In the Beginning
Land distinctly remembers The Moment. It struck him one Sunday morning
in May of 1997 while he was reading The New York Times at his home
in the prosperous west end of Knoxville, Tenn. Knoxville is a city of
casual dining outlets and pleasant shopping plazaswith tendrils
of its Southern heritage clinging to the smooth beaches of middle class
commerce like strands of kudzu. As Land scanned the obituaries that morning,
he came across one for none other than Joanie Westin, the legendary Blonde
was sitting there reading the article, and I just had this flood of emotions,"
says Land, sitting back in his mod office in the Old City, a refurbished
warehouse district that now houses sushi restaurants and import boutiques
instead of brothels and speakeasies. "I could remember as a kid watching
Roller Derby on Channel 26, with these larger-than-life people and hard-hitting
action. I had some really cool memories of it. And the natural thought
was, I wonder why thats not on television anymore?"
was in a position to do more than just wonderas the owner of Jupiter
Entertainment, a production company behind such cable network shows as
The Grand Tour and City Confidential, he could actually
do something about it. First, he discovered that although Roller Derby
wasnt completely deada few efforts like the American Roller
Derby League in California were limping alongit no longer had a
strong television presence. In the 40s and 50s, Roller Derby
had been one of televisions most popular draws, along with pro wrestling.
Now it was nonexistent. How crazy would it be to put it back on the air?
He called up his mentor Ross Bagwell, Sr., of Bagwell Entertainment, and
floated the idea past him.
kind of chuckledthat would be a hell of an undertaking," recalls
the cigar-chomping Bagwell, a TV veteran who had gotten his start in the
business during the 50s as a production assistant for The Howdy
Doody Show. "But I thought it was feasible. His concern was that
it was a little bit more than most people could chew, period. It was a
whole lot of work." The duo soon formed a partnership, Pageboy Entertainment,
to create the show.
their timing was right. With the burgeoning popularity of inline skating,
the renown of glitzy pro wrestling leagues like the WWF and WCW, not to
mention the societal thirst for all things retro, a Roller Derby renaissance
wasnt out of the question. As Land got deeper into researching the
idea, he discovered a sort of underground network of Roller Derby fans
who kept the game alive with newsletters and web pages, with old skaters
trading stories and hopes. Foremost among these Derby old-timers was Jerry
Seltzer, the man behind the original league, whose father had invented
the game. Land gave him a call and asked for his advice on bringing Roller
Derby back from the dead.
thought it was a terrible idea," Seltzer recalls, a slight smile
creasing his lips as he stands outside Universals Stage 21. With
his neatly trimmed gray hair and bemused expression, he looks more like
a retired bank president than the canny promoter behind what used to be
one of the most popular spectator sports in the country.
its height in the late 60s and early 70s, Roller Derby aired
on over 110 television stations around the country and played to sell-out
crowds in virtually every major city. Originally, when Leo Seltzer invented
it in 1935 to put an attraction into the Chicago Coliseum, Roller Derby
was an endurance race similar to other Depression-era dance marathons
or walkathons. Couples would skate for days on end in a mock "transcontinental"
race, figuratively skating the distance between Chicago and San Franciscoor
57,000 laps. Some of the couples would also put on acts, singing and dancing
for money thrown onto the track by spectators. But it wasnt until
things got a little more competitive that the Derby took off.
faster skaters would break out and try and get laps so they would get
ahead in the race, and some of the slower skaters started to band together
to try and hold them back," says Seltzer. "And at first, they
didnt want to let them do thatbut then the people liked it
so much, they kind of allowed blocking. Then they came down to MiamiI
think it was 1936, early 37and Damon Runyon, a very famous
sports writer, saw it and he sat down with my father and hammered out
the rules, almost exactly as they are today."
decades, Roller Derby was hugefamous teams like the Bay Bombers
and the New York Chiefs would tour the country, selling out venues such
as Madison Square Garden. Home teams were quickly formed wherever the
Derby was skating that weekif it was in Nashville, then it was Nashville
vs. New York. Throngs of fans would cheer or boo players with names like
Bomber Great Charlie OConnell or Josephine "Ma" Bogash.
By 1973, however, Seltzer decided to pull the plug.
television network was the hardest thing to maintain," he says. "The
syndication cost a great deal of money and there were no satellites, so
we were shipping tapes from city to city and station to station. Some
places theyd be on at 10 in the morning, other places at four in
the afternoon, and there was no consistency. There really wasnt
enough of a network to sustain interest in the attraction. In 72,
73 we hit that gas crisisa lot of buildings didnt operate
because of heating, and a lot of people didnt go out because they
were scared. It just kind of pushed us over the edge. We made a conscious
decision in 1973 that it had run its time, at least in its present incarnation,
so we shut it down."
the 70s and 80s, many pretenders to the official Roller Derby
throne appeared, trying to recapture the games spirit. Seltzer feels
that most of them failed.
have been a number of imitators, some picking up the worst aspects of
the game, I would have to say. There was even one shown on television
where they had a figure-eight track, a wall of death, and an alligator
pitbut they couldnt skate. That was the bad part. I kind of
turned that on, looked at it, and said, Well, if its ever
coming back, it isnt now."
Back the Clock
lack of optimism didnt phase the partnership. This was because they
already had a deal in their pocket; unlike other would-be Roller Derby
resuscitators, Land and Bagwell had gotten a network deal before trying
to start a new league. In May of 98, Land and Bagwell pitched the
idea to CBS-owned TNN, home to NASCAR and now-canceled cornpone shows
like Club Dance and Crook & Chase.
was sitting in a meeting with Brian Hughes, the head of programming,"
recalls Land, "and I said, Brian, Ive got a great idea
for a new series. Heres what you need to do: Roller Derby!
And there was this terrible silence. It seemed like an hour. We just sat
there. And finally, he goes, Roller Derby, yeah, that could be cool."
was just one major problemthe network wanted it ready by December
or January. And there would be no pilot. Pageboy Entertainment had to
create an entire league, recruit and train new Roller Derby players, build
a track, design logos and uniforms, put together a television crew, and
shoot the thing right the first timeall in about seven months. Which
was nuts, as Mr. Seltzer suspected. First of all, where would they get
players for a sport 25 years dead? They quickly started from scratch,
with casting calls around the country, appealing to speed skaters, roller
hockey players, extreme sports enthusiasts, even American Gladiators and
creamed corn wrestlers.
isnt born with the ability to do The Whip. This is not something
that is a universal trait that is out there," Land says. "There
have been a number of attempts to bring back Roller Derby in the last
25 years and generally its involved getting a lot of older skaters
that skated back in the 60s or early 70s, and trotting these
people back out on the same show, the same track, the same everything.
That wasnt our visionwe wanted something new."
they recruited mostly speedskaters, but lost many of them during training"They
didnt like taking the hits," Land says. Pageboy hired former
Roller Derby stars to guide the neophyte players in the ways of the Double
Tomahawk. Out of 200 people who went through the training school, about
80 skaters made the cut. But once the teams were formed, the producers
realized they had a different kind of show than what they originally had
changed a lotsometimes it was just going to be wrestling on skates,
other times it was going to be this kind of pure, nostalgic revival thing,
and then everything in between," says Geoff Proud, the shows
post-producer. "I think we had originally thought it would be a little
more over the top than it ended up, believe it or not. But when we assembled
the skaters and got the thing going, we realized that these guys are real
athletes and they could pull off more of a physical show and less mugging
and clowning around."
after spending millions of CBS money, the producers were ready to
tape the first show in November, the week after Thanksgiving.
told my wife as I left [for Orlando], Either Im going to be
mortified and embarrassed beyond belief, or Im just going to be
ecstatic," says Land. "Ross and I basically just crossed
our fingers and said roll tape. And we were delighted. What
seemed to validate it for us was this live audiencethere were hundreds
of people from Universal sitting there, and theyre screaming and
cheering, kids jumping up and down. And afterward, they came up to the
skaters and asked for autographs. We looked at each other and said, Yeah,
this is real."
over the affair was none other than Jerry Seltzer, whom Land and Bagwell
had hired to become the World Skating Leagues official Commissionera
tip of the hat to Roller Derbys past. "I am pleased to see
it back in production in this form with these people, because its
top-drawer all the way," says the now-convinced Seltzer. "It
makes me very happy."
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