The obituary last summer of Jerry Seltzer who popularized roller derby made me recall the days I watched roller derby and the time in winter of 1968 I went to a match. I was in law school in Chicago, and a friend and I decided to go to the roller derby at the Chicago Coliseum. This was fitting since it was at the Coliseum where roller derby began in 1935 (the year Joan Weston was born). Roller derby always had a derelict air to me, and it was fitting that we took a bus on a dreary, cold night through almost barren streets. I spied a pawnshop or payday lender. Foot high, golden letters on its front window proclaimed, “WE TRUST YOU!” The words were mostly obscured by a rusting, pulldown gate. Things had apparently changed since the sign had been painted.
I only learned later about the Coliseum’s distinguished history. It had hosted five Republican National Conventions in the first part of the twentieth century. Six months after my roller derby attendance it also hosted a different kind of political gathering–an anti-Vietnam War rally in the days shortly before the 1968 Democratic National Convention. That memorable gathering was held at a different Chicago venue, the International Amphitheatre located, not unfittingly, adjacent to the Union Stock Yards.
I attended that 1968 anti-Vietnam War Coliseum rally. In those counterculture days, nothing seemed to have been planned for the event—anarchic might best describe it. I remember little of what occurred except that Allen Ginsberg sat cross-legged on the stage endlessly intoning “OM.” I quickly got bored and left. I went to the car I had purchased since my previous Coliseum visit and started to drive to my apartment. A police car followed me, and I was pulled over after a few blocks. Two smirking cops came over, and I rolled down a window. I had been driving carefully, and I knew that this was not a traffic stop. In this land of liberty, they had been staking out the gathering exercising free speech and assembly and started asking me about what was occurring at the rally. I gave some monosyllabic replies. As I wondered where this was heading, they asked what I did, and I answered that I was a law student. They shot nervous glances at each other and soon departed. I was as happy as I ever was for being in law school.
But my first visit, in 1968, to the Chicago Coliseum was not about war and peace, the future of the country, divisions in the land, or police spying on citizens; it was only about the battle that was roller derby. My friend and I had seats in the first row of the balcony. We could see all of the track and the spectators on the far side but not those directly underneath us. The crowd nearly filled the seats, folding chairs on the track level. Many in attendance knew all the names of the skaters and jeered many of them, forcefully shouting out shortcomings about their skills, courage, and looks. This was a different Chicago from my rather circumspect law school neighborhood. It was fun.
I cannot tell you the names of the teams or the skaters, but it was exciting watching them zoom around the oval with bodies and taunts flying. Fights broke out time and again, and the crowd was into it even though to this skeptical eye the fisticuffs looked staged. Late into the match a “bad guy” was on top of a “good guy” flailing away right underneath us. And then something unexpected happened. The skaters who were all over the track started rapidly converging towards the fight, but they were not looking at the combatants. They were fixed on the audience where a man came into our sight holding a folding chair with two hands above his head. He started to bring it down on the back of the villain, but, as I had seen many times on TV, the hero threw his opponent off him to reverse the fight. In that split second, the chair came down on the face and chest of the unprotected good guy with blood gushing from his nose and mouth. This no longer looked fake; the blood was real. The skaters, enemies a moment earlier, circled together like a wagon train shooting nervous glances into the audience to see if they needed protection from any other crazies. None appeared, and the chair swinger was manhandled off by security.
The action was delayed for only a few minutes as the injured skater with what appeared to be a broken nose was helped to the locker room and the blood was cleaned up. I don’t know who won, but I do remember that it was on the final jam.
A few years later, the Coliseum closed, and a few years after that, the sport, or whatever it was, died. However, shortly after this century began, roller derby was again revived. I have read that there are hundreds of leagues throughout the world. I have seen the present version advertised and have seen it on some obscure TV channel once or twice. It now seems to be solely a woman’s sport with the hint of pro wrestling and camp still remaining, most obviously in the colorful, pun-filled names of the athletes, but perhaps it is truly a legitimate sport now. There is no reason why it couldn’t be. It has athleticism and strategy. But I have not gone to a match. Perhaps, I thought, it is time for another visit to roller derby. I investigated and found that there is a league in New York City, the Gotham Girls, with teams representing the various boroughs. The league, which was on a winter hiatus, was scheduled to begin again in April. I made plans to go to the opening event, and then the pandemic hit. The new season’s opening day was cancelled, but I hope that roller derby has another resurrection. I would like to see the updated version.