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.