When most people think of the “Golden Age” they are referring to the 60’s and 70’s when Roller Derby was on 110 TV stations in the US and Canada, and we filled huge arenas and stadia and everyone knew Joan Weston, Charlie O”Connell, Ann Calvello, Ken Monte, Carol Meyer, Tony Roman, Mike Gammon, Judi Mcguire and many more as the superstars of Derby. These people were in 10 million living rooms every week because of the games we videotaped and shipped around to all locations.
And most of these great skaters had become interested in the game because of the early television from New York and Chicago in the late 40’s and early 50’s. My fond memories are from the late 30’s until my Dad took it into New York for the first big explosion.
As I stated in an earlier post (Roller Derby in Hollywood), I first saw the game in the glamorous movie capital of the world, and these skaters were bigger than life.
Wes Aronson was the golden boy, built like Charlie O’Connell but movie star handsome and an effortless skating style. He was publicized as dating Eleanor Powell, a movie dancing partner of Fred Astaire. I think however, that even at that time he was married to his beautiful skating partner, Kitty Nehls. There were the fabulous Atkinson boys, Tommy and Buddy. Tommy again movie star handsome and skated the track better than anyone ever; he never used a shoulder or body block but was able to control the pack with his hip block. Buddy was a choppy skater who made it on effort rather than talent.
And the amazing women: Ivy King was the first woman superstar. She skated in the first “race” in 1935 and looked so unlike a skater: diminutive, wearing glasses while skating and yet with amazing ability. It wasn’t until she was 90 at the 70th anniversary dinner in Chicago (where I first met Val Capone and the Windy City Rollers) that I realized what a potty mouth she had. A great sense of humor with one really raunchy joke after another.
During warmups the men and women squads would skate together; first the visiting team, then the home team, in their beautiful uniforms, the women wearing capes during warmup. At the end of the session, the team would form into a pace, flying along in the five stride all together, high on the straightaway, low into the turn, moving so fast they seemed a blur, and the sound of the wooden wheels on the masonite surface caused the audience to pause from whatever they were doing to become aware of the power of the athletes on the track.
The game would begin, with the men skating first, a fifteen minute period, followed by the women, then the men again and finally the women ending the half. The trackside announcer would bring the audience to a fever pitch, calling attention to what the athletes were doing and focusing on the stars. Oftentimes there was music during the jam, with stimulating classics like the William Tell Overture, Flight of the bumble-bee, 1812 overture, etc.
At halftime there would be an “Open House” where skaters would perform various talents such as singing, dancing, etc, and the audience would show their approval by throwing coins…these skaters were making only $25 to $100 a month, plus food and lodging, so everything helped. Billy Bogash and Buddy Atkinson would perform a jitterbug dance which would bring the house down. Then the second half would begin, with the women’s period first, and three succeeding periods with the men skating last. The final score was a total of the each men’s and womens’ teams.
Generally married couples or skaters who were going together would have the same number; Buddy Atkinson and Bobbie Johnstone would each have number 2, Gene Gammon and Gerry Murray number 10, Wes and Kitty number 12, and so on. No number 1 after 1937 to honor the skaters killed in the terrible bus crash. Bert Wall and Bobbie Mateer were married, as was Ken Monte and Toughie Brasuhn. Ken was a good ten years younger than Toughie, and it seemed at that time that the women skaters would latch on to the younger men: Loretta Behrens (and later Ann Calvello) with Charlie O’Connell, Mary Youpelle and Russ Massro, and so on.
And skaters were given names and backgrounds to make them more individual in the eyes of the fans: Elmer “Elbows” Anderson was reputed to have been born in London and a concert pianist, Mary “Pochahantas” Youpelle was a full-blooded native American (?). Mary can be asked that today, if you like. And then there was “Ma” Bogash, whose doctor had ordered her to exercise (true) so she took up skating at the very old age of 42. My father thought she would be a great addition to the Derby, so he convinced her to join, but she only agreed if her undersized 16-year old son Billy could come at the same time. Of course he became one of the greatest of all athletes in the game and was one of the first inducted into the Hall of Fame.
These were my childhood heroes, my Dimaggios, Red Granges, Hank Luisettis. And many were the great women athletes. Of course they mothered me and I will never forget their affection towards me
And the names that have been lost: Gertie Scholls, all the Gardners, Bob Satterfield, Paul Milane (who skated for Mickey Rooney in “Fireball”) and on and on. And how I remember the great Mary Lou Palermo…..please forgive me for those I don’t list.
Today’s game and its empowerment factor are wonderful and I so appreciate it, but realize every time I see anyone on skates, I go back to 70 years of affection for the players of the wonderful game.
If you want to read more about this era in what modern-day fans and skaters are calling “the best coffee table book ever” get your copy of Roller Derby to Rollerjam, covering the game with great writing and photos from 1935 to 1999 at http://www.rollerderbycommish.com. And now the brand new “Bay Area Roller Derby” by Keith Coppage and me takes you from the 30’s up to modern Day Derby. Available at all book stores and amazon.com.
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