The death of Barry Arnold and “Roller Derby the Musical”

Over 30 years ago before I left the Bay Area to go to Los Angeles to take on the Vice Presidency of Ticketmaster I received a phone call from Barry Arnold.

I had been out of Roller Derby for at least 15 years, but I was who he was looking for.

Barry was a well-known Broadway lighting director and had worked on many successful shows, but he wanted to be a playwright and had written a treatise on Roller Derby, based on his boyhood memories of watching the game on television in New York.

He and composer John Braden were preparing to mount a two-week production for the Theatre of the New City at a 50-seat theater in New York.  He wondered if I would look at the script, which was about a Roller Derby team, its manager and star with the sport nearing its final days.  Of course he could send it to me.

I read it and found it entertaining, but not close to understanding the nature of the game and its people, and made a few suggestions.  Then I heard the songs that John had written and was blown away.  I became involved (so what else is new) and went to New York to see the production……with all of its faults and the fact there could be no skating, the staging was great and the audiences loved it, as did the critic from the Village Voice and other publications (“The last time I saw a production this good in a trial run it became Grease”).  The music really worked, and although the story was corny, it was very appealing.

so what to do next?  In 1982 I headed for LA and met with Lee Sankowitz ( a great director, friend of Judi) who mounted it at a small non-equity theater in Los Angeles….although the Times reviewer did not like it, all others did.  Lee wanted to take it and make a major show (he discovered and produced “One Flew over the cuckoo’s nest) but the boys, especially Barry, didn’t want to lose control so they didn’t want to do it.  Also (kicking myself years later) one of the most successful Broadway husband and wife producers wanted to take an option, mount it at Yale, and if ready, take it to Broadway.  Again, a strong no, as Barry did not want his words to be changed (as they really needed).

My partner Hal loved the show, so with some friends we raised money and took it to the Theatre on the Square in San Francisco.  Barry didn’t want to go because the book would be changed, but we did anyway with famed Broadway director Ron Fields…..And Buddy Atkinson, Jr, did a wondrous job of  teaching the cast to skate.  The continuing problem, the book, and too much use of cocaine by the people around the theater and those associated with the show.  semi-good reviews, show not together…..closed with loss for all (Huey Lewis liked it!).

John Braden died shortly afterwards of Aids.  Barry went to Hong Kong where he did some major musical productions for casinos and I would hear from him occasionally.  Judi ran into him in Hong Kong and they went to dinner, and she remarked how manic he was.

I would get phone calls from him from LA, and occasionally he would have someone get in touch with him, but Barry was so demanding, nothing could happen.  I would hear from him always on my birthday, and he would tell me how was becoming a successful promoter.

Then in 2006 he managed to get the show booked for two weeks at the prestigious festival for new musicals in New York.  Composer Harold Wheeler (Music director for Dancing with the Stars and tons of Broadway shows) worked on the music with him, and one of the most renowned musical directors agreed to direct the show, which was scheduled for 2007.


Well, the worst of Barry showed up…..the rehearsals were a mess because he tried to control everything:  when the reps from the Schubert organization came to see the show at a run through, it was such a shambles that they walked out; he tore the director up and down, caused such dissension in the cast that the show manager black balled him from the theater….The show ran, got a decent response. but it was just sickening when you realize what it could have been.

On the final night Judi and I had dinner with our friends Frank and Carol Deford, and Barry showed up sheepishly at the restaurant and we all had dinner.  He was drawn and pale, and walked outside every few minutes to smoke.  That was actually the last time I saw him.

when he was back in LA he saw that I was getting on facebook, he decided to do it also.  He created SNN (the silly news network) and started to put humorous stuff out, and picked up several thousand followers of Roller Derby people.  i think he thought that way someone would want to produce the show.  The play was an obsession, and he wasn’t seeking any other work.  During one of our conversations I suggested he contact Keith Coppage (“Roller Derby to Rollerjam”, “Bay Area Roller Derby”) who ran one of the most acclaimed arts program at Mt Diablo High School, and his productions were amazing.  Of course Keith would like to mount a production, but after a few back and forths with Barry, realized it would be impossible.

On one of our conversations earlier this year I mentioned that he had put on his facebook page that Roller Derby the musical was dead.   No comment.  We never talked again.  It was brought to my attention the other day that Barry had died…..I went to his facebook page and saw his last comment was on June 3rd.  “Goodbye”.   that is my birthday.

Barry was really a good guy, unbelievably talented, bright, and had so much to offer…..I guess I am just angry at him for the route he chose; of course he was entitled.

I have talked to Keith…..if we can round-up the music and book (slightly re-written by Keith), we would love to see a memorial production at Mt Diablo, maybe for a Barry Arnold room or chair or something.  And just leave that for Barry.

I don’t know if I will every get over it.

Photo: To all FaceBook friends: Help celebrate Barry Arnold's life, and all the joy he has brought to us through his SNN posts. This Saturday, June 15, 2013, we are having a cyber memorial service for Barry Arnold. It will be held at noon, Pacific, 1 p.m. Mountain, 2 p.m. Central, and 3 p.m. Eastern. Apologies to those who are not in our time zones. We know Barry had international friends and we hope you join us regardless of your time zone. At that time, all of Barry's friends and Silly News Network fans, are invited to raise a glass, set off a sparkler, release a balloon, skip a rock, or anything else you feel would be appropriate, in his honor. We also ask that all you sillies post a joke on the SNN wall in tribute. Please, pass this information to any other friends, you may know, who enjoyed Barry's and the SNN pages. I hope you join us.

13 comments on “The death of Barry Arnold and “Roller Derby the Musical”

  1. It’s tough how the world turns. But the musical can still be produced. I remember seeing and enjoying it when it was in SF all those years ago.

  2. Minor correction: Harold Wheeler is the music director for “Dancing with the Stars”. He has never had an affiliation, to my knowledge, with “American Idol.”

  3. barry wasn’t an easy person to know, i first met him in an alley in the inwood section of manhattan, he was 16 or 17. at least now he may be able to rest and the unanswered question of his life remains unanswered.

  4. I met Barry in 1973 and considered him a good friend. He was always difficult, but one of the most creative people I ever met. With his family history, it’s a miracle that he managed to find any joy in the world and though I dread the pain he endured, I am hopeful that he is at peace now.

  5. I knew Barry for over 50 years. We went to grade school together, were apprentices together in summer stock, and shared our senior year in high school together in New York City. Extremely talented, funny, hard working. Easily frustrated and hyper emotional at times. We went years out of touch, but then circled back. On a visit to California about 10 years ago I visited him, and he played me the songs from Roller Derby. Then when he put it on in New York I put some money in it, and then ended up loaning him quite a bit more at the last minute. I loved the show, and it was tragic that he couldn’t enjoy his own work. He was always confident he could pay me back by getting work in Asia, but then the financial crisis hit, and all that work went away.

    I know Barry was wounded, in his own way by his upbringing, but I find this news profoundly shocking and unexpected.

  6. I was arranger/MD for the originalNY production as well as supervisorfor LA.
    Dear JOHN BRADEN passed away in ’87;but Barry continued “pushing” for a new production of ROLLER DERBY. The show, under the direction of ARTHUR FARIA, had potential but each successive re-write and adaptation weakened the humanity of the original. By the timeof NYMF, Barry was “out of control”. It is all so sad!

    • ironically, the original NY production on the tiny stage with no skating was the best in my opinion….the script always needed work, but it got such great reviews in the Village Voice and elsewhere. hopefully, it will reappear..

      Gerald E. Seltzer

  7. Brilliant, and troubled, Barry was my friend for over 30 years. we worked on many productions together including the original production of THE DERBY at Theatre of the New City which Barry asked me to direct and choreograph. I hesitated. Working with Barry as my lighting designer was one thing bur dealing with him as the playwright would be quite another. I loved the premise and the music By John Braden but Barry’s book needed major work. Barry initially agreed to make changes but once we got into production he became intransigent. There were many difficult late night meetings with John and I urging Barry to make the changes the show desperately needed. Barry would either be sullen and silent or fly into a rage. When he did make a change it was simply a scotch tape effort and not the major re-write that we needed. The show opened to surprisingly good reviews, but all mentioned the weak book. I said goodbye to THE DERBY. ..Barry and I had lost contact over the last few years and I didn’t know of his passing until I read about it here. I will miss his humor and his genius

  8. I know that Keith Coppage occasionally thinks about trying to mount it….if I didn’t have so much going on, I might urge him more……it is getting too late… corny as the book was, there was really something there….it was as though Barry couldn’t stand to see it really succeed.

    • it is kind of ironic, Michael, that with Roller Derby now in 60 countries with almost 1900 leagues that this project has been lost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s