House of Deception Library: Roller Derby History
||Roller Derby to RollerJam: The Authorized Story of an Unauthorized Sport
||Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi
||Five Strides on the Banked Track: The Life and Times of the Roller Derby
||Little Brown, Boston
||Roller Derby Classics...and More!
||Trafford, Victoria, BC
||Roller Derby: The History and All-Girl Revival of the Greatest Sport on Wheels
||Speck, Golden, Colorado
||A Very Simple Game: The Story of Roller Derby
Sacramento, California USA
Welcome to the Roller Derby History portal.
Many thanks to Jim Fitzpatrick for his
contributions to this page.
Jim, a former professional Roller Derby skater,
referee, photographer and fan, has spent years
compiling a huge collection of memorabilia
from the Golden Age of Roller Derby.
His book on Roller Derby is
Roller Derby Classics...and More!
Roller Derby History Books
Please bookmark & link to HouseofDeception.com - New titles are added periodically.
Golden Age Roller Derby History Links
In 1914, The New York Times reported on a 24-hour banked-track
roller skating race held at Madison Square Garden. The reports didn't
use the word "derby", but called the team relay event "the first
twenty-four-hour roller skating race that has been held in New York in
years," and made mention that the crowd enjoyed the sudden sprints
and spills in preliminary races held the day before.
In 1922, the Chicago Tribune announced and reported on the results of
two "roller derby" events. These were multi-day events during which
roller skating races were held on a flat track at Chicago's Broadway
In 1929, as the Great Depression began, a struggling film publicist
named Leo Seltzer felt that dance marathons were undermining
attendance at his Oregon cinema chain, so he began holding his own
dance marathons. Hundreds of unemployed people participated,
hoping to win a $2,000 cash prize. Since dance marathons usually
ended up with people lazily shuffling around, he soon changed the
events to "walkathons." The contests were emceed by celebrities like
Frankie Laine and Red Skelton, and grossed $6 million in three years.
In 1935, the novelty of walkathons wore off, but a roller skating fad
arose again, and Seltzer decided to combine the two concepts as
Transcontinental Roller Derby, an event more than a month long,
staged at the Chicago Coliseum. It was a simulation of a cross-country
roller skating race in which 25 two-person teams circled a track
thousands of times, skating 11 1/2 hours a day, to cover 3,000
miles--the distance between Los Angeles and New York City. Teams
were disqualified if both members were off the track during skating
times. Sixteen teams dropped out due to injuries or exhaustion, but
nine teams finished, and the winning team, Clarice Martin and Bernie
McKay, held the lead for the last 11 days of the event.
Over the next two years, Seltzer took the Transcontinental Roller Derby
on the road, holding similar races throughout the U.S. with a portable
track that reportedly cost $20,000, for daily crowds averaging 10,000 in
number, who paid 10 to 25 cents admission. Occasionally, massive
collisions and crashes occurred as skaters tried to lap those who were
ahead of them. Sportswriter Damon Runyon realized this was the most
exciting part, and encouraged Seltzer to tweak the game to maximize
physical contact between the skaters and to exaggerate hits and falls.
Seltzer bristled, wanting to keep the sport legitimate, but agreed to the
experiment, which fans ended up loving. Over time, the spectacle
evolved into a sport involving two teams of five skaters, with a team
scoring points when its members lapped members of the other team,
which is the basic premise of roller derby to this day.
Transcontinental Roller Derby rapidly grew in popularity as a
spectator sport. Matches were held in fifty cities in 1940, for more than
five million spectators, some of whom formed fan clubs and newsletters
like Roller Derby News (later renamed RolleRage). Teams began to
represent and compete in other U.S. cities, although some teams were
actually the same traveling group that would just change names
depending on where they were playing, and all were part of the
Seltzer-owned Roller Derby league.
The entry of the United States into World War II at the end of 1941
interrupted the sport's ascent; many skaters enlisted in the armed
forces, crowds dwindled, and the fledgling league was reduced to one
team skating mainly for the entertainment of soldiers.
After the war's end in 1945, Seltzer successfully resumed growing the
sport, although a 1946 attempt to bring it to New York's Polo Grounds
failed due to twelve straight days of rain. In 1948, well before television
was in widespread use, Roller Derby debuted on the CBS television
network, but the following year moved to ABC. Seltzer changed his
residence to Encino (Los Angeles) that same year, a westward move
that foreshadowed changes to come. By 1949, Roller Derby games were
being televised live throughout the U.S., and Seltzer was grossing $2
million a year. In 1949, the National Roller Derby League was formed,
and the season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week.
Meanwhile, from 1946 through 1948, flat-track roller derby was enjoyed
as an intramural sport at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
In Los Angeles, Roller Derby was broadcast on the radio as early as
1939, and on television as early as 1949.
In 1950, Leo Seltzer moved the base of operations to New York, where it
was easier to produce Roller Derby's first wave of televised popularity.
Broadcasts centered on the New York Chiefs, who enjoyed nationwide
appearances on CBS and ABC. At one point, Roller Derby could be seen
on ABC several times a week. Besides the Chiefs, teams in the National
Roller Derby League included the Chicago Westerners, Brooklyn Red
Devils, Jersey Jolters, Washington Jets and the Philadelphia Panthers,
with these six clubs affectionately considered by fans as the ancestors
of all incarnations of Derby teams through 1973.
Off television in the fall of 1951 due to overexposure and declining
ratings, the Derby suffered a dramatic fall in attendance. In July 1953,
citing the effects of the Korean War and a dearth of venues, Leo Seltzer
moved the Derby from New York to Los Angeles and created the L.A.
Braves for their debut at the Rose Bowl. The Braves became the first
international team when a tour of Europe was launched in 1953.
However, this was not the first time audiences outside the U.S. had
seen the game played live. A renegade league, International Roller
Speedway, known in some countries as Roller-Catch, formed in 1937
and toured Europe and the Philippines. Roller Speedway was a
modified version of the sport and normally featured two teams,
representing Europe (the "home" team) and USA. The 1950 film The
Fireball, starring Mickey Rooney, was based on the life of one of the
league's stars, Eddie Poore, who skated under the name Eddie Cazar.
Roller Speedway ceased operations in 1952.
In 1954, the Derby established the most fabled team in the history of
the sport, the longtime champion San Francisco Bay Bombers. Stars on
this team eventually included Charlie O'Connell, Joanie Weston, and
In 1958, Leo Seltzer gave up on the sport in favor of real estate
interests, and his son Jerry Seltzer took full control of Roller Derby.
Within a year, he moved the operation to the San Francisco Bay Area.
He syndicated Roller Derby to 120 television stations, and he changed
some of the rules. For the first time, skaters were required to wear
helmets, and at the behest of KTVU television announcer Walt Harris,
he made the game more TV-friendly by making jammers' helmets easier
A more theatrical imitation called Roller Games was started in 1961 in
Los Angeles featuring retired Roller Derby skaters who chose not to
make the move to San Francisco. Owned by Bill Griffiths, Sr. and Jerry
Hill, Roller Games was the only viable rival organization to the original
Roller Derby, and actually consisted of several separate leagues,
including the (U.S.) National Roller Derby (NRD), soon renamed to
National Roller League (NRL) since the "Roller Derby" trademark was
aggressively protected by the Seltzer organization. The NRD/NRL
consisted of the Northern Hawks (sometimes billed as the Chicago
Hawks), New York Bombers, Texas Outlaws, Detroit Devils, Los Angeles
Thunderbirds (nicknamed "T-Birds"), and Philadelphia Warriors
(sometimes billed as the Eastern Warriors). There were also several
attempts in markets that failed quickly, with teams such as the
Baltimore/Washington Cats, the Florida Jets, and the Western
Renegades. Roller Games also encompassed the Canadian National
Roller League (CNRL) and Japanese National Roller League (JNRL).
Some former Roller Derby stars found new fame in the Roller Games,
and a handful of skaters simply went back and forth between the two
organizations. After 1968, however, the Roller Derby to Roller Games
defections were few; instead, a handful of Roller Games skaters
returned to their roots and began skating for the Derby again.
1961 also saw the advent of a short-lived New York City area rival
league, the American Skating Derby (ASD), promoted by Joe Morehouse
and Mike O'Hara. ASD debuted two teams of ex-Roller Derby
skaters--one team representing "New York" and the other representing
Brooklyn--at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, around April
1961, with plans to appear throughout the Tri-State Region. A league
split later that year resulted in the formation of another league, the
Eastern Skating Derby (ESD), which lasted until mid-1964 and skated
only in New York, sometimes at the same venues as the ASD. As with
Roller Speedway, none of these splinter groups are remembered today
by anyone outside the most dedicated fans and the skaters who
participated in them.
To the media, there was only one Roller Derby, and from Jerry Seltzer's
takeover in the late 1950s the game reached new heights of popularity
with a 120-station television network where taped games from the
Bombers' home, Kezar Pavilion in San Francisco, were shown weekly.
Television made fans of thousands and the Bombers packed arenas
from coast to coast on cross country tours, regularly selling out arenas
such as Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, Kiel Auditorium in St.
Louis and dozens more. The indoor record for Roller Derby was set at
19,507 at Madison Square Garden in 1970; it was broken by the outdoor
record at the Oakland Coliseum a few months later at around 28,814
for a game between the Bombers and the Northeast Braves. The
following year that record was topped again with 34,418 for a Bomber
game at the Coliseum; their rival, the Midwest Pioneers, broke that
record with 50,118 fans in 1972 for a game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
At this point, the Bombers home-team concept was duplicated with the
New York Chiefs representing the Eastern U.S. and the Pioneers based
in Chicago (but really everything west of Philadelphia). A one season
run in 1971 by the Cincinnati Jolter team in the Midwest (Ohio,
Kentucky and other areas) was not financially successful and the team
became a road franchise once again. The Bombers were briefly a
Southwest team moved from the Bay Area, but potential new owners
couldn't come to terms with the Seltzer family and so the Bombers were
returned home. (In an unusual move, the Chiefs were a "replacement"
team for the Bombers during the period that franchise was supposedly
based in Texas).
In the early 1970's, a Roller Derby participant was depicted in the
children's program, ZOOM, in a segment called, As the World Zooms;
this was a main character of the segment who continued through the
entire run of that incarnation of the program.
In 1973, high overhead and other factors led Jerry Seltzer to elect to
shut down Roller Derby. In a 2005 interview, Ann Calvello mentioned
gas shortages during the 1973 oil crisis as a contributing factor because
teams could not travel. Some of the IRDL star skaters were recruited to
skate for Roller Games' International Skating Conference (ISC), which
quickly eliminated all Derby teams except for the Chiefs to again focus
on the Los Angeles Thunderbirds. However, within two years, the
wrestling/circus-like approach doomed all of Roller Games; many
Roller Derby skaters quit and fans deserted the arenas. Cultural
historian Paul Fussell, perhaps editorializing, attributed the collapse
of the sport to the declining economic class of its fan base in its final
years; fans were ultimately unable to support the sponsors that had
been keeping the sport on television.
The article above has been edited and adapted by the House of Deception from
Wikipedia Encyclopedia and may be read in its original, uncredited form (with
references cited) at Wikipedia.org.
History of the Roller Derby
San Francisco Bay Bomber legend,
Joan Weston, battles long time rival,
Ann Calvello, 1969
Courtesy Jim Fitzpatrick Collection
Ann Calvello (left) and Delores Doss
sail through the infield, out of control,
Courtesy Jim Fitzpatrick Collection
1980 San Francisco Bay Bombers
Bill Groll was player coach, Joan Weston was woman's captain.
# 32 (right) is Jim Fitzpatrick.
Jim is now the General Manager of the Bay Bombers.
Order his book on the Roller Derby here.
Bill Groll suffered a bad cut to his
forehead after getting kicked by a
Photo by Jim Fitzpatrick
Mickey Rooney and Pat O'Brien in
The Fireball (1950)
Tay Garnett, Dirctor
Bay Bombers logo
Charles "Buckets" Gipson flies through
the air after Darney McPherson nails
him with a vicious block, 1982
Photo by Jim Fitzpatrick
made by a fan
On this page (launched Feb. 10, 2008) you will find:
.: a bibliography of Roller Derby history books
.: photos from the Golden Age of Roller Derby
.: a selective list of Roller Derby history links
.: a list of movies and TV shows with Roller Derby themes (coming soon)
.: a list of Roller Derby novels and short stories (coming soon)
.: a well-written article on the history of Roller Derby
.: paintings and other works of art with Roller Derby themes
Please bookmark & link to HouseofDeception.com - New titles are added periodically.
All Rights Reserved
Copyright Duff Johnson 2004-2015
No text or image may be copied or
reproduced without written permission.
Roller Derby in Art
Roller Derby in Progress
Derby Battle, 2008
6' x 3.5' acrylic on canvas
Pink Derby Vintage Roller Skates
Cubism: 16" x 12" oil on canvas
1939 Matchbook Advertisement
The House of Deception is honored to have received Ms. Willis' permission to display
representative pieces of her work. Visit her website soon.
"I am obsessed with linking the world of pop culture to the academic world. It is in the
tension between the bright world of the painting’s surface and the larger underlying
mechanisms of narrative that keeps me painting...." Cait Willis, Seattle, Washington
Roller Derby by "Mar"
Roller Derby Skates
Impressionist: 12" x 12" oil on canvas
Roller Derby Vintage Skates
Abstract: 12" x 12" oil on canvas
Novelty · latex mural installation · Katzen Arts Center, Washington DC · 2008
Many thanks to Cory Oberndorfer for granting permission to display samples of his work
here at the The House of Deception. Visit his website soon.
Mr. Oberndorfer is on the faculty of American University, Washington, DC. His
personal interests include "sweets, pop culture and bad-ass women, although not
necessarily in that order." - Cory Orberndorfer, Washington, DC
Thank you Tommervik for granting permission to display your images here
at The House of Deception.
Tommervik makes collectible paintings and prints. See his work at
Tommervik.com. - Tim Tommervik, Tacoma, Washington, USA