This is a story that very few people know, but since many of the principals involved are gone, I think it is time to tell it. It certainly contributed to the demise of Roller Derby in 1973.
When I incorporated the new company to promote Roller Derby (Bay Promotions, Inc) I had capitalization of just $500. My father Leo very kindly let me buy the banked tracks, uniforms, etc on a deferred payment basis and we were under way. At 26 I was too dumb to know we couldn’t succeed.
After several years we started to expand our operations and as our television network grew, we were able to play games (not bouts) in more and more cities. We actually were able to go back to the birthplace of Roller Derby, the Chicago Coliseum, now operated by my father’s former partner, Fred Morelli. The building was in terrible shape, the dressing rooms filthy, chairs broken, bad lighting, etc. However I felt an obligation to play there and it was only after we had so many complaints from the fans that we moved to the International Amphitheater in the famed Chicago stockyards. I know Fred was upset, but I told him the building was in such disrepair that it was unsafe.
Over the years when we played Chicago on our tour and eventually when the Pioneers started skating home games there, the Amphitheater became our base. The Coliseum was rarely used by anyone and Fred eventually made a deal with Elijah Muhammad, and it was established as the main gathering place for the Black Muslims. Muhmmad Ali and Malcom X made their speeches there.
My father was constantly on the phone getting more cities for our expanding network (he was on salary then) and although I was repaying him for the equipment he had given us, he certainly earned his money. I was taking care of Oscar and the Roller Derby Skate Company also by running commercials in all of our telecasts for the Street King outdoor shoe skates ($5.99 a pair, and $8.99 when plastic wheels replaced the metal ones).
I have already told how badly we were hurt by the gas crisis, but in 1972 something came at us out of left field. Fred Morelli sued us under an agreement he had with my father in a company called Roller Derby Associates where he claimed a partnership in all Roller Derby activities. I talked with Hal Silen, who was part of our company and an attorney, and he agreed we needed to get a good lawyer to represent us. I of course immediately contacted my Dad, who said the agreement was not valid because when the business had started decreasing he had asked Fred for additional capital and Fred had refused; Leo then sent him a letter stating if he didn’t put up his share he was no longer a participant.
I was stunned. I was in the middle of something I had no prior knowledge of. I liked Fred and his wife Kay. In summer we sometime had gone up to his family farm in Wisconsin and played with his children. I knew he was politically very influential having been the head of the first Ward (downtown Chicago), and it had been rumored that during the 1944 Democrat convention he had engineered the selection of Harry Truman as vice President on behalf of his friend Tom Pendergast from Kansas City. I also knew that little of what went on in Chicago was done without his knowledge.
At Northwestern University I had a fraternity brother named Joel Sprayregen who was from New Jersey, was funny, aggressive and smart and had become an attorney. I conferred with Hal and decided to hire Joel’s firm. Joel read through the documents and felt that the partnership had never been dissolved and they had a good case. I couldn’t sleep, realizing that they could probably take all that we had away. Joel said he would start on his research and get back to me.
Joel called and said he had been checking on Fred’s background, and he felt it was pretty unsavory. I was stunned again. He arranged to meet with Fred’s attorney, a Mr. Topper from Chicago, who demanded a large sum of money to make it go away. That was impossible. I talked to my father (who was in Oregon) and told him he (and probably Oscar) would be deposed soon. The next thing I knew he called me one night, said the local police (his friends of course) had told him a process server was asking where he lived. That very night he and Belle threw a few things in his car (a normal stretch Cadillac with jump seats in back), called Oscar and his wife Agatha, and they all took off. I did not know where as I did not want to perjure myself.
Fred came out to San Francisco to be deposed and as always he was very friendly to me. He did not look well as he was in a later stage of Parkinson’s disease. I assume he wanted to get all of his business affairs in order and that is why he sued us at this time. Joel started the most interesting questioning I have ever heard.
“What was your relationship with Al Capone? With Cooney (one of Capone’s successors), with the Lexington Hotel?” Fred got very upset and Topper turned bright red and demanded to know what any of this had to do with the obligation of Leo Seltzer. Joel calmly said that since Fred had started as the doorman of the Lexington, Capone’s hangout, he was going to show that the agreement was made under duress, that Fred as the successor to Capone and all of the mob, had muscled in on Leo. Wow.
Topper immediately demanded they go before the judge as this was all irrelevant. The judge told Topper to produce Leo to the court and Topper said the subpoena was out, it would be served, and that by the court date in eight months he would produce him with the proper testimony.
As I found out later, the Seltzer brothers and the wives had headed into Mexico (exciting stuff, huh?) and were staying in a hotel in Guaymas by San Carlos beach. For the next 8 months they had a great time fishing, touristing, sitting on the beach; probably the first real vacation my father had taken in 30 years.
We did all the depositions and I stated truthfully that I had no knowledge of the so-called agreement and gave the facts as I knew them. The court date came, Leo was not produced, the case was thrown out. The Seltzers came back from their Mexico sojourn, tanned and healthy. Fred went back to Chicago and died shortly thereafter. I felt badly for him as he had established a legitimate life and his children went on to successful careers.
Unfortunately, whatever money we had went to pay the legal fees (actually, we were $2500 short and after we had shut down the Roller Derby Joel’s firm sued us, and we paid), and with the gas crisis and the resultant lack of attendance on our usually successful tour, it was the end of the road.
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