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L.A. Then and Now

The Man Who Got Roller Derby Rolling Along

February 21, 1999|Cecilia Rasmussen

America always has had its share of sports innovators: Abner Doubleday invented baseball; Dr. James Naismith conceived basketball; William G. Morgan came up with volleyball.

And then there was Leo Seltzer, the onetime publicist whose abhorrence of empty seats made him the father of roller derby, a combination of show business and sports that found its natural epicenter in Los Angeles. For almost four decades, roller derby was America's biggest indoor sport, a mid-century American staple of mobile mayhem that rewarded its participants with bruised cheeks, cracked ribs and international travel.

Locally, the flamboyant sport once packed such venues as the Pan Pacific Auditorium, Olympic Auditorium and Pasadena's Rose Bowl with heckling, horn-blowing, beer-chugging, decidedly blue-collar fans who screamed for blood and guts.

Los Angeles' first international team--the L.A. Braves--ruled the sport. The team was boosted in popularity by an early affiliation with the new medium of television, whose viewers reveled in the hoarse cries of announcer Dick "Whoa Nellie" Lane exclaiming over the high jinks of such unforgettable performers as Elmer "Elbow" Anderson, Mary Youpelle and Russ Massro, Annis "Big Red" Jensen and Rosy Baker, Bert Wall and Betty Boyd, Gerry Murray, Toughie Brashun, Ann "Demon of the Derby" Calvello and Bill Bogash.

But it was Seltzer, a gifted and successful entrepreneur, innovator and influence-peddler, who pioneered the roller derby concept, making it the first sport in which men and women competed on the same team.

In 1929, Seltzer, a 26-year-old former film publicist who owned a chain of empty theaters in Oregon, began investigating his declining business. He soon found that customers were being lured away by a small amusement park where couples dragged themselves endlessly around a dance floor. Some collapsed, while others remained upright for 40 days to win a cash prize.

Intrigued, Seltzer staged his first dance marathon in the depths of the Great Depression, and hundreds of unemployed people showed up, hoping to win a $2,000 cash prize. For the next three years, Seltzer promoted "Walkathons" (since most couples really just shuffled around) with such unknowns as Frankie Laine and Red Skelton as emcees. This national craze earned him a gross of $6 million.

In 1935, just as walkathons' popularity began to wane, a national roller-skating craze took hold, and Seltzer looked for ways to exploit this new frenzy. In a spinoff of the walkathon concept, Seltzer added wheels, acquired a lease on the Chicago Coliseum--which he would later own--and began advertising roller derby marathon events on a banked oval track. A team of two, one male and one female, skated 64,000 laps or 4,000 miles, covering about 100 miles a day over a period of six weeks.

Setting out to make roller derby the greatest legitimate contact sport of all time--unlike wrestling, which tended to be more show biz than sport--Seltzer barnstormed the country with his $20,000 portable track, charging 10 to 25 cents admission.

But it wasn't a success until he met sportswriter Damon Runyon, who helped him rework the rules, adding some violence--skaters elbowing and whipping each other like slingshots for even greater speeds and slamming opponents into an unforgiving rail.

Seltzer hated it, but the fans went wild.

Violence Pleased Fans

They loved this often dirty, cheap-shot action. The more the skaters pummeled each other, the more the audience cheered.

As the game evolved into two five-member teams of men and women who rotated time on the track, the teams' names changed depending on the city they were visiting.

When roller derby appeared at the Pan Pacific Auditorium in 1937, Hollywood celebrities such as W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Cantor, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Cary Grant and Eleanor Powell (who later would allegedly have a romance with skater Wes Aronson) flocked to seats in the reserved boxes. The stars of both screen and track continued to appear at the roller derby games held annually at the Pan Pacific through the early 1950s.

Seltzer's profits were proof of the nation's appetite for drama. He grossed more than $2 million in 1949, two years after roller derby made its national TV debut, becoming one of the first television hits for ABC.

The Korean War and a shortage of playing sites forced Seltzer to move his New York-based team to Los Angeles. In July 1953, six years after Seltzer had moved to Encino, the Los Angeles Braves opened in L.A., attracting 60,000 fans to the Rose Bowl.

But the crowds they drew were not always friendly. That same year, when the L.A. Braves arrived in Paris, chewing their wads of gum, spectators hurled eggs, vegetables and chairs. A few even surged onto the track to grapple with the competitors.

Despising what the game had become, Seltzer called it quits in 1958 when his son, Jerry, moved the team to the San Francisco Bay Area, eventually syndicating "Roller Derby" to 120 TV stations.

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