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.
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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January 30th was the 33rd anniversary of Leo Seltzer’s death.
Roller Derby had officially ended in December 1973 when the last track was set up. But in his mind, it had ended before. He was so anxious to see it go to full legitimacy that it haunted him. And the fact that roller games was such a parody of what he created troubled him to the very end.
He was a successful developer of real estate in Lancaster, California, lived part time in Gearhart, Oregon where he fished, gardened and never stopped trying to bring back the game he loved. He was planning to spend the summer of 1978 in Montreal where he felt the best skaters he had seen of the “new” generation, because of the background in hockey and other sports. But a severe headache sent him to the hospital. I got the call from Belle and immediately flew to be by his bedside. During the time I was travelling, he suffered an aneurism from which he never awakened.
When I arrived at the hospital he was on a breathing machine. Because of a disagreement between us (I don’t even remember what over), we had not talked much in the last six months. I went by his bedside alone and told him how much I loved him and was sorry that I had disappointed him. Later the doctor came and talked to all the family and was pretty cold about it; my father’s brain had stopped functioning and the kindest thing to do was to let him pass away. We did the next morning.
I don’t think any of you reading this can realize how much I think about him and how the most important thing in his life besides family had disappeared in his lifetime.
And every time that I think or talk or look at Roller Derby today, I wish he could just have known what his game would become and how it would change people’s lives and bring joy and kinship to so many people around the world. So wish him a happy birthday on April 5. He will be 108.
How do I live up to that title? Stay with me.
My father had two favorite pastimes besides Roller Derby that really gave him peace of mind: gardening (see earlier blog on Leo) and fishing.
As a result while growing up, I had a lot of great fishing experiences. My father was not a fly fisherman, he liked to fish from a boat. His brother Oscar was a devotee of fly casting and spent a lot of time in Oregon in some of the great fishing spots. Oscar’s son Lloyd carried on the tradition and, oddly enough, the Roller Derby Skate Company tested and developed some deep water fishing boots (but not with wheels).
So I got to accompany my Dad salmon fishing on the Columbia River (I actually got a 42 pound Chinook), muskie fishing on the Eagle River in Wisconsin (caught one and had it mounted – seems strange now), and caught a beautiful sailfish in Florida, and some beautiful and wonderful-eating rainbow trout near Crater Lake Oregon.
In later years when Leo lived in Seaside, Oregon, he found the tributaries off of the Columbia river and would spend days fishing for trout and salmon. Many of the skaters would also tell you how Leo gave them the first fishing experiences of their lives. In the early days the skaters did not make a lot of money, but they traveled everywhere (even to Cuba), had fans and all will tell you what a great life it was.
My most significant fishing experience occurred without my dad. My family spent one summer (1964) in Honolulu while Roller Derby was playing there for six weeks. We rented a house in Kahala and one thing we decided to do was to go fishing on a boat from Honolulu. Now they tell you if you want good fishing in Hawaii, you go over to the big Island; there is too much boat traffic off of Oahu to catch the real game fish. We wanted just to let my seven-year old son Steven have the experience of catching dolphin (no, you are thinking of porpoises; dolphin are beautiful blunt headed fish that run generally 7 to 15 pounds and their meat is delicious – can you say Mahi Mahi?),
So off we went about a mile out in somewhat choppy water and we were well on our way to catching our limit of dolphins and Steve was having a great time. All of a sudden my line snagged and I tried to reel in but couldn’t. I asked the captain if I had snagged on the bottom and he said it was impossible; the ocean was thousands of feet deep at that point. My line started to move and he felt I had hooked a seal (ugh!). Anyway, I kept reeling in for at least 45 minutes and the captain let out a yell: I had hooked a yellow fin tuna. Somehow we got the monster in the boat: it was about 7 feel long and weighed 220 pounds. I was shaken, this was not what I had been looking forward to. I gave the fish to the captain (today, it would be worth about $20,000 in Japan). I was listed in the fishing column of the Honolulu paper the next day as having caught the largest fish that day. On reflection, I am of course sorry that I didn’t release that fish and the other major game fish.
We took the dolphins to the Kahala Hilton and the chef made delicious mahi mahi for us.
OK, back to the title. My son Steven who was formerly the somelier at the Rainbow Room and Tavern on the Green in New York is now a private label wine producer. He called me to tell me that he had been contacted by Rebekah Stewart who owns the Brigadoon Lodge by the Blue Ridge Mountains in Clarksville, Georgia. It is located on the Soque river, one of only two private rivers in the US. (ESPN called the Brigadoon “the Augusta of fly fishing”). Steve was to help her create wines to match the quality of the Lodge and her unique idea was to have a wet fly on the bottle of Cabernet and a dry fly with the Chardonnay.
Steve sought samples from the wineries he knew in California and Rebekah and her wine-knowledgeable friends tasted wine from different vintners until the right ones were selected. You literally can buy one bottle of each in a traditional fishing creel at www.flylinewine.com; a great gift for a fishing friend. You want to stay at the Brigadoon Lodge? Go to www.brigadoonlodge.com and stay at this intimate outstanding resort where Presidents and captains of industries go to relax (surprisingly inexpensive, as is the wine). Great trout fishing, all catch and release. Now I can’t wait to try fly fishing at Brigadoon!
President and Mrs. Carter were at the lodge last week for the annual Carter Center Auction weekend and he actually caught three rainbow trout on his Flylinewine fly, and he loved the new wines!
So you see, with the Seltzers, it wasn’t just about Roller Derby. Although my next blog will be about it again as I leave for Chicago this Friday for the National Championship tournament……I will not fish in the Chicago River.
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