13th August 2010 marks the 75th Anniversary of Leo Seltzer’s Transcontinental Roller Derby. On the 13th August 1935, twenty thousand spectators filled the Chicago Coliseum to watch this amazing event. This was a marathon race that was the distance equivalent of skating from Los Angeles to New York, a massive 3000 miles. 25 pairs of skaters (one male, one female) took part in skating round a oval banked track in this mythical race. They had to skate for 11.5 hours a day, and at least one member of each team on the track during this time. The winning team would be the first team to skate the 3000 miles. Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay were the first to pass the finish line on Sunday 22nd September 1935 and were one of only 9 teams to complete.
Over the years, roller derby has evolved in many ways. In the 1930’s the game was changed to consist of two teams of five skaters, with a team scoring points when its members lapped members of the opposing team. In the late 1940’s Roller Derby made its debut on American television, and the National Roller Derby League was formed. 1958 saw the Leo Seltzer, the founder of roller derby, transfer the running of the sport to his son, Jerry Seltzer, who made the game more Television friendly by making jammers helmets easier to spot, and safer, as the skaters were required to wear helmets.
In 1973, Jerry was forced to shut down Roller Derby, and several attempts were made to revive the sport from the 1970s through to the 1990s, with varying degrees of success. Then, in 2001 in Austin, Texas, a new generation of women only roller derby began, and by late 2005 over 50 similar all-female leagues were in existence. Leagues outside the US began forming in 2006, with the UKs first team, the London Rollergirls formed in April of that year.
75 years on from the first Transcontinental Roller Derby, the revived all- female Roller Derby is spreading like wild wire throughout the world and now Roller Derby is brought to Nottingham!
To celebrate this anniversary the Nottingham Hellfire Harlots are holding a huge party and we also had the chance to ask Jerry Seltzer, the son of Leo Seltzer some questions and get his views on Roller Derby past and present.
You can download a snazzy version of this interview here: Jerry Seltzer Interview or just read on.
Your father came up with the concept of roller derby when you were very young. How did you first get involved in the game?
I saw it all my life, and I did some track side announcing and eventually got into the management, and when my father decided not to run it any more, I restarted the league.
Decades ago the skaters didn’t have the same level of protective equipment available to them as we do now. Did they fall harder back then or were the injuries sustained similar to those we see today?
Obviously there were many injuries; however the jerseys and tights offered padding and protection. And because the banked tracked was very flexible, they usually did not get hurt falling, and the railings were padded.
What was the game like in its heyday in the 1940s and 50s? What were the crowds like and how did they react to the bouts that they saw?
First of all, they were not bouts, they were games. 4 twelve minute periods each half, women skating twelve minutes, men twelve minutes. The game was very fast and exciting; jams were 1 minute, 2 jammers per team. Crowds were tremendous, 19,000 Madison Square Garden, NY, 50,000 White Sox Park, Chicago with an average attendance of 8,000 to 15,000 through US.
Is the game of roller derby (ie bout durations, rules, team sizes, track size and layout, etc) very different to how it was in its heyday? Do you prefer modern roller derby to the roller derby that was played back then?
Please remember, these were paid professional athletes who did nothing besides Roller Derby; obviously because of skating on the banked track it was a faster and rougher game, less blocking restrictions. The rules were pretty simple, two referees per game. Track was 50 ft wide and could vary in length between 90 and 118 feet, depending on the size of the arena we were playing. It was a different venue every night. Track could be set up in 4 hours, down in 2, put on a 30 foot enclosed trailer, and driven to the next city.
Can you tell us about the most memorable bout you’ve seen?
50,000 people at White Sox Park was amazing. The skating was not as good as some games, but it rarely was at an outdoor venue. The crowd reaction was like delayed thunder.
Besides being a huge inspiration, what sort of role did you play in the all-girl revival of 2000?
I think the only role that was played, was our games from 1973 being on the internet. Until I met with the Windy City Rollers in 2005 I really had not been aware of what was happening. Since then, I have tried to be a positive and unofficial part of the growth.
Do you feel that the banked track has more merits to the game than the flat track or vice versa? Why?
The banked track is a faster and better game. It also allow the skaters to go all out, and the fans to see a game better than on a flat track….however, in most leagues, it is not feasible to have a banked track, so if you haven’t seen the game on a track, you will like the flat track game.
Roller derby has become a female-led, underground, DIY sport. What do you think your father would think of the roller derby of today?
It would take adjustment on his part, but the fact that his game has been revived and is is bigger than ever would make him happy.
Seeing roller derby as it is now, how does it feel to think ‘My father pioneered this’?
I always think that, and will not false modesty; I also realize my role in bringing it to the biggest audience ever in the 70’s.
Your father wanted roller derby to become an Olympic event. Do you feel that this can be achieved? If so, is there anything in particular that we can do to assist this endeavour?
I do now, as it is perceived as a fully legitimate sport and there 16 nations doing it. There will have to be many more nations being involved, but I am certain that will happen.
Have you noticed any significant differences between roller derby inside and outside of North America?
I have not seen any games in person outside of the US, but what I can see on Facebook it seems they are all mostly following the same path.
Do you follow any derby teams in particular? If so, who are they and why?
I try and keep up with the teams I have seen, but mainly I stay caught up by watching Derbynewsnetwork.com I love them all!
Who do you feel is the most iconic roller derby player of all time and is there anyone playing roller derby now who you feel could match them?
For the men, Charlie O’Connell of the San Francisco Bay Bombers; women: Ann Calvello and Joan Weston. Unfortunately, today’s game doesn’t feature stars. The skaters I named both blocked and jammed. It seems meaningless to me to call somebody a star because they score 25 or more points on a jam because it usually involves just skating around. I am opposed to the scoring of more than 5 points on a jam, and the 2-minute jam…..it is way too long.
The roller derby of today is a predominantly female sport. It’s tough and is full contact – any theories on why more men don’t join in as players rather than referees or NSO’s?
Ask the men……there now are over 30 men’s leagues affiliated with the women.
In the past have you ever put on some skates yourself and joined in on the action?
Never, the skaters would have killed me.
Considering that there seems to be new leagues and teams springing up all over the world on an almost daily basis, what do feel the future holds for roller derby?
It has already defined itself as the fastest growing women’s sport in the world. I think there will be professional leagues for those who want them, and it will become a huge television attraction; those who don’t want that will continue to skate for fun and recreation, and there will be much growth in Junior Roller Derby.
The Hellfire Harlots would like to thank Jerry for taking the time to talk to us and also for the use of his photos. We would also like to thank the National Museum of Roller skating for the use of the photo of the winning team Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay from the 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby. You can check them out here:
We are hoping to interview other Roller Derby legends, both new and old, in the coming months. If you would like to be interviewed, submit a question or comment on this article please get in touch with us via our contact page.