A different Roller Derby Life

Today’s guest blogger is Ken Gurian, who was part of Roller Derby management from 1949-1955.  Ken is my brother in law and a great human being.  I hope I can get him to do another one about his refereeing, TV announcing,  and stories of New York in the early fifties:  Go Ken!

So Jerry wants a different look at The Derby—one from 1949-1955—from a management view—from a novice to a unit manager after one 3-week race (note:  that is what our stays in any city were called).  Well, it was fun, confusing, wild, and unforgettable.

First off, one must understand that I started my Derby life with three weeks in the snow, in Buffalo, New York.  How did I get there?  Easy—I married Gloria Seltzer, Jerry’s sister, Leo’s (the boss) daughter—what a way to start a 58-year marriage.

The Roller Derby as you no doubt know, was much different then—the high-banked track, the two sexes on each team–men and women for the first time in any sport competing under the same rules, on the same track, with an aggregate score.

My first impression was the athletic ability of the skaters—few people talk about that, but in those days the teams skated five or six nights a week plus a Sunday matinee, and there were never more than 8 men and 8 women on a team.  The speeds were incredible on the banked track, and those folks had to be in great shape or they couldn’t keep up; I saw veteran skaters, having been away for two or three weeks, come back and, out of breath, throw up in the infield after two or three jams.

Because of the travel from city to city for each race, and the irregular meal times, we carried a full kitchen and cook along with the track, sound system, box office equipment, etc.  Leo found the armories in many cities were an ideal size for the Derby, but they were essentially four walls and we had to carry everything else with us and get bleachers set up.  And the crews that traveled from town to town were a permanent part of the Derby family as well.  I remember Russ Schalk, head construction man for our unit always stuck his finger in the socket to see if the line was hot—what a character.

And the fans—especially the women in the New York City-Northern New Jersey area were wonderful and intense. Roller Derby had a higher percentage of women fans of any sport.  Leo said they were empathetic with the women skaters.  Many women fans would line up on the day we would open the box office and try to buy their favorite seats for every night of a 21-day run.  Envision, if you will, the oval banked track that would rise more than 4 feet off the ground at opposite corners at each end.  This elevation and subsequent drop down to ground level was the impetus for skaters gaining and holding speed during a jam.  Also, at that high point at either end the elevated stands afforded the best eye-level and close fan seat in the house.  We got to know those fans by name as they followed us from the 69th Regiment Armory to the 14th street armory and then over the Hudson River to the Teaneck Armory.

Many of the skaters were married to other skaters and really helped keep the “family” attitude as the backbone of this traveling group of athletes.  And when one wanted to leave or just take some time off, the spouse would often go as well.  I remember one couple—Monte Jean and Carl Payne.  Monte Jean was a slender, pretty girl–a good skater that had a great following.  Carl was a big guy—loved to blast through the pack.  Well, one day they came into the office to tell us that they were leaving the Derby—Monte Jean’s dad was a painting contractor who had just landed a huge contract and needed help, the money was good, and they could settle down in one place.  Six months later, they were back.  I asked Monte Jean:  ‘Why are you back?”  and her reply was that “no one cheered when Carl came down the ladder.”

All the skaters loved the Derby—and once it got in their blood—they were skaters and to this day, at the annual “Roller Derby Has-Beens” reunion you can still feel the connection they have with each other.

Jerry here:  After leaving the Derby, Ken used his University of Oregon and UCLA and Roller Derby experience to form a very successful medical advertising agency in Beverly Hills.  He and my sister eventually moved from Los Angeles to back their roots in Oregon, living on the ocean in Seaside.  My sister passed away three years ago.  What stories she had!