back to the original colonies


It has been over 20 years since I was in New England.  And I go back next week (May25-27).

No place could be more deja-vuish for me.

Photograph by pablo0713 from stock.xchng.com.

Back in the days of Roller Derby in the 60’s we were on about 10 television stations in that region, and because of the wonders of videotape and our shipping department, each saw a different game each week;  some tapes might have been a year old, some 6 months, and some hot off the Kezar Pavilion telecasts from SanFrancisco.

And each week Walt Harris, he of the wonderful voice, Verle Starry and I would show up at 6 PM at KTVU, channel 2, Oakland,  for a one hour recording sessions to cut spots to insert in each of those telecasts for our upcoming tour.  And we did it all with written copy and signs that Verle would create and sort each week.  Walt would have 30 different 1 minute spots of copy, the engineer would start the two-inch tape machine, and for the next hour we would record an amazing 30 1-minute spots, each for a different station or a different week (for example, “on January 17 see the Bay Bombers and Chiefs in Springfield at….., next week see the Bombers and Chiefs……tomorrow the Bombers and Chiefs tangle..).

The station would cut them, box them, and Verle would send them off to the stations with instructions when they should air.  And in each of the New England spots, because there was such a cross over of markets that each station covered, there would be one card showing all the games in that area, sometimes as many as 6.

We would accumulate the commercials during the year in return for showing our tapes, and we would run full schedules within our games and without on the stations prior to our “live”  appearances.   And it worked; each game was a sellout whether at the Boston Arena, Garden, Springfield Coliseum, New Haven Arena, and various colleges and gyms throughout the area.  If I had to pick a hot bed of love for Roller Derby, it was New England.

The fans were great, highly opinionated (one sign:  The Bombers eat —–), but unlike anywhere else in the country.  Can you say Bruins, Celtics and of course, Red Sox?

So now I will be able to meet all the skaters and personnel of the modern era.  I will be with my good friend Doug Martin in his Roll Models booth displaying his highly professional uniforms (please have your league start growing with the game!) and we will have all kinds of fun and contests, and I will greet each one of you with great enthusiasm.  I  am also representing Mogotix, which is the paperless ticket service of the future…..in case you all somehow don’t know, I am considered a true pioneer in the computerized ticketing business, having entered it in 1974 (right after Roller Derby) and eventually becoming the executive vice president of Ticketmaster.

And of course on Saturday afternoon I will speak on something to the assembled group, and for those who would like a copy, I am bringing a few of “Roller Derby to Rollerjam“.

Buddy Atkinson Sr (the legend) and I were together during the last Roller Derby tour of that region in 1973.  It certainly was the winter of our discontent:  no gas, no money, arenas cancelling on us because they couldn’t get fuel to heat the buildings in winter;  we had our usual sellout at the Rhode Island Arena in Providence, but Springfield, Nashua, even Boston were disappointments;  people were not willing to drive because of the gas shortage.  And finally, I had to do what I had come on this trip for;  tell all my personnel that this was the end of the road.  No funds, and we could not continue.

I guess it seemed odd to me at the time that it came as a surprise to most of the skaters;  couldn’t they see the empty seats in the buildings?  They figured, as did I, that Roller Derby would always be there.  Many were quite angry and expressed it to me, and I understood and accepted it.  But I will  always remember Joan Weston – who made the most money and was most affected – coming to me, putting her arm on my shoulder and saying “Does anyone here realizes what this means to Jerry?”.  Nobody who knew her could say that Joan was anything but a class act.  the tour continued for several weeks, closing with a huge crowd at Madison Square Garden.

The skaters went on to other activities;  we had actually set up profit sharing for years, so even those who didn’t believe that the money was actually there received anywhere from $5,000 to $60,000, depending on their salaries and longevity in the game. These were 1973 dollars.  Some started businesses, others just blew it, but all were appreciative.  And you ask any of them today, and they will tell you that Roller Derby was the best time of their life.

I came back to New England in 1975 as part of  Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder review (no, not as an artist, but as the ticket manager).  Touring with Rock and Roll was so different from Roller Derby;  we were on the cheap, they certainly weren’t.  And with all the entourage and hangers on, there were probably 80 people in the group.  That six weeks taught me what I needed to know about the music scene, and I was part of it and loved it for the next 18 years.

In the mid 80s we at Ticketmaster had set up an office in Boston and Bob Leonard  (TM’s president) and I went there to represent the national company.  I arrived just in time for Bob and I and the local Ticketmaster staff to take a photo for the annual program for the Boston Symphony, as Ticketmaster had computerized them and also was a sponsor.  The photo is in that program somewhere.  And certainly no one who saw the photo of that man in a suit would have known of his strange journey to that point.

Bring it on, New England!

Derby’s Golden Age……for me


When most people think of the “Golden Age” they are referring to the 60’s and 70’s when Roller Derby was on 110 TV stations in the US and Canada, and we filled huge arenas and stadia and everyone knew Joan Weston, Charlie O”Connell, Ann Calvello, Ken Monte, Carol Meyer, Tony Roman, Mike Gammon, Judi Mcguire and many more as the superstars of Derby. These people were in 10 million living rooms every week because of the games we videotaped and shipped around to all locations.

Collage with elements by lilie from stock.xchng.com.

And most of these great skaters had become interested in the game because of the early television from New York and Chicago in the late 40’s and early 50’s.  My fond memories are from the late 30’s until my Dad took it into New York for the first big explosion.

As I stated in an earlier post (Roller Derby in Hollywood), I first saw the game in the glamorous movie capital of the world, and these skaters were bigger than life.

Wes Aronson was the golden boy, built like Charlie O’Connell but movie star handsome and an effortless skating style.  He was publicized as dating Eleanor Powell, a movie dancing partner of Fred Astaire.  I think however, that even at that time he was married to his beautiful skating partner, Kitty Nehls.  There were the fabulous Atkinson boys, Tommy and Buddy.  Tommy again movie star handsome and skated the track better than anyone ever; he never used a shoulder or body block but was able to control the pack with his hip block.  Buddy was a choppy skater who made it on effort rather than talent.

And the amazing women:  Ivy King was the first woman superstar.  She skated in the first “race” in 1935 and looked so unlike a skater:  diminutive, wearing glasses while skating and yet with amazing ability.  It wasn’t until she was 90 at the 70th anniversary dinner in Chicago (where I first met Val Capone and the Windy City Rollers) that I realized what a potty mouth she had.  A great sense of humor with one really raunchy joke after another.

During warmups the men and women squads would skate together; first the visiting team, then the home team, in their beautiful uniforms, the women wearing capes during warmup.  At the end of the session, the team would form into a pace, flying along in the  five stride all together, high on the straightaway, low into the turn, moving so fast they seemed a blur, and the sound of the wooden wheels on the masonite surface caused the audience to pause from whatever they were doing to become aware of the power of the athletes on the track.

The game would begin, with the men skating first, a fifteen minute period, followed by the women, then the men again and finally the women ending the half.  The trackside announcer would bring the audience to a fever pitch, calling attention to what the athletes were doing and focusing on the stars.  Oftentimes there was music during the jam, with stimulating classics like the William Tell Overture, Flight of the bumble-bee, 1812 overture, etc.

At halftime there would be an “Open House” where skaters would perform various talents such as singing, dancing, etc, and the audience would show their approval by throwing coins…these skaters were making only $25 to $100 a month, plus food and lodging, so everything helped.  Billy Bogash and Buddy Atkinson would perform a jitterbug dance which would bring the house down.  Then the second half would begin, with the women’s period first, and three succeeding periods with the men skating last.  The final score was a total of the each men’s and womens’ teams.

Generally married couples or skaters who were going together would have the same number;  Buddy Atkinson and Bobbie Johnstone would each have number 2, Gene Gammon and Gerry Murray number 10, Wes and Kitty number 12, and so on.   No number 1 after 1937 to honor the skaters killed in the terrible bus crash.   Bert Wall and Bobbie Mateer were married, as was Ken Monte and Toughie Brasuhn.  Ken was a good ten years younger than Toughie, and it seemed at that time that the women skaters would latch on to the younger men:  Loretta Behrens (and later Ann Calvello) with Charlie O’Connell, Mary Youpelle and Russ Massro, and so on.

And skaters were given names and backgrounds to make them more individual in the eyes of the fans:  Elmer “Elbows” Anderson was reputed to have been born in London and a concert pianist,  Mary “Pochahantas” Youpelle was a full-blooded native American (?).  Mary can be asked that today, if you like.  And then there was “Ma” Bogash, whose doctor had ordered her to exercise (true) so she took up skating at the very old age of 42.  My father thought she would be a great addition to the Derby, so he convinced her to join, but she only agreed if her undersized 16-year old son Billy could come at the same time.   Of course he became one of the greatest of all athletes in the game and was one of the first inducted into the Hall of Fame.

These were my childhood heroes, my Dimaggios, Red Granges, Hank Luisettis.  And many were the great women athletes.  Of course they mothered me and I will never forget their affection towards me

And the names that have been lost:  Gertie Scholls, all the Gardners, Bob Satterfield, Paul Milane (who skated for Mickey Rooney in “Fireball”) and on and on.   And how I remember the great Mary Lou Palermo…..please forgive me for those I don’t list.

Today’s game and its empowerment factor are wonderful and I so appreciate it, but realize every time I see anyone on skates, I go back to 70 years of affection for the players of the wonderful game.

If you want to read more about this era in what modern-day fans and skaters are calling “the best coffee table book ever” get your copy of Roller Derby to Rollerjam, covering the game with great writing and photos from 1935 to 1999 at http://www.rollerderbycommish.com.  And now the brand new “Bay Area Roller Derby” by Keith Coppage and me takes you from the 30’s up to modern Day Derby.  Available at all book stores and amazon.com.

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things were different back then.


I am going to try to just keep to the Roller Derby I grew up with in this post.

I have already related how in the 30’s we would drive to California to see the month-long stays of  the Derby in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  But this was also my first contact with Derby folk who I knew for years afterwards.  Skaters who were bigger than life to me:  Tommy and Buddy Atkinson, Superstar Wes Aronson and Kitty Nehl, Bob Satterfield, Ivy King, “Pochahantas” Mary Youpelle (still out there and active) and so many more.  They were all like uncles and aunts and I got to hang with them and on special occasions, even eat with them at the meals cooked in their quarters – they lived and slept in the buildings then.  And they couldn’t  believe that in LA the stars came to see THEM.

I kind of think of the managers then as almost carny.  Moon Mullins, Sid Cohen, and names that escape me now.  And they and Leo would be like a group that did things together:  fishing in Florida, going to night spots in the big cities, etc.  These were his gang.  Once Sid told everyone that they all had to lose weight and he heard of the sour cream diet…..no matter where and when you ate, you had to add huge portions or sour cream to the meal.  Of course after everyone gained about 10 pounds each, they realized it wasn’t working.

This was the heart of the depression.  The skaters hung together, did things together, and whenever possible, Leo arranged for sightseeing and other activities….they had no money, came from tough backgrounds, and this was the best time of their lives.  My dad told me that he found out afterwards that one of the participants had been a colonel in the army;  in Chicago the winner of the first Derby was a 16-year old who was scheduled to be on the fatal bus when his father withdrew his permission.  He went on to become the Commissioner of the Fire Department for the City of Chicago and organized the fire workers union.

Photo by Josep Altarriba from stock.xchng.com.

Of course, there are many stories like that.  The games were the glue that held them together.  The home team (white shirts) were the good guys, the visitors (Red shirts) were the mean players from Chicago, etc or whatever city represented evil to  the home town.  I remember the red shirts like Buddy Atkinson, Silver Rich, Elmer (elbows) Anderson, Gertie Scholls, and of course later there was “Toughie Brasuhn”.  And then after the games they would eat the late meal and all hang together.

It was tough for a lot of the women.  So many people assumed that because they skated in the Roller Derby they were not to be respected, yet they probably were the nicest people I knew…..This assumption seems odd in today’s world but remember women did not compete in contact sports at that time, and were not featured in many at all.

Roller skates had wooden wheels at this time, except if you skated outside you had clamp-ons with metal wheels.  The masonite track had to be painted with a special slate paint in order for the skaters to be able to skate on it and get traction.  And often during the games the referees would have to throw additional slate powder on the surface as the wheels wore the paint off.  And the dust would go flying and since it was green, after a few games the skaters and the fans would have green on their clothes their hair, etc.  (I think that is what happened to Calvello originally and she decided to make the most of it).

Now after one time around, many of the better arenas would not let Roller Derby back in, as there was paint on the ceiling and everywhere else, so Leo would find armories or exposition buildings (fairgrounds, etc) and bring in bleachers as well as the track…..the initial setup took days, as well as the teardown.  But the fans loved the games and kept coming.

Now let’s jump ahead to 1959.  I had just taken over Roller Derby and we were skating in the San Francisco Armory at 16th and Mission 5 days a week.  One night would be Ladies’ night, one night date night, etc.  I knew that because of the television coverage, we could draw fans from a wider area.  I contacted the other arenas, but they all knew about the paint.  Lin Luedekke at the Oakland Auditorium would let us come into the Exposition building across the street (now the site of Merritt College).  Meanwhile, Oscar Seltzer of the Roller Derby Skate  Company had sent me samples of new urethane wheels he had developed.  We tried them on the track, but found they were too soft and wore down too fast.  Eventually he got the formula right, and I decided we would use them in a game and not put paint on the track.  The skaters said it slowed them down too much, but since everything is relative, it didn’t really matter.  Eventually, they forgot about it.

So we found that if we covered the track with a light plastic paint, they could go faster but more importantly, did not require any of the slate. I contacted Lin in Oakland and told him we would play the Auditorium and would not be using the slate paint.  He reluctantly agreed, and I knew that the  other facilities in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, etc were waiting to see how it worked in Oakland.

We had lowered the bank on the track from 4 1/2 feet to three feet and made it portable so it could be set up in 4 hours, torn down in 2.  Gil Orozco who skated on the Bombers was in charge of construction, and knowing how much I like to color up the track and uprights (see any of our tapes on youtube) to make it more of an arena event decided he would put the plastic surface on in color.  Once it was set up he let me know and to ask Lin to come in to take a look.  Well, Gil had decided to use a green color and when Lin saw it, he almost shat.  I calmed him down and told him it would be fine and it was, and we were able to book the other arenas and eventually sold out almost every major arena in the US and Canada.

Part of the fun of Roller Derby was the noise from the track, and we lost a lot of that when the plastic wheels replace the wooden ones, although there still is sufficient noise on the banked track to be exciting.  And for our telecasts we miked under the track so the noise was always there.  And people ask me why do I love Roller Derby!

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