When Roller Derby “hit it big” in the US in the late 40’s and early fifties composer Leonard Whitcup wrote a ditty that had the above first line. To hear the song, go to you tube, seek Mike Gammon Roller Derby, and you will see a ten-minute video of Roller Derby in the early days until the early 70s, and of course you will hear this catchy tune.
Once Roller Derby became popular on the ABC network (serving 13 cities at that time; almost no TV sets in homes, people watched in bars or at windows in front of radio stores), my father received offers from all over to promote this amazing attraction, and the one that intrigued him the most was to bring it to London and Paris. So in 1953 they picked two teams of all stars, put a track and the skaters on a ship and off they went to Europe.
Interesting note: during my father’s lifetime he never left the North American continent. I have been to the UK, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia…more on that at another time.
So these representatives of the banked track game went first to Wembley (I believe the arena, not the stadium) where the sport had a very successful run. The format was simple; the home team was composed of all English and European skaters (not one, really), and the visitors (The US) of all American skaters (yes). the home team, the good guys, the evil Americans, bad. Heading up the “American” women was Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn, a four-foot eleven inch fire hydrant, but a tremendous skater. She terrified the “European” team, and was soon was the major source of the anger by the British fans. One newspaper account said she resembled (actor and director) Eric Von Stroheim, “only uglier”.
After they departed the UK the troupe next went to Paris where they played a four-week run at the Palais de Sport.
Now this was during the infamous McCarthy era in the US, where everyone was being labeled a communist; people were losing their jobs, especially in the arts; friends were ratting on each other at the slightest hint of communist affiliation, and being branded “anti-American” was the worst thing that could happen. Meanwhile the game was played in Paris with the US team intimidating the European men and women (not sure if they were called France in Paris, I was still in University at Northwestern near Chicago).
Well Henry Luce, owner of major American magazines Life and Time was a staunch supporter of Senator McCarthy and his witch hunt. So in the middle of 1953 a feature appeared in our most important magazine “Life” entitled “Anti Americanism in Paris”, which showed how the French were being taught (taught, the French?) to hate Americans because of what was going on on the banked track.
So a very successful European run was tainted, but eventually the hullabaloo slackened, and like most effects of publicity, the crowds increased when Roller Derby game back home, but the party was almost over for this run of Derby.
Unlike football or any other sport, Roller Derby had no season end on ABC television. There were three and one half games televised live weekly on the expanded network, and since there was no videotape capabilities at this time, the programs had sponsors who didn’t want it to leave the air.
Thus in the summer of 1949 the championship playoffs were held for the first time at the old Madison Square Garden. Ned Irish, who ran the venue with an iron hand, hated Roller Derby, and when my father wanted to book it for this major event, Irish gave him the choice of one week in summer. Now none of the arenas were air-conditioned, and summer in NewYork is humid and bloody hot. (notice the British word dropped in there)
So in June of that year, there was a five-day, 6 team tournament, and all the nights sold out. The Champions held their trophies and awards, and oh by the way, television decried that the new season start the next day! People didn’t have time to get tired of Derby but in 1955 they did; my father had a dispute with the network, and he figured it was time to head west.
Los Angeles and the west coast and the Midwest were the next targets, and so started the next major chapter in Derby history, up until the Seltzer scion took over in 1959. You may follow my blog at http://www.rollerderbyjesus.com, facebook as Jerry Seltzer, and twitter at @jeryseltzer (one r in first name). on Derby, other interests, and modern Derby, which we will get to here eventually on our plodding path…..comments welcome.