I am going to try to just keep to the Roller Derby I grew up with in this post.
I have already related how in the 30’s we would drive to California to see the month-long stays of the Derby in Los Angeles and San Francisco. But this was also my first contact with Derby folk who I knew for years afterwards. Skaters who were bigger than life to me: Tommy and Buddy Atkinson, Superstar Wes Aronson and Kitty Nehl, Bob Satterfield, Ivy King, “Pochahantas” Mary Youpelle (still out there and active) and so many more. They were all like uncles and aunts and I got to hang with them and on special occasions, even eat with them at the meals cooked in their quarters – they lived and slept in the buildings then. And they couldn’t believe that in LA the stars came to see THEM.
I kind of think of the managers then as almost carny. Moon Mullins, Sid Cohen, and names that escape me now. And they and Leo would be like a group that did things together: fishing in Florida, going to night spots in the big cities, etc. These were his gang. Once Sid told everyone that they all had to lose weight and he heard of the sour cream diet…..no matter where and when you ate, you had to add huge portions or sour cream to the meal. Of course after everyone gained about 10 pounds each, they realized it wasn’t working.
This was the heart of the depression. The skaters hung together, did things together, and whenever possible, Leo arranged for sightseeing and other activities….they had no money, came from tough backgrounds, and this was the best time of their lives. My dad told me that he found out afterwards that one of the participants had been a colonel in the army; in Chicago the winner of the first Derby was a 16-year old who was scheduled to be on the fatal bus when his father withdrew his permission. He went on to become the Commissioner of the Fire Department for the City of Chicago and organized the fire workers union.
Of course, there are many stories like that. The games were the glue that held them together. The home team (white shirts) were the good guys, the visitors (Red shirts) were the mean players from Chicago, etc or whatever city represented evil to the home town. I remember the red shirts like Buddy Atkinson, Silver Rich, Elmer (elbows) Anderson, Gertie Scholls, and of course later there was “Toughie Brasuhn”. And then after the games they would eat the late meal and all hang together.
It was tough for a lot of the women. So many people assumed that because they skated in the Roller Derby they were not to be respected, yet they probably were the nicest people I knew…..This assumption seems odd in today’s world but remember women did not compete in contact sports at that time, and were not featured in many at all.
Roller skates had wooden wheels at this time, except if you skated outside you had clamp-ons with metal wheels. The masonite track had to be painted with a special slate paint in order for the skaters to be able to skate on it and get traction. And often during the games the referees would have to throw additional slate powder on the surface as the wheels wore the paint off. And the dust would go flying and since it was green, after a few games the skaters and the fans would have green on their clothes their hair, etc. (I think that is what happened to Calvello originally and she decided to make the most of it).
Now after one time around, many of the better arenas would not let Roller Derby back in, as there was paint on the ceiling and everywhere else, so Leo would find armories or exposition buildings (fairgrounds, etc) and bring in bleachers as well as the track…..the initial setup took days, as well as the teardown. But the fans loved the games and kept coming.
Now let’s jump ahead to 1959. I had just taken over Roller Derby and we were skating in the San Francisco Armory at 16th and Mission 5 days a week. One night would be Ladies’ night, one night date night, etc. I knew that because of the television coverage, we could draw fans from a wider area. I contacted the other arenas, but they all knew about the paint. Lin Luedekke at the Oakland Auditorium would let us come into the Exposition building across the street (now the site of Merritt College). Meanwhile, Oscar Seltzer of the Roller Derby Skate Company had sent me samples of new urethane wheels he had developed. We tried them on the track, but found they were too soft and wore down too fast. Eventually he got the formula right, and I decided we would use them in a game and not put paint on the track. The skaters said it slowed them down too much, but since everything is relative, it didn’t really matter. Eventually, they forgot about it.
So we found that if we covered the track with a light plastic paint, they could go faster but more importantly, did not require any of the slate. I contacted Lin in Oakland and told him we would play the Auditorium and would not be using the slate paint. He reluctantly agreed, and I knew that the other facilities in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, etc were waiting to see how it worked in Oakland.
We had lowered the bank on the track from 4 1/2 feet to three feet and made it portable so it could be set up in 4 hours, torn down in 2. Gil Orozco who skated on the Bombers was in charge of construction, and knowing how much I like to color up the track and uprights (see any of our tapes on youtube) to make it more of an arena event decided he would put the plastic surface on in color. Once it was set up he let me know and to ask Lin to come in to take a look. Well, Gil had decided to use a green color and when Lin saw it, he almost shat. I calmed him down and told him it would be fine and it was, and we were able to book the other arenas and eventually sold out almost every major arena in the US and Canada.
Part of the fun of Roller Derby was the noise from the track, and we lost a lot of that when the plastic wheels replace the wooden ones, although there still is sufficient noise on the banked track to be exciting. And for our telecasts we miked under the track so the noise was always there. And people ask me why do I love Roller Derby!
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