Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Has Roller Derby Always Been This Way?

I remember watching roller derbies on television when I was young.  My grandmother loved watching the battles that took place during the matches and cheered quite loudly when someone got thrown out of the rink. She loved the "good" girls and booed the "bad" ones who tried to win by any means.  The drama kept her coming back for more.

I know it is still around because Alaska has a couple of roller derby teams.  How do I know?  Well, I taught with one teacher who did it for a couple of years and they usually participate in the Golden Day's parade. 

After I saw an episode of Murdock where his wife skated in a roller derby match, I wondered if it existed at the turn of the century.  Although it was written into the show, roller derby didn't actually premier until August 13, 1935 at the Coliseum in Chicago.  Remember, this is at a time when too many people were unemployed, the dust bowl hit, and people were willing to do almost anything to earn a bit of money. An event promoter, David Seltzer who wanted to find something that was more exciting than walkathons, so he read that over 90 percent of the people had roller skated at least once, and the rest was history.

He premiered the first Transcontinental Derby where two person teams skated around and around the Coliseum roller rink.  Each team had one male and one female member who were to complete 57,000 laps around the rink.  Twenty-two thousand people showed up for this three week event. Throughout the event, there was a map which showed the position of each team so the audience could keep track of things.  The team that came in first place skated 2,700 miles or the same distance as one would travel from New York to Los Angeles.

Since watching people roll around a track for hours at a time was is not the most exciting thing, Seltzer got together with a sports writer to create the rules for the new sport of roller derby and included options for full body contact, the same as we see today.  They set it up for each match or bout that five skaters for each team would be on the track.  One member on each team won the role jammer whose only job was to lap or pass members of the other team while the other four would block and prevent the other team's jammer from getting through.  To become the jammer, the skater had to be the one who ended up in front of the pack.  The team with the most laps wins.  This sport is one where both men and women competed using the same rules, same drama, and same excitement but the only difference was in the pay.

Using these new rules, the sport  grew took to the point that in 1949, roller derby matches could be found across the nation with  had it's stars the public followed. By this time, roller derbies developed the drama using the "good" and "bad" personas to keep the audience following various teams. It was so popular that ABC in New York televised matches three times a week.  In addition, Hollywood released the 1950 movie "The Fireball" staring Micky Rooney and later in the same year the short film "Roller Derby Girl" was nominated for an Academy Award.

Within a few years, the excitement of Roller Derby faded and David Seltzer moved his operation from New York to California. His operation included training camps to recruit new players for the sport.  In 1959, he retired and turned control over to his son who began videotaping matches, he licensed use of to local television stations.   This one move, built up interest in roller derbies around the country so that the roller derby championship in 1965 returned to Madison Square Gardens after an absence of 13 years. The event attracted over 13,000 fans and by 1971, the numbers rose to almost 20,000 fans.  

Unfortunately, by the mid 1970's the roller derby leagues had gone belly up and basically disappeared until 2001 when a group of women resurrected the sport in Austin.  It caught on enough teams formed the Women Flat Track Derby Association and today and there are 463 leagues spread over 33 states. It is not yet at the numbers of attendees as before but it is a growing sport.  Let me know what you think, I'd love to hear.  Have a great day.

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