The Sports Fan

I have always loved sports, but although I went out for football, basketball, and baseball in high school, I really wasn’t very good.  I know it disappointed my father because he was such a good basketball player.  They did keep me on the JV football team at Niles Township because I was 4 foot 8 and 90 pounds as a sophomore. and we had such a great team that I wasn’t a handicap, although I only got to play a few times.  The students would always cheer my name in the second half because I looked like I belonged in a pee wee league.  I stayed with it, took the beatings in practice, and at the awards ceremony as I got my letter, Coach Mackie referred to me as his secret weapon, a 90 pound atomic bomb.

Because of my father’s profession and love of sports, I have been very fortunate in my lifetime  seeing many great events.  I saw the last World Series the Cubs were in!  (Figure that out), Sid Luckman and the Chicago Bears playing at Wrigley Field;  Army with Blanchard and Davis vs. Michigan at Ann Arbor; Illinois-UCLA in the Rose Bowl with Buddy Young; Jake Lamotta knocking Bob Satterfield out of the ring at a fight my father promoted at Wrigley Field;  the Warriors sweeping the Bullets for the NBA Championship;  the A’s twice winning the World Series; two 49er Super Bowl wins in Miami (one in the company of SF Mayor Frank Jordan);  The Lakers winning the NBA with Magic Johnson (I have a plaque with the 88 team picture on my wall); and Fred Rosen and I going into the Pistons dressing room in Portland right after they won the NBA championship.

There is much more, but it is getting boring.

Along the way Herb Michelson and I met with Mohammad Ali at Pelosi’s in Oakland, trying to get him an exhibition fight as a benefit during his bad times.  We weren’t successful.  And one time as I entered the Oakland Auditorium the night before a game, the East Bay unions were having a rally, and I was there just in time to shake Senator John Kennedy’s hand.  And so on.

As odd as it may seem, Roller Derby always has been a highlight of my life.  Yes, I know it is a family thing:  My father invented it, his brother Oscar worked with him, my uncle Irv promoted it in Texas, My brother-in-law Ken worked in a “unit” in New York and New Jersey, and was the broadcast partner of Ken Neidl on the ABC network, and my sister Gloria also worked in the office and kept track of the films, among other things.  And today Oscar’s son Ed runs the Roller Derby Skate Company.

From the first time I saw Roller Derby, I loved it.  When I hear that the ideal soccer match is “a beautiful game” I think that is how I feel about Roller Derby.  You would forget these people were on skates as they would fly around like ballet artists, making impossible moves on the banked track.    I hesitate to even name favorites as I am certain I will offend whomever I leave out.

And as the game got rougher and more violent (and I will take the blame for that), it lost the magic, although it would show up in the Playoffs or in certain games on the road (Madison Square Garden, St. Louis, etc) where the skaters could just skate to their utmost ability and the crowds responded with great appreciation.

So the game went away except for the exceptions I have previously mentioned.

Last night I went to San Jose (100 miles from Sonoma) to see the Silicon Valley Roller Girls compete against the Treasure Valley, Idaho team.  It was at a skating rink with about 1500 people jammed in.  Tickets were $12 with kids free, I believe.  You can tell it was a family event.

Yes, flat track is not as fast as banked track; I couldn’t distinguish what the announcer was saying, and having promoted so many events myself, I wish they had added some ceiling lighting to make it easier to focus on the action arena.  But this is just one of the 555 leagues around the world, and there was some amazing skating.

They are not as skilled as our skaters were;  after all many had skated for 10 years or more and could act from instinct, but these were women who had to work other jobs, get paid nothing for skating and yet went all out.

My friends Dennis and Lori Erokan were there, as well as my cousin James Myers (Uncle Irv’s grandson), and we all had a great time.  There were some tremendous scoring plays, terrific pack action and hits that I thought would end the night for some of the women, but they bounced back up, and at the end of the night (despite a terrific beating by the SVRG team) both teams went off together for partying.

And skaters were on hand from Chico, San Francisco, Lodi just to watch these teams play.  I was able to meet so many and saw their respect for the game and the history, and yes I got some hugs and photos….(you don’t understand, it was my father who invented the game).

I did feel pride in what they were doing, along with the other games I have seen recently in Denver, San Francisco, Sonoma County.  With spoiled athletes making tens of millions of dollars and showing great selfishness on television, how refreshing to see what the Derby Girls (and now Derby boys) are putting into this all-amateur, legitimate sport, with no huge payouts, just the satisfaction in playing in something that is theirs.

They deserve all of our support.  Look at www., pick out a league in your area, and go see them play.  You won’t have to pay hundreds of dollars either for tickets to support prima donnas and take your kids along.  They will have the times of their lives.

Jerry Seltzer and his Roller Derby families

One of the elements that has remained constant in the old Roller Derby (1935-1973) to the new Roller Derby (2001 to present) is family.

Jerry Seltzer and Ann Calvello

I received a Father’s day message on Facebook from Michael J. Swassing thanking me for being the father figure for the up to 30,000 derby girls in 541 leagues in 15 countries.  He stated that Derby was the only non-dysfunctional family that most of the members have.  I have never met Michael,  who is a successful business man in Seattle and works with the Rat City (nice name, huh?) Rollers of that area.  In terms of attendance, they are the most successful Roller Girls league, drawing some 7000 fans to their last match at Key Arena.

I only was able to see Roller Derby sporadically while growing up, as it was mainly in the Midwest, South and East and I lived in Portland.  But when I did get to attend in Los Angeles a number of the skaters and personnel befriended and took care of me and my sister.  Buddy and Bobbie Atkinson said they changed my diapers, but I wasn’t that young. And all of the people associated with the Derby were so close with each other as they lived together and traveled together.  There was big Sid Cohen from Chicago, a 6 foot four 250 pounder who had originally been with the Mob in Chicago and had been sent in to the Coliseum in Chicago to plant a bomb because my Dad wouldn’t work with the mob.  He became a close friend of my Dad and worked with him for years before going to work with the Ice Follies (see, Al Capone could have had a whole different life).

I have a wonderful photo of Sid and me at a beach (Santa Monica?);  I was about five, skinny, worried looking and Sid in a shirt and tie walking along side me carrying my little bucket and shovel…I loved Sid and all the others with Derby.

As I became an adult and the official head of the Derby (1958-1959), my own family developed around me.  First there was Peggy Ahern, who was a “leftover” from the previous regime.  Peggy had been married to a skater and then referee and had become a discount ticket exchanger.  The way Roller Derby was promoted before television was distributing hundreds of thousands of discount tickets in the various cities, usually sponsored by some local market, brewery, etc.  They would offer 50 cents to $1 off the price of the tickets and had to be exchanged at the venue.  It was not unusual for the ticket statements for the games to show up to 95% discount tickets.  One of the first things I did when I took over Roller Derby was to reduce the price of all tickets by 50 cents (to $1, $2, and $3) and declare all discounts void.  I knew that television would bring the fans, and the unit managers would no longer be able to pocket the revenue from the tickets that had put in for discounts every night.

So Peggy became my box office manager, and it was a run that lasted until the 80’s with BASS Tickets.  We learned together.  Peggy had a huge Cadillac (I forget why) and her car trunk became our traveling box office.  Remember, no computers, no outlets, etc.  We did take phone reservations for the games, but credit cards were not used so people had to pick up their tickets at the box office the nights of the games.  Hal Janowitz was a great skater who when he gave up skating ran the various box offices for us at the games, and when we went on the road later he was the road manager and settled the box offices for us and tried to keep the skaters in line (lots of luck, Hal).

Sunnie Senne was a fan who came to the games at Richmond, and one night when we were short of people to help Peggy, I announced at the game did anyone want to work for the Bay Bombers and Sunnie, who was certainly a character, came down and stayed with us for years.  Eventually all of Peggy’s daughters, Lorraine,  Maggie, and Denise worked for us in some capacity.

Harold Silen, the attorney who incorporated the company (Bay Promotions, Inc) for me, became my friend and partner over the next 50 years.  Hal represented many of the North Beach clubs and also Willie McCovey and Willie Mays of the Giants.  Of all of us, he was the class act.

When I started the one nighters around Northern California (Sunday night at Kezar Pavilion in SF where we would televise and videotape for elsewhere in the country), we had pretty well set up our ticket sales.  We had our reservation numbers on our penalty boxes and made sure the cameras hit them.  On Mondays we skated in San Jose, one mid week date either a Stockton, Santa Rosa, Sacramento or other, Friday at the Richmond Auditorium, and Saturday at the Oakland Auditorium.  Of course, the schedule would vary depending on the date availability.  We sold dates to fairs, organizations, etc.  And one to the Navy.  We  skated on the hangar deck (the first deck below) on the USS Ranger, and the crew enjoyed it immensely, and I even got to go out on the carrier later on a training cruise.  We even donated a game and skated at San Quentin.

We sold one date to the 20-30 club in Vallejo (I think you could join at 20 but could stay in this civic organization no later then 30), and the young man was the head of it became enamored of Peggy.  He insisted on helping her with everything she was doing and showed up at a number of games afterwards.   Peggy is quite statuesque and I know that she had a number of her own fans.

Peggy and Sunnie took the phone reservations (her favorite call:  ” is this where you pick your seats on the phone?”), and had help from George “Run Run” Jones’ wife who sometimes work in the box office.  George went on the become  the white haired guy who ran on the field with the towels and liquids for the Oakland Raiders and wore all of Super Bowl rings.  He died recently.

Now that brings us to Jo Downs.  Jo had worked for my father back east and was a wonderful bookkeeper….her only problem, she drank at night.  Peggy had to pick her up each morning as she didn’t drive and Peggy never knew what she would find.  Jo helped me with scheduling and terrified everyone with her demeanor….she was a great buffer for me.

Ticket sales were really bizarre…..they were only on the day of the game and by phone.  Hal Janowitz would get to San Jose or wherever the day of the game at 10 am and sell the tickets until game time when we would add 1 or two additional personnel, depending on our crowd expectations.  The Roller Derby games were 8 periods, 4 each half with the women and men alternation.  In the fourth period we would announce that tickets were on sale for the next game and people would flock to the box office and and stand in line for the entire fourth period and sometimes miss the start of the second half.   I think Peggy suggested that since standing in line for tickets is what people wanted to do, why didn’t we just cancel the games and just sell tickets.   Sounded like a great idea to me.

Derby Girls Jumping. Image from the Library of Congress, Reproduction No. LC-USZ62-133382

We all did so many things together because Roller Derby was all of our lives.  There was the expected separation between the skaters and the front office, but we were a very small organization and even when the entire International Roller Derby League was touring the country (and Canada) in major arenas from Madison Square Garden to Maple Leaf Gardens, and the Oakland Coliseum Arena to the Mobile Auditorium, it all came from our small group with additions for shipping our tapes and writing and sending out our advance press releases and advertising to all the cities we were playing.  I supervised all of that.  In addition, we would schedule an hour weekly at KTVU channel 2 in Oakland and Walt Harris would cut 1 minute and 30 second spots for distribution to the television stations in the cities we would be playing.  We could ofter cut up to 45 (!) spots in an hour, using an endless loop of skating with info copy on the screen.  I guess it worked.

Hal and I and Peggy went on to start BASS tickets, northern California’s computerized ticket agency.  And when we joined with the Ticketmaster cities everyone wanted to know how BASS operated, and Peggy explained how to run a ticket company to most of them.  And I used my guerilla marketing from Roller Derby to help make Ticketmaster the dominant force in the industry.

Both Jo Downs and Sunnie have passed away;  Peggy and her daughter Lorraine live here in  Sonoma, Hal Silen and I are still involved in projects, and Hal Janowitz is enjoying life in Alameda, California.  When I see him, I ask him if he is ready to go out on the road again.


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.


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.