Roller Derby is 82; join the party on August 13 at Coliseum Park

He who started it all in his own words

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.

Celebrate the history of Roller Derby

This is the historic Chicago Coliseum.

It was built in the late 1800s, constructed largely of the bricks from the terrible civil war Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, and was located at 1513 S. Wabash St.

For a long time it was the main exposition and gathering place for Chicagoans:  The 1896 Democratic convention was held here, and events from sporting goods shows to basketball and horse shows utilized the building.

And on August 13, 1935, Leo Seltzer put about 20 men and women on roller skates in order to skate a marathon the distance of the US from coast to coast for a prize money of $500

A team was one man and a woman, and they would alternate, and rest on view in the infield in between skating times.  The event started each day in the morning and lasted until about midnight.  The admission was 10 cents, and the skaters augmented their winnings by performing skits, or singing during the breaks, called open houses, when fans would throw coins to show their approval.  The players were fed and housed separately within the North Hall of the building.

Seltzer received much condemnation for allowing women to compete but knew that was a major attraction for the audience.

The last Derby was skated in the 60’s.  The building was then used as the main gathering place for Elijah Muhammad, and the speakers included Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

The building was demolished in 1982; there are now housing units there.

Many of the almost 1500 modern Roller Derby leagues around the world are celebrating the 78th anniversary of their sport this week.  Santa Cruz Derby Girls are having a Red Cross-Brown Paper Ticket blood drive on that day.  And the Undead Betties will be having a 78th anniversary drive in Livermore on August 16.

Leo on the Lam

This is a story that very few people know, but since many of the principals involved are gone, I think it is time to tell it.  It certainly contributed to the demise of Roller Derby in 1973.

When I incorporated the new company to promote Roller Derby (Bay Promotions, Inc) I had capitalization of just $500.  My father Leo very kindly let me buy the banked tracks, uniforms, etc on a deferred payment basis and we were under way.  At 26 I was too dumb to know we couldn’t succeed.

After several years we started to expand our operations and as our television network grew, we were able to play games (not bouts) in more and more cities.  We actually were able to go back to the birthplace of Roller Derby, the Chicago Coliseum, now operated by my father’s former partner, Fred Morelli.  The building was in terrible shape, the dressing rooms filthy, chairs broken, bad lighting, etc.  However I felt an obligation to play there and it was only after we had so many complaints from the fans that we moved to the International Amphitheater in the famed Chicago stockyards.  I know Fred was upset, but I told him the building was in such disrepair that it was unsafe.

Over the years when we played Chicago on our tour and eventually when the Pioneers started skating home games there, the Amphitheater became our base.  The Coliseum was rarely used by anyone and Fred eventually made a deal with Elijah Muhammad, and it was established as the main gathering place for the Black Muslims.  Muhmmad Ali and Malcom X made their speeches there.

My father was constantly on the phone getting more cities for our expanding network (he was on salary then) and although I was repaying him for the equipment he had given us, he certainly earned his money.  I was taking care of Oscar and the Roller Derby Skate Company also by running commercials in all of our telecasts for the Street King outdoor shoe skates ($5.99 a pair, and $8.99 when plastic wheels replaced the metal ones).

Fred Morelli and Albert Horan. photograph

I have already told how badly we were hurt by the gas crisis, but in 1972 something came at us out of left field.  Fred Morelli sued us under an agreement he had with my father in a company called Roller Derby Associates where he claimed a partnership in all Roller Derby activities.  I talked with Hal Silen, who was part of our company and an attorney, and he agreed we needed to get a good lawyer to represent us.  I of course immediately contacted my Dad, who said the agreement was not valid because when the business had started decreasing he had asked Fred for additional capital and Fred had refused; Leo then sent him a letter stating if he didn’t put up his share he was no longer a participant.

I was stunned.  I was in the middle of something I had no prior knowledge of.  I liked Fred and his wife Kay.  In summer we sometime had gone up to his family farm in Wisconsin and played with his children.  I knew he was politically very influential having been the head of the first Ward (downtown Chicago), and it had been rumored that during the 1944 Democrat convention he had engineered the selection of Harry Truman as vice President on behalf of his friend Tom Pendergast from Kansas City.  I also knew that little of what went on in Chicago was done without his knowledge.

At Northwestern University I had a fraternity brother named Joel Sprayregen who was from New Jersey, was funny, aggressive and smart and had become an attorney.  I conferred with Hal and decided to hire Joel’s firm.  Joel read through the documents and felt that the partnership had never been dissolved and they had a good case.  I couldn’t sleep, realizing that they could probably take all that we had away.   Joel said he would start on his research and get back to me.

Joel called and said he had been checking on Fred’s background, and he felt it was pretty unsavory.  I was stunned again.  He arranged to meet with Fred’s attorney, a Mr. Topper from Chicago, who demanded a large sum of money to make it go away.  That was impossible.  I talked to my father (who was in Oregon) and told him he (and probably Oscar) would be deposed soon.  The next thing I knew he called me one night, said the local police (his friends of course) had told him a process server was asking where he lived.  That very night he and Belle threw a few things in his car (a normal stretch Cadillac with jump seats in back), called Oscar and his wife Agatha, and they all took off. I did not know where as I did not want to perjure myself.

Fred came out to San Francisco to be deposed and as always he was very friendly to me.  He did not look well as he was in a later stage of Parkinson’s disease.  I assume he wanted to get all of his business affairs in order and that is why he sued us at this time.  Joel started the most interesting questioning I have ever heard.

“What was your relationship with Al Capone? With Cooney (one of Capone’s successors), with the Lexington Hotel?”  Fred got very upset and Topper turned bright red and demanded to know what any of this had to do with the obligation of Leo Seltzer.  Joel calmly said that since Fred had started as the doorman of the Lexington, Capone’s hangout, he was going to show that the agreement was made under duress, that Fred as the successor to Capone and all of the mob, had muscled in on Leo.    Wow.

Topper immediately demanded they go before the judge as this was all irrelevant.  The judge told Topper to produce Leo to the court and Topper said the subpoena was out, it would be served, and that by the court date in eight months he would produce him with the proper testimony.

As I found out later, the Seltzer brothers and the wives had headed into Mexico (exciting stuff, huh?) and were staying in a hotel in Guaymas by San Carlos beach.  For the next 8 months they had a great time fishing, touristing, sitting on the beach; probably the first real vacation my father had taken in 30 years.

Photo by haak78. From

We did all the depositions and I stated truthfully that I had no knowledge of the so-called agreement and gave the facts as I knew them.  The court date came, Leo was not produced, the case was thrown out.  The Seltzers came back from their Mexico sojourn, tanned and healthy.  Fred went back to Chicago and died shortly thereafter.  I felt badly for him as he had established a legitimate life and his children went on to successful careers.

Unfortunately, whatever money we had went to pay the legal fees (actually, we were $2500 short and after we had shut down the Roller Derby Joel’s firm sued us, and we paid), and with the gas crisis and the resultant lack of attendance on our usually successful tour, it was the end of the road.

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