Friday, April 11, 2008
This week, we’re taking a short break from the world of professional wrestling to cast our eyes in the direction of another worked sport. Once upon a time, Roller Derby and Roller Games rivaled pro wrestling in some areas when it came to drawing a large and passionate following. From the early 60s into the 70s, the two leagues drew healthy attendance figures, ordinarily from 800 to several thousand per show.
Originally conceived during the 1930s Depression Era, Roller Derby came about as an idea from Chicago movie theater owner Leo Seltzer. An offshoot of the dance marathons (which were a sometimes deadly form of endurance-entertainment in and of themselves), Roller Derby first began as a race between couples. Over time, it would become a more stylized form of competition between teams of men and women, with rules and a method of scorekeeping.
In its original incarnation, the first Roller Derby contests saw a man and a woman working together as a twosome. Because so many people were out of work and desperate for money during the Great Depression, Seltzer had little difficulty finding couples willing to enter his competitions. The “Transcontinental Roller Derby” was what he called it, and the concept was not hard to follow. For as many as 12-hours-per-day, the pairs would skate around a large indoor track until one of them became the first to complete the equivalent of a 3,000 mile journey, quite literally from coast-to-coast.
While it was permissible for one member of a team to take a short respite occasionally, both individuals leaving the track at the same time meant disqualification. The first such competition took place in Chicago in 1935, reportedly lasting a full month, with crowds of paying customers and curiosity seekers coughing up the admission fee of $.15 to $.25 each time they came to watch. As word circulated that the finish was approaching, the assembly grew, which assured the venture would be a highly profitable one. The winners of the grueling race received the sum of $2,000 (which was more than the average annual income for 1935 of $1,518.00, according to Arthurdale Heritage, Inc.)
As the end of the decade loomed, such challenging and barbaric exhibitions came to a close. Still convinced that there was money to be made from selling admission to watch people race against one another on skates … after all, it was a known fact that skating was a very popular hobby for all ages … Seltzer went about creating a prescribed contest. Before long, he hit on a formula that made it easy for trackside fans to follow the action. This early version of Roller Derby as a sport, featuring teams of men vs. men and women vs. women for specific time periods, made inroads in cities throughout the country. That came close to ending in 1942. With the U.S.’s entry into World War II, the country’s interest turned to more serious matters. At that point, the game nearly faded away for good.
Still, Leo Seltzer wasn’t going to walk away from his brainchild. In the mid-1940s, with the troops coming home and a robust economy on the horizon, he again began promoting the game in earnest. Just a few years later, in 1948, Seltzer got the break he’d been looking for. With the sport finding a spot on network TV, Roller Derby began developing a larger and more devoted following. It may have been relatively small at first, but with the American public becoming more aware of and excited by the promise of television, the new technology and Roller Derby were a perfect fit. RCA, Zenith, Admiral and other TV set manufacturers wanted programming that showed their product in the best light. The thinking had it that most anything that featured a lot of movement would impress the consumer’s eye and lead to greater sales. From Seltzer’s standpoint, it meant greater publicity for his game, which translated into higher attendance figures.
In 1949, ABC was the newest of the four U.S. television networks. Unable to compete with the shows on NBC, CBS and DuMont, the upstart company was happy to take whatever it could get if it stood a chance of drawing a few curious viewers to their programming schedule. ABC saw that Roller Derby’s initial foray the year before with a weekly game on CBS had potential. Making Seltzer a better offer to move the sport over to their network proved to be so successful so quickly that ABC joyfully began televising games three nights a week.
The focus of attention was placed squarely on the babyface team, the New York Chiefs. Taking on such rivals as the Brooklyn Red Devils, Chicago Westerners, Washington Jets, the Philadelphia Panthers and the Jersey Jolters, viewership grew. While all but the Chiefs worked in heel mode, by future standards they would be considered as rough but far from evil.
After a two year run, Roller Derby was overexposed, and in 1951 ABC cancelled the contract. Moving his base of operations from east to west, Leo Seltzer set up shop in California, where Roller Derby did reasonably well without exactly setting the state on fire. In the late 50s, Leo’s son, Jerry, took over the company with his father’s blessing.
Centering the Roller Derby League around the babyface San Francisco Bay Area Bombers team, Jerry went about rebuilding the business. By the time 1961 rolled around, his father’s creation was once again showing a steady profit. Meanwhile, down the road in Los Angeles, businessman Bill Griffiths, Sr. organized his own league based in southern California. Roller Games, it was to be called, with the Los Angeles Thunderbirds taking on the role as babyfaces.
Those that were already familiar with Roller Derby couldn’t help but notice that there was a substantial dichotomy in the philosophy and approach between Griffiths’ upstart product and that of Seltzer’s. While the rules of the game they both followed were much the same, Griffiths ramped up the showmanship factor on the track. His vision made Roller Games distinctive with its blend of genuine athleticism, never-ending conspiracies against the T-bird team and a higher level of violence.
By comparison, the original Roller Derby adhered to a slower and more languid pace. To be sure, there was excitement to be had, what with the clear demarcation between the babyface San Francisco Bombers and their heelish competition. But the antagonism was, with occasional exception, substantially more restrained than what was taking place in L.A. Compared to what Roller Games was doing down south, the confrontations were milder, the action less frenetic.
While Roller Derby and Roller Games may have mirrored one another on the surface, points were much harder to come by in the Seltzer version. A jammer (scorer) would break out of the pack and skate around until he or she arrived at the back end of the group. From there, every opponent passed would result in a point. In the Derby, a typical “jam” would conclude with anywhere from 1 to 3 points being scored.
Not so in Roller Games. Passing everybody on the opposing team for the full five points was commonplace. Sometimes, two jammers on the same side would successfully lap the other team for a 10 point payoff! It was not unusual for Roller Games to conclude with scores in the lower 100’s; in Roller Derby, the point total was half as many. (In the last few years of Roller Games’ existence, they modified their approach somewhat, and games ended with aggregate scores in the 70s and 80s).
The most obvious difference between the two leagues was in the level of intensity. To draw a pro wrestling analogy, it was as if Roller Derby was WWF and Roller Games was ECW. It wasn’t a question of skill. There’s no arguing that both leagues had some truly outstanding athletes. The San Francisco Bombers had Joan Weston leading the women’s team and Charlie O’Connell at the forefront for the men. She was a highly talented blonde of Amazonian proportions, eventually becoming a local celebrity for her heroic exploits on the banked track. Weston came out on top more often than not against any one of her chief rivals. The fur particularly flew when she faced Ann Calvello, the deeply tanned heel with the multi-colored hair. Ann was as gifted in her role as a “mean and tough old broad” as Joanie was in her babyface portrayal.
For the men, Charlie O’Connell was a fluid skater for the San Francisco team. Any opposing player that foolishly attempted to take liberties with him or any of the Bombers regretted it, as heels Bob Woodbury, Don Rixman and others were to learn time and time again over the years.
When Bill Griffiths, Sr. first organized Roller Games, he wanted something wilder and more off-the-wall than Roller Derby. To that end, the individual and team battles were given a greater emphasis, with one jam after another often concluding in chases and fisticuffs. Storylines were constructed as the babyface L.A. Thunderbirds found themselves forever being brutally attacked by the Texas Outlaws, Detroit Devils, New York Bombers, Chicago Hawks, Hollywood Stars and other evil squads. Having arrived at an agreement with local station KTLA to televise a Game-of-the-Week live from the Olympic Auditorium, Griffiths made certain that the fans had plenty to howl about.
While the rules were indeed identical to that of Roller Derby, the Roller Games style of play was faster and fiercer with a more frenetic pace. The heels were truly bad guys in every sense of the term, not just a little bit shifty as the Derby would have it. Before long, the Olympic Auditorium was drawing larger and larger crowds for the TV contest every Tuesday night, with the untelevised Saturday night game receiving a heavy push. To whet the appetite further, heels, either men or women or both, would often commit a dastardly act. Ultimately, the befouled T-birds would issue a challenge for a Saturday night match race, telling their fans that crowd support at the event was paramount. Many a ticket was sold based on that premise. (As with Roller Games, Roller Derby also conducted match races during a halftime break. But again, while they were also exciting, there was greater restraint when it came to the appearance of uncontrolled mayhem).
With Roller Games, the most enduring and popular figure to skate for the T-birds was “Little” Ralphie Valladares, the 5-foot 4-inch Guatemalan flash. His ability to weave in and out of danger, often causing heel teams to flail about helplessly as he darted by, was thrilling to see, especially when time was expiring. The Roller Games heels were among the best to be found in any worked sport, whether or not it had wheels. Leroy “Bad Boy” Gonzales started countless near riots with his vicious attacks on L.A. men AND women, always staying just a tantalizing step ahead of any T-bird hell-bent on retribution. Terri Lynch was the redheaded captain of the Thunderbird women who had countless clashes and match races against the supremely hated Shirley Hardman (who would one day become a beloved T-bird herself).
All-in-all, for most of its existence, Roller Derby gave its followers a well orchestrated if somewhat placid presentation. The path chosen by Roller Games depended more on high drama and violence. Towards the end of its run in 1973, the Derby attempted to spice things up with more frequent altercations, but it came too late to turn things around. A decline in attendance coupled with an increase in the expense of running the operation caused Jerry Seltzer to pull the plug. In what must have seemed like cruel irony at the time, he sold the Roller Derby rights to Bill Griffiths. Unfortunately, he too began running into the same financial difficulties and wound up shutting down Roller Games within two years of the acquisition.
Since then, there have been numerous attempts at reviving roller sports. Rollerjam! was one, which faltered on and off for several years in northern California. Roller Games was reborn as the one-word RollerGames. Relying upon outrageous gimmicks to attract an audience, such as using a Figure 8 track, a brick wall and an alligator pit (!!), it limped along for just over one season.
Currently, numerous cities throughout North America have seen the birth of all-women roller leagues. While burdened by limited resources, some of them are making a go of it, if on a very small scale. When all is said and done, roller sports by any name has provided fans with an exhibition of great talent and athletic skill in what many have called “wrestling on wheels.” The Fight Network currently airs an abbreviated one-hour version of Roller Games from its final years in Los Angeles. As cheesy as the commentary and the 70s clothes are, one can’t help admiring the high level of athletic dexterity and gamesmanship. Despite its obvious flaws, the performances and expertise on display are certainly worth a look.
Richard Berger is a freelance writer and editor with an extensive background in professional wrestling. His career includes media production for Stampede Wrestling, ring announcing, regular columns for WOW Magazine and IGN.com, and special feature work for other publications. Between June, 2007 and June, 2008, he wrote a weekly column for The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. To discuss Richard’s articles or just about anything else, contact him at: WriterGuy1A@hotmail.com.
The small sampling of his work found here was originally published at The Fight Network and Live Audio Wrestling. The majority will appear in a soon-to-be-released book along with new material. Stay tuned for information as it becomes available!