I have not kept my usual posting schedule this week because of Covid, not because I caught it but because a friend did. He got it just after the woman he lived with died suddenly. Bob teaches at Columbia University and had already cancelled a class because of the death. He knew that he could not teach this week because of Covid but did not want to cancel another class, and he asked me if I would teach it. I, of course, assented. I had familiarity with the First Amendment material that had been assigned, but I having never taught it before and wanting to do an acceptable job for Bob and the students, I spent a lot of hours preparing for the class, hours that I otherwise would have spent on posts for this blog. Thus, the posting schedule got disrupted.
However, this week I also got in a conversation with two friends, one of whom had attended roller derby. I told them that I had written about that topic a few years ago, and they expressed an interest in what I wrote, so I am re-posting that essay.
We all should know more about roller derby.
Round and Round, or Is It Oval and Oval?
Jerry Seltzer died. I did not know of him before his death, but his obituary brought back memories; he was instrumental in the roller derby I watched many times on television and once in person.
Roller derby was invented by Jerry’s father, Leo Seltzer, in 1935 in Chicago. Originally it was an endurance activity, akin to walkathons and dance marathons, but this proved too boring, and Leo, with advice from the writer Damon Runyon, created rules for a competitive, contact sport. Two teams of five roller skaters at a time circled a banked track. Skaters at the back of the pack had to get to the front and then lap the remaining skaters earning a point for every lapped skater on the opposing team. The other skaters elbowed and body-checked their opponents to help their teammates pass and score.
Early television, short on programming, featured roller derby several times a week. This led to an overexposure and a declining interest, and the sport seemed all but dead when Jerry took over from his father. He taped the contests, and through innovative use of television syndication, built up interest in roller derby again. He used a shorter track, 100 feet, with more banking that allowed for better viewing. The new track could be put up and taken down quickly, and this allowed roller derby to make one-night stops in towns where the television ratings showed that it was popular.
Jerry Seltzer’s efforts resurrected roller derby. Half a decade after he took it over from his father, he had it back in Madison Square Garden where it had last appeared more than a dozen years earlier. Its popularity surged with crowds of upwards of 19,000 and even more when he held it in baseball stadiums.
Roller derby occupied the ground between spectacle and sport. It was fast with body-checking that sent skaters on their asses and over guard rails. Fights were common as were arguments with referees. Roller derby was more integrated than many other sports. There were all colors, but the unusual aspect of roller derby was that teams consisted of both men and women. Each team had ten skaters. Five men would race and elbow five men from the other team, and then five women would take the track against five women, and those women were just as physical as the men. I don’t know if they were paid equally, but the women were an equal part of the team, something that was not true in other sports. As a result, unlike many sporting events where few women attended, roller derby attracted both male and female spectators who cheered and booed the skaters of both sexes.
For me, the biggest star was a woman, Joanie Weston. She was instantly identifiable. She always wore a scarf and had strawberry blonde hair. Weston was five feet ten and weighed 165 pounds, and every ounce of her radiated athleticism. Her skating was fast, and her powerful elbows and hips sent opponents flying. She was as well-known as any woman athlete of her era, but the figure skating or tennis crowd who knew Peggy Fleming or Billie Jean King seldom crossed paths with the blue-collar folk who watched roller derby.
Other than watching her prowess on the track, I did not think much about the rest of her life until I read her 1997 obituary after she died at 62 from Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a rare brain disorder. I learned she excelled in every sport she tried. As a college softball player, she batted .730 one season and hit eight home runs in a single game, but there were few sports then in which women could make a living. She ended up in roller derby, but I was pleased to learn that she loved it and made a good living.
Years ago, I did not have to watch much roller derby on TV to doubt whether it was a real sport. There were good guys and bad guys with raucous interviews and taunts. No one ever seemed to get more than momentarily hurt in the frequent fights. And the contest was invariably decided in the last jam, as the scrum of skaters was called. The roots of roller derby may have been in endurance walking and dancing, but it had settled into a pro wrestling mold.
But it was still fun to watch. The great writer Frank Deford was right when he wrote that not watching it “just because you knew the Bombers would prevail on the last jam was like not going to watch Dame Margot Fonteyn dance Aurora because you knew how ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ would turn out.” (The pro wrestler Ric Flair would bristle when someone would say that pro wrestling was fake. “It’s not fake,” he said. “It’s choreographed.” At least from my understanding of pro wrestling, Flair, who never seemed humble, was being modest in this instance. The opening segment of a wrestling match is scripted, but then the wrestlers have to improvise, and since Flair had many matches of a half hour and longer, this improv took great skill and stamina until the final moments of the bout came, which were choreographed.)
The obituary 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 that was 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 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.