60 years ago Roller Derby reappeared in a most unlikely way.

In 1958 a strange series of occurrences led to the re-emergence of Roller Derby … and if they hadn’t you wouldn’t have today’s  different versions on the scene.

The game had worn out its welcome on ABC after being on the air every week for over 5 years.  A major problem was the network insisted that there be at least a game a week available to telecast: often as many as three.  So the season would end with the championships at Madison Square Garden, and the new season would start the next week!  Imagine if that were required for any other sport!

So after moving the operation to the West Coast, Leo Seltzer decided the effort was no longer worth the reward and was shutting it down.  Meanwhile Jerry Seltzer who was moonlighting as a trackside announcer found out that a new independent television station was coming on the air in the San Francisco Bay Area and had contacted General Manager Ward Ingrahm about providing the derby as possible programming.  Leo was not interested, but told Jerry that if he wanted to operate the game, he would let him use the track, uniforms, etc, but wouldn’t back the project.

At that same time (karma!) an engineer down the Peninsula had developed videotape at Ampex in Redwood city: suddenly now programming could be taped with very high fidelity and reshown…This was crucial to the future success of the game.

So Roller Derby first appeared on KTVU on Saturday night as a live event, with the Bay Bombers skating a studio like game from a former auto repair shop on East 14th Street in Oakland.  And the last hour would be reshown on Saturday morning to reach a different audience, via the new videotape.

The program (later moved to Sunday night) drew fans from all over northern California and games were scheduled in over a dozen cities in the region….and because of demand for the programming in other regions of the county, the videotapes eventually appeared on over 100 stations in the US and Canada, and live games in all major arenas (and major stadiums) drew huge crowds: record setting 19,507 in Madison Square Garden in New York, and over 50,000 at White Sox Park in Chicago.

Because of the gas crisis in 1972 and other issues, the International Roller Derby League shut down in 1973, but videos of the game were now appearing on tapes, and eventually on cable.  And April Ritzenhaler in Texas saw some of these, and with others in Austin formed Texas Roller Derby, a banked track game for women in 2002.  Eventually a group of players broke away to form a flat track game, and the Texas Rollergirls were born….eventually derby spread to many other cities and countries, and today there are approximately 2000 leagues around the world.

All traceable to KTVU, videotape, and a few other factors.  Below Jerry Seltzer and Walt Harris, the national voice of Roller Derby, talk about the good old days.






7 comments on “60 years ago Roller Derby reappeared in a most unlikely way.

    • I had the pleasure of sitting next to a lovely lady watching Roller Derby, and talking with her about the game (sport). She let me know that she saw a lot of skating and I got out of her that her husband was a part of the show. After a lot of guessing it kind of slipped out that her husband was the referee that we saw both on the TV and on the track when we went to a live show. Classy lady.

  1. My first husband, Gene Hays, was the director for years. When he passed away in ’72, Roller Derby offered me a job (through Bud Weiner) for $500 a month, $50 more a month than KTVU. Not to skate, by the way. Anyway, I chose KTVU because of the people there who were so supportive. But, we spent many years watching and going to Roller Derby events – my sons grew up on Walt Harris, Charlie, Ann, Peanuts, etc.

  2. Georgia, Gene was the best director for derby, ever….he had such an instinct for camera position and pickup….when we started taping in other cities, Gene and Walt would go for us to make sure we had the best coverage….loved working with him, both as a person and as a professional.

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