History of roller derby

History of roller derby

The history of roller derby traces the evolution of roller skating races into a unique sport which has undergone several boom-and-bust cycles throughout most of the 20th century. Although it was a form of sports entertainment for much of its existence, a grassroots, early 21st century revival spearheaded by women has restored an emphasis on athleticism.


Endurance races

The growing popularity of roller skating in the United States led to the formation of organized endurance races as early as 1884, when skater Victor W. Clough skated 100 miles over the course of nearly ten hours in Geneseo, Illinois. [citation|title=Remarkable roller-skating feat.|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1884-04-13|page=10] In 1885, a six-day "go-as-you-please" competition was staged at Madison Square Garden in New York City, with 36 skaters competing for $500 in prize money. [citation|title=A six-day roller skate race.|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1885-03-02|page=10] [citation|title=On rollers for six days: beginning the race at the Madison-Square Garden. Thirty-six entries, including Frank Hart and several champions--cheering the start.|newspaper=New York Times|date=1885-03-02|page=10] Two deaths resulted from the six-day race: both the winner, William Donovan, and skater Joseph Cohen died shortly after the race was completed. [citation|title=Victim of roller skates: death of Donovan, winner of the last tournament. Weakened by his exertions and disease--his backer says the boy's father overworked him.|newspaper=New York Times|date=1885-04-11|page=5] [citation|title=Killed by roller skating: death of one of the contestants in the Madison-Square race.|newspaper=New York Times|date=1885-03-18|page=5] Though the inquest that resulted from Cohen's death led to a recommendation for a law prohibiting roller skating activities exceeding four hours in length, a second six-day race was announced in May 1885. [citation|title=Roller skating rinks: the jury in the inquest of Cohen's case protest against six-day races.|newspaper=New York Times|date=1885-04-15|page=8] [citation|title=The six-day race. Refusing the entries of all except skilled roller skaters.|newspaper=New York Times|date=1885-04-30|page=8]

The popularity of endurance skating continued, and in 1908, a group of Chicago, Illinois rink owners organized an outdoor roller marathon covering 8.5 miles. [citation|title=Roller marathon thrills and jars: 100 boys meet with adventures and tumbles in West Side Boulevard race. Dodge cars and autos. But records are smashed by contestants in red tights, overalls, etc.|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1908-11-27|page=5] [citation|title=Skating rink men organize. Meeting is held and temporary committees are appointed--talk of roller marathon is started.|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1908-11-06|page=10] Other early endurance races include a 24-hour endurance championship held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on March 28 and March 29, 1913 and a 24-hour banked track race held at Madison Square Garden in 1914. [citation|title=Local skaters in long grind. Woodworth and Moore enter 24-hour championship race in Milwaukee.|newspaper=The Washington Post|date=1913-03-23|page=S3] [citation|title=Skaters whirling around big track: several spills mark early hours of 24-hour race at the Garden|newspaper=New York Times|date=1914-12-18|page=11] [citation|title=Roller skating on banked track: old-time sport is revived with speed contests at the Garden|newspaper=New York Times|date=1922-12-17|page=11] [citation|title=24-hour roller race: Ollie Moore will be teamed with Willie Blackburn at Garden|newspaper=New York Times|date=1914-12-17|page=S2] Though related reports did not use the word "derby", the "New York Times" noted that the crowd at Madison Square Garden enjoyed the sudden sprints and spills during the event's preliminary races.

In 1922, the "Chicago Tribune" announced and reported on the results of two "roller derby" events. These were multi-day events during which roller skating races were held on a flat track at Chicago's Broadway Armory. [Citation|title=Roller derby on tomorrow|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1922-04-24|page=20 “Roland Cloni of Akron, world’s champion roller skater, who yesterday tried out the track in the Broadway armory, where the national roller skating derby will be held this week, asserted new world’s records can be established for flat tracks. The derby will open tomorrow and run until Saturday.”] [Citation|title=Ed Krahn and Launey share roller firsts|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|pages=13|date=1922-04-29|page=13] [Citation|title=Von Hof first in ten mile roller derby|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1922-12-01|page=21]

eltzer's walkathons

In 1929, as the Great Depression began, struggling film publicist Leo A. "Bromo" Seltzer (1903–1978) observed that cash prize-awarding dance marathons among out-of-work contestants and spectators were undermining attendance at his Oregon cinema chain, so he sought ways to capitalize on the trend.citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|last=Rasmussen|first=Cecilia|date=1999-02-21|L.A. Then and Now: The Man Who Got Roller Derby Rolling Along] Seltzer began holding his own dance marathons, dubbed "walkathons" since contestants usually ended up just shuffling around for the duration of the contests, which could run as long as 40 days. Hundreds of unemployed people participated, hoping to win cash prizes. The contests were emceed by celebrities like Frankie Laine and Red Skelton, and grossed $6 million in three years. Seltzer held his first commercial walkathon in 1931 in Denver, Colorado, then held 22 more, grossing $2 million before retiring, citing that the events had become "vulgar."citation|magazine=Time|title=Roller Derby|date=1936-02-03|url=http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,755740-1,00.html|accessdate=2008-07-13] citation|magazine=Time|date=1936-09-21|title=Variations|url=http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,756673,00.html|accessdate=2008-07-13]

In 1933, Seltzer moved his family to Chicago, Illinoisfact|date=June 2008 and began booking events at the Chicago Coliseum.

Transcontinental Roller Derby

In 1935, the novelty of walkathons had worn off, but a roller skating fad arose again. According to folklore, Seltzer read an article in "Literary Digest" magazine that said ninety-three percent of Americans roller skated at least once in their lives.fact|date=June 2008 While discussing the article with regular patrons at Ricketts, a restaurant in Chicago's Near North Side, Seltzer was challenged to invent a sport incorporating roller skating.fact|date=June 2008 Jotting his ideas onto a tablecloth, he decided to combine then-popular six-day bicycle races and roller skating. Some sources give co-credit for the idea to Leo's brother Oscar. [citation|title=San Francisco Bizarro: A Guide to Notorious Sights, Lusty Pursuits, and Downright Freakiness in the City by the Bay|last=Boulware|first=Jack|year=2000|publisher=Macmillan|isbn=0312206712|page=79 "Roller derby has entertained the masses in one form or another since the 1930s, when brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer conceptualized the idea of a skating contest on a Chicago restaurant tablecloth."] [citation|url=http://www.metroactive.com/papers/cruz/07.24.97/rollerqueen-9730.html|title=Blood on the Tracks|last=Luker|first=Kelly|date=1997-07-23|accessdate=2008-07-13|newspaper=Metro Santa Cruz "It began as an idea jotted down on the tablecloth when brothers Leo and Oscar Seltzer were out to dinner."]

In August of that year, Seltzer organized his own Transcontinental Roller Derby, an event more than a month long. Staged at the Chicago Coliseum, it was a simulation of a cross-country roller skating race in which 25 two-person (male-female) teams circled a wooden, oval, banked track thousands of times, skating 11½ hours a day, to cover 3,000 miles, the distance between Los Angeles [The National Museum of Roller Skating says San Diego, not Los Angeles.] and New York City. Team standings were indicated by multicolored lights tracking their imaginary progress on a large map of the United States.SELTZER et al. v. SUNBROCK et al.; No. 1292. District Court, S.D. California, Central Division. 22 F. Supp. 621; 1938 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2240. March 8, 1938.] Teams were disqualified if both members were off the track during skating times. Sixteen teams dropped out due to injuries or exhaustion, but nine teams finished, and the winning team, Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay, held the lead for the last 11 days of the event.cite web
title=Roller Derby at the National Museum of Roller Skating
publisher=National Roller Skating Museum

Over the next two years, Seltzer took the Transcontinental Roller Derby on the road, holding similar races throughout the U.S. with a portable track that reportedly cost $20,000. Daily crowds averaged 10,000 in number, with spectators paying 10 to 25 cents admission. These races were billed as covering "4,000 miles" even though the simulated route was still about 3,000, covering the distance from San Diego to New York City. Contestants were the winners of elimination races in Seltzer's Transcontinental Roller Derby Association, which in September of 1935 already had 3,000 members, paying $2 each, at 1,600 rinks. By early 1936, Seltzer had selected a group of teams who competed in Chicago, Miami, Louisville, and Detroit. Skaters in these races only had to skate 8 hours nightly, but were encouraged to engage in "jams" and, at specific times, 5-minute sprints referred to in event programs as "open house". Later that year, Transcontinental Roller Derby debuted in New York at the New York Hippodrome, simulating a 21-day "short course" from Salt Lake City to New York. Appearances at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles, California attracted celebrities such as W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Cary Grant and Eleanor Powell. [The Pan Pacific Auditorium appearances may have been organized by competing promoters; more sources are needed.]

Occasionally, massive collisions and crashes occurred as skaters tried to lap those who were ahead of them. In 1936, 1937, or 1938 (sources vary), after seeing a match in Miami, Florida and realizing this was an exciting element of the sport, sportswriter Damon Runyon encouraged Seltzer to tweak the game to maximize physical contact between the skaters, including elbowing, "whipping", and slamming each other into the track's outer rail, as well as exaggerating hits and falls. Seltzer bristled, wanting to keep the sport legitimate, but agreed to the experiment, [cite news|title=Blood on the Tracks|last=Turczyn|first=Coury|date=1999-01-28|publisher="Metro Pulse"|url=http://www.popcultmag.com/obsessions/fadsandphenoms/rollerderby/derby2.html|accessdate=2008-02-11 (link points to the archived article in the Spring 2000 edition of the author's own "PopCult Magazine" Web site) "“The faster skaters would break out and try and get laps so they would get ahead in the race, and some of the slower skaters started to band together to try and hold them back,” says Seltzer. “And at first, they didn’t want to let them do that–but then the people liked it so much, they kind of allowed blocking. Then they came down to Miami–I think it was 1936, early ’37–and Damon Runyon, a very famous sports writer, saw it and he sat down with my father and hammered out the rules, almost exactly as they are today.”"] which fans ended up loving.

The spectacle evolved into a sport involving two teams of five skaters, with a team scoring points when its members lapped members of the other team, which is the basic premise of roller derby to this day. However, early on, matches consisted of three teams named for colors (Black, White and Green), all on the track at the same time, but this frequently led to two teams banding together to rout the third. A more sporting variety followed, with just two teams being named after Indian tribes. This, too, was short-lived. The two-team concept survived, but teams were built around the idea of there always being a "home team" named for wherever the match was being played, even though the skaters were always the same people.citation
title=Five Strides on the Banked Track: The life and times of the Roller Derby
publisher=Little, Brown and Company
] By 1939, the organization had four pairs of teams touring the country at the same time, always billed as the home team versus either New York or Chicago.


On March 24, 1937, nineteen members of a touring group of Roller Derby skaters and support personnel were killed when their bus blew a tire, collided with a bridge abutment and exploded in flames near Salem, Illinois while en route to Cincinnati, Ohio for another performance. [citation|title=19 killed as skate troupe crashes: rams bridge and burns in Southern Illinois|newspaper=Chicago Daily Tribune|date=1937-03-25|page=2] The ghastly tragedy nearly put Seltzer out of business, but replacement skaters were signed and Roller Derby survived. As a tribute to those killed in the tragedy, the number "1" was permanently retired for all Roller Derby teams.

WWII era

In Los Angeles, Roller Derby was broadcast on the radio as early as 1939. [citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1939-06-05|pages=16;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1939-07-01|pages=14;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1940-08-24|pages=12;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1940-08-26|pages=9;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1940-09-01|pages=C8;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1940-09-02|pages=6;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Your Radio Today|date=1940-09-05|pages=17]

Transcontinental Roller Derby rapidly grew in popularity as a spectator sport. Matches were held in fifty cities in 1940, for more than five million spectators, some of whom formed fan clubs and newsletters like "Roller Derby News" (later renamed "RolleRage"). Teams began to represent and compete in other U.S. cities, although some teams were actually the same traveling group that would just change names depending on where they were playing, and all were part of the Seltzer-owned Roller Derby league. The league's own estimates of audiences for 1941 were comparable, with four million Midwestern spectators in 20 cities being claimed. [Deford:1971:87.]

The entry of the United States into World War II at the end of 1941 interrupted the sport's ascent; many skaters enlisted in the armed forces, crowds dwindled, and the fledgling league was reduced to one team skating mainly for the entertainment of soldiers. After the war's end in 1945, Seltzer successfully resumed growing the sport, although a 1946 attempt to bring it to New York's Polo Grounds failed due to twelve straight days of rain.cite web
title=This Ain't No Roller Disco
publisher="The Village Voice"
author=Brandan I. Koerner
] [Deford:1971:88.]


At 8:30 P.M. on November 29, 1948, Roller Derby debuted on New York television, beginning a 13-week run on the CBS network, broadcasting at a time well before television was in widespread use. The first televised matches were between teams representing New York and Brooklyn, and took place at the 69th Regiment ArmoryDeford:1971:89.] four nights a week,Deford 1971:94.] which was actually a reduction from the troupe's usual touring schedule that included a performance every day, sometimes with two on Sundays. Although few people owned TVs at that time, broadcasts could be seen on sets in bars and storefront windows. The fledgling medium allowed underwhelming audience sizes to be made to look like they had packed venues to capacity, leading spectators to turn out in droves for subsequent matches.citation|url=http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1014779/index.htm|title=Air and Space: A Forward Roll: Dusted off and spiffed up, the Roller Derby is aiming to regain the hold it once had on TV|date=1998-12-14|periodical=Sports Illustrated|author=Rushin, Steve "There were virtually no TV's at that time, except in storefronts and bars," recalls Jerry Seltzer, Leo's son. "You'd get 400 people in the arena, put 'em all together on one side and make it look like a full house. The next night people couldn't get in the door, the lines were so long."] Armory crowds began in the low hundreds, but were soon in the five to seven thousand range.Deford 1971:91-92.] Then in June of 1949, Seltzer secured an appearance at Madison Square Garden before a cumulative crowd of 55,000 over a five-day period.Deford 1971:95.]

Early stars of Roller Derby after its debut on TV included Ken Monte, Bert Wall, and the temperamental Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn. Skater salaries were about $200 to $260 a week, established by a players' association.

Meanwhile, from 1946 through 1948, flat-track roller derby was enjoyed as an intramural sport at the University of British Columbia in Canada. [cite news|title=Intramural Setup Features Hoopla|publisher="The Ubyssey"|date=1947-01-14|url=http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1947_01_14.pdf] [cite news|title=Roller Derby On February 26|publisher="The Ubyssey"|date=1947-02-20|url=http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1947_02_20.pdf] [cite news|title=Jokers Staging Intramural Skating Derby Tomorrow|publisher="The Ubyssey"|date=1947-02-25|url=http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1947_02_25.pdf|quote=The Marathon, explained Joker prexy, Bill Dunbar, is won by the team completing the most laps around the floor space of the Armories during the four and a half hour period. Both the girls and the men will circle the indoor course together, stated Dunbar.] [cite news|title=Joker Rollermen Win Skating Cup|publisher="The Ubyssey"|date=1947-02-27|url=http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1947_02_27.pdf|quote=Thousands of students crowded the Armory yesterday and it seems that they just wanted to see what makes the wheels go round. For there it was that the Jokers held their second annual Roller Derby yesterday and for the second straight year, the Jokers managed to take the honors.] [cite news|title=Intramural Sports Boast Plenty Of Variety - Wynn|publisher="The Ubyssey"|date=1947-10-01|url=http://www.library.ubc.ca/archives/pdfs/ubyssey/UBYSSEY_1947_10_01.pdf|quote=After Christmas, the sportlight will be focussed on basketball, table tennis, badminton, skiing, swimming, track and field, and the roller derby.] [Photos of the 1946 roller skating marathon are in the 1946 "The Totem", the UBC yearbook, page 69.]

For the 1949–1950 season, Seltzer opened franchise teams and formed the National Roller Derby League (NRDL).cite web
title=Roller Derby
] The NRDL consisted of six teams: the New York Chiefs, the Brooklyn Red Devils, the Jersey Jolters, the Philadelphia Panthers, the Washington-Baltimore Jets, and the Chicago Westerners. The Jolters played at Armories in Newark, Jersey City, Teaneck, and Paterson. The Westerners played in Chicago, but also in Columbus, Ohio and Miami, Florida. The Red Devils had no venue in Brooklyn, and were essentially a road team, often cast as villains. NRDL season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week.

Also in 1949, when the CBS contract expired, broadcasting was taken over by ABC,Deford 1971:100.] and games were televised live throughout the United States. [Matches were televised thrice weekly in Los Angeles, for example: citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-06-18|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-07|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-09|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-14|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-16|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-19|pages=A5;citation|newspaper=Los Angeles Times|title=Television Schedule|date=1949-07-21|pages=A5] The contract with ABC lasted until Seltzer negotiated its termination in 1951 over scheduling disputes.Deford 1971:101.]

Between 1949 and 1951, Seltzer's organization grossed $2.5 million,Deford 1971:97.] bolstered by Madison Square Garden appearances in 1950 and 1951 that set five-day records of 77,000 and 82,000, respectively. In this period, Seltzer also sold the Jolters to an outside syndicate.Deford 1971:96.] Skater salaries, negotiated by an informal players' union, were around $250 a week, with $35 and $60 bonuses for captains and player-coaches.

Increasing legitimacy

The players wanted to skate "phony" during this time period, but Seltzer believed the public would soon tire of exaggerated hits and falls, so he embarked on a campaign to legitimize the sport. He started a program encouraging the formation of junior Roller Derby leagues for children (although it's not clear whether any actually formed), he sought to add more teams nationwide (although it didn't happen until 1954), and he got the players to agree to a "no railing" rule. In a show of commitment, Seltzer invoked the rule to suspend star skater Midge "Toughie" Brasuhn, much to her chagrin, for allegedly shoving another skater into the track's outer railing, even though the play had been faked by the other skater. By the early 1950s, Roller Derby coaches were even betting on the outcomes of matches, another sign of legitimacy, according to Seltzer.Deford 1971:96–97.]

Jam On, Jam Off

After terminating the contract with ABC in 1951, Seltzer negotiated a deal with General Motors to sponsor the broadcast of games on NBC. The deal fell through when, according to Seltzer, General Motors, fuming over an NCAA decision preventing them from sponsoring the broadcast of University of Notre Dame football games, lost interest in televising any sports at all.Deford 1971:101–103.] A handful of independent TV stations continued to broadcast games, but the loss of network broadcasting caused fan interest to plummet.Deford 1971:105.] Madison Square Garden no longer wanted to host matches, fan clubs disbanded, and Seltzer returned to pursuing real estate interests. At some point , Seltzer changed his residence to Encino (Los Angeles) a westward move that foreshadowed changes to come.

In July 1953, citing the effects of the Korean War and a dearth of venues, Leo Seltzer moved the Derby from New York to Los Angeles and created the L.A. Braves for their debut at the Rose Bowl. The Braves became the first international team when a tour of Europe was launched in 1953.

However, this was not the first time audiences outside the U.S. had seen the game played live. A renegade league, International Roller Speedway, known in some countries as Roller-Catch, formed in 1937 and toured Europe, where they played at the Harringay Arena in London, and the Philippines. Roller Speedway was a modified version of the sport and normally featured two teams, representing Europe (the "home" team) and USA. The 1950 film "The Fireball", starring Mickey Rooney, was based on the life of one of the league's stars, Eddie Poore, who skated under the name Eddie Cazar. Roller Speedway ceased operations in 1952. [cite web
title=The International Roller Speedway
author=Steve Cole
pages=p. 3

In 1954, the Derby established the most fabled team in the history of the sport, the longtime champion San Francisco Bay Bombers. Stars on this team eventually included Charlie O'Connell, Joanie Weston, and Ann Calvello.

In 1958, weary of Roller Derby's off-air struggle — by this time, crowds at San Francisco's Cow Palace had dwindled to two hundred or less — Leo transferred Roller Derby to his son Jerry Seltzer. Jerry soon struck a deal with independent Oakland TV station KTVU to broadcast Roller Derby matches kinescoped in a deserted garage.

In the 1960s

In 1960, KTVU switched to the visually and technically superior videotape format for recording games for broadcast. One of Roller Derby's sponsors, a San Francisco auto dealer, got a Portland, Oregon TV station to broadcast an unedited tape of a match, in an attempt to advertise the dealership's new lot in the area.Deford 1971:105-107.] To his surprise, Jerry Seltzer received three hundred letters asking for Roller Derby to come to Portland, so he obliged and the Derby made an appearance before 9,000 fans. Realizing he had stumbled onto a promotional formula, he began syndicating videotapes of games to more independent TV stations, and followed up broadcasts with personal appearances of the Derby in each city. In 1961, forty stations carried Derby. Several years later, UHF TV stations, mostly independent and desperate to compete with older, network-dominated VHF counterparts, snatched up broadcasting rights for their areas.

Jerry Seltzer also changed some of the rules. For the first time, skaters were required to wear helmets, and, at the behest of KTVU television announcer Walt Harris, he made the game more TV-friendly by making jammers' helmets easier to spot.

A more theatrical imitation called Roller Games was started in 1961 in Los Angeles featuring retired Roller Derby skaters who chose not to make the move to San Francisco. Owned by Bill Griffiths, Sr. and Jerry Hill, Roller Games was the only viable rival organization to the original Roller Derby and actually consisted of several separate leagues, including the (U.S.) National Roller Derby (NRD), soon renamed to National Roller League (NRL) since the "Roller Derby" trademark was aggressively protected by the Seltzer organization. The NRD/NRL consisted of the Northern Hawks (sometimes billed as the Chicago Hawks), New York Bombers, Texas Outlaws, Detroit Devils, Los Angeles Thunderbirds (nicknamed "T-Birds"), and Philadelphia Warriors (sometimes billed as the Eastern Warriors).

There were also several attempts in markets that failed quickly, with teams such as the Baltimore/Washington Cats, the Florida Jets, and the Western Renegades. Roller Games also encompassed the Canadian National Roller League (CNRL) and Japanese National Roller League (JNRL). Some former Roller Derby stars found new fame in the Roller Games, and a handful of skaters simply went back and forth between the two organizations. After 1968, however, the Roller Derby to Roller Games defections were quite few; instead, a handful of Roller Games skaters returned to their roots and began skating for the Derby again. [cite web
title=The History of Roller Derby
] [cite web
title=RollerGames league info page
publisher=Roller Derby Association

1961 or so also saw the advent of a short-lived New York City area rival league, the American Skating Derby (ASD), promoted by Joe Morehouse and Mike O'Hara. ASD debuted two teams of ex-Roller Derby skaters — one team representing "New York" and the other representing Brooklyn — at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, around April 1961, with plans to appear throughout the Tri-State Region. [citation
newspaper=unknown New York metro area newspaper
date=c. 1961
title=Skating Derby for Met. Area
] A league split later that year resulted in the formation of another league, the Eastern Skating Derby (ESD), which lasted until mid-1964 and skated only in New York, sometimes at the same venues as the ASD. [ [http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/bankedtracknews/message/551 Yahoo! Groups ] ] [ [http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/bankedtracknews/message/553 Yahoo! Groups ] ]

In 1962, Jerry, in partnership with his uncle Oscar Seltzer (who had founded the Roller Derby Skate Corporation in 1936), created the Dixie Devils, a "home" team for the Southern United States cities of Nashville, Tennessee, Atlanta, Georgia, Jacksonville, Florida and Orlando, Florida.Deford 1971:107-108.] Ronnie Robinson, son of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, was designated the team's star player. However, Dixie Devils games had to be recorded with kinescope, when TV audiences had already grown accustomed to the relatively clean, clear appearance of videotape. The result was disastrous; no loyal TV audiences were grown, fan attendance was low, and the venture folded after one month.

The ASD, ESD, and Dixie Devils, much like Roller Speedway, aren't remembered today by anyone outside the most dedicated fans and the skaters who participated in them. To the media, there was only one Roller Derby. From Jerry Seltzer's takeover in the late 1950s, the game reached new heights of popularity with a 120-station television networkfact|date=August 2008 where taped games from the Bombers' home, Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, were shown weekly. Television made fans of thousands and the Bay Bombers packed arenas from coast to coast on cross country tours, regularly selling out arenas such as Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis and dozens more.fact|date=June 2008 In 1969, television viewership of Roller Derby peaked with approximately 15 million viewers each week. [Rushin 1998.]

In the 1970s

The indoor record for Roller Derby was set at 19,507 at Madison Square Garden in 1970; it was broken by the outdoor record at the Oakland Coliseum a few months later at around 28,814 for a game between the Bay Bombers and the Northeast Braves. The following year that record was topped again with 34,418 for a Bomber game at the Coliseum; their rival, the Chicago Midwest Pioneers, broke that record with 50,118 fans in 1972 for an interleague game against the National Skating Derby's Los Angeles Thunderbirds at Comiskey Park in Chicago.

At this point, the Bay Bombers home-team concept was duplicated with the New York Chiefs representing the Eastern U.S. and the Pioneers based in Chicago (but really everything west of Philadelphia). A one-season run in 1971 by the Cincinnati Jolter team in the Midwest (Ohio, Kentucky, and other areas) was not financially successful, and the team became a road franchise once again. The Bombers were briefly a Southwest team moved from the Bay Area, but potential new owners couldn't come to terms with the Seltzer family and so the Bay Bombers were returned home. (In an unusual move, the Chiefs were a "replacement" team for the Bombers during the period that franchise was supposedly based in Texas.)

In the early 1970s, a Roller Derby participant was depicted in the children's program, "ZOOM", in a segment called "As the World Zooms." This was a main character of the segment who continued through the entire run of that incarnation of the program.

In 1973, high overhead and other factors led Jerry Seltzer to elect to shut down Roller Derby. In a 2005 interview, Ann Calvello mentioned gas shortages during the 1973 oil crisis as a contributing factor because teams could not travel. Some of the IRDL star skaters were recruited to skate for Roller Games' International Skating Conference (ISC), which quickly eliminated all Derby teams except for the Chiefs to again focus on the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. [ [http://web.archive.org/web/20030728071050/www.rollersport.us/history4.cfm Rollersport - History - Page 4 ] ] [http://www.rollerderbypreservationassociation.com/modules.php?name=Leagues&op=ShowLeagueAll&id=179&id_cat=32&categories=ROLLERGAMES] However, within two years, the wrestling/circus-like approach doomed all of Roller Games; many Roller Derby skaters quit and fans deserted the arenas. Cultural historian Paul Fussell, perhaps editorializing, attributed the collapse of the sport to the declining economic class of its fan base in its final years; fans were ultimately unable to support the sponsors that had been keeping the sport on television. [cite book
last = Paul
first = Fussell
title = Class: A Guide Through the American Status System
year = 1983
publisher = Ballantine
isbn = 0-671792-25-3
pages = 129–130
quote = Below golf comes baseball, and below that, football. Then ice hockey. Then boxing, stock-car racing, bowling, and, at the bottom, Roller Derby, once popular with advertisers until they discovered that the people watching it were so low-"prole" or even destitute that they constituted an entirely wasted audience for the commercials: they couldn't buy anything at all, not even detergents, antacids, and beer. "Low-Reach Undesirables," the Roller Derby audience became known in the trade, and the event that had attracted them was soon removed from television.

1970s–1990s revivals

Several attempts were made to revive the sport in the late 1970s through the 1990s.


The most successful of these was the International Roller Skating League (IRSL), operational from 1977 to 1987. IRSL games were held mostly in Northern California, but a handful of games were skated in the Northeastern United States, the Midwest, and Canada. Many skaters from Roller Derby were in the IRSL, and some of the team names were the same as in Roller Derby.

Initially the league was composed of the San Francisco Bay Bombers, the Midwest Pioneers, the Brooklyn Red Devils and the Manhattan Chiefs. In 1979, the league was bought out and restructured by one of its owners, former San Francisco television producer Dave Lipschultz. At this time, two more teams, the Northeast Braves and Southern Jolters (later renamed the Southern Stars), were added, and the Chiefs were renamed the New York Dynamite and, eventually, the Eastern Express. A final team, the Northern Knights, representing Canada, was announced in 1986 but never competed. As before, most of the attention was centered on the Bay Bombers. After skating primarily in Northern California, a Midwest tour was launched in 1984, but flopped due to competition from baseball and football as well as weather related problems. In 1986, a tournament was carried on ESPN and the IRSL set up sporadic appearances in New York. ESPN dropped the contract in its pursuit of the more lucrative professional football market, and although talks were underway to broadcast IRSL matchups on USA Network, the IRSL was unable to survive without television support. Lipshultz shut down the league after its last game at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 1987. Around that time, Lipschultz and skaters were negotiating over how to keep it going. Lipschultz wanted to make it more like professional wrestling in an attempt to win over a fickle TV audience, but the players had different ideas. No agreement was reached, and potential sponsors lost interest. [cite web|url=http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06081/674316-51.stm|title=Roller derby is really a blast from the past|accessdate=2006-05-15|date=2006-03-22|publisher=Pittsburgh Post-Gazette|author=Bob Batz] [ [http://web.archive.org/web/20030728070952/www.rollersport.us/history5.cfm Rollersport - History - Page 5 ] ] [cite web|url=http://www.sacnews.net/sacsports/rd3.html|title=Roller Derby promoter says game will return|author=Joe Blenkle|publisher="Sacramento News and Review" (confirmation needed)|date=1991-08-28|accessdate=2006-05-15]

The 1985 IRSL matches have been shown twice on ESPN Classic's sports comedy show "Cheap Seats", as ESPN retains the right to air those matches.

American Skating Derby, promoting the game as Rollerjam!, formed in 1987 and played a spring season with two teams, the San Francisco Slammers and the Los Angeles Turbos. The name American Skating Derby was the same as the early 1960s New York-based league, but was unrelated. Composed of inactive Roller Derby and IRSL skaters, the 1987 ASD was formed primarily as a means to keep the game alive, and the two teams (with the Slammers being essentially replaced by the Bay City Bombers) skated around Northern California communities for high school charities. For the next decade, with sometimes as few as one game annually, the ASD attempted to keep the traditional game going. [http://www.rollerderbypreservationassociation.com/modules.php?name=Leagues&op=ShowLeagueAll&id=85&id_cat=22&categories=ASD]


"RollerGames", created in 1989 by two television producers, David Sams and Michael Miller, and Roller Games owner Bill Griffiths, Sr., was a U.S. television show that presented a theatrical version of the sport of roller derby for a national audience. It featured a steeply banked figure-eight track, an alligator pit, and a number of skaters who had been in the Roller Games league, as well as younger participants. The six teams were the T-Birds, Violators, Bad Attitude, Rockers, Hot Flash, and Maniacs. The show only lasted thirteen weeks despite garnering over a 5 national rating during its prime-time debut, and was in the top 25 of all syndicated shows for the season—even beating the popular "American Gladiators".

Announcers were Chuck Underwood, David Sams, and Shelly Jamison.


Between January 1999 and January 2001, [The [http://www.tv.com/rollerjam/show/11373/episode_listings.html?season=0 RollerJam Episode List at TV.com] confirms there were 100 episodes, comprising four seasons, that aired between January 1999 and January 2001, plus a preview/pilot episode in December 1998.] Knoxville, Tennessee television impresarios Ross K. Bagwell Sr. and Stephen Land, under the name Pageboy Entertainment, collaborated with CBS to stage another televised revival known as "RollerJam" or "Roller Jam" . Bagwell and Land recruited numerous stars from the Roller Derby of yesteryear, as well as newer stars from various athletic backgrounds, including nationally ranked speed skaters, to skate in the six-team World Skating League (WSL). Jerry Seltzer was named "RollerJam" "commissioner".

"RollerJam" games were televised out of "RollerJam Arena," situated on the grounds of Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. Initial teams, each consisting of seven men and seven women, were the New York Enforcers, the California Quakes, the Florida Sundogs, the Nevada Hot Dice, the Texas Rustlers and the Illinois Riot (Original names of the latter three teams were the Las Vegas High Rollers, Texas Twisters, and Illinois Inferno. These names were changed prior to the start of the first season). Despite strong funding and four seasons of broadcasts on The Nashville Network (TNN, now known as Spike TV), the venture never became a "live" attraction. After MTV's takeover of the CBS Cable group, fabricated storylines and uncharismatic characters were being featured more than actual competitive skating. This did not go over well with many skaters nor die-hard roller derby fans. Two notable veterans from Roller Games, Rockin' Ray Robles and Patsy Delgato, were featured in the second season of "RollerJam". When "RollerJam" was cancelled, many of the skaters found smaller leagues to skate in. 40 episodes of Roller Jam have been reversioned for UK television after successful televised seasons in other countries. Airing from October 2nd 2006 on Challenge TV much of the narrative has been removed with sex and violence toned down for a family audience.

One major rule difference between previous leagues was the legalisation of in-line skates, which the WSL required for younger players in an attempt to push the league to younger players, more familiar with the in-line game, allowing for more precision skating over the traditional quads, allowing faster skaters to participate.

Contemporary roller derby

All-female, grassroots leagues

In 2001, Bad Girl Good Woman Productions (BGGW) was formed, creating a new generation of roller derby, open to women only. Founders formed four teams, and staged their first public match in Austin, Texas in summer 2002. Shortly after, the league split over business plans: The Texas Rollergirls embraced flat-track play, while the BGGW league (also known as the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls or Texas Roller Derby) went on to skate banked-track roller derby.cite web|url=http://www.sincityrollergirls.com/2nd_level/history.html|title=Short History of Roller Derby|accessdate=2008-02-13|date=2006-08-28|publisher=Sin City Rollergirls]

The revival then began in earnest, with over 50 similar all-female leagues in existence by late 2005, more than 80 by February 2006, and more than 135 by mid-August 2006. The sport's sudden growth in 2006 is attributed to its exposure via the "Rollergirls" reality television show, which depicted portions of the lives of real skaters from the TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. The show began broadcasting in January 2006, but was not picked up for a second season due to unsatisfactory ratings.

The first all-female Canadian league of fifty members, the Terminal City Rollergirls, was formed in January 2006 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The league appeared before an audience of 4500 on March 4, 2006 to participate in a game of "Last Woman Standing" ("Blood and Thunder") against The Rat City Rollergirls at the Everett Events Centre in Everett, Washington. The first full, international bout in women's flat-track derby occurred in December 2006, when the Oil City Derby Girls (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada) hosted the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls (Denver, Colorado, USA).

Although this revival of roller derby was initially all-female, some leagues later introduced all-male teams.

Mixed-gender, for-profit leagues

A handful of leagues, mostly mixed-gender, have origins in earlier incarnations of the sport and heavily promote themselves as professional due to their history, management, membership, style of play and marketing considerations. As of the mid-2000s, most of these leagues do not compete in regular seasons, but rather schedule infrequent special-event games, drawing from a relatively small pool of skaters to form the roster of two teams put together just for the event, or on one team that plays against a similar club from another league. Team names typically pay homage to memorable Roller Derby and Roller Games teams of the past.



*Michelson, Herb. "A Very Simple Game: the Story of Roller Derby". 1971.
*Deford, Frank. "Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby". Little, Brown and Company, 1971. ISBN 0-316-17920-5.
*Coppage, Keith. "Roller Derby to Rollerjam: The Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport". Santa Rosa, California: Squarebooks, 1999. ISBN 0-916290-80-8.
*Fitzpatrick, Jim. "Roller Derby Classics… and more!". Foreword by Ann Calvello. Trafford Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-4120-6678-6.
*Joulwan, Melissa. "Rollergirl: Totally True Tales from the Track". Touchstone (Simon & Schuster), February 2007. ISBN 978-0743297158.
*Mabe, Catherine. "Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels". Speck Press, 2007. ISBN 1-933108-11-8.

External Links

* [http://www.rollerderbyhalloffame.com/ National Roller Derby Hall of Fame] - Fan site and museum honoring Roller Derby athletes
* [http://www.bankedtrack.info/ Banked Track Memories] - Fan site with many historic photo galleries and links to similar ones
* [http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/00060/cah-00060.html Buddy Atkinson Collection, 1989–1994] - Information about a former professional skater's archive that was donated to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin
* [http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/utcah/00435/cah-00435.html Jerry Seltzer Collection, 1942–1997] - Information about documents about the careers of Jerry and Leo Seltzer, donated to the Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin

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