Let’s make a movie….not

Roller Derby really started to hit its peak in the sixties  into the seventies.  We were on 120 television stations weekly in every major market and virtually all the minors……the game was seen weekly in 49 of the 50 highest population areas in all 50 states.

It wasn’t easy then.  No satellite coverage, and since we were not a network, every video tape (the heavy, huge, 2-inch ones) had to be shipped weekly from station to station.    Since we added one new telecast a week (generally from Kezar Pavilion “in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco” as the incomparable Walt Harris would intone), we had to know how many copies to make,  ship them to the first station and set up a “bicycle” as it was called.

Photo by alexaes from stock.xchng.com.

Thus one might be Des Moines showing  tape 127 Bombers vs Chiefs this week, sending it to Davenport, then sending it to St. Louis, etc.  Every Monday Verle, who ran our syndication department, had to check with stations by phone (no email or texting), to see if they shipped, and the stations knew that if they had not received a new program they were to let her know and we had over a dozen standbys throughout our circuit that could be sent them so no program would be missed.  complicated, huh?

And Portland might be watching a game that was one week old, whereas the action in Jacksonville could be a year old.  Since Roller Derby was not carried on the sports pages, it did not matter to the viewers when the game was taped, it just worked.  We had tremendous rating everywhere; the CBS station in Minnesota had a 80% market share on Sunday morning; WOR New York had a million and a half viewers weekly on Sunday afternoon;  KPLR St Louis killed all the network stations by showing the games at 11 PM Saturday night and so on.

We had a little tag in each show about getting a free copy of the rules, or getting on the mailing list to know about upcoming games, and we would carefully tabulate those to determine the routing of our winter tour to the faithful.  We would match the mail response against the ratings and decide what were our A, B, C Markets to play.  We needed 2 major cities a week on the road to break even (i.e. Chicago and Milwaukee) and then 3 minor markets to make it a profitable week (Lansing, Ft Wayne, Dayton).  I am amazed looking back how I figured all of this out.

Our deal with the TV stations was they would pay us a small amount a week for the program (generally $35 average) plus one way shipping and 4 one minute spots, 2 within the programs, 2 outside.  One station manager in Atlanta really played poor mouth, and we gave it to him for $25 and 6 spots……we killed Atlanta when we played there!  oh his name:  Ted Turner.

We agreed to use the spots within a year and not sell or barter them.  So I came up with the brilliant idea:  since our game and our skaters were now national figures, why not make a film utilizing them as personalities and as stories and use the spots to promote the film locally when we weren’t touring!

I was referred to 2 young filmmakers from Philadelphia, and when I met with them and told them we were willing to invest $75,000 in the project to get a 90-minute film, they jumped at it.  So we introduced them to the skaters and personnel, told all they would be going on the road with them and got ready for the fall and winter tour in 1969.

Bob Kaylor, the director, asked for the script and I, in my infinite wisdom, said we don’t have a script, but I am certain you will find a story among all of these personalities.

So off on the road they went.  A week later I got a call from Bob:  there is no story here, the skaters are very internalized, all we can do is show them skating,driving, etc.  I started to panic…..that amount of money in 1969 was worth ten times today.  I asked him to give it another week.

I got an excited call from Bob from Dayton, Ohio.  “This kid who kind of looks like Elvis with the dark glasses came up to me at the game and said he wanted to join the Roller Derby.  We filmed some footage of him with (superstar) Charlie O’Connell in the dressing room and there was definite friction between them, and I think we can make something out of it”  The teams were slated to move on the next day, and Bob asked if they could stay there for three more days (cost $7000) and follow Mike around……I thought this may be throwing good money after bad, but let’s do it.

Believe it or not I kind of forgot about the film and was concentrating on the tour when Bob called me.  He sounded strange.  I met him at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio in San Francisco and he showed me a 110 minute rough cut of the film, and he looked so nervous I knew something was wrong.  Well on the screen was this conniving young man from Dayton – Mike Snell – who lived with his wife Christina and slothful brother in the basement who spent the day reading Playboy….Mike built tires for a living (when he would go to work) and hung with his buddies, chased (and caught) women and you get the picture…..but interesting.

All Mike wanted to do was become a Roller Derby skater, and the film was about the Derby people and their lives on the  road (did I find out some interesting things) and superstar Charlie O’Connell as contrasted with Mike and his gang in Dayton.  Bob was sure I would kill the film then (as Mick Jagger did with “Cocksucker Blues”, the rarely seen epic about a Stones tour).   Well, I loved film.  I later co-founded the Sonoma Film Festival and have always been a fan of cinema.

Instead I worked with Bob and the editor on shortening certain scenes, eliminating others and cutting down the violence shown of Roller Derby (it was getting pretty rough at that time).

But what do you do with a film that probably had lost its  appeal with the Derby audience and certainly the skaters hated it when they saw it….(Charlie:  “you are comparing that crumb to me”)

Title screen from “Derby”, 1971.

Well, why not  apply to the San Francisco Film Festival?  I contacted Claude Jarman, the head of the festival (and young star of the film “The Yearling” much earlier) and made him a deal:  the festival was struggling, so what if I were to get “Derby” in the festival and every week for 6 weeks we would give mentions and commercials to it on our live telecast on Sunday night.

He put it in the new Director’s series, which pissed off Albert Johnson who was in charge of film selection, and when Derby was shown at the Palace of Fine Arts, Albert introduced it and then hurriedly left the auditorium.  When the lights came on I panicked…..not a sound…..then wild applause.   Then the after panel, with Bob Kaylor, Mike, his wife Christina, and his brother.

Well Christina wasn’t happy seeing her husband’s escapades, but the applause got to her, and she realized she was a star.

The reviews were amazing.  “Simply stunning” marvelously tough”, confounds all expectations” “it is all there, an honesty rarely attained in film”, “the first total triumph of the verite that cinema aspires to”…..and who were the critics?  Judith Crist, New York Magazine; Carroll, NY Daily News; Vincent Canby, New York Times’ Arnold, Washington Post; Ebert (4 stars) Chicago Sun times; Jay Cocks, Time Magazine. and on and on.

“Derby…is far and away the most entertaining and fascinating American picture I’ve seen this year”  said Gary Arnold, Washington Post’  and my favorite review by Sports Illustrated:  “The first honest sports film made about a suspect sport;  if you loved the Knute Rockne story (coach of Notre Dame), you will hate Derby”

The film was requested and played in ten festivals:  London, Atlanta, Toronto, Dallas and more.  I am looking at the poster from the Dallas film festival now.  And when I was on the NBC Today show with correspondent Jamie Gangel promoting  Rollerjam,  she told me her favorite film of all time was “Derby”, and she and a friend would sneak to an art theater in Manhattan to see it.  Wow.

And Mike Snell went on a whirlwind tour, featured on network TV, Rolling Stone (he of course seduced the reporter), and he quit his job, took the $3000 he was paid for his role, and came out to California to try out for the Derby, but that is another story.

Cinerama distributed the film……documentaries didn’t do well at that time…..It grossed less than a million dollars, and after creative accounting, we got about $8000.  No cable or satellite or pay-tv or home tape machines or dvds and that was pretty much the end of it.

I went on to produce one more film:  First Position, about the American Ballet Theater school in New York, featuring Nureyev, Julie Newmar, Michael Smuin, but it didn’t do well at all.

Derby was shot on a shoestring:  in grainy super 16 (blown up to 35 mm) by a six foot five bearded director with a heavy camera on his shoulder (that look did not get him a lot of friends in Dayton),  bad sound, none of the wonderful technical advantages that every one with a camera or iphone has today.  It is 40 years old and certainly is dated when you see it, but it has a story, told in an episodic manner, and I am still so proud of it.

The Academy Awards…..Cinerama submitted it, but because at that time “Derby”  had been shown 1 time in 1970 it did not qualify for the 1971 award best documentary award.



If you want an original VHS of “Derby” go to http://www.rollerderbycommish.com.


11 comments on “Let’s make a movie….not

  1. I wish the movie had not centered about Mike Snell. Most fans would have much rather seen more about their idols, not some guy with a dream and some lousy social habits.

    Just my take. The best part of Derby, for a fan like me, was the skating parts. The worst was all the wasted time on Snell and his wife, her friend, his liasons, etc., etc.

    Jersey Joe

    • As I said, the fans and skaters disliked it…….not a great way to make a “house” film, but it sure said a lot about America at that time. In the long run, I am satisfied.

  2. I have a dvd copy of this film and have seen it in Netflix selections.
    This is fantastic I just referenced this film in conversation twice the othernight!

  3. So, whatever happened to Mike Snell? Couldn’t find anything on the internet other than Derby. I seem to remeber him skating briefly.
    What team? How long in Roller Derby? Any idea what he’s doing today?

    • apparently the ATF was looking for him as he bragged about having dozens of guns in the Rolling Stone article…..there were also other allegations against him that I don’t know if they were true……he just disappeared.

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