In the late 30’s and early 40’s Roller Derby grew in popularity and would play successfully in cities throughout the US with one major exception: The Big Apple.
In fact, at one point there were four “units” (eight teams) on the road at the same time. The track would be set up, and the two teams in each city would play each other 4 times per week for 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the size of the city and the popularity of the Derby in that town. Generally, one team would represent that city (the “white shirts”), the other (the “red shirts”) another city. It seemed as though nothing could stop the growth. Then came Pearl Harbor.
The Derby, like so many other activities, was decimated. The majority of the men volunteered for service or were drafted. Many of the women took essential war jobs or joined the service also. Leo managed to keep one unit going during the war.
There had been one attempt to go into New York City previously. Damon Runyon told my dad that the game was perfect for the city. Damon contacted Mike Jacobs, the famed fight promoter, who booked the sport into the Hippodrome where he staged many of his fights. The public didn’t respond, no one showed up, and everyone slunk out of town.
Commercial television showed up in 1947. I remember that in Glenview, Illinois, where we lived, my father bought one of the early sets, which came in a console as had the Philco and other radio sets. The screen was small, but he bought a curved liquid-filled cover to go over the screen and magnify the image. There were one or two stations, and they didn’t even put their test patterns on the air until late afternoon. (We would actually stare at the test pattern on this wondrous device!). Then some programs would come on. The only thing worth watching on WBKB (now WLS-TV) was “Junior Jamboree” which was a live children’s program featuring Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, with Burr Tillstrom as the puppeteer. It later became a popular program on network TV.
To promote the Derby in Chicago, Leo used discount tickets. They were sponsored by bakeries, Beers, cigarettes, etc and distributed by the hundreds of thousands through out Chicagoland. He also worked on getting interviews on newspapers and radio and arranged for trackside radiocasts to promote upcoming games and events.
Television viewership was an unknown. Television sets were very expensive; most people, if they watched it at all would go to bars or stand in groups outside of radio stores which would have a TV set on in the front window. On a hunch, Leo worked out an arrangement to televise a game from the Coliseum to see the reaction. The cameras, pre-modern electronics, were huge and unwieldy. They might have used just one camera for that first telecast….maybe someone out there knows. There was an upsurge in attendance and Leo felt this might be the time to “attack” New York.
Besides Madison Square Garden, there were very few venues to utilize in New York City. And Ned Irish, who ran the Garden, was very difficult to deal with, as I personally found out in later years.
So Leo noted that there were armories scattered throughout Manhattan and the Boroughs that were used for training very rarely, so he met with the head of the New York National Guard to make an arrangement to rent one in Manahattan; he was the first to do so. Now it is common to use them when available; as a matter of fact, the first venue I played in San Francisco in 1959 was the armory; in recent years it was sold off to a private owner who uses it to film kinky sex videos, but as always, I digress.
None of the other management liked this decision at all; New York was unconquerable for the Derby. My father came up with a great campaign. Sid Cohen called in Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn, the ultimate rough and tough skater who all were afraid of (all 4 foot 10 of her) for a photo session. When she came in, Sid started screaming at her how bad she had been skating, she was slacking off, and she turned red and started screaming back at him. They used the most angry photo of her on the side of buses with the caption “Toughie is coming”. Of course no one knew who Toughie was, and seemingly no one cared. For the first game at the armory, a “crowd” of about 3-400 hundred showed up. Apparently in 1948 New York was not ready for banked track skating yet.
Leo had worked out a short-term deal with a New York station (It was either CBS or the Dumont network) to televise the game. All of the fans were herded to one side of the arena, so the TV camera would not show empty seats, and Ken Nydell narrated the first game to be televised in New York. My father had obtained a phone number (JUdson 6-4646) and had a total of five lines. The fifth line went to his apartment so he could easily talk to the office. Ken told the TV audience that starting the next morning viewers could call to make reservations for the upcoming games. Afterwards Ken, Sid, my dad all looked at each other and the question was, is anybody watching.
Eventually Leo and Belle went back to the apartment where they heard the phone ringing. When Belle picked up the line, a woman asked if this was where she could make a reservation. Obviously the other 4 lines were ringing also; otherwise the fifth line would not be active. As Belle told it, she took reservations until two in the morning. When the ladies opened the office the next morning, they could do nothing except take reservations all day.
Some of the skaters told me that when they showed up at the building for the game that night they thought there had been a disaster, as there were lines of people around the block, and the skaters were amazed that people recognized them by name. And thus started the great love affair between the tri-state area and their New York Chiefs, New Jersey Jolters and Brooklyn Red Devils that lasted for seven straight years.
The entire history is chronicled in “Roller Derby to Rollerjam”, with unopened first editions available at http://www.rollerderbycommish.com. great photos too..
Leo loved it when I took Roller Derby back to New York City (we were on WOR-TV on Sunday morning and had a million viewers weekly) in the 60’s to a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, he never got to see the revival of modern Roller Derby.
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