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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Roller Derby in Hollywood


When school would get out in Portland, we knew our annual summer trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco was coming.  I am talking about from when I can remember, circa 1938 to 1940 (when the War came, we didn’t drive down).

My father and Uncle Oscar would come from Chicago or wherever Roller Derby was operating, and the families composed of my dad, mother, sister Gloria, my uncle, aunt Agatha, and cousins Lloyd and Bob, and my grandfather David and grandmother Celia would caravan to Los Angeles first and then eventually to San Francisco.

We would go casually down Highway 101 through the redwoods and all the beautiful coastline, stopping at every tourist attraction from driving through a redwood and Trees of Mystery (oooo, scary) to the big Orange, etc.  As I recall, we usually rented a place in Santa Monica so we would be by the beach.   Gloria, who was three years older than me (I was 5 or 6) and I got in a fight on the beach;  I hit her with a bell (?), she hit me with a little rake;  I still have the scar.  And we got to see Uncle Harry, Leo’s oldest brother, Aunt Shirley, and cousins Sherman and Rosalie.  Starting with Sherman, the cousins were all one year apart (i.e. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5) so we got along well.  Another blog will be about my cousins.

Roller Derby at that time consisted of two teams of men and women who changed their city names as they went to different locations.   Depending on the popularity in any area, the run would be from two to four weeks, with a non-portable track (took days to set up) with a high bank well over 5 feet (afterwards in the 60’s it was just three feet as the track could be set up in 2 to 4 hours and disassembled in 2 and we wanted everyone to be able to see the action).  The skaters and others set up the track for extra pay.

The skaters would skate 5 days a week and live in the building;  in this case the beautiful art deco Pan Pacific auditorium.  At the end of the run, the receipts would be totaled and divided among the participants, some getting as little as $25 for the run (plus room and board;  it was the depression), the “top” skaters getting more.  Also at halftime of each game there would be a “jamboree” where in the tradition of the walkathons, each skater would do his or her particular talent, and the fans would throw coins if they liked it.  Two great skaters, Bill Bogash and Buddy Atkinson, worked out a jitterbug dance routine.

The food would be prepared for four meals a day by the derby “dietician” (cook)….I think Ma Parenti,  which included a light dinner and supper after the game.   The skaters would be separated by sex, rather than by team.  Even married couples could not sleep together.  They must have worked it out because they all had families.  They always complained about the food (they told me that Ma Parenti could take the best meat and make it taste like leather, but I was in the Army later and we all had the same complaint).  Obviously the skaters’ quarters were out of sight.  The San Francisco Civic Auditorium (now Bill Graham auditorium) was the most fun for the entrance of the teams:  the quarters were in the lower level of the building and the players would come up stairs and emerge from the center of the track infield.

I loved Los Angeles:  no Disneyland, but we got to go to the movie sets. see all over favorite radio shows (Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, etc) and there were places that trained lions for the movies, all kinds of animal farms and more.

But the best was at the Pan Pacific Auditorium.  When the Roller Derby was in town (of course it was Los Angeles versus San Francisco) all of the stars came out.  General admission was 65 cents (including 10% tax), and the box seats were $1.10.  My dad always saved the center boxes for whichever stars were coming that night.  I saw and met Clark Gable, W. C. Fields, Betty Grable, Robert Young, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Joe E. Brown and more and more.  My favorite was Eleanor Powell, a wonderful dancer who was featured in many films including some with Fred Astaire.  She kissed me on the cheek and I said I would never wash it off (and of course I haven’t).

I learned to skate on the banked track and one night the Singer midgets (they played the munchkins in the Wizard of Oz) skated at halftime in a mock game, and one of my father’s associates put me in skates and on the track, but one of the little people looked at me and said “Who is this guy” and scared me to death so I left the track.

Another night I was sitting in my father’s box when I saw the most exciting thing ever:  America’s number 1 movie star at the box office Mickey Rooney and his entourage (yes, even then) sat in the box next to me.  All of a sudden he looked at me and said “Jerry old friend, how have you been”.  I turned red and crawled under the seat. Of course my father put him up to it.

It was so exciting when the teams came on the track, the women with their flowing satin capes.   The games were played under basically the same rules as now except no helmets. Any skater could be a jammer (scorer) and the track was huge, up to 125 feet long and 65 feet wide.  In my era, we cut it down to 50 feet wide and from 90 feet to 108 feet long, depending upon the dimensions available to us in various arenas.   We scheduled only one nighters when on the road in the 60’s and 70’s.

Obviously for a series of at least 4 weeks between the same two teams, there had to be special events on certain nights to bring the people back:  match races, mock weddings, time trials, etc.   The series was decided in the final game by the cumulative score:  for instance if the “red shirts” (visitors) were ahead of the “white shirts” (home) by a total of 8 points for the run, the final game would start with the 8 points on the board.  Points were very difficult to get in these games – they were often in the low teens for a final score – so obviously it would always be close.

After the series ended, we would pack up and head for San Francisco.  I thought the City was cold, but we got to go to the Pacific Exposition on Treasure Island between 1939 and 1940 and had a great time, and then we headed back to Portland, and Dad and Uncle Oscar would leave for their next destination.  They had two other units operating at that time also, a total of 6 teams.  This was such a wonderful era that I remember, and Keith Coppage captured it so well and with great photos in “Roller Derby to Rollerjam”  (paypal.com, jerryseltz@aol.com).

Of course the War years followed so we didn’t make this annual trip again.  The Pan Pacific fell into disrepair and there was a move afoot to restore it and when they were about to begin, the building caught on fire and burned to the ground.  Kind of a fitting end to an era.