A Sonoma Valley Vignette

Photo by Nathan Sudds from stock.xchng.com.

My friend Luis is a most unusual guy…..he grew up in Argentina and had to serve in the army during the bad times, but he had an uncle connected with one of the cruise lines who was able to get him a job as a hair stylist (!) on a ship.  Well, he became a good stylist and emigrated to the US where he finally landed in Boyes Hot Springs (part of our community;  I actually live there).  Unlike many stylists, he is a great carpenter, has reworked his house, rode a hog with bikers, and is an all-around good badass.  And he gives good haircut, styling, and bikini waxing (not for me).

About 2 decades ago he got married and they had two great children, a boy and a girl.  Unfortunately, his wife became an addict and she took the kids and lived with her family in one of the scary counties in northern California.  Luis tried to get the kids back but to no avail, as the family were also the sheriff and officials of that location.  Eventually, the two young children watched their mother die from a too potent injection.

Luis took every dime he had and fought to get the kids over the next several years.  Although it broke him financially, he was finally able to get a judge to give him custody and he brought them to Sonoma.

A wonderful woman resident of our community who has worked with children’s  problems for years started an organization here called the Willmar Center for bereaved children:  those eligible to come have had a terrible loss of a close relative or friend.  They work with the children, do fun things, and try to get them to open up.  What a wonderful and difficult program.  It did wonders for Luis’ kids.

About this time, Judi Flowers had been contacted by In Wine Country, a show by NBC locally that follows wineries, restaurants and other wonders of our wonderful area.  It has been shown around the country and you may have seen it.  Judi is shown making slippers, and she and her associates drive from Novato to Sonoma (about 20 miles) to visit the kids at Willmar.  At the time, I was involved with Willmar and helped them put together their first fund-raising dinner event.  Judi gave slippers to the kids on camera for their parents or themselves, talked to them (she has been a hospice volunteer for 25 years), and ironically, two of the children who talked on camera were Luis’s, which we didn’t know at the time.

Several months later we met Luis and the kids at a local restaurant and started talking to them, and I ended up getting my haircuts from him (razor cuts!).  Two days ago I got my monthly shearing and Luis was bubbling over;  his son had moved to the City (SF of course) and was working and living with two friends.  His daughter had graduated from high school with honors, had been accepted  at San Francisco State with full scholarship and was able to get into a dorm and there was a caring woman in the City (Elsa Nelson) who was mentoring her and giving her the love she had missed.

So yesterday, I took a vhs of my film “Derby” (played in 6 Festivals, given 4 stars by Roger Ebert and called one of the 10 best films of the year by the New York Times, Washington Post, and other critics) to the local UPS store.  It is a cinema verite, and the protagonist is a young-tire builder from Dayton who wants to become a Roller Derby star.  His name, Mike Snell.  Well it just so happens one of my facebook friends is named Mike Snell (not the same), so I sent him the tape.  The lady behind the counter was very helpful…..Just then, Nina Gorbach came walking by;  Nina had founded Willmar, left it several years ago in good hands, and I hadn’t seen her.  We hugged, and I told her about seeing Luis and how he was so excited about his daughter and suddenly the girl behind the counter looked up and smiled and Nina smiled and I realized she was Luis’s daughter!

Small world…..don’t you love happy endings?

Jerry Seltzer and his Roller Derby families

One of the elements that has remained constant in the old Roller Derby (1935-1973) to the new Roller Derby (2001 to present) is family.

Jerry Seltzer and Ann Calvello

I received a Father’s day message on Facebook from Michael J. Swassing thanking me for being the father figure for the up to 30,000 derby girls in 541 leagues in 15 countries.  He stated that Derby was the only non-dysfunctional family that most of the members have.  I have never met Michael,  who is a successful business man in Seattle and works with the Rat City (nice name, huh?) Rollers of that area.  In terms of attendance, they are the most successful Roller Girls league, drawing some 7000 fans to their last match at Key Arena.

I only was able to see Roller Derby sporadically while growing up, as it was mainly in the Midwest, South and East and I lived in Portland.  But when I did get to attend in Los Angeles a number of the skaters and personnel befriended and took care of me and my sister.  Buddy and Bobbie Atkinson said they changed my diapers, but I wasn’t that young. And all of the people associated with the Derby were so close with each other as they lived together and traveled together.  There was big Sid Cohen from Chicago, a 6 foot four 250 pounder who had originally been with the Mob in Chicago and had been sent in to the Coliseum in Chicago to plant a bomb because my Dad wouldn’t work with the mob.  He became a close friend of my Dad and worked with him for years before going to work with the Ice Follies (see, Al Capone could have had a whole different life).

I have a wonderful photo of Sid and me at a beach (Santa Monica?);  I was about five, skinny, worried looking and Sid in a shirt and tie walking along side me carrying my little bucket and shovel…I loved Sid and all the others with Derby.

As I became an adult and the official head of the Derby (1958-1959), my own family developed around me.  First there was Peggy Ahern, who was a “leftover” from the previous regime.  Peggy had been married to a skater and then referee and had become a discount ticket exchanger.  The way Roller Derby was promoted before television was distributing hundreds of thousands of discount tickets in the various cities, usually sponsored by some local market, brewery, etc.  They would offer 50 cents to $1 off the price of the tickets and had to be exchanged at the venue.  It was not unusual for the ticket statements for the games to show up to 95% discount tickets.  One of the first things I did when I took over Roller Derby was to reduce the price of all tickets by 50 cents (to $1, $2, and $3) and declare all discounts void.  I knew that television would bring the fans, and the unit managers would no longer be able to pocket the revenue from the tickets that had put in for discounts every night.

So Peggy became my box office manager, and it was a run that lasted until the 80’s with BASS Tickets.  We learned together.  Peggy had a huge Cadillac (I forget why) and her car trunk became our traveling box office.  Remember, no computers, no outlets, etc.  We did take phone reservations for the games, but credit cards were not used so people had to pick up their tickets at the box office the nights of the games.  Hal Janowitz was a great skater who when he gave up skating ran the various box offices for us at the games, and when we went on the road later he was the road manager and settled the box offices for us and tried to keep the skaters in line (lots of luck, Hal).

Sunnie Senne was a fan who came to the games at Richmond, and one night when we were short of people to help Peggy, I announced at the game did anyone want to work for the Bay Bombers and Sunnie, who was certainly a character, came down and stayed with us for years.  Eventually all of Peggy’s daughters, Lorraine,  Maggie, and Denise worked for us in some capacity.

Harold Silen, the attorney who incorporated the company (Bay Promotions, Inc) for me, became my friend and partner over the next 50 years.  Hal represented many of the North Beach clubs and also Willie McCovey and Willie Mays of the Giants.  Of all of us, he was the class act.

When I started the one nighters around Northern California (Sunday night at Kezar Pavilion in SF where we would televise and videotape for elsewhere in the country), we had pretty well set up our ticket sales.  We had our reservation numbers on our penalty boxes and made sure the cameras hit them.  On Mondays we skated in San Jose, one mid week date either a Stockton, Santa Rosa, Sacramento or other, Friday at the Richmond Auditorium, and Saturday at the Oakland Auditorium.  Of course, the schedule would vary depending on the date availability.  We sold dates to fairs, organizations, etc.  And one to the Navy.  We  skated on the hangar deck (the first deck below) on the USS Ranger, and the crew enjoyed it immensely, and I even got to go out on the carrier later on a training cruise.  We even donated a game and skated at San Quentin.

We sold one date to the 20-30 club in Vallejo (I think you could join at 20 but could stay in this civic organization no later then 30), and the young man was the head of it became enamored of Peggy.  He insisted on helping her with everything she was doing and showed up at a number of games afterwards.   Peggy is quite statuesque and I know that she had a number of her own fans.

Peggy and Sunnie took the phone reservations (her favorite call:  ” is this where you pick your seats on the phone?”), and had help from George “Run Run” Jones’ wife who sometimes work in the box office.  George went on the become  the white haired guy who ran on the field with the towels and liquids for the Oakland Raiders and wore all of Super Bowl rings.  He died recently.

Now that brings us to Jo Downs.  Jo had worked for my father back east and was a wonderful bookkeeper….her only problem, she drank at night.  Peggy had to pick her up each morning as she didn’t drive and Peggy never knew what she would find.  Jo helped me with scheduling and terrified everyone with her demeanor….she was a great buffer for me.

Ticket sales were really bizarre…..they were only on the day of the game and by phone.  Hal Janowitz would get to San Jose or wherever the day of the game at 10 am and sell the tickets until game time when we would add 1 or two additional personnel, depending on our crowd expectations.  The Roller Derby games were 8 periods, 4 each half with the women and men alternation.  In the fourth period we would announce that tickets were on sale for the next game and people would flock to the box office and and stand in line for the entire fourth period and sometimes miss the start of the second half.   I think Peggy suggested that since standing in line for tickets is what people wanted to do, why didn’t we just cancel the games and just sell tickets.   Sounded like a great idea to me.

Derby Girls Jumping. Image from the Library of Congress, Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-133382

We all did so many things together because Roller Derby was all of our lives.  There was the expected separation between the skaters and the front office, but we were a very small organization and even when the entire International Roller Derby League was touring the country (and Canada) in major arenas from Madison Square Garden to Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Oakland Coliseum Arena to the Mobile Auditorium, it all came from our small group with additions for shipping our tapes and writing and sending out our advance press releases and advertising to all the cities we were playing.  I supervised all of that.  In addition, we would schedule an hour weekly at KTVU channel 2 in Oakland and Walt Harris would cut 1 minute and 30 second spots for distribution to the television stations in the cities we would be playing.  We could ofter cut up to 45 (!) spots in an hour, using an endless loop of skating with info copy on the screen.  I guess it worked.

Hal and I and Peggy went on to start BASS tickets, northern California’s computerized ticket agency.  And when we joined with the Ticketmaster cities everyone wanted to know how BASS operated, and Peggy explained how to run a ticket company to most of them.  And I used my guerilla marketing from Roller Derby to help make Ticketmaster the dominant force in the industry.

Both Jo Downs and Sunnie have passed away;  Peggy and her daughter Lorraine live here in  Sonoma, Hal Silen and I are still involved in projects, and Hal Janowitz is enjoying life in Alameda, California.  When I see him, I ask him if he is ready to go out on the road again.