Roller Derby is a game on skates


This week I am scheduled for an interview on a CBS TV network program called “Through the Decades”.  It will be part of the whole program which will be seen on CBS stations throughout the country around the 13th of August, the date of the very first Roller Derby in Chicago in 1935.

History has been a problematic topic in current roller derby, all amateur composed of 2000 women and men and junior leagues throughout the world.  Some (and boy have I run into them!) believe derby is modern, created by women around a table in Texas in about 2002; Others glory in the history, even though in most cases it is a far different game.

Now the reason this TV program came about is because a wonderful group in the Chicago area got most of the leagues together last year for World Roller Derby Week, a celebration based on the history of the game in Chicago; there was a public display and skating at the Coliseum Park, what is remaining of the original arena, and a contest skated with juniors and then adults at a skating rink.  And Barb Morgen of Brown Paper Tickets PR working with Jane and Cheryl and the others got almost Super Bowl coverage in Chicago and throughout the US on TV, Radio and on line media, and the result was a blood drive with the Red Cross that set a record of our 30 drives with Roller Derby leagues of almost 200 lives saved.

And that is why Decades is interested this year.  The history is an asset.

So yes Virginia, there was a Roller Derby in 1935 and up until 1973 and it was skated on skates, originally with maple wheels on a banked track.

As the game evolved Leo and Oscar Seltzer wanted to make certain the players had skates designed for the games; they founded the Roller Derby Skate Company and even after I took over the stewardship of the enterprise in 1959, that is all we used.  Then Oscar developed a urethane wheel and that changed the game.  The skates were costly; if the skaters had to replace a pair and break in a new one (they hated that worse than anything), we had to pay $27 for a new pair.

After we shut down Roller Derby in 1973. the skate company continued to grow; it was now run by Oscar’s son, Ed Seltzer, who was a physicist graduate of Cal Tech.  They developed the first outdoor shoe skate for kids (the Street King; I actually sold the first pairs to a retailer in Southern California) and produced skate boards, hockey and in line skates, ice skates and more, and are in retailers throughout the world under various brand names.

But what did Ed miss?  The re-emergence of Roller Derby.  I called him immediately after the first Rollercon, but they were doing so well and others in the company saw no need to enter the field, that they missed out for the first years.

But then they found Tony Muse, who some (me) consider the best speed and derby skater in the world.  Now what many don’t know is that the Roller Derby Skate Company has patents and they are the only one that can have Roller Derby Skates as the title; also, they have the exclusive rights for the name on merchandise but Ed chose never to enforce that (good move!).

So some of the upcoming women’s World Cup leagues will be using the Roller Derby Elites, and about half of the USA Men’s Cup team will be wearing them….I have examined the skates, and against the competition, they are a great value.  And I have nothing to do with or no interest in the company…..

So I guess this is an endorsement of my friend Tony and his co workers; and I love to see Roller Derby Skates as a part of the sport as a further tribute to Leo and Oscar.

And if the history bothers you, what a shame.

 

Roller Derby is 82; join the party on August 13 at Coliseum Park


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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33 years later


 

An Appreciation to Leo A. Seltzer.

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.