▶ DERBY (1971) Trailer – ok, I made a film I loved….but what about the skaters and fans?

▶ DERBY (1971) Trailer – YouTube.

Click on link above to see short trailer for the film Derby.

I backed and produced this film in 1971, hoping to make a film all the Derby fans and skaters would like…..well it turned out to be an art film about America at that time that played 6 film festivals (from San Francisco to Dallas to Atlanta to Toronto to London, and was judged best films at most) and was loved by all major film critics, but the skaters and fans didn’t care much for it at all.

I am very proud of it….it was a groundbreaking cinema verite 40 years ago, and Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars, and it was considered one of the ten best films of the year by most critics, but didn’t do well at the box office, which was not unusual for documentaries at this time. Because one of the Today show personalities loved it so much, in the late 90s I was on Today talking about it and the revival of Rollerjam.

40 years later we have “Derby Baby”…..two very different approaches to the game.

Some times you can’t put a monetary value on what you do that you like. I think one of my favorite reviews was by Sports Illustrated: (to paraphrase) “It is amazing that this is the first sports film about a suspect sport that is so honest. If you loved “The Knute Rockne Story” (a fabricated film about the legendary Notre Dame coach), then you will hate “Derby”.

It is available at Amazon; I have fresh VHS copies…..great Roller Derby action, but not really a Derby film. Remember if you watch it, it wasn’t scripted and the lighting and dialog is not always the best.

I will post the New York Times review in my next post.

Roller Derby, Derby, Roger Ebert and my politics

Derby Movie Review & Film Summary (1972) | Roger Ebert.</p

Most who follow me on facebook know my political views. Obviously a number don't like them. But today I heard a speech by our President at Dreamworks, and he quoted a man who had a large impact on my life, Roger Ebert.

Now I have done a few different things in my life….it is fortunate that I have always been able to use my attention deficit to my advantage: failing and then trying something different and keeping going (for the most part).

So when Roller Derby was going well, I decided I wanted to produce a movie about it in order to complete a grand marketing scheme I had then; this was in an era of no cable, satellite, dvds, etc.

I gave some filmmakers some cash, told them to go on the road with the Roller Derby as it toured the US, and make a film (no script, what was I thinking about).

Well, I addressed that part on another blog, but what we ended up with (and I helped with the segmenting, postproduction, etc) was an amazing film. At that time (1970), probably the best, most brutal, most edifying film about sport (documentary) ever made.

I loved it; my father, the skaters, the fans all hated it. It received awards at all major film festivals, was distributed by Cinerama, and nobody saw it.

Except the critics, and without exception they loved it; it made most lists of the top ten films of 1971; including the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Sun Times, and on and on.

To read Roger Ebert's review, click on the link at the top of this page.

Roger was a wonderful man who overcame a very tragic illness and fought it to the end. Because of a dear friend of mine, I was able to know him better.

He also influenced President Obama, who today at a movie studio quoted Roger: "My political beliefs are based on kindness."

I would like to think those words apply to me. I am concerned with poverty, abuse, health and many other issues. It is not a Democrat or Republican thing. My sister and brother-in-law, both avowed Republicans, did more than their share for others.

I am proud to be a liberal, and don't just label me; understand what I believe. Wouldn't it be great if everyone practiced kindness on others.

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.



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


Willie and Waylon and the Hells Angels and me

It was impossible to live in the Bay Area in the 70’s and 80’s and not be aware of the Hells Angels. A number of them were fans and showed up at the Roller Derby games and never caused any problems.  Once when Charlie O’Connell promoted on our telecasts that he now had a bar in the East Bay Area a bunch of Angels showed up at his bar to drink and show support.  Charlie told them he really appreciated it, but it would scare away his neighborhood customers.   They understood, rode away and suddenly came back; “Charlie, would you like us to wreck the other bars around here?”  Charlie thanked them and said no.

After the Derby closed we were operating BASS tickets, a computerized ticketing service.  I was out making calls and forgot that I had made an appointment with Mr Griffin and Mr. Proudfoot that afternoon until I got an anxious call from my assistant that the two men were waiting patiently in my office in Oakland.  I told her to tell them I was sorry and would be there as soon as I could. When I walked into my office there were two fearsome looking men, members of the Oakland Hells Angels.  Oh my God, was I going to get shaken down?  They politely introduced themselves as “Fu” Griffin (because of his drooping mustache and slight beard) and Deakon Proudfoot, a mountain of a man with beard and hair in all directions.  Thus began a strange relationship that went on for several years.

They explained that Deakon was doing security for Willie and at a recent concert at the Oakland Auditorium the stagehands had shut down the lights and sound at midnight while Willie was still playing.  Deakon was offended and asked Willie what could be done.  There hadn’t been a large crowd there that night and Willie suggested that Charlie Magoo productions, a name that the Angels has created to honor a fallen brother, take over the bay area appearances.  So they had gone to their friend Freddie Herrara who operated the Keystone Berkeley rock club and he suggested that they ask me to work with them. Our biggest client was Bill Graham Presents, and I knew Bill was not the biggest fan of the Angels, especially after Altamount,  but BASS had made a policy of helping promoters and I offered them my services for 5% of the profit to BASS,  plus the service charge on all tickets. Having been a promoter, I immediately starting contacting all the radio stations to find out who would be the best to work with and not just on the basis of a station buy (similar to the way we worked with TV stations for Roller Derby).  We bought little flights of time on each country station and through our computer ticket sales saw who had the best results.

We had scheduled another concert at the Oakland Auditorium.  It turned out that KNEW radio was far and away above everyone else, so I made a deal with the station manager:  if he turned over all open time on the station, we would guarantee a certain amount of dollars as a buy and they would do all the interviews, the introductions at the concert (Willie did not like that) and use their personalities however they wanted. KNEW blasted away and before we knew it the Auditorium was virtually sold out.  I contacted Willie’s manager Mark Rothbaum (you will see him in almost every Triatholon event) and he was thrilled at my suggestion to move it to the Oakland Coliseum Arena which held 14,000 (now Oracle Arena).   The show sold out in advance and I told Deak and Fu that it would be best if all the Angels and their friends stayed in the backstage area.   They agreed and it was a double celebration as Sonny Barger had just been released from prison and there was a big party backstage.  I had arranged for a Marin company that had a hot tub on a truck to be there that night and it was widely used…….wherever I went knives were offered to me with some powder on the blade…..I politely declined.

We were able to duplicate our success with a sold out Waylon Jennings concert at the Arena and another sold out concert with Willie at the Cow Palace.  Then we put them together, added other acts and sold out Spartan Stadium (30,000 tickets) in San Jose at the then unheard of price of $25 per ticket.  Mark and Waylon’s manager and everyone was thrilled. We did more Waylon, Willie, Merle concerts over the next few years throughout the Bay Area, and Fresno.

We produced one more concert for Charlie Magoo that was the best.  Mark called me and said they had an open date but were playing in Tahoe immediately afterwards and couldn’t play in a facility larger than 3000 seats.  I was trying to figure out how anyone could make money with Willie in a facility that small, when suddenly I remembered an old friend, Claude Jarman.   Claude had been the head of the San Francisco Film Festival when my film “Derby” was entered and considered the best film in the Festival.   He now was in charge of San Francisco’s beautiful and ornate Opera House, the home of the Ballet and Opera. I applied for the date, and Claude carried the day through his board.  I really wanted it to be a special event and managed to get the San Francisco Symphony’s string quartet to play in the lobby.  Also, we held out the box seats by the Grand Tier for the Angels and their friends.  It was a secure area, usually the location of the blue bloods of the Opera association.  I requested of Deakon and Fu that all the Angels and their friends dress in formal wear.  Fu loved it, Deakon hated it.

On the night of the event, Deakon showed up in his coveralls and a tux tee shirt. The string quartet (two men and two women) were in western shirts and jeans, and were the hit of the crowd.   They were mobbed as they played Vivaldi, Hayden and Mozart, reaching an audience that probably had not heard this music before.  Just as the lobby lights were flashing, a roughly dressed bearded man came running across the area towards the seats, but suddenly stopped as if struck in front of the quartet.  He listened until they ended their performance and reached across and dropped a hundred dollar bill on the group.  “We have never had a tip before”.

The concert was amazing;  I can hear to this day how Willie sounded that night in the acoustically perfect Opera House.  One of the aged ushers who had been fearful of this crowd told me “this was the most respectful audience I have ever seen.  They spilled nothing and were very polite, not like the snobs we usually get.” Mark Rothbaum, Willie’s manager, told me Willie’s career really took off again after our promotions in the Bay Area, and they were kind enough to send me a platinum record of “Stardust” for my wall when the record had such great success. I saw Willie again at the BR Cohn benefit concert two years ago a few miles up the road from where I live.  The Angels who were doing security were happy to see me and quite friendly.

I personally promoted Willie again in Oregon (for a benefit for Seltzer Park in Seaside) and Willie, Waylon, Kris and Johnny (The Highwaymen) at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in 1991 for a benefit for the BASS Ticket Foundation, an organization we created to give away over $1 million in tickets to the underserved in the Bay Area.  Deakon attended and obviously had some heart problems.  Fu had been killed some years before in an auto accident. Epilogue:  I recently found out that on July 4th 2009 Deakon was attending the fireworks in Jack London Square in Oakland when he suddenly died…..he was 70.  He had been told 20 years before he had a very bad heart and required surgery.  He didn’t do it and to my knowledge never did.  His funeral procession of Harley after Harley was one of the largest in the Bay Area, you can see it on You Tube.

One of my memories was the night he invited me to dinner at his house which was in an African American neighborhood  in Oakland. His neighbors were delighted to have him and the Hells Angel clubhouse (yes I had a drink there) in the area because they knew no one would cause problems with the Angels around.  The house was solid stone and two things I noticed when I went inside:  the huge portrait of Adolf Hitler on the wall with Nazi flags crossed over it and the most beautiful silver dog I had ever seen.  I asked Deakon what kind of dog and he just said “Wolf”.  We had a great dinner and I asked him about the color photo of him on the wall in which he was walking down the street.  He told me the Feds had given it to him. Deakon is not the kind of person you will ever forget.  My life was made a lot more interesting by knowing him. ( subscribe free to my blogs…..enter your email in the subscription box upper right and you will get ’em when I write ’em)

By the way, check out the comments on this page….you will find them very interesting as well as a video from a television interview of the past with Fu, Deak, and also me.