The Funny days of Roller Derby


It was fun being the head of Roller Derby (“It is good to be the King”).

Since I was young to start with (26) and never grew old in the job (that is definitely part of the problem) and few took us seriously, we kind of got away with a lot.

In a previous blog I told you about the fun that my official pundit Herb Michelson and I had with the press, but we carried it over to our everyday life.  When we became successful, we moved our offices to Kaiser Center, a beautiful curved building alongside Lake Merritt in Oakland that was the world wide headquarters for Kaiser industries.  We were one of the few non-Kaiser companies there.  I think they kept us around for laughs, although they really couldn’t figure us out.  The manager of the center was a very nice man, but it was a typical rule-run building  (no this here and no this there), so of course we tried to figure ways to peacefully disrupt it.

First the manager wanted to know how we wanted to be listed on the building directory;  I said that basically we are a company under a germanic structure, and following my name I was to be listed as Kaiser.  He of course said that wasn’t possible (why not, in Kaiser Center?), so I had to settle for President.

Shortly thereafter we received a notice that for the upcoming Holidays all decorations were subject to approval “for taste”   (does Jesus really care?).  Herb and I looked each other and he wrote the perfect letter, stating that a majority of our staff was Jewish (they were not) and we had an oversize 6- foot high Menorah with huge candles and felt this was an infringement on our religious freedom…….shortly thereafter we had a request for a meeting that afternoon.   In came about a dozen people.  It was explained to us that of course they would allow us to do it, but they would have security on hand, members of the fire department to stand by and an idea of the hour of the day we would do it.

We were chagrined and told them we would just use electric candles.

On our Roller Derby telecasts  our main sponsor for years was Jim Wessman of Gateway Chevrolet.   He was the ultimate promoter, would sit on a ladder, and tell people how great the Chevrolets were, even though he prided himself about not knowing anything about cars.   He told me he never looked at the engines and left the specifics to his sales staff, just using his celebrity to assure everyone they were getting a great deal on a great car (they weren’t, of course.  And oddly enough, he was largely responsible for the good and bad in Roller Derby:  he had a dealership in Portland, and had us put a tape on the air in Portland, and that started our national network (good!).  However, he kept emphasizing to me and the skaters that  the rougher the game, the more cars he sold (bad for the game, bad for the image).

Anyway, we always kidded each other on air, and we agreed to have a match race at the Oakland Auditorium to benefit the March of Dimes.  Jim showed up on the track in a beautiful grey flannel suit and skates, I in jeans, skates, a red sweat shirt and a helmet with a face bar to protect my nose.  Just before the two-lap race was to start, I grabbed my skate wheel and the skate technician went with me off the track to “fix it” .   Backstage Lou Donovan, one of the best and most exciting skaters ever who punished his body unmercifully, quickly put on my sweatshirt and helmet and skated back on the track.

Wessman barely got off of the starting line and nudged “me’ and suddenly Lou went into the best imitation of Charlie Chaplin on skates you have ever seen, careening around the track on one leg, twisting backwards, almost flipping and finally rolling along the rail the length of the straightaway, and spinning over the top and landing on the concrete.

My kids screamed (I had forgotten about them watching), and “I” was carried off on a stretcher.   We switched jerseys and after a few minutes I came back out to cheers.  Obviously, we let the sponsor win the race.

We first went into Canada in winter, and our first stop was Sudbury, where it was 20 degrees below zero.  Jim Pierce, our referee and truck driver was to share the driving in Canada with a French-Canadian man who had been hired by our Canadian promoter, Norman Olson.   They disliked each other from the start and Jim wouldn’t let him near th 30-foot diesel that hauled our track.  After the teardown of the track, Jim should have refueled but didn’t because that was the other driver’s responsibility.  Everyone else left for the next sold-out game in Ottawa.

I arrived at the building in early afternoon and found to my dismay that the track had not arrived; that the truck had not kept running and had frozen, but that it was being serviced and would be there.   It got to be game time, no track; we heard it was just a short distance away.  We had the skaters come out for warmup on the wooden parquet floor; still no track.  At game time we had to make a decision:  obviously WE COULD NOT SKATE A GAME ON A FLAT TRACK (all you women thought you were the first to face that problem).   We cancelled the game and rescheduled it for later in the tour.    Funny now, not funny then.

In a previous story I had told you how Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated  had received approval to do a story on Roller Derby and would be on the road with the skaters.  I was terrified…..I called the coaches and captains together and told them and Hal Janowitz how they had to be on their guard on what they said and did around Frank.  I was also especially concerned about the skaters going to the local hangout after the game.  They told me not to worry, they would all handle it fine.    (Did you ever see “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest?”)

The first date on the tour is in Waterloo Iowa, I believe.  Frank sits at the press table (the only press there besides the trackside  announcer).  After the game they all go to some neighborhood place and enjoy themselves.  Frank is sitting at a table when the roughest “red shirt” skater (male) comes over to him and makes a pass at him.  Frank laughs it off.

The next night at the next game somewhere else in the first men’s skating period what does our skaters do?  Charlie O’Connell calls a time out, the whole team skates to the rail where the press table is, and sings “Here comes the bride” to Frank.

Oh well, who were we trying to fool anyway.   Frank never mentioned the story until a recent piece in Sports Illustrated on his sports memories.  I am saving more stories for later.

4 comments on “The Funny days of Roller Derby

  1. Did someone forget to plug the truck in? I sometimes like to joke that our Canadian friends invented the hybrid…

    There’s now a league in Sudbury, apparently. Ontario is one of the most derby saturated states/provinces in North America. More leagues there than Illinois, Michigan or Colorado. They’re still a bit behind California, Texas, Florida or New York, of course.

  2. Its great now to look back into the past of what and how skaters had off times and great stories to tell while traveling all across the country.
    his tale was also told on a TV interview with Frank.
    Doing great in your tales of going down memory lane keep it going.
    Remember your into management,& skaters had many funny tales to tell also. So tell all the great tales its fun and fans & skaters love to hear stories.

  3. Reblogged this on RollerDerbyJesus.com and commented:

    It was so much fun running Roller Derby in the 60s and 70s (most of the time) and I was just as much off the wall then as now. And with Frank Deford’s wonderful “Five Strides” coming out Tuesday as ebook and Kindle, this is a good time to read this.

  4. Thank you for the kind story of my father Jim Wessman. I remember seeing a picture of him in that skating get up – very goofy looking. A character for sure. Roger Wessman

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