Roller Derby in Hollywood


When school would get out in Portland, we knew our annual summer trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco was coming.  I am talking about from when I can remember, circa 1938 to 1940 (when the War came, we didn’t drive down).

My father and Uncle Oscar would come from Chicago or wherever Roller Derby was operating, and the families composed of my dad, mother, sister Gloria, my uncle, aunt Agatha, and cousins Lloyd and Bob, and my grandfather David and grandmother Celia would caravan to Los Angeles first and then eventually to San Francisco.

We would go casually down Highway 101 through the redwoods and all the beautiful coastline, stopping at every tourist attraction from driving through a redwood and Trees of Mystery (oooo, scary) to the big Orange, etc.  As I recall, we usually rented a place in Santa Monica so we would be by the beach.   Gloria, who was three years older than me (I was 5 or 6) and I got in a fight on the beach;  I hit her with a bell (?), she hit me with a little rake;  I still have the scar.  And we got to see Uncle Harry, Leo’s oldest brother, Aunt Shirley, and cousins Sherman and Rosalie.  Starting with Sherman, the cousins were all one year apart (i.e. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5) so we got along well.  Another blog will be about my cousins.

Roller Derby at that time consisted of two teams of men and women who changed their city names as they went to different locations.   Depending on the popularity in any area, the run would be from two to four weeks, with a non-portable track (took days to set up) with a high bank well over 5 feet (afterwards in the 60’s it was just three feet as the track could be set up in 2 to 4 hours and disassembled in 2 and we wanted everyone to be able to see the action).  The skaters and others set up the track for extra pay.

The skaters would skate 5 days a week and live in the building;  in this case the beautiful art deco Pan Pacific auditorium.  At the end of the run, the receipts would be totaled and divided among the participants, some getting as little as $25 for the run (plus room and board;  it was the depression), the “top” skaters getting more.  Also at halftime of each game there would be a “jamboree” where in the tradition of the walkathons, each skater would do his or her particular talent, and the fans would throw coins if they liked it.  Two great skaters, Bill Bogash and Buddy Atkinson, worked out a jitterbug dance routine.

The food would be prepared for four meals a day, which included a light dinner and supper after the game.   The skaters would be separated by sex, rather than by team.  Even married couples could not sleep together.  They must have worked it out because they all had families.  They always complained about the food (they told me that Ma Parenti could take the best meat and make it taste like leather, but I was in the Army later and we all had the same complaint).  Obviously the skaters’ quarters were out of sight.  The San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now Bill Graham auditorium) was the most fun for the entrance of the teams:  the quarters were in the lower level of the building and the players would come up stairs and emerge from the center of the track infield.

I loved Los Angeles:  no Disneyland, but we got to go to the movie sets. see all over favorite radio shows (Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, etc) and there were places that trained lions for the movies, all kinds of animal farms and more.

But the best was at the Pan Pacific Auditorium.  When the Roller Derby was in town (of course it was Los Angeles versus San Francisco) all of the stars came out.  General admission was 65 cents (including 10% tax), and the box seats were $1.10.  My dad always saved the center boxes for whichever stars were coming that night.  I saw and met Clark Gable, W. C. Fields, Betty Grable, Robert Young, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Joe E. Brown and more and more.  My favorite was Eleanor Powell, a wonderful dancer who was featured in many films including some with Fred Astaire.  She kissed me on the cheek and I said I would never wash it off (and of course I haven’t).

I learned to skate on the banked track and one night the Singer midgets (they played the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz) skated at halftime in a mock game, and one of my father’s associates put me in skates and on the track, but one of the little people looked at me and said “Who is this guy” and scared me to death so I left the track.

Another night I was sitting in my father’s box when I saw the most exciting thing ever:  America’s number 1 movie star at the box office Mickey Rooney and his entourage (yes, even then) sat in the box next to me.  All of a sudden he looked at me and said “Jerry old friend, how have you been”.  I turned red and crawled under the seat. Of course my father put him up to it.

It was so exciting when the teams came on the track, the women with their flowing satin capes.   The games were played under basically the same rules as now except no helmets. Any skater could be a jammer (scorer) and the track was huge, up to 125 fee long and 65 feet wide.  In my era, we cut it down to 50 feet wide and from 90 feet to 108 feet long, depending upon the dimensions available to us in various arenas.   We scheduled only one nighters when on the road in the 60’s and 70’s.

Obviously for a series of at least 4 weeks between the same two teams, there had to be special events on certain nights to bring the people back:  match races, mock weddings, time trials, etc.   The series was decided in the final game by the cumulative score:  for instance if the “red shirts” (visitors) were ahead of the “white shirts” (home) by a total of 8 points for the run, the final game would start with the 8 points on the board.  Points were very difficult to get in these games – they were often in the low teens for a final score – so obviously it would always be close.

After the series ended, we would pack up and head for San Francisco.  I thought the City was cold, but we got to go to the Pacific Exposition on Treasure Island between 1939 and 1940 and had a great time, and then we headed back to Portland, and Dad and Uncle Oscar would leave for their next destination.  They had two other units operating at that time also, a total of 6 teams.  This was such a wonderful era that I remember, and Keith Coppage captured it so well and with great photos in “Roller Derby to Rollerjam”  (paypal.com, jerryseltz@aol.com).

Of course the War years followed so we didn’t make this annual trip again.  The Pan Pacific fell into disrepair and there was a move afoot to restore it and when they were about to begin, the building caught on fire and burned to the ground.  Kind of a fitting end to an era.

10 comments on “Roller Derby in Hollywood

  1. Ok Jerry
    You & I are close in age, so all this is a story of wonderful times that the skaters of the past used to tell all us new kids .Now hearing this make it all real again to hear people telling tales of the life styles skaters had lived in the early days.
    Your doing wonderful giving your tales from the inside to all of us on the outside,making all of us relive the days we just took as normal living on the road.
    keep the tales going. What happened to Uncle Harry.We all knew Leo & Oscar as part of the derby circit. Loved Your Uncle Oscar.
    I hope you don’t mind my posting , The Iodine

  2. Hi Jerry, wonderfull and big times!
    You encorage us ( brazilian people ) learn about these sport!

    Today here in Brazil is valentines day and I and claudia will drink one special wine and rememorize good times spended earing historys with you and Larry! Hugs to you and Judith! nei, claudia, clara, cata, kim! We love you! Always!

  3. Hi Jerry,

    I always find it interesting to read about the roller derby in the early days. My Grandfather Joe Kleats was one of the roller derby guys killed in the bus crash in ’38. He also participated in the dance marathons prior to the derby ( with my grandmother Florence MCahill, in Chicago which your father had organized. I have all of his medals and pins from before he died.

    I would love to hear any personal stories or memories of my grandfather that anyone might have.

    Thank you
    Kathy Kleats

  4. Hi Jerry,
    I’ve only been derbying for a year now but the places it’s taken me and the fun times have been great, but let me tell you reading about your past and history with skating is just incredible, I dream of the times and people, thanks for a great read. Tamtrum from Australia.

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