Leo


Leo Seltzer was born in Helena, Montana, on April 5th, 1903.   His parents, David and Celia, were immigrants from Romania.  David had been offered a job with McCormick in Chicago, but upon his arrival he found that it was not as a carriage maker as was his trade in Bucharest, but a very menial job.  The family, then also consisting of his wife Celia, two young boys Harry and Oscar, boarded a train for Montana where a cousin was established.

David became a cattle rancher, operated a general store, and was a member of the local vigilantes.  Unfortunately, Celia being of delicate health could not handle the winters, and the family moved to Portland, Oregon, where Leo and his brothers grew up.

In high school (Lincoln High in Portland) Oscar and Leo excelled in sports:  Oscar in football and Leo in basketball.   When Harry the oldest brother went to the University of Washington to study accounting, it became apparent there were not sufficient funds for all three brothers to attend college.  Oscar went to UW and played football; after graduation Leo went to work as the youngest (17 years) film salesmen for Universal Films; his territory was the Northwest.

Soon he was successful enough to start helping to fund his brothers’ tuition and he enrolled in night school.  He also found a willing partner and they bought and operated three movie theaters in Portland:  the Laurel, the Oregon, and the Hiway.  Soon he was looking for opportunities and in 1930 he found one in Hoquiam Washington where he saw one example of popular entertainment in the Depression,  the Walkathon, which consisted of couples walking continuously for a period of time for prize money.  He thought this was something he could promote.

Gathering his former high school friends, he established his own version of the attraction and headed for Denver, Kansas City, and other midwestern cities.  He heard reports from his participants how badly they had been treated by other marathon operators – he was always concerned for the “walkers” and had proper meals, rest periods, nurses on hand as most of them had no other income or place to go.  He formed an association of marathon promoters and set up standards for them to uphold.  His masters of ceremonies included Red Skelton, Frankie Laine, and “Lord” Buckley.

In summer of 1935 he had taken over management of the Chicago Coliseum, an historic arena where William Jennings Bryan had been nominated for the presidency;  the front of the building was all stones that had been removed from the terrible Libbey prison in the South after the Civil War.  He was trying to think of an attraction that he could bring in the building when he read in the Literary Digest that over 95% of Americans roller skate at some time in their lives.  So he advertised for skaters and many of the walkathon participants joined also, and thus the first Roller Derby was presented on August 13, 1935. Teams were 1 male skater and 1 female, skating on a slightly banked track, alternating with one resting while the other was skating.  The object was to skate across the United States and the progress was shown on electric lights on a huge map at the end of the building.

During breaks, skaters would perform little skits or acts and the audience would show its appreciation by throwing coins at them.  Admission was only a dime,  and the fans could stay as long as they liked.  Most of the money that was made by Leo was from the concessions.

The way that skaters could gain an advantage was to break out of the group and try to pick up a lap on the other skaters (a “jam”). Before long, skaters were banding together to try and block back skaters who were leaving the pack; at first they were not allowed, but the audience liked that aspect so much, that Leo made it part of the rules.

The Roller Derby moved from city to city until 1937 when a tragic bus crash killed 18 of the 21 people aboard, and Leo wanted to shut the Derby down, but the other skaters convinced him to keep it going.  The uniform number 1 never was used in Roller Derby again as a memorial to those killed.

In Coral Gables Florida Damon Runyon, America’s best known Sports and short story author (“Guys and Dolls”) saw the Derby, became fascinated and he and Leo created the five on five game, men and women alternating periods, that lasted throughout its existence.

Leo proved to be a great booker and promoter.  He brought trade shows, leading entertainers, boxing, wrestling and more into the Coliseum.  His creative use of discount tickets was copied by others.  He also took over the lease of the Louisville Armory and he and his brother Oscar operated a minor league hockey team.  He always bemoaned what he felt would have been his greatest non-Derby promotion:  convincing Adolph Rupp, legendary Kentucky basketball coach, to partner with him on a Louisville professional team with the entire national championship team turning pro.  Unfortunately, a cheating scandal was discovered and none could participate.

Leo made Roller Derby a national phenomenon and was looking to make a revival of a fully legitimate league when he died of an stoke in January 1978.  His dream was to have Roller Derby in the Olympics.  With the 2000 amateur leagues in 65 countries today, it may very well happen.  Read the complete story in Roller Derby to Rollerjam. Leo died in 1978, believing his game had died with him.

Me


I decided to blog just to see if I am interesting enough to attract any readers.

I am in the older generation category but have managed to stay on the edge of the wave of life because of my entrepreneurial nature.

To start with, my father invented Roller Derby, and without my realizing it, it set the course for my life. I never intended to get involved in it but of course I did. After my childhood and schooling and Stanford and Northwestern (when I run out of things to write about I will of course give some facts about those days as well as my army life), I got married, was selling wholesale sporting goods, and suddenly I was the owner, promoter of the defunct sport of professional Roller Derby.

My father Leo Seltzer, perhaps the greatest promoter you never heard of, decided that Roller Derby had become too much of an exhibition and not the sport he always wanted it to be (he had visions of it in the Olympics – more on that later because it still might), and virtually closed it in 1958.

I had been doing some trackside announcing to pick up extra money for my growing family ($25 per game for 5 games a week doubled my income) when he told me he was shutting it down. In the world of coincidences two moons came in confluence at the same time: KTVU Channel 2 in Oakland California had come on the air and was looking for programming and a young man at Ampex in Redwood City developed video tape which made all programs look live on replay as opposed to the old kinescoping film technique (I won’t explain how and why).

So Bay Bombers Roller Derby appeared on channel 2 and I with a borrowed $500 put up bleachers in an unused auto repair garage on East 14th street in Oakland and created a studio for Roller Derby. I was 26 and didn’t know the odds against success.

In future blogs I will get beyond Roller Derby to the world of ticketing, Rock and Roll, the Hells Angels and me, my touring with Dylan, Bill Graham (the rock and roll one), film, my views on the world and much more. let me hear from you.

You can subscribe free to the blog by entering your email in the subscribe box in the upper right hand corner of the page.  And if I get enough of the blog written and appreciated, I’ll add some other chapeters and  put it together as an e-book.