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.

When Roller Derby the marathon became Roller Derby the game.


The Miami News – Google News Archive Search.

Please click onto the link above. My cousin James Meyers found this newspaper account from January 1937 covering the Coral Gables Derby “race”. As you can see from the standings, the first team to skate 2850 miles would win. Usually the meets would last from 30 to 35 days. And Johnny Rosasco’s team (he and his woman partner) was in the lead, as most of the teams had covered the same distance, but they had lapped the field more than anyone else.

http://hbrd.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/derbypost.png click to see photo of winning couple!

It was at this meet (one and half years after the first Roller Derby in Chicago) and months before the fatal bus crash that famed Sports writer and columnist Damon Runyon became friends with my father and together devised the five and five team game that is the basis for all Roller Derby today……and was skated in all subsequent events.

Please note on the final night of this event, the jam was not timed, so the field could be lapped many times (ugh, powerjam). This of course was not a factor in the game format that followed.

Irving Wayne, mentioned in the article, was my mother’s brother and James’ grandfather. Keep track of the history so you can tell your grandchildren all you know about the game you love.

If you can make it there…..


In the late 30’s and early 40’s Roller Derby grew in popularity and would play successfully in cities throughout the US with one major exception:  The Big Apple.

In fact, at one point there were four “units” (eight teams) on the road at the same time.  The track would be set up, and the two teams in each city would play each other 4 times per week for 2 to 4 weeks, depending on the size of the city and the popularity of the Derby in that town.  Generally, one team would represent that city (the “white shirts”), the other (the “red shirts”) another city.  It seemed as though nothing could stop the growth.  Then came Pearl Harbor.

The Derby, like so many other activities, was decimated.  The majority of the men volunteered for service or were drafted.  Many of the women took essential war jobs or joined the service also.  Leo managed to keep one unit going during the war.

There had been one attempt to go into New York City previously.  Damon Runyon told my dad that the game was perfect for the city.  Damon contacted Mike Jacobs, the famed fight promoter, who booked the sport into the Hippodrome where he staged many of his fights.  The public didn’t respond, no one showed up, and everyone slunk out of town.

Commercial television showed up in 1947.  I remember that in Glenview, Illinois, where we lived, my father bought one of the early sets, which came in a console as had the Philco and other radio sets.  The screen was small, but he bought a curved liquid-filled cover to go over the screen and magnify the image.  There were one or two stations, and they didn’t even put their test patterns on the air until late afternoon.  (We would actually stare at the test pattern on this wondrous device!).  Then some programs would come on.  The only thing worth watching on WBKB (now WLS-TV) was “Junior Jamboree” which was a live children’s program featuring Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, with Burr Tillstrom as the puppeteer.  It later became a popular program on network TV.

To promote the Derby in Chicago, Leo used discount tickets.  They were sponsored by bakeries, Beers, cigarettes, etc and distributed by the hundreds of thousands through out Chicagoland.  He also worked on getting interviews on newspapers and radio and arranged for trackside radiocasts to promote upcoming games and events.

Television viewership was an unknown.  Television sets were very expensive;  most people, if they watched it at all would go to bars or stand in groups outside of radio stores which would have a TV set on in the front window.  On a hunch, Leo worked out an arrangement to televise a game from the Coliseum to see the reaction.  The cameras, pre-modern electronics, were huge and unwieldy.  They might have used just one camera for that first telecast….maybe someone out there knows.  There was an upsurge in attendance and Leo felt this might be the time to “attack” New York.

Besides Madison Square Garden, there were very few venues to utilize in New York City.  And Ned Irish, who ran the Garden, was very difficult to deal with, as I personally found out in later years.

So Leo noted that there were armories scattered throughout Manhattan and the Boroughs that were used for training very rarely, so he met with the head of the New York National Guard to make an arrangement to rent one in Manahattan; he was the first to do so.  Now it is common to use them when available; as a matter of fact, the first venue I played in San Francisco in 1959 was the armory; in recent years it was sold off to a private owner who uses it to film kinky sex videos, but as always, I digress.

None of the other management liked this decision at all; New York was unconquerable for the Derby.  My father came up with a great campaign.  Sid Cohen called in Midge “Toughie” Brasuhn, the ultimate rough and tough skater who all were afraid of (all 4 foot 10 of her) for a photo session.  When she came in, Sid started screaming at her how bad she had been skating, she was slacking off, and she turned red and started screaming back at him.  They used the most angry photo of her on the side of buses with the caption “Toughie is coming”.  Of course no one knew who Toughie was, and seemingly no one cared.  For the first game at the armory, a “crowd” of about 3-400 hundred showed up.  Apparently in 1948 New York was not ready for banked track skating yet.

Leo had worked out a short-term deal with a New York station (It was either CBS or the Dumont network) to televise the game.  All of the fans were herded to one side of the arena, so the TV camera would not show empty seats, and Ken Nydell narrated the first game to be televised in New York.  My father had obtained a phone number (JUdson 6-4646) and had a total of five lines.  The fifth line went to his apartment so he could easily talk to the office.  Ken told the TV audience that starting the next morning viewers could call to make reservations for the upcoming games.  Afterwards Ken, Sid, my dad all looked at each other and the question was, is anybody watching.

Eventually Leo and Belle went back to the apartment where they heard the phone ringing.  When Belle picked up the line, a woman asked if this was where she could make a reservation.  Obviously the other 4 lines were ringing also; otherwise the fifth line would not be active.  As Belle told it, she took reservations until two in the morning.  When the ladies opened the office the next morning, they could do nothing except take reservations all day.

Some of the skaters told me that when they showed up at the building for the game that night they thought there had been a disaster, as there were lines of people around the block, and the skaters were amazed that people recognized them by name.  And thus started the great love affair between the tri-state area and their New York Chiefs, New Jersey Jolters and Brooklyn Red Devils that lasted for seven straight years.

The entire history is chronicled  in “Roller Derby to Rollerjam”, with unopened first editions available at http://www.rollerderbycommish.com.  great photos too..

Leo loved it when I took Roller Derby back to New York City (we were on WOR-TV on Sunday morning and had a million viewers weekly) in the 60’s to a sold-out Madison Square Garden.  Unfortunately, he never got to see the revival of modern Roller Derby.

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Leo


Leo Seltzer was born in Helena, Montana, on April 5th, 1903.   His parents, David and Celia, were immigrants from Romania.  David had been offered a job with McCormick in Chicago, but upon his arrival he found that it was not as a carriage maker as was his trade in Bucharest, but a very menial job.  The family, then also consisting of his wife Celia, two young boys Harry and Oscar, boarded a train for Montana where a cousin was established.

David became a cattle rancher, operated a general store, and was a member of the local vigilantes.  Unfortunately, Celia being of delicate health could not handle the winters, and the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where Leo and his brothers grew up.

In high school (Lincoln High in Portland) Oscar and Leo excelled in sports:  Oscar in football and Leo in basketball.   When Harry the oldest brother went to the University of Washington to study accounting, it became apparent there were not sufficient funds for all three brothers to attend college.  Oscar went to UW and played football; after graduation Leo went to work as the youngest (17 years) film salesmen for Universal Films; his territory was the Northwest.

Soon he was successful enough to start helping to fund his brothers’ tuition and he enrolled in night school.  He also found a willing partner and they bought and operated three movie theaters in Portland:  the Laurel, the Oregon, and the Hiway.  Soon he was looking for opportunities and in 1930 he found one in Hoquiam Washington where he saw one example of popular entertainment in the Depression,  the Walkathon, which consisted of couples walking continuously for a period of time for prize money.  He thought this was something he could promote.

Gathering his former high school friends, he established his own version of the attraction and headed for Denver, Kansas City, and other midwestern cities.  He heard reports from his participants how badly they had been treated by other marathon operators – he was always concerned for the “walkers” and had proper meals, rest periods, nurses on hand as most of them had no other income or place to go.  He formed an association of marathon promoters and set up standards for them to uphold.  His masters of ceremonies included Red Skelton, Frankie Laine, and “Lord” Buckley.

In summer of 1935 he had taken over management of the Chicago Coliseum, an historic arena where William Jennings Bryan had been nominated for the presidency;  the front of the building was all stones that had been removed from the terrible Libbey prison in the South after the Civil War.  He was trying to think of an attraction that he could bring in the building when he read in the Literary Digest that over 95% of Americans roller skate at some time in their lives.  So he advertised for skaters and many of the walkathon participants joined also, and thus the first Roller Derby was presented on August 13, 1935. Teams were 1 male skater and 1 female, skating on a slightly banked track, alternating with one resting while the other was skating.  The object was to skate across the United States and the progress was shown on electric lights on a huge map at the end of the building.

During breaks, skaters would perform little skits or acts and the audience would show its appreciation by throwing coins at them.  Admission was only a dime,  and the fans could stay as long as they liked.  Most of the money that was made by Leo was from the concessions.

The way that skaters could gain an advantage was to break out of the group and try to pick up a lap on the other skaters (a “jam”). Before long, skaters were banding together to try and block back skaters who were leaving the pack; at first they were not allowed, but the audience liked that aspect so much, that Leo made it part of the rules.

The Roller Derby moved from city to city until 1937 when a tragic bus crash killed 18 of the 21 people aboard, and Leo wanted to shut the Derby down, but the other skaters convinced him to keep it going.  The uniform number 1 never was used in Roller Derby again as a memorial to those killed.

In Coral Gables Florida Damon Runyon, America’s best known Sports and short story author (“Guys and Dolls”) saw the Derby, became fascinated and he and Leo created the five on five game, men and women alternating periods, that lasted throughout its existence.

Leo proved to be a great booker and promoter.  He brought trade shows, leading entertainers, boxing, wrestling and more into the Coliseum.  His creative use of discount tickets was copied by others.  He also took over the lease of the Louisville Armory and he and his brother Oscar operated a minor league hockey team.  He always bemoaned what he felt would have been his greatest non-Derby promotion:  convincing Adolph Rupp, legendary Kentucky basketball coach, to partner with him on a Louisville professional team with the entire national championship team turning pro.  Unfortunately, a cheating scandal was discovered and none could participate.

Leo made Roller Derby a national phenomenon and was looking to make a revival of a fully legitimate league when he died of an stoke in January 1978.  His dream was to have Roller Derby in the Olympics.  With the 2000 amateur leagues in 65 countries today, it may very well happen.  Read the complete story in Roller Derby to Rollerjam. Leo died in 1978, believing his game had died with him.