There is a book long out of print “A Very Simple Game” by Herb Michelson – the oral history of those associated with Roller Derby. over 30,000 copies were sold in 1971 and 1972, and you may find a copy with the original cover in a library, or bootlegs elsewhere. And don’t worry about sharing, I owned the publishing company (Occasionally Publishing)
But I am going to give you the first chapter as told by Leo Seltzer (b 1903, d 1978).
I don’t like to use the name Promoter. A Promoter is the type of man who goes out and uses everybody else’s money. I always gambled my own money, even though I took some hard losses many times. But we didn’t call on outside people . I have never considered myself a capital P Promoter. I was just a man who took a creative idea and tried to move it towards a successful end. I like to gamble my own money, because I’d feel terrible if anybodys invested with me and they should lose. I would figure they’d feel it was my fault. But if I lose my own money, I look in the mirror and see only myself. I don’t think my son Jerry considers himself a Promoter, either. I think he’s done a fantastic job.
I am very lucky because I find in this day and age that no matter what the average man creates, whether it is a large CPA office or a law firm or anything else, he always has a great idea that he is building up to a goal for his son or sons to step in and take over. But most of these sons seem to revolt and want to go into other fields. The man has built a great entity and he doesn’t have anyone to follow him. So here I built a great idea called Roller Derby and went through the blood and sweat of pioneering it, and all of a sudden I have a son who picks up the marbles and has gone a great deal further with the same idea and great ingenuity. And I am amazed at seeing he’s done this after seeing a great many families whose sons didn’t want to do what their fathers did.
I could see there could be a little bit of resentment, but it doesn’t exist between Jerry and myself. Some sons would say they wanted to create their own idea. But what Jerry has done is creat HIS own idea, and I think everybody in the San Francisco area understands that. Jerry is one of the most outstanding, let’s say, entrepreneurs in his field. I see some of him in me, and yet I think he came along more slowly than I did. I was out there fighting for my life, I didn’t have any backing. Jerry didn’t either, in a way, but I think he is a more concise, conservative person than I am. I am more the idea man who plunges into something and finds out later that I might have been wiser to go a little slower. I threw everything I had into Roller Derby and sometimes fell right on my face. I never had to borrow anything, but I took a lot of baths.
I could make a long novel out of what brought my family from Romania to Helena, Montana, where I was born. I had two older brothers born in Romania and my dad didn’t want to be living that type of life so he left the old country around 1900. He was a master craftsman making carriages, and in those days the big major companies like McCormick in Chicago would go looking for these master craftstmen all over Europe because they knew these were the top men in their arts. They could buy them very cheap because the wage levels were so low, so different. And they made a number of tremendous promises. My father knew this, so he came over to this country because he wanted to escape the military servitude that they had to go through. He had served his time, but he didn’t want the youngsters to go through it. Fortunately, he got into this country. But he found the McCormick promises to him were false, so he migrated up into Montana.
The exact reason he chose Montana I don’t know. But he got into the mining machinery field , ranching, and the fur fielddanced courses in agriculture. I don’t know, to be honest with you, why I was attracted to the land. But I was then and always have been. I am even today a ham horticulturist. I love gardening: I love all that stuff. In spite of that I took an extension course in law. I was going to the University of Oregon extension in Portland and taking courses in law and agriculture courses at the same time, which was quite a contrast. But then I went to work, though, to make sure I was making the proper money. My father had gone into the hotel field in Portland, then back into the machinery field, but by sheer accident I got into the motion picture distributing field with the Universal Film Company. Actually I found it very much to my liking. I progressed very rapidly from the sales department to the exploitation end. I think I was the youngest salesman and exploitation man in the United States. I handled “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” for the entire Northwest at the age of seventeen. It was maybe 1925 and I traveled throughout the entire Northwest area talking to exhibitors or selling pictures. I would talk to all of these small theater owners who opened their movie houses only two or three days a week and were either full time grocery men or something else. It was quite a revelation.
They would have their operations room up in a loft, and I had to learn how to run machines or to fix the cyphers in the pipe organ so they would sign the contracts. So I became an all-around theater man. Later, my father-in-law had one of the first nickelodeons in Portland. I mean he had it before he became my father-in-law. I can still picture it. It was a storefront and they had to whitewash the walls to show the pictures. They had a chap -later he became a very eminent dentist – who worked his way through college by helping the porjectionist operate this hand-cranked arm on the projector. The had to grind the film by hand, you know.
The films were only one reel-long and in between they would show these slides, you know, about keeping quiet or removing your hat. They would grind the films into a big gunnysack and then have to rewind them. It was all really in the embryo stage. I worked a little there, cleaning up the thater or as an usher. But my main movie experience came from Universal. Except that after a while with them, I decided I didn’t want to work for somebody else anymore because I found that every time there was a progressive move, it was a relative of the president who got the job. So I decided to go in for myself and first of all went into the building of suburban theaters. Built a string of thm in Oregon up there. From that move I decided to go further, and I went back East.
I ended up, after several stops, settling in Chicago and started sports promotions in the early thirties. I used the Coliseum, which I was renting then but later bought in 1941, for the shows I was interested in – sports shows, complete all-around dancing shows, six-day bicycle races, and other things too, like breaking in orchestras. Different things of that nature. It was a conglomerate of the entertainment field. Some of the shows were successful and some were not, but they were all very much of a lark.
I had had sports contacts back in Oregon that I suppose really got me started doing sports shows at the Coliseum. For example, having gone to the University of Oregon, I know one of the names that had made itself great all over the country, Howard Hobson. Hobby Hobson. I had played against him in Oregon before he bacame on of the great basketball stars all over. He was then coach of an all-championshp team; they called them The Tall Firs and they traveled. And I helped them get into the Chicago Coliseum there on Wabash aVenue. Later Hobby coached at Yale. He was really my first big sports contact. It didn’t take long, though, for me to know all the important sports people in Chicago.
Practically every night or so, I would grab something to eat at Ricketts on the Near North Side. All the sports figures of that time were there. The writers and radio sporscasters and the athletes would cut up touches. It was like Toots Shor’s was in New York. And one day I was reading in the Literary Digest magazine a story about participant sports. That was the magazine, I think, that said Landon would beat Roosevelt. The story I was reading told about how many thousands or millions of Americans played such and such a sport. I was surprised, I’ll tell you, to read that more people were roller skaters than anything else. So that night when I was in Ricketts I talked to a few of the boys and I bet them what the greatest participant sport was in the United States at that time. Some of them, of course, said baseball or basketball and when I told them it was roller skating they were as surprised as I was when I read it. So a couple of them started kidding me and said they bet I couldn’t come up with some kind of game, some kind of sports promotion built around roller skating.
And I sat down with a few of them and we started making designs on a menu or a tablecloth or something. Naturally, with the bicycle racing marathon so fresh then, the marathon idea entered my thinking. Plus the business of using girls, because those statistics I read showed women and girls roller skated too. And I just felt that that using girls might make sense because other women might want to see a sport that had women participating. They could empathize. It would be something new, something for men and women.
I see now that using women was the big thing. What we’ve got going now is a game whose success, in part, is built on the cynicism of the men because they can’t believe it’s a real sport. So they don’t accept it or at least don’t admit they accept it. But the women, thank God, bring them along and at the games these men go wild.
Just starting the Roller Derby was a great challenge. Fortunately, when I opened it in the Coliseum I had a great following because of my other promotions there. It was sort of a season of special events, like the Theater Guild or something. This following made our first race a great success. We had a giant map about 100 feet long with a layout of a route going across the country for this first race. Lights and everything. It was colorful. We had a lot of things like a big-time band from the Chicago area led by the great black musician named Erskine Tate. And he provided considerable entertainment. There was a specific destination each night for the skaters – you know from Chicago to Detroit and Detroit to Cleveland and Cleveland to Pittsburgh and so on. They would skate so many laps until they reached that point and the lights on the big map would follow them. The top ones who got in first, who had the best times, would get the prizes, and each night the competition had get to that destination, to skate so many miles. If they didn’t they would be dropped out. That first race in Chicago was successful. On the strength of this, I thought I had the country’s hottest thing.
Then we ran into a bad episode with attendance in Louisville, but we went on to our next stop in Miami anyway and pitched a tent right in the heart of the business district on First Street. It was an empty lot at the time; now there are big syscrapers there. We even had our skaters washing their own uniforms and hanging them on a costhesline dangling out of the tent. That must have been quite a sight. We had been there a few nights when a chauffeured car drove up to the tents and a man wearing a porkpie hat got out of the car and came in, sat down and watched for a while and then asked the usher who was the head man. The usher brought him over to me. He introduced himself as Damon Runyon and asked if we could talk a little. I said sure. As a matter fact, I was very impressed.
He said, “How did you get the idea?” So I gave him the general outline about the night in Ricketts. And he said, “It’s a funny thing, but years ago I was sold on the same idea as you are.” He said, “When I was up in the papers in Colorado we tried to work it out.” But he said he could never reach a formula. Then he said, “Now whaddya gonna do with it?” So I told him some day we hoped to make a national sport of it with rules and team games and everything. And he said, “Do you want any help?” I said , “Naturally.” And he said, “All right, I can get all the big people all over the country to get behind you, if you want me to.” So I told him that was exactly what I wanted because it was just like a dream coming true.