie hat got out of the car and came in, sat down and watched for a while and then asked the usher who was the head man. The usher brought him over to me. He introduced himself as Damon Runyon and asked if we could talk a little. I said sure. As a matter fact, I was very impressed.
He said, “How did you get the idea?” So I gave him the general outline about the night in Ricketts. And he said, “It’s a funny thing, but years ago I was sold on the same idea as you are.” He said, “When I was up in the papers in Colorado we tried to work it out.” But he said he could never reach a formula. Then he said, “Now whaddya gonna do with it?” So I told him some day we hoped to make a national sport of it with rules and team games and everything. And he said, “Do you want any help?” I said , “Naturally.” And he said, “All right, I can get all the big people all over the country to get behind you, if you want me to.” So I told him that was exactly what I wanted because it was just like a dream coming true.
I have a lot to be thankful for in my life.
But today I will confine it to Roller Derby.
It has been a great thing for my life. I took over the game my father invented, and further developed it as a great entertainment for America, Canada, and Mexico. It was a business built to entertain the public, but along the way I met and employed some of the greatest men and women athletes that I could have known, was a real fan of the game and enjoyed with the audience the fury and excitement and speed of these great banked track skaters.
And I made a living! Actually not as good as when I became part of the ticketing industry, but at 26 I worked for myself and employed a hundred people, and saw America and met so many people in so many regions. Our games were seen on 110 tv stations, we played at (and sold out) all the major arenas and some of the major stadia. And I made one huge mistake: running this enterprise as a family business with no partners and when the economy sunk us, I had no one to turn to for additional resources, so I had to shut it down.
I am proud that all the skaters and employees were paid; we supplied all uniforms, skates, per diem and medical injuries coverage (paid while off), transportation and hotels when on the road….a decent salary for the 60’s and 70’s, and probably the first sport to have profit sharing for the employees…..when we shut down, the skaters and employees (to their surprise) received a payout of anywhere from $5000 to $60,000, depending on their pay scale and length of employment And our ticket prices: $1 to $3. Larry Smith started his business with his pay out…..some blew tens of thousands of dollars partying…and this was 1973.
So I went into the ticket distribution business (never scalping), and what I learned in promoting Roller Derby carried over into BASS Tickets and eventually Ticketmaster. And including Brown Paper Tickets (the best!), that covered the next 40 years of my work life.
So 10 years ago Gary Powers, after starting (and maintaining) the National Roller Derby Hall of Fame, hosted the 70th anniversary of Roller Derby dinner in Chicago, and who showed up for the evening but dewy-eyed Val Capone and the fledgling Windy City Rollers, and we all saw their game the next night, and that started a period of revitalization of my life and association with Roller Derby.
I felt so welcome and was invited to Rollercon in Las Vegas (and Judi provided over 300 pair of her Bonjour Fleurette flower slippers,featured on Sex and the City and Oprah), and Loretta Behrens and I addressed the attendees about the old and new days…..then I was invited to WFTDA nationals in Portland (my home and the home of my father, the creator of Derby and once again the welcome mat was out.
I was invited to the Bay Area Derby girls games and went when I could, and of course to Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sacramento for area games. And the nationals in Chicago (where I had gone to college) were a real treat.
Then the bottom kind of dropped out with weird instances that I have no desire to relate. I found I was resented (and even hated) by some (most I didn’t know) because I represented THAT Roller Derby, I guess. When I got over the incident, I just continued on seeing and supporting the people in the game, and they know who I am and how I relate to today….I have over 12,000 friends and followers on facebook and twitter and many more on my blog.
But this is not about me and my travails. I have seen very specifically in the last few months statements by at least one person that I completely respect, that modern derby has no relationship to Leo or my game, and was created by the women as a flat track game that empowers women in sports…..and guess what, I have no argument with that. I have no claim on the game as it exists today. For whatever reason if that is important, then I gladly acknowledge what you believe……I guess I am surprised that the name Roller Derby was attached to the game.
But I am an individual who loves the sport my father created. I am a fan. If there are aspects I don’t enjoy, I will say them. Understand, I have no power to influence or change anything, but I do have the right to express myself.
roller derby is on the greatest growth spurt in recent years; the issue in many leagues appears to be decreasing attendance. I am not the enemy. I advise skaters. I would love to help everyone increase attendance and other aspects of the promotion of the leagues. That is one of my functions of work and the seminars at Rollercon. and why Brown Paper Tickets encourages me to work on community projects like the blood drives (in three major areas next year!).
You have every right to not like me or want to be a friend…but please make sure you are not tilting at windmills. I love you all.
rules of the game, 1970
I think everyone knows I can be cantankerous.
But the last finals I really fully enjoyed (prior to yesterday) was in Chicago 2010.
After that event, passive offense became the watchword for the game, and virtually all fell into line…..new skaters didn’t seem to know there was another way to play.
And Rose City showed it last night. Split the walls into offense and defense, actually block the other blockers during the play, and keep the pack moving during the jams without pack destruction. Yes, Virginia, the game is played on roller skates.
To me, so much excitement in the game comes when players are engaging without standing still, and boy was there a lot of it in perhaps the best modern game I have seen. The future looks bright, because everyone follows a winner and thousands were watching Portland’s tactics against what has been Derby’s gold standard for years, the Gotham Girls.
Now if anyone thinks Gotham’s days are numbered, you are wrong. They haven’t stayed atop the Derby world by standing still (no pun intended!). But what a pleasure to see two teams of superbly conditioned athletes go at each other for the duration of the game without stopping. And to have two players, Scald Eagle and Bonnie Thundeers side by side on so many of the jams! That is one advantage of the offense and defense at the same time aspect of Roller Derby; only in our sport can you see the top offensive players from the two teams on the same scoring plays!
Now about Gotham: there could be no better group of people to represent the game in America’s largest city. Their standards are incredibly high, and if you wanted to hand pick a team to represent what the sport today is all about, it is this group. I sorely missed seeing Suzy Hotrod out there, but the talent on the team was certainly equal to the task. And if I can mention, both Gotham and Rose City are clients of Brown Paper Tickets.
I have to admit I was for Portland in the game; it is my home town and that of Leo Seltzer who created the sport in 1935. And the support that the Rollers have given my niece Phyllis (Leo’s granddaughter) in her battle with cancer just signifies how they and all the leagues in WFTDA are part of their community. As for New York, it is where Roller Derby was made national in 1948 when my dad brought it there, and where we had so many sellouts at the 19,500 seat Madison Square Garden, and the skaters could really skate the game without the extra showmanship.
What a show the sport gave to the ESPN3 viewers and all of the fans. So all the leagues coaches will be going to the drawing board to figure the best way to play the “new” game brought by the team from the Northwest.
And don’t forget that the international teams are barking at their heels.
Remember in 2015 when the game took another jump forward…..tell your neighbors and friends they had better come and see what the fuss is all about.