Leo Seltzer, the vaudeville impresario
who created Roller Derby in 1935…
and in turn, the concept of "sports entertainment"
for the television age. (Source: Gerald Seltzer Family
Collection)


 


Continued from…

In the Beginning…

Stephen 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 plazas—with 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 Bomber.

"I 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 that’s not on television anymore?’"

Land was in a position to do more than just wonder—as 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 wasn’t completely dead—a few efforts like the American Roller Derby League in California were limping along—it no longer had a strong television presence. In the ’40s and ’50s, Roller Derby had been one of television’s 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.

"I kind of chuckled–that 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.

Fortunately, 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 wasn’t 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.

"I thought it was a terrible idea," Seltzer recalls, a slight smile creasing his lips as he stands outside Universal’s 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.

At 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 Francisco—or 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 wasn’t until things got a little more competitive that the Derby took off.

"The 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 didn’t want to let them do that–but then the people liked it so much, they kind of allowed blocking. Then they came down to Miami–I think it was 1936, early ’37–and 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."

For decades, Roller Derby was huge–famous 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 week–if 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 O’Connell or Josephine "Ma" Bogash. By 1973, however, Seltzer decided to pull the plug.

"The 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 they’d be on at 10 in the morning, other places at four in the afternoon, and there was no consistency. There really wasn’t enough of a network to sustain interest in the attraction. In ’72, ’73 we hit that gas crisis–a lot of buildings didn’t operate because of heating, and a lot of people didn’t 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."

Through the ’70s and ’80s, many pretenders to the official Roller Derby throne appeared, trying to recapture the game’s spirit. Seltzer feels that most of them failed.

"There 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 pit–but they couldn’t skate. That was the bad part. I kind of turned that on, looked at it, and said, ‘Well, if it’s ever coming back, it isn’t now.’"

 

Roll Back the Clock

Seltzer’s lack of optimism didn’t 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.

"I was sitting in a meeting with Brian Hughes, the head of programming," recalls Land, "and I said, ‘Brian, I’ve got a great idea for a new series. Here’s 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.’"

There was just one major problem–the 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 time–all 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.

"One isn’t 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 it’s 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 wasn’t our vision–we wanted something new."

Initially, they recruited mostly speedskaters, but lost many of them during training—"They didn’t 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 envisioned.

"It changed a lot—sometimes 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 show’s 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."

Finally, after spending millions of CBS’ money, the producers were ready to tape the first show in November, the week after Thanksgiving.

"I told my wife as I left [for Orlando], ‘Either I’m going to be mortified and embarrassed beyond belief, or I’m 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 audience—there were hundreds of people from Universal sitting there, and they’re 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.’"

Presiding over the affair was none other than Jerry Seltzer, whom Land and Bagwell had hired to become the World Skating League’s official Commissioner—a tip of the hat to Roller Derby’s past. "I am pleased to see it back in production in this form with these people, because it’s top-drawer all the way," says the now-convinced Seltzer. "It makes me very happy."

 

Next: Welcome to the Show
Page 1, 2, 3
Sidebar: The Hardcore Fans React