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.

To subscribe free to my blog, add your email address to subscribe at the top right hand of this page.

the subject of a thesis

Photo by Chris Greene from

Michella Marino came almost 3000 miles to interview me.  Her sister Erin accompanied her.

Michella (Coors Lightning) skates on the Amherst MA team, and also is writing her PhD thesis on women in sports, primarily on Roller Derby.

She had 5 pages of questions and topics and was quite thorough.  She has done a lot of research, has talked to Mary (Pocahontas) Youpelle, who started skating in the 30’s and other skaters and basketball players.  She thinks it will take another 2 years to complete the project.

She started by asking me about the original Roller Derby which was more like a marathon….I was too young to have seen it but could give the information as relayed to me.  She asked about the people, how they were treated, paid, problems because women were competing in a game that wasn’t genteel at the time, etc.  And over about 8 or 9 hours came right up to today’s contests.

Both she and her sister played college basketball.  Erin is now doing a fashion blog ( and had just seen her sister play for the first time last Saturday.

I explained that although I have the honorary title of Commissioner, I am just a fan and of course have my well-known opinions on today’s game, banked track, current rules, etc.

I think as you all know I love and respect what you are doing, the struggle you have gone through to make it happen and keep it happening (I wonder how many leagues fold ever year?).  But of course I have my criticisms, which mainly are based on how do you skate the current game, and how to make it more appealing as a spectator attraction.  And that of course the ying and yang of the sport.

It is your game, and I know that many want to keep it exactly as it is.  But to me, sitting in the stands, I see too many officials, too many rules that I don’t know how the refs can keep track of. When a skater is sent to the box, I don’t think half the time they know why; too many delays, and not the continuous fast game that I grew up with, and that has nothing to do with the legitimacy of the sport.

Here is what I would like to see changed, and maybe it can never happen for leagues skating under the WFTDA auspices:

Greatly simplify the rules so that all players and officials understand them.

Have just 3 officials and no committee in the infield.

Maximum of 2 players in the box; penalized skater to go in after 1 has come out;  there should never be less than 3 skaters on the track for a team.

penalize the skater, not the helmet.  No jam should start without 1 jammer on each team.

shorten jam time to 1 minute.

require pack to keep moving or be penalized.

allow announcers to describe all action on the jams.

The lead jammer is the jammer who is actually in the lead at any given time.

Keep action continuous by having jammers start from rear of the pack while pack is moving.

Well, that’s a start.  I am sure everyone agrees and there will be no comments……The above game is much more spectator friendly if that is important to you.

Can’t we all just get along?

I can’t believe that it was almost 20 years ago.

Image by georgie_c from

Rodney King was one of the first times that someone caught an act of police brutality on a video camera.  What was released on one of the television stations in Los Angeles was the beating of a man who was not fighting back by the L. A. police.  And it was brutal to watch.  I was living in Santa Monica and like most citizens was appalled.

The police officers were identified and were indicted, and because of the overwhelming publicity, their attorneys were able to get the trial moved to Simi Valley, a predominately white enclave near LA where so many police officers lived.  At the trial, the culprits were virtually set free and everyone waited for the reaction of the black community.  We didn’t have to wait long.

Ticketmaster’s offices were in Ahmanson Center on Wilshire, just off of Western Avenue and not too far from Vermont.  We  were all there the next day and Fred was out of town.  Looking out of our windows on the upper floors, we could see fire breaking out on Vermont, and out on Wilshire I saw a driver pulled out of his car and beaten.  On Western, which in our area was Koreatown, people were running in the streets and fires were everywhere.  I saw a number of the store owners on the roofs of their buildings with rifles, waiting to shoot looters.

I called our staff in and told them we were shutting down…Send everyone home.  Tom was very concerned about the shows that night and I believe since he was in charge of operations, he stayed.  My son Richard worked in the phone center,  and I told him to get to his wife and daughter in West L A.  I didn’t know until later that he ignored me.

I headed over to 6th Street and headed west.  I knew that if I tried to take any of the streets that cut over to the 15 freeway I would be in the middle of the riots.  The radio kept  talking about how bad it all was, and LA was burning and for once it wasn’t exaggerated.  I saw shopping centers (strip malls) either in flames or being looted.  I called my sister who lived on 6th Street by Las Cienega in West LA and the sporting goods store behind where they lived was being looted and guns being taken.  I picked her up and we drove to Santa Monica….it took several hours on what was ordinarily a 40 minute drive.  Ken was going to come out also and spend the night in my apartment.

Richard did a crazy but noble thing.  Because his wife’s mother lived pretty much in the heart of East LA and had emphysema, they were very concerned about her.  So he drove through the terrible areas where they were pulling people out of trucks and cars, got to her place, picked her up and got back home safely.

This was the worst racial situation I have ever experienced.  A good friend of ours who is a masseuse and acupuncturist had her boyfriend visiting.  He was working at Edwards Air Force base and was African-American.  She needed something from the market and because of the situation, she did not want him to go.  Some months earlier as a lark I had bought her an LAPD cap.  He put it on and went to the market and the hundreds of people there were so glad to see him and commended him on the work the police were doing!  Perception is everything.

It took a while for things to get back to normal, and Rodney King said the famous “Why can’t we all just get along”.  I had the people at BASS Tickets order Tee shirts with that slogan on it and they all thought I was crazy.

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… 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

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!

you can subscribe to my blog for free.  go to the email subscription at the upper right hand corner of the page.