Can Roller Derby ever become a major spectator attraction again?


Before you jump down my throat about your love for the game, I am not talking about anything except attracting more fans on a meaningful basis.

And ironically after writing this I found out that one of Derby’s greatest stars, Charlie O’Connell has died, and he was one reason that fans came to the games.

Yes, some leagues are doing well, especially the ones that have their own teams that play each other (can we start differentiating between teams and leagues?).  Obviously Gotham, Bay Area, Toronto, Texas, LA Derby Dolls, TXRD,  etc come to mind, but each of their teams has its own following and the fans can see their progress during the season, ending in a championship.

But many of the 2000 teams/leagues throughout the world depend almost soley of the local “family” support to continue, and many do not even think that admissions and merch can bring them sufficient revenue.

During the recent World Cup – the amazing event created by Robin Graves and her staff, there was a real feeling of what the game could mean to a paying public…….but when you got down to it, only a few of the countries could really manage the complexity of the game as it should be played, and they dominated the competition.  And the final, exciting matches had an enthusiastic crowd, but virtually all were “family” and not enough civilians.

A good friend of mine named Bill was in attendance on Friday, and liked what he saw so much that he returned for Sunday’s finals with his wife, who yelled herself hoarse.

Bill is a powerful player within the sports industry, and we had a very interesting discussion after the Cup ended.  Some of which I will relate.

He loved the possibilities of the sport, but found the game too complex and hard to follow for the larger audience necessary, and remarked on the excessive penalties (justified or not) that seemed to keep teams from being at full strength.  I explained the make up of teams/leagues throughout the world, the play for rankings and not for a regional league, the excessive amount of leagues in any area, etc.

He still wondered about the possibility of modifying and making a more spectator friendly game.

(Those who think I shouldn’t be talking this way or am criticizing the game you and thousands throughout the world love, please give it a rest for now……the game works for those who play it).

So looking back on what made Roller Derby successful there were many elements, albeit a very different animal…..you are thinking we don’t want the showmanship, the fights, etc.  And I agree….no need in today’s competitive sport.  But what if in a specific example you could present to the public an exhibition that combined the best of the rulesets (original, WFTDA, USARS, MADE), that allowed for the speed by the players and pack, really having offense and defense on the same play, having officiating more in tune with hockey that is no harm no foul (but obviously protect the players), and allowing stars to shine, and players to project them selves honestly, as in hockey and basketball.

Today you have the best roller skaters in the world in Derby.  You have participants who skated the old Roller Derby in a more recent form (Quadzilla, Mark Weber, etc) and former skaters like John Hall, Cliff Butler, Debbie Rice, Judy Arnold, Frank Macedo who would love to be a coaching participant in a different form of Derby.

Do I want to own Roller Derby again?  No, I did that, and it was wonderful…to sell out Madison Square Garden and every major arena and fill stadiums with crowds ranging from 27,000 to 50,000…for whatever you think of the past, the game always was about the skating to the fans…..nothing excited them more than skaters flying around the track, chasing each other, and one or two points on a jam.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SYC4ia6bBO4   A bit about Roller Derby in the 70s.

Of course I will continue to support the wonderful people and players I know in Derby.

But I would love to see what I described, promoted and featured, in just one weekend in a major city to see what the response would be.

You know I will always be a promoter at heart.

Five Strides on the Banked Track, the classic now available on Kindle or ebook!


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Roller Derby on the road.

Appeared as a short version in Sports Illustrated.

This classic sold out almost immediately and was never reprinted…..available at up to $600 from amazon.

this version will all the original photos and copy (and with a new forward by The Commissioner) is available at a very reasonable price. read the above information on how to get your copy.

Let’s make a movie….not


Roller Derby really started to hit its peak in the sixties  into the seventies.  We were on 120 television stations weekly in every major market and virtually all the minors……the game was seen weekly in 49 of the 50 highest population areas in all 50 states.

It wasn’t easy then.  No satellite coverage, and since we were not a network, every video tape (the heavy, huge, 2-inch ones) had to be shipped weekly from station to station.    Since we added one new telecast a week (generally from Kezar Pavilion “in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco” as the incomparable Walt Harris would intone), we had to know how many copies to make,  ship them to the first station and set up a “bicycle” as it was called.

Photo by alexaes from stock.xchng.com.

Thus one might be Des Moines showing  tape 127 Bombers vs Chiefs this week, sending it to Davenport, then sending it to St. Louis, etc.  Every Monday Verle, who ran our syndication department, had to check with stations by phone (no email or texting), to see if they shipped, and the stations knew that if they had not received a new program they were to let her know and we had over a dozen standbys throughout our circuit that could be sent them so no program would be missed.  complicated, huh?

And Portland might be watching a game that was one week old, whereas the action in Jacksonville could be a year old.  Since Roller Derby was not carried on the sports pages, it did not matter to the viewers when the game was taped, it just worked.  We had tremendous rating everywhere; the CBS station in Minnesota had a 80% market share on Sunday morning; WOR New York had a million and a half viewers weekly on Sunday afternoon;  KPLR St Louis killed all the network stations by showing the games at 11 PM Saturday night and so on.

We had a little tag in each show about getting a free copy of the rules, or getting on the mailing list to know about upcoming games, and we would carefully tabulate those to determine the routing of our winter tour to the faithful.  We would match the mail response against the ratings and decide what were our A, B, C Markets to play.  We needed 2 major cities a week on the road to break even (i.e. Chicago and Milwaukee) and then 3 minor markets to make it a profitable week (Lansing, Ft Wayne, Dayton).  I am amazed looking back how I figured all of this out.

Our deal with the TV stations was they would pay us a small amount a week for the program (generally $35 average) plus one way shipping and 4 one minute spots, 2 within the programs, 2 outside.  One station manager in Atlanta really played poor mouth, and we gave it to him for $25 and 6 spots……we killed Atlanta when we played there!  oh his name:  Ted Turner.

We agreed to use the spots within a year and not sell or barter them.  So I came up with the brilliant idea:  since our game and our skaters were now national figures, why not make a film utilizing them as personalities and as stories and use the spots to promote the film locally when we weren’t touring!

I was referred to 2 young filmmakers from Philadelphia, and when I met with them and told them we were willing to invest $75,000 in the project to get a 90-minute film, they jumped at it.  So we introduced them to the skaters and personnel, told all they would be going on the road with them and got ready for the fall and winter tour in 1969.

Bob Kaylor, the director, asked for the script and I, in my infinite wisdom, said we don’t have a script, but I am certain you will find a story among all of these personalities.

So off on the road they went.  A week later I got a call from Bob:  there is no story here, the skaters are very internalized, all we can do is show them skating,driving, etc.  I started to panic…..that amount of money in 1969 was worth ten times today.  I asked him to give it another week.

I got an excited call from Bob from Dayton, Ohio.  “This kid who kind of looks like Elvis with the dark glasses came up to me at the game and said he wanted to join the Roller Derby.  We filmed some footage of him with (superstar) Charlie O’Connell in the dressing room and there was definite friction between them, and I think we can make something out of it”  The teams were slated to move on the next day, and Bob asked if they could stay there for three more days (cost $7000) and follow Mike around……I thought this may be throwing good money after bad, but let’s do it.

Believe it or not I kind of forgot about the film and was concentrating on the tour when Bob called me.  He sounded strange.  I met him at Coppola’s Zoetrope studio in San Francisco and he showed me a 110 minute rough cut of the film, and he looked so nervous I knew something was wrong.  Well on the screen was this conniving young man from Dayton – Mike Snell – who lived with his wife Christina and slothful brother in the basement who spent the day reading Playboy….Mike built tires for a living (when he would go to work) and hung with his buddies, chased (and caught) women and you get the picture…..but interesting.

All Mike wanted to do was become a Roller Derby skater, and the film was about the Derby people and their lives on the  road (did I find out some interesting things) and superstar Charlie O’Connell as contrasted with Mike and his gang in Dayton.  Bob was sure I would kill the film then (as Mick Jagger did with “Cocksucker Blues”, the rarely seen epic about a Stones tour).   Well, I loved film.  I later co-founded the Sonoma Film Festival and have always been a fan of cinema.

Instead I worked with Bob and the editor on shortening certain scenes, eliminating others and cutting down the violence shown of Roller Derby (it was getting pretty rough at that time).

But what do you do with a film that probably had lost its  appeal with the Derby audience and certainly the skaters hated it when they saw it….(Charlie:  “you are comparing that crumb to me”)

Title screen from “Derby”, 1971.

Well, why not  apply to the San Francisco Film Festival?  I contacted Claude Jarman, the head of the festival (and young star of the film “The Yearling” much earlier) and made him a deal:  the festival was struggling, so what if I were to get “Derby” in the festival and every week for 6 weeks we would give mentions and commercials to it on our live telecast on Sunday night.

He put it in the new Director’s series, which pissed off Albert Johnson who was in charge of film selection, and when Derby was shown at the Palace of Fine Arts, Albert introduced it and then hurriedly left the auditorium.  When the lights came on I panicked…..not a sound…..then wild applause.   Then the after panel, with Bob Kaylor, Mike, his wife Christina, and his brother.

Well Christina wasn’t happy seeing her husband’s escapades, but the applause got to her, and she realized she was a star.

The reviews were amazing.  “Simply stunning” marvelously tough”, confounds all expectations” “it is all there, an honesty rarely attained in film”, “the first total triumph of the verite that cinema aspires to”…..and who were the critics?  Judith Crist, New York Magazine; Carroll, NY Daily News; Vincent Canby, New York Times’ Arnold, Washington Post; Ebert (4 stars) Chicago Sun times; Jay Cocks, Time Magazine. and on and on.

“Derby…is far and away the most entertaining and fascinating American picture I’ve seen this year”  said Gary Arnold, Washington Post’  and my favorite review by Sports Illustrated:  “The first honest sports film made about a suspect sport;  if you loved the Knute Rockne story (coach of Notre Dame), you will hate Derby”

The film was requested and played in ten festivals:  London, Atlanta, Toronto, Dallas and more.  I am looking at the poster from the Dallas film festival now.  And when I was on the NBC Today show with correspondent Jamie Gangel promoting  Rollerjam,  she told me her favorite film of all time was “Derby”, and she and a friend would sneak to an art theater in Manhattan to see it.  Wow.

And Mike Snell went on a whirlwind tour, featured on network TV, Rolling Stone (he of course seduced the reporter), and he quit his job, took the $3000 he was paid for his role, and came out to California to try out for the Derby, but that is another story.

Cinerama distributed the film……documentaries didn’t do well at that time…..It grossed less than a million dollars, and after creative accounting, we got about $8000.  No cable or satellite or pay-tv or home tape machines or dvds and that was pretty much the end of it.

I went on to produce one more film:  First Position, about the American Ballet Theater school in New York, featuring Nureyev, Julie Newmar, Michael Smuin, but it didn’t do well at all.

Derby was shot on a shoestring:  in grainy super 16 (blown up to 35 mm) by a six foot five bearded director with a heavy camera on his shoulder (that look did not get him a lot of friends in Dayton),  bad sound, none of the wonderful technical advantages that every one with a camera or iphone has today.  It is 40 years old and certainly is dated when you see it, but it has a story, told in an episodic manner, and I am still so proud of it.

The Academy Awards…..Cinerama submitted it, but because at that time “Derby”  had been shown 1 time in 1970 it did not qualify for the 1971 award best documentary award.

Next.

 

If you want an original VHS of “Derby” go to http://www.rollerderbycommish.com.

 

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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