Long Live the (Roller Derby) Queen –

Long Live the (Roller Derby) Queen – Gapers Block Tailgate | Chicago.

(click on link above)

Almost all of you know Ann Calvello, who in the 50s through the 70s was the Suzy Hotrod of her day (or is it the other way around?)

Well, Ivy King was the first Derby superstar.  She skated in the very first Roller Derby in Chicago and for the next 15 years.

She was tiny, wore glasses, looked sweet as Shirley Temple, but was a real pisser.  A terror on the track, and funny, foul-mouthed and a great woman into her 90’s.

The perfect connection between original Derby and modern Derby, and that is why the Windy City Rollers named their championship cup after her.  Please read the great piece from Chicago.

Two loves of my life:  Ivy King and Val Capone…….I am definitely trans Derby.

Everything old is new again, spirit of 76

Last night I was at the Oakland Convention Center with several thousand of my closest friends and the Detroit, Texas, Windy City, and Bay Area teams.  Most people were not aware that it was the eve of the birthday of the game they were playing and watching.

Photo by Marija Jure from stock.xchng.com.

That’s really not important.  If anything, Roller Derby is so today, it could have been started yesterday.  Women who enjoy what they are doing, empowered by the game and their teammates; often their husbands or partners or families on hand.

And the skaters in that first game 76 years ago were so reflective of the times:  representative of the Talking Head’s song “We’re on the Road to Nowhere'”, in the heart of the depression, skating endlessly in a marathon to win a few hundred dollars but getting meals and lodging just to stay alive.  And women competed which was so controversial.  The winning team was composed of a boy of just 16 (he snuck in) and his partner.  Only Keith Coppage, official Roller Derby historian and Gary Powers who keeps the Hall of Fame alive, would know who they were.

And the game has changed so much but still has the original essence.  From the banked track (the first one was not really banked for skating).  Take a look at the photo at www.rollerderbycommish.com.  And you will see the skaters standing in a posed position at the old Chicago Coliseum, with cots in the huge infield for them to rest until it became time for them to get back on the road again.  Their sleeping quarters and kitchen were elsewhere in the arena.  And the audience could take a walkway above the track to go to portion of the infield to sit and watch and eat!  And they paid almost nothing to get in, could stay as long as they liked.  And there were breaks when the skaters would each do a little entertainment routine and the audience would throw coins if they enjoyed it.

Photos and article from "Life" Dec. 1948. Full article at the link below.

Those were your grandparents.  And the ultimate joy for me came when on the one occasion, a side effect of what Gary Powers had put together for the 70th anniversary of the game at the Chicago Historical society on August 13, 2005, the old and new met.  A number of members of the recently formed Windy City Rollers (thank you, dear Val) attended the dinner, and there were tears when they met Ivy King and the other plus 90’s who skated in the first go around.  and the next night we all attended the game at the Congress Theater and the hardy pioneers saw the new Roller Derby, still in its initial stages with very few leagues. And the championship tourney in Chicago is now the Ivy King cup.

Shortly thereafter all those who skated on August 13, 1935, were gone.  But very much like the Divinity painted by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they touched and passed on The Game.

Guard it carefully.

“Life” Dec 1948 Article

It broke my heart

Once we moved to Chicago I was able to see Roller Derby on a regular basis.  It was scheduled at the Coliseum a number of times a year, and two teams – Chicago Westerners and a visiting team – would play each other 4 or 5 nights at week for a three or sometimes 4 week series.  One night would be ladies’ night, one night kids free, etc, and generally there would be a special event scheduled for Saturday night.

Since there was no television, the games were promoted by in-house announcements, trackside radio broadcasts, and hundreds of thousands of discount tickets placed in stores and bars throughout the Chicago area.  Promotion was definitely hardcore.

When it was in town, I generally got to go on the weekends.  I had favorite skaters:  Ivy King, Wes Aronson, Bob Satterfield, Kitty Nehl and many others, and I would cheer for them…..There were such exciting plays that occurred during the games that I grew to watch for them.  For example, there was no designation by position at that time, and you might see 1 to 4 jammers out on a play.  The lead jammer was the jammer who was leading at any time.  Sometimes you would see two jammers for one team trying to keep the opposing jammer from getting the lead, and that was accomplished by switching their positions back and forth so they always had the lead.

On another occasion you might see two players blocking each other back and forth at the start of the jam and the home skater get knocked down, leaving two “visiting” jammers out on the play.  When they got to the back of the pack the fallen player would drop back and more often than not keep the two jammers from scoring.

I loved the Derby and found it much more exciting  than the other sports I was able to  see:  Bears football, Blackhawks hockey, American Gears with George Mikan  basketball and of course the Cubbies (sorry Val).  I am one of the rare human beings that was able to see the Cubs in their last World Series, in 1945 versus Detroit…they lost, of course.  None of these approached Roller Derby to  me.

I used to  take friends in grammar school, high school and then  college (I got my degree from Northwestern in Evanston), and we always had a great time.  One night we were in the owners box and the score was close and the game was almost over when for the third time in as many jams the Westerners, who were leading by a few points, had a “breakaway” as the visiting jammer(s) approached the pack; Chicago would block the player next to them and sprint ahead in a coordinated more and the time would run out.

Suddenly a man in front of me started yelling how phony it was; that couldn’t happen on its own.  I was very upset and when I got home that night I asked my dad why he would say that.  He didn’t back away, but told me that in order to keep the fans coming back, it was necessary to run some set plays to keep interest.  He said he hated it, but that was the way it had been, and he was going to force a completely legitimate game.

It was difficult for me after that.  I realized it was a great athletic contest but not the same as other sports (interestingly enough, NHL hockey was very suspect at this time.  the four US teams were basically owned by the same family (out of the six team league) and the New York Rangers would fade towards the end of the season, when Ringling Brothers had Madison Square Garden locked up for all of April).  I just didn’t enjoy it as much.

When Roller Derby went to New York in 1948 television brought it to millions of  new fans (even though the network at that time only covered 14 cities).  At the end of the 1949 season He scheduled Madison Square Garden for five sold out nights of World Series Play, involving the teams in the league.  He instructed everyone that this was to be a completely legitimate series;  many of the skaters didn’t like that idea as they might look bad, so it didn’t come off.  I  really feel he was disenchanted after that.  In 1958 he declared that the league would skate “The Open  Game”.  No  skaters would be held back and they would go full  tilt.  The irony was that after showing one game on television and presenting a game where the home team loses 18 in a row caused the fans who still came to yell “fix”.

I took over in 1959 and had the advantage of some great skaters (Charlie O’Connell, Joan Weston, Buddy Jr and Sr, Ken Monte, Ann Calvello and on and on).  We went on TV and started syndicating.  Charlie controlled the skating and he wanted a fast, hard blocking game and that is what we had.  When we did our national tour in the winter at cities that had seen the telecasts all year, they would skate an “ad lib” game that was as close to legitimate as you could get, with a couple of crowd-pleasing plays added.  And when they skated Madison Square Garden the fans just wanted to see skating and that is what they got.  The skaters were challenged and they loved it.

We were in a wonderful and precarious position at the same time:  we owned all the teams and took all the risks.  When situations came up in the 70s (our time was changed on our home TV station in San Francisco from 7 to 9 on Sunday night to 4 to 6, decreasing our audience by half), the skaters who weren’t skating  all the time were dissatisfied and created a picket line around our offices, and the gas crisis of  ’72 and ’73 destroyed our tours.  We starting presenting a more violent game and that just about killed us off.

Now I don’t want to give the idea that people did not like what we were presenting,  a beautiful, highly entertaining and skillful exhibition.  And I would say that most knew it, but I knew it was not really a true sport.

Two women's league roller derby skaters leap over two who have fallen. Public Domain.

I shut Roller Derby in 1973 and people were just left with the image of roller games for the next several years which provided very little skating skill but more like WWE.  And I went on to another career (well, three).

So  when the women’s leagues started developing in early 2000 and I started seeing them in 2005 I felt rejuvenated and rewarded; this game could be skated 100% legitimately, and the growth has been amazing (approaching 1000 leagues worldwide).  The skating on  many teams has become quite skilled and tactical and will only get better.

Don’t ever accuse me of wanting to bring back the Roller Derby of the 60’s and 70’s.  Those skaters because of their years in the game had a skill and athleticism that has not been approached yet, but they were restricted from showing their real ability.  That thought never leaves me.

Enjoy today’s Roller Derby for what it is: a real competitive game whose founders and developers never gave up on the idea that it can be the great sport it deserves to be.  And that is the only game that I will ever support.

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things were different back then.

I am going to try to just keep to the Roller Derby I grew up with in this post.

I have already related how in the 30’s we would drive to California to see the month-long stays of  the Derby in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  But this was also my first contact with Derby folk who I knew for years afterwards.  Skaters who were bigger than life to me:  Tommy and Buddy Atkinson, Superstar Wes Aronson and Kitty Nehl, Bob Satterfield, Ivy King, “Pochahantas” Mary Youpelle (still out there and active) and so many more.  They were all like uncles and aunts and I got to hang with them and on special occasions, even eat with them at the meals cooked in their quarters – they lived and slept in the buildings then.  And they couldn’t  believe that in LA the stars came to see THEM.

I kind of think of the managers then as almost carny.  Moon Mullins, Sid Cohen, and names that escape me now.  And they and Leo would be like a group that did things together:  fishing in Florida, going to night spots in the big cities, etc.  These were his gang.  Once Sid told everyone that they all had to lose weight and he heard of the sour cream diet…..no matter where and when you ate, you had to add huge portions or sour cream to the meal.  Of course after everyone gained about 10 pounds each, they realized it wasn’t working.

This was the heart of the depression.  The skaters hung together, did things together, and whenever possible, Leo arranged for sightseeing and other activities….they had no money, came from tough backgrounds, and this was the best time of their lives.  My dad told me that he found out afterwards that one of the participants had been a colonel in the army;  in Chicago the winner of the first Derby was a 16-year old who was scheduled to be on the fatal bus when his father withdrew his permission.  He went on to become the Commissioner of the Fire Department for the City of Chicago and organized the fire workers union.

Photo by Josep Altarriba from stock.xchng.com.

Of course, there are many stories like that.  The games were the glue that held them together.  The home team (white shirts) were the good guys, the visitors (Red shirts) were the mean players from Chicago, etc or whatever city represented evil to  the home town.  I remember the red shirts like Buddy Atkinson, Silver Rich, Elmer (elbows) Anderson, Gertie Scholls, and of course later there was “Toughie Brasuhn”.  And then after the games they would eat the late meal and all hang together.

It was tough for a lot of the women.  So many people assumed that because they skated in the Roller Derby they were not to be respected, yet they probably were the nicest people I knew…..This assumption seems odd in today’s world but remember women did not compete in contact sports at that time, and were not featured in many at all.

Roller skates had wooden wheels at this time, except if you skated outside you had clamp-ons with metal wheels.  The masonite track had to be painted with a special slate paint in order for the skaters to be able to skate on it and get traction.  And often during the games the referees would have to throw additional slate powder on the surface as the wheels wore the paint off.  And the dust would go flying and since it was green, after a few games the skaters and the fans would have green on their clothes their hair, etc.  (I think that is what happened to Calvello originally and she decided to make the most of it).

Now after one time around, many of the better arenas would not let Roller Derby back in, as there was paint on the ceiling and everywhere else, so Leo would find armories or exposition buildings (fairgrounds, etc) and bring in bleachers as well as the track…..the initial setup took days, as well as the teardown.  But the fans loved the games and kept coming.

Now let’s jump ahead to 1959.  I had just taken over Roller Derby and we were skating in the San Francisco Armory at 16th and Mission 5 days a week.  One night would be Ladies’ night, one night date night, etc.  I knew that because of the television coverage, we could draw fans from a wider area.  I contacted the other arenas, but they all knew about the paint.  Lin Luedekke at the Oakland Auditorium would let us come into the Exposition building across the street (now the site of Merritt College).  Meanwhile, Oscar Seltzer of the Roller Derby Skate  Company had sent me samples of new urethane wheels he had developed.  We tried them on the track, but found they were too soft and wore down too fast.  Eventually he got the formula right, and I decided we would use them in a game and not put paint on the track.  The skaters said it slowed them down too much, but since everything is relative, it didn’t really matter.  Eventually, they forgot about it.

So we found that if we covered the track with a light plastic paint, they could go faster but more importantly, did not require any of the slate. I contacted Lin in Oakland and told him we would play the Auditorium and would not be using the slate paint.  He reluctantly agreed, and I knew that the  other facilities in San Jose, San Francisco, Sacramento, etc were waiting to see how it worked in Oakland.

We had lowered the bank on the track from 4 1/2 feet to three feet and made it portable so it could be set up in 4 hours, torn down in 2.  Gil Orozco who skated on the Bombers was in charge of construction, and knowing how much I like to color up the track and uprights (see any of our tapes on youtube) to make it more of an arena event decided he would put the plastic surface on in color.  Once it was set up he let me know and to ask Lin to come in to take a look.  Well, Gil had decided to use a green color and when Lin saw it, he almost shat.  I calmed him down and told him it would be fine and it was, and we were able to book the other arenas and eventually sold out almost every major arena in the US and Canada.

Part of the fun of Roller Derby was the noise from the track, and we lost a lot of that when the plastic wheels replace the wooden ones, although there still is sufficient noise on the banked track to be exciting.  And for our telecasts we miked under the track so the noise was always there.  And people ask me why do I love Roller Derby!

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