By Colleen English, Guest Contributor
Colleen English is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Marshall University. She received a B.S. in Kinesiology from Penn State University (2009) and is working on completing her Ph.D. in Kinesiology (History and Philosophy of Sport) under Dr. Scott Kretchmar at Penn State. Her research interests center mainly on gender in sport, with particular emphasis on feminist philosophy and sport and the history of women in sports such as roller derby and track and field. She can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @colleen_english.
At the end of the month, women from around the globe will meet in Nashville, Tennessee, for the 2014 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s (WFTDA) Championships. There athletes will skate in exciting, physical, and dangerous bouts all while donning roller skates. This event signals the success of a revived sport, based in grassroots programs throughout the country. However, roller derby has a storied history dating back to the Great Depression that is often left out when fans remember the early days of the sport. Many people only consider its current iteration, featuring derby girls wearing short shorts, fishnet stockings, and wild hair and make-up playing a rough and violent sport in front of beer-drinking crowds in lesser-known skating rinks (not unlike scenes from the 2009 film Whip It!). Others who came of age during the 1970s might remember watching the intense rivalries between heroines like Joan Weston and wild villains like Ann Calvello on television. Though most assumed that the outcomes of roller derby matches were fixed, many tuned in to watch the entertaining rough play of skaters trying to pass one another and score points. However, roller derby’s history predates these versions of the sport. Unlike the intense, dangerous, and sometimes violent, sport we often think of as roller derby, it originated as a long-distance skating spectacle that looked more like the endurance crazes of the 1920s and 1930s than its more modern counterparts.
In 1935, the savvy entrepreneur Leo Seltzer was tasked with creating and hosting events at the Chicago Coliseum at the intersection of 15th Street and Wabash Avenue. Prior to scheduling events in Chicago, Seltzer had a number of jobs in the entertainment industry, including owning movie theaters in Portland, Oregon, selling films to theaters for Universal Pictures, and promoting another endurance spectacle, walk-a-thons. In order to fill the Coliseum, Seltzer created a new event to attract spectators. Scribbling the rules on a napkin, according to sportwriter Frank Deford in Five Strides on the Banked Track, Seltzer created the Transcontinental Roller Derby.
The Transcontinental Roller Derby was a multi-day long-distance race designed to follow an imaginary route across the United States. Illuminated on an electric map in the arena, the path traversed the country, journeying between New York City and Salt Lake City, or San Diego and Chicago. In order to travel these 3,000- to 4,000-mile distances, participants skated laps around a banked track set up inside the arena. Each day, the Transcontinental Roller Derby required that the skaters complete a certain number of miles around a track to avoid elimination.[i] The races featured teams comprised of one man and one woman and pitted the teams against one another in a format where men skated against men and women skated against women. The skaters would periodically trade-off during the day at regular intervals or when one teammate became extremely exhausted or injured. The Transcontinental Roller Derby could last for as long as 42 days and the contestants ate, slept, and skated at the venue. Sleeping in cots in the infield, the skaters ate six meals per day, and a nurse oversaw their health, weighing them and checking their heartbeat.[ii] Seltzer required that the skaters stay in the arena for the entire competition.
The Transcontinental Roller Derby gained early success in Chicago and eventually Seltzer formed a traveling troupe. Roller derby ventured to a number of cities, primarily in the Midwest, such as Cleveland, Louisville, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Detroit, and Minneapolis. As the popularity grew, skaters even traveled to Miami, Florida, and New York City.
Roller derby proved to be an important escape for those struggling from the financial hardships of the Great Depression. During Roller Derby’s flourishing years, from 1935-1937, it remained one of the cheapest forms of sporting entertainment and aligned with the prices of other inexpensive amusements. Seltzer recognized that his audience had little buying power and often provided discounted tickets. Potential spectators could purchase twenty-five cent ticket vouchers for only a dime at local grocers, department stores, and other shops. In From Roller Derby to RollerJam, roller derby historian Keith Coppage notes that roller derby fans never paid full price, because, in the words of Seltzer, “Americans love discounts” (p. 7). Seltzer’s son, Jerry, who would take over roller derby in the 1960s and 1970s, remembered that spectators in the 1930s only paid ten cents to enter the arena for as long as they wanted to watch roller derby.
These low ticket prices couldn’t be matched by other sporting entertainments. Chicagoans could expect to pay between fifty-five cents and $3.00 to attend professional sporting events in the city, including watching the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, and Blackhawks. Additionally, other forms of entertainment rarely matched roller derby’s inexpensive prices. Films, plays, and circuses provided much needed entertainment for struggling families, but often cost more than attending Transcontinental Roller Derby contests.
Because of these cheap ticket prices, Americans facing financial hardships could escape their problems by entering an arena hosting roller derby. For only ten cents, they could relax in an air conditioned venue and forget their troubles, while watching dozens of skaters go around and around a banked track. The early successes of roller derby are likely owed to Seltzer’s ability to draw working-class spectators who enjoyed the escapist atmosphere of the sport.
By 1937, the Transcontinental Roller Derby began to move away from its endurance-crazed roots. With a nudge from famed New York sportswriter Damon Runyon, Seltzer began to change the rules to make the contests more exciting. These new rules implemented a scoring system that awarded points to teams that could overtake their opponents, allowed for contact between skaters, and emphasized physical blocking (which led to its more violent nature). [iii] With these new rules in place, more pushing, shoving, and falling emerged as a natural part of the Roller Derby.[iv]
Also in 1937, a tragic event also signaled the demise of the Transcontinental Roller Derby. On March 24, while traveling from St. Louis to Cincinnati, a chartered bus carrying twenty-three skaters and roller derby associates blew out a tire and crashed into a bridge abutment in Salem, Illinois.[v] The forty-foot flames created by the explosion caused eighteen or nineteen people to burn to death in the fiery bus (newspaper reports were unclear on the final death tally).[vi] The driver and another person flew through the windshield while a few others managed to escape, though two passengers, including Ted Mullens, the master of ceremonies, succumbed to their injuries soon after hospitalization. Those that died in the crash included popular skaters, such as Joe Kleats and Libby Hoover. Although Seltzer, the surviving roller derby skaters, and new skaters attempted to carry on the Transcontinental Roller Derby after this unfortunate accident, it never really recovered. With new rule changes and a loss of important personnel, roller derby survived, albeit in a new and altered format.
These new rules and new format likely allowed roller derby to continue on and survive beyond the Great Depression years. Many pastimes from that era failed to maintain a following into the latter half of the twentieth century. Although Seltzer’s dreams of creating a widespread, elite, and legitimate sport haven’t yet been fully realized, his hard work, along with the role of his son Jerry, helped maintain the sport throughout the twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Its many incarnations suggest that something exceptional about roller derby helped it survive waves of popularity. Instead of fading away like most other sporting crazes of its era, roller derby evolved into a sport that has enjoyed numerous periods of popularity. Although it is often marketed more for its entertainment value and mass appeal, its nearly 80-year run solidifies its place in the American sportscape.
[i] “25 Teams Start 3,000 Mile Roller Race Tomorrow,” Chicago Tribune, 12 August 1935, p. 15; “Roller Derby is Opened,” p. 34.
[ii] Quentin Reynolds, “Round and Round”, Collier’s, 22 April 1936, p. 15.
[iii] Telephone conversation with Jerry Seltzer.
[iv] Frank Deford, Five Strides on the Banked Track, p. 83.
[v] “19 Killed as Bus Carrying Skate Troupe Crashes,” Chicago Tribune, 25 March 1937, p. 2; “18 Killed in Bus as Skating Troupe Crashes in Illinois,” New York Times, 25 March 1937, p. 1; “Transport: Midwestern Spectacle,” Time, 5 April 1937.