It has to be fun or don’t do it, confessions of a Roller Derby promoter


When my older son was just seven or eight we took  him and a friend to the opening of the Bay Bombers outdoor season at the San Jose Ball Park.   We always had a picnic with the skaters and fans on the outfield grass before the first game.  It is a beautiful little park holding about 3000 and the fans loved to come there.  It was almost always sold out in advance.

After we picnicked on the grass I walked with the children to their seats.  Steven’s friend turned to him and said I thought you said we were going to your father’s work — this is just a good time.

I always thoroughly enjoyed Roller Derby;  not only the game and the skaters and the fans, but the fact it was something I really loved doing.  And because we were outside of the usual sports spectrum we could do things that other “real” sports couldn’t.

Our publicist was a great guy named Herb Michelson.  Herb was moonlighting with us, as he was a columnist for the Oakland Tribune and covered the Giants for AP.  Both he and I would try to figure how we could present things in a different light, and I think the sportswriters appreciated it because the other sports took themselves so seriously.

Example, Charlie Finley moved the Athletics baseball team from Kansas City to Oakland and assumed that he was still in the midwest and not the more sophisticated Bay Area.   He brought Charlie O the mule as mascot.  He had a mechanical rabbit that popped up from behind the plate to give umpires the ball and he did all the promotions that he had done in Kansas City.

The first one was (ugh) Hot Pants night; all the girls who showed up in hot pants would get in free.  We immediately sent out a press release that at our next game at the Coliseum Arena, next door from the baseball stadium, would be no pants night, and all women who showed up without pants would be admitted free, and we would take their word for it.  Charlie was furious.

Then he had farmer’s night (in Oakland?), so of course we had farmers’ daughters night, and so on.

Two of our best attention getters involved two of the other sports teams.  First, the Warriors basketball team ended their season tied for a playoff position with another team.  Because the playoffs started immediately, the league made the decision that the place would be determined by a coin flip…..you can imagine the uproar.  So of course we called a press conference and had the coaches and captains of the six teams in our league on hand.  Herb said that because the NBA had shown the way, the International Roller Derby League was not going through the bother of playing the next season, but we were just going to flip a coin with each team  to decide how they would finish in our league standings.  The press loved it.

We also knew that a minor league hockey team was going to be playing at the Cow Palace in San Francisco the following season, and they had a contest to determine the name of the team; it was to be revealed on Wednesday of the following week.  A box office manager who was a friend of mine (and later married Gloria “Miffy Mifsud”) said the name was going to be the San Francisco Seals, which was the name of the old Pacific Coast League Baseball team.

So of course, that Sunday on our live telecast, I announced because there were so many Roller Derby fans in the Bay Area the Bay Bombers were going to be split into two teams, and the one based in San Francisco would be named the San Francisco Seals.  Of course, all hell broke loose; the hockey owners cried foul (and the Bay Bomber fans were not happy) and we got great press all week, and then of course the following Sunday I said on the telecast that in the interest of great sportsmanship, we were withdrawing our efforts to put a new team in San Francisco, but we still were going ahead with our game scheduled the following weekend at the Cow Palace with the big match race between Joan Weston and Ann Calvello.

We didn’t do anything mean spirited, but it was fun to tweak a few noses.

The real fun for me was creating special events;  when the Oakland City Council announced they didn’t have enough money to have the annual fireworks display on July 4th, we immediately rented the Oakland Stadium (luckily Mr. Finley’s team was out of town) and scheduled a game at 7 PM to be followed by a massive fireworks show.  Ron Gibson, our promotional genius, booked every available drill team, drum and bugle corps, band and other talent (free, of course, but they got to watch the game and the fireworks).  We had tricycle races with such sport stars as Rick Barry and Oakland Raiders players and almost 35,000 fans showed up, the largest crowd in our history to that point.  And we raised over $15,000 for the Providence Hospital Fund, and when handed the check to the Mother Superior she almost fainted…….a lot of money in 1971.

We tried to make our visits to the cities elsewhere in the country major events;  you have to realize that many of these towns had never had live stars from television show up, in addition to their being great athletes on  skates.  Often times Ann Calvello or Joan Weston would be sent out in advance to the major cities along with Gene Moyer, our advance man and referee (everyone had at least two jobs in Roller Derby).  When we played New York and sold out Madison Square Garden, it really opened up major press coverage across the country. (“If you make it there, you can make it everywhere”).

The biggest event ever was in Chicago in 1972.  We had come to a cooperative agreement with the National Skating Derby, and the first time that LA Thunderbirds and the Midwest Pioneers would meet would be at Chicago on September 15, 1972.  I immediately set out to book an arena.  We usually played at the International Amphitheater which was an 8000 seat building at the Stockyard (yes,  the air was fragrant).  However, it was not available because of a livestock show.  The only other arena in town was the Chicago Stadium owned by James Norris and Arthur Wirtz. Mr. Wirtz did not think kindly of the Seltzers as my father had operated the competing Coliseum….and he turned me down cold (although the date was available).

I knew we had the makings of a huge event, but where to go?  I don’t know why but I thought why not White Sox Park (Comiskey Park).  The White Sox were out of town and I checked it out and felt that if we put the track across home plate, approximately 20,000 people would be able to see the game well.  I booked it and we and the National Skating Derby started the promotion on our two different telecasts with Chet Coppock promoting it on the Pioneers telecasts.  We arranged for ticket sales through Ticketron and frankly I was scared to death.  Expenses would be overwhelming if we did not do well.

The day tickets went on sale it was raining, and I did not take that as a good sign.  I also knew that because of the schedules of the two leagues, we could not hold the day following the game as a rain date (stupid, huh).  At any rate our Ticketron rep called me and told me that tickets were flying out and sold almost 20,000 on the first day.  I knew then we were headed for a huge crowd and told our track setup people that we were now going to have to put the track across second base which meant that everyone would be far away, but what the hell.

A week before the event it started raining and it rained every day.  We had sold over 40,000 tickets in advance.  I and the skaters went on various interviews.   I told the columnist from the Chicago Tribune that we had sold 15,000 tickets and that we expected a crowd of 20.000.  He laughed and in his article he said there would never be that many to attend a game in Chicago.

It rained the morning of the 15th, but miraculously at noon it stopped and it cleared up.  The fans started to the Park at 5 PM and completely tied up commuter traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway from downtown Chicago (great picture in the Sun Times the next day).  We opened the box offices at the Park and had to stop selling and turned people away as our attendance hit 50,112.  You can see photos of this and other great Roller Derby history in Keith Coppage’s great book with Baron Wolman’s unbelievable Roller derby photos.(Rolling Stone first chief Photographer).  Go to www.rollerderbycommish.com   See, I am still promoting.  By the way, it started raining that night as they were tearing down the track and rained every day for the next week.  Thank you, Great Godess.

The Pioneers won, the fans went home happy, I picked up a great girlfriend who was in the stands that night, and how could anything be more fun for me than promoting Roller Derby.

From Derby to Dylan, Part 1


When the Roller Derby was shut down I knew I had to find something else to make a living. Coincidentally I was approached by someone working for Ticketron who was leaving and starting a computerized ticketing system on a stand alone HP derivative computer, and would I be interested in the San Francisco Bay Area.  What went on after that was a whole unbelievable story (Harold Silen and I putting up our houses, having to go to Denver first and ending up with software we found out had been shall we say used without the legal owner’s permission.)  Somehow we overcame the problems and were up and operating by Fall 1974.

Our main client, Bill Graham, was to give us all his rock and roll business, but ended up holding back and having us share with Ticketron until he was confident that our system could operate.  The first big show we handled alone was “SNACK”, a concert at Kezar Stadium that Bill had put together with many of the top rock acts and MC’d by Marlon Brando and others to raise money for the arts in schools that even in 1974 were being cut back.  There was only one tiny drawback to handling this massive (50,000 plus ticket) event;  Bill wanted us to agree to donate our service charge (75 cents) to the cause.  We did and then had to go to our stores that sold tickets to get them to go along with it.  Many had to pay extra employees for ticket selling and bring in security, so they were not thrilled.

Hal and I found out that our cost estimates were low, our revenue estimates high, and it took 7 years for us to break even in spite of having virtually all the sports, music, theatre and other entertainment tickets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One day I received a call from Barry Imhoff.  Barry had worked for Bill Graham for years and took care of the major acts (Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc) when they were in the area.  It turned out he had a super-secret tour coming up, and since I was the best ticket man he knew (probably the only one, and I had not been doing it long),  he wanted me to come to New York, meet with him, and help set up the tour.  I thought this would be a great way to really understand the rock and roll business which would become our major staple over the next 25 years.  We were in the midst of a number of problems at BASS tickets, and Hal was not pleased when I said I probably would be gone for six weeks or so, but he said OK.

Ticket stub from Rolling Thunder Revue, University of Southern Mississippi. This was the last concert on this tour. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Author:Dcurbow

When I met with Barry he swore me to secrecy and said this was going to be a Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tour, with other leading musicians (T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn. Jack Elliott) with them, and others would join later for 1 or more nights (Joni Mitchell. Arlo Guthrie and many more.)  Dylan was the promoter and Barry was working for him.  Barry told me that Bob was fed up with the huge arenas tours and the difficulties that fans had in getting tickets.  Therefore, there would be no computerized ticketing (!) on this tour, and when I was shown the schedule I ordered pre-printed tickets from a bonded printer I knew with only the heading: Rolling Thunder Revue.  No artists were listed.  And there was to be no pre-publicity.  I was given a mobile home, two assistants and told to go to the various cities one day ahead and hand out handbills announcing the tour.

Well even in the 70’s this was an impossible way of promoting the tour, but I did as I was told.  First we all were booked in a resort in Falmouth, Mass,  in the Cape Cod area.  Since this was November, no one else was there.  Rehearsals were held in a conference center at the hotel and the musicians, technicians, personnel and those who traveled with them started to show up.  Now with Roller Derby, we traveled with 28 skaters, a physical therapist, two referees (one drove the truck with the track in it), and a manager.  The skaters and the  referees set up and tore down the track, programs and novelties were in the truck, one skater made extra money by sewing and repairing uniforms, and skaters drove from place to place in cars, 3 to a car and they were paid mileage.

This certainly was not rock and roll travel.  At least 100 people showed up including wives, girlfriends, hangers on, etc and they all had to be housed and fed.  The possible cost was overwhelming to me.  Security traveled with them also.  I made a number of friends including Tom Mooney whose wife Ann worked at Ticketmaster when I did in later years.  Also Mike Evans handled security and other jobs and today he works as a leading figure in the company out of Philadelphia that owns or manages major arenas, theatres, and sports teams throughout the world.

Rehearsals stared, and Alan Ginsburg also joined the tour.  He played the triangle.  The  music I heard was great.  I did not have much interplay with Dylan as he was either putting the show together or with his inner circle.  Everyone seemed to get along fine.  The local papers were getting curious about what was going on at the Hotel, and Barry and I were outside one night when a reporter approached and asked if he could go in.  Barry told him no and he left.  The next day in the local paper was a very dark photo of us with the caption “two hefty security guards keeping people from observing what is going on at the Falmouth Inn”…..I was upset, Barry was large but I certainly wasn’t hefty at the time.

One day during rehearsals all the equipment had to be moved out of the hall as the hotel had pre-booked a canasta tournament.  At a break in the action, the hotel manager came in and told the ladies they were in for a special treat:  he had booked two folk singers for them, Bob Zimmeran and Al Ginsburg.  Dylan came out played the piano and sang, Ginsburg played the triangle.  I don’t think the ladies ever knew who they were.

I will add part 2 to this blog tomorrow.

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.