The South and Roller Derby

I had to be a fast study when I started promoting Roller Derby in order to survive.

Once we had our surprising success with the game in Portland, Oregon, with having a live game after about a dozen of our videotaped games were shown on KPTV, I felt that we had discovered the magic formula for success: put the videotapes of the games we were taping in San Francisco on the air in other cities, give the programs a chance to build a following and then play live games in the cities.

There was only one problem: not that many stations had bought the expensive two inch tape machines for airplay. Somehow I decided that we should establish a team that played in the South, and we could use old kinescopes to use on the stations in that region.

Now kinescopes are film transfers that are made of live programming, and if you have seen Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, Jackie Gleason’s early “Honeymooners” you have seen kinescopes, grainy, and very almost one dimensional in viewing. It might work for old comedy shows, but sports looked like old programming on ESPN Classic channel, and it just doesn’t work. And furthermore, ignoring the Jim Crow standards of the day, the home team was captained by Ronnie Robinson, the skating son of the great Sugar Ray, and other players of color, and as you may imagine, the tour was a disaster.

It wasn’t until later in the 60’s, based upon our success in all major cities in the rest of the country with the 120 stations we had our videotapes showing that we decided we were ready to tour the South.

Ken Campbell, a wonderful man who was a promoter in Virginia and who produced the Nascar events in Richmond and in that area, contacted me about bringing Roller Derby back to the South.

Ken came to our (sold out) game at the Boston Garden and spoke to our skaters. A number, including Bob Woodberry and Ronnie Robinson, had stated that under no circumstances would they skate in that part of the country. Ken assured everyone that they would all stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants, and have no problems. And he kept his word. Furthermore, because of the TV exposure these skaters were celebrities and our Southern dates were quite successful.

Like so much else in that part of the country, most of the arenas were managed by a good old boy network, but it was a very positive thing: unlike in other parts of the country where managers of public buildings were not allowed to be promoters, that was not the case in that region. So Paul Buck became our promoter in Charlotte, Bill Lavery in Savannah, Buddy Clewis in Mobile and so on. It actually worked to our advantage as obviously they had their towns wired, and if they made additional income on kickbacks from media, concessions, etc, it was more than made up with the continued sellouts. Only one ever stiffed us, and it is amazing that with all of our touring we had so little problems of that nature.

And we were proud of the fact that arenas and universities (Notre Dame, Texas, University of New Hampshire, SIU, to name just a few) sought and promoted our games. We had an excellent reputation among touring attractions. As you can imagine, that is a very small industry. And Dean Justice (not a dean, that was his name) at the University of Texas in Austin set up an archive of traveling “shows” from the circus, to ice shows, to the Globetrotters, and Roller Derby that is accessible at the U of T and has much of our archival material on hand.

We were so different from other sports that in order to play in any facility we had to set up our banked track, play the game, tear down the track, store it in our 30-foot truck trailer and head for the next game, and we could accomplish that within a one day time period.

At Madison Square Garden we often had to set up over a homesote covering over the ice for an afternoon game, remove our track and there would be a Ranger hockey game that night, or occasionally do the same for a Knicks basketball game. The Garden would get the benefit of two sold-out attractions in the same day.

When I was asked where Roller Derby was the most popular, I was able to answer honestly everywhere we played. The stigma of not being able to tour in the South was ended, and our skaters looked forward to the annual trek below the Mason-Dixon line.

And if you look at modern Roller Derby today, you will see it has a pretty even distribution across the U.S.


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