Leo the promoter


My father hated to be called a promoter…he felt that was someone who used other people’s money, and he always used his own.

But although sports history credits him with being the inventor of Roller Derby, he did a lot more projects, some successful, many not (but that is a promoter for you).

The first one he always talked about was his plans for making money off the end of prohibition.  In 1932 when it became apparent that FDR (best known initials before J-Lo) was going to repeal the act, he bought a large amount of Philippine rum and was having it shipped to a port in Mexico so that when it was legal it could be sold in the US.  He had put aside $25,000 from the Walkathons (a fortune in those days) which he had given to my mother, as they planned to buy a farm outside of Portland.  He told her not to give it to him under any circumstance;  then later he pleaded with her to let him use it as this was a no-fail deal.

Well, the liquor wasn’t registered properly, required a US license, and the boat ended up sitting in the port until the officials confiscated the cargo.  My mother was furious, just having borne her second child, a wonderful precocious beautiful and loving boy  So Dad went back on the road.

In 1935 having acquired the Chicago Coliseum and first using it for the walkathons and then his new game Roller Derby, Leo had to figure  a way to keep the building occupied.  It had a main arena of approximately 5000 seats including the balcony, and a smaller north hall which was ideal for weekly boxing and wrestling matches, and could seat about 1500 for these events.  Both halls could be cleared and connected for trade shows.  He also had an ownership in the Arcadia Skating rink on North Broadway in Chicago, where often new skaters trained.  And he leased the Chicago Armory, around the corner from the Coliseum at 16th and State (the Coliseum was at 15th and Wabash) which he used for walkathons later, as well as fights and wrestling when there were trade shows in the main building.

When my sister was 12 and I was 9 after our mother died of breast cancer, we moved  to Chicago, and of course we regularly attended events at the Coliseum.  The horse shows featured beautiful riding; trade shows as a whole were uninteresting, but they gave away great stuff in the booths, most of which I had no use for.  I loved the outdoor shows where they featured stuff for camping and other activities, and put a pool in the arena where you could fish.

All of these shows had featured entertainers:  I saw Bob Hope perform, also Eddie Cantor, a very popular performer of the 30’s who was a comedian and singer and dancer (“Making Whoopee”).  He introduced his new young singer, Eddie Fisher.  And a popular local duo that performed often, the Clooney sisters, Rosemary and Betty.  They were George’s aunts.  Betty must have given up her career.

The league that was the precursor to the NBA played in the Coliseum.  The American Gears featured the great George Mikan before the Lakers started.  I enjoyed their games, often played before just a few hundred fans.

My father became a successful boxing promoter.  Working with Jack Kearns, who had been Jack Dempsey’s manager, he brought many name fighters into the Coliseum.  I saw the great Willie Pep, small but dynamic, defend his world title.  Also he promoted the Jake Lamotta-Bob Satterfield fight which I mentioned previously in the blog on Leo.  After Jake knocked his opponent out of the ring, I immediately jumped out of my seat to see Satterfield;  I had on my Niles Twp high school sweat shirt.  A photographer snapped the photo and it was on the front page of the Examiner the next day.  I received a lot of comments from everyone at school, including one teacher who wanted to know why I was there on a school night.

There was a great wrestler named Chief Don Eagle who would appear regularly in the Coliseum.  When he wrestled it would be necessary to move the event in the main arena.  Don Eagle was ahead of his time; unlike the other wrestlers of that era, he was well built, and extremely athletic.  He was quite young and his father managed him.  Leo convinced them both that Don Eagle would be a great heavyweight.  Kearns brought in a trainer and the young native American won his first 7 or 8 bouts easily.  Were these fights patsies?  I don’t know.  Then he fought a serious contender before a full house and took a beating.  He went back to become a top-flight wrestler.

But there was a great prospect that my dad and Kearns managed.  His name was Harold Guss.  He was a powerful heavyweight, won all his matches with ease, and with his first large paycheck bought a new car.  The following weekend he was in a crash and was killed.  My father was heartsick as he and Harold were very close.  He never had anything to do with fights again.

I had previously told of Oscar Seltzer and he taking over the management of the Louisville Armory and the hockey team, but there was an event that he created and I remembered was the best ever (outside of Roller Derby, of course).  In the 40’s he had this concept for a Broadway-type musical that could play arenas.  It was called “Alaskan Stampede” and had as leads some prominent performers, as well as a musical score by a well-known songwriter.  The main arena was converted into an Alaskan landscape (no, you couldn’t see Russia) and had an ice rink at one end (my dad also promoted Holiday on Ice in Chicago, Louisville and Columbus, Ohio).  The show also had animals including reindeer, caribou, and others, which were kept in the north hall, and of course a dog sled.  The theme had something to do with new Alaskans, taking medicine to someone by dog sled, the animals grazing, great songs and choruses, and ice skaters, all obviously not  at the same time. (“Mushing along the trail, hurry along, you huskies…”)

They mounted the show in 6 weeks when they should have taken 6 months and technically it was a disaster, but highly enjoyable.  The Tribune gave it a bad review, but the Examiner said “Almost a bell ringer”.  It shut down after two weeks.

Leo went on to many other projects including helping me to get TV stations for our network (the man at WTBS in Atlanta told him: “we are just a small station; we can pay $25 and give you 4 spots in the telecast and 4 ROS.”  His name, Ted Turner)

He had a great sense of humor, often not appreciated.  He always wanted to be a landscape architect, but obviously found another career.  Every day after work at the Coliseum he would come home to Glenview, change to his old clothers, and prune and trim the 2 and 1/2 acres of bushes.  He never knew his neighbors in the Glen Oak Acres subdivision, and one day a couple came driving up and said to him, “I don’t care what Seltzer is paying you, you do such a great job, we will pay you more to work on our property.”

He replied: “I just couldn’t, Mrs. Seltzer lets me sleep with her.”  Belle made him go over to their house afterwards and explain.

10 comments on “Leo the promoter

  1. Ah -what amazing times they must have been! Old school entrepreneurial style and belief that anything can be done. This blog made me remember the first Superbowl episode of Americas Game. I think it is harder to dream BIG these days, luckily some people don’t let hard stop them.

  2. Ok Jerry
    Now start putting all these stories into a book and will have it sold in no time on the internet.Your biggest buyer will be the skaters who only knew Leo from the Derby.
    Your not only giving fans the history of the Seltzer family but the skaters also who spent many years working under the Seltzer family.
    Im runnning out of paper coping all of this .Great going.
    Love Loretta

    • I guess I don’t understand the reference…..by the way, a new book out today “Bay Area Roller Derby” available at book stores and amazon. of course some stuff on Leo…..written by Keith Coppage with a little help from me.

  3. I worked with Leo In Montreal to develop two teams and every night after training Bell and Leo insisted I have Mid-night dinner at their suite at the Montreal Sharaton it was one of four suites on the top floor…please check out my book http://www.thelasttruerollerderby.com a promise I made to Leo and Bell…God Bless them and Jerry. Your parents were very special people and they love to talk about you and were very proud of you…and I share their pride too.

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