In 1935 endurance contests were all the rage; walkathons, bicycle races, danceathons, so many types of endurance contests that Michigan (and South Carolina too, I believe) enacted a law banning the promotion, conducting, or participation in any that lasted more than a day.
1935 Winners Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay
Despite this, the contests continued to endure (sorry, but not really) and one sports promoter by the name of Leo Seltzer decided to cash in on the fad by staging a “Transcontinental Roller Derby”.
From the National Museum of Roller Skating web site:
Drawing on a restaurant tablecloth in Chicago’s Johnny Ricketts restaurant, sports promoter Leo A. Seltzer, came up with the idea of a roller marathon in the spring of 1935. By early August, 50 skaters had been selected to compete in 25 male-female teams. The first Transcontinental Roller Derby opened at noon on August 13, 1935. Twenty thousand Chicagoans filled the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum to witness the 25 teams skate 3,000 miles around the track, a distance equal to that between San Diego and New York City. The winners would be the team to cover that distance in the shortest time. Each team had to travel a given number of miles in every 11 1/2 hour daily skating session. During the entire time allotted for the race, one of the two members had to skate or else the team risked disqualification.
The event lasted until September 11th and was so popular Seltzer took it on the road.
In 1937, however, changes were made to the sport that created the Roller Derby we know (and love) today. Instead of multiple male/female pairs, teams were comprised of 5 players each and two teams competed to score points which were earned by lapping opposing players. Contact was also allowed, letting players push and shove each other.
And that’s when Roller Derby really took off.
Raquel Welch in Kansas City Bomber (1972)
With pushing and shoving and elbows flying, the Roller Derby of the 1950′s and 60′s had a close kinship to the exaggeration of “Wrassling” (aka pro-wrestling) with matches following more of a morality play style of storyline which helped fuel the huge popularity of the sport.
As a kid in the 60′s I watched Roller Derby whenever I could, which usually meant late Friday or Saturday nights and almost always included the Bay City Bombers as one of the contestants. (of course I saw Raquel Welch’s movie Kansas City Bomber! It wasn’t just for the Roller Derby, though…)
In the early 70′s, and despite a huge fan base, Roller Derby began to suffer bankruptcies and in 1973 pretty much ceased to exist. Although relatives tried to spring up, such as RollerGames and RollerJam, nothing really caught on like the old Derby recipe itself. I tried to get my interest in them, but the glitz and glamour sounded the wrong note for a grit and guts game that I felt Roller Derby was. Almost as soon as they formed they faded away anyways.
The banked tracks, if you could find them, were old. Building new ones was expensive and insurance costs were prohibitive even if you could afford to. WWE had a hammer-lock on the sports entertainment industry. That didn’t mean alot to a group of women out of Austin, Texas who tweaked the game into a version that could be played in a roller-skating rink and in 2004 the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) was formed.
Now this wasn’t exactly like the old Roller Derby – while the hype and show around the game was still over-the-top, the game itself became an actual competitive game without a pre-decided direction or outcome.
Surrounded with a “Rock-and-Roll Rebel” style and kitschy sensibilities Roller Derby is on the rise again with 117 WFTDA member leagues and 72 “apprentice” leagues spread across the country.
Seattle's Own Roller Derby Queens. Their Mascot? Rat Bastard, of Course
And I feel quite fortunate that one of those leagues is here in Seattle; The Rat City RollerGirls.
Aunt Bee and I had been promising ourselves to make it to a match ever since RCRG formed, but it took Young Master Z to make it happen by giving me a couple tickets for Father’s Day. They were for the RCRG Championships, no less.
I’ll spare you a play-by-play because, frankly, I can’t recall exactly how it all went down, but suffice it to say that we had a most excellent time! Starting with the National Anthem done by a Mexican brass band Banda Vagos, through the 3rd/4th place game (Derby Liberation Front vs Sockit Wenches), via the halftime Aerialistas, and on into the final match to crown the Champion (Grave Danger vs Throttle Rockets), it was a circus atmosphere punctuated by hard-fought games.
The gentleman with the horned headgear is wearing a red and black tutu. So is the kid behind him with the pom-poms.
And the fans! We were sitting in the Grave Danger team’s section and a couple rows in front of us sat a huge, powerful looking guy in GD red and black wearing a tutu. Think about that for a moment. Yeah, that’s a Fan, big time, and the arena was full of em (over 4,000 folks). We weren’t sure we would ‘blend in’ to the crowd, our being 50ish hippie throwbacks, and me with long, white hair, but there was such a riot of style and color and age that there was no way you couldn’t fit in!
Re-AnimateHer, My RCRG favorite player. And she's not just a pretty face (plus), this girl can skate!
And there, inside Key Arena in Seattle, where I’d watched many a NBA and WNBA game, my love of Roller Derby was renewed and refreshed. Now I have a favorite intra-league team to root for (ok, two of em, actually) and a favorite player (Re-AnimateHer) and intend on making it to more than one game next season.
On the down side, though, I probably won’t be meeting any of my Roller Derby Queens any time soon as the post-match parties are at a bar and I have yet to darken a pub’s door since getting out of the pool three years back. But perhaps by next year…
(if you’re wondering, and i assume you must be if you’re still reading this, Grave Danger won the championship. if you weren’t wondering, then i commend you on your politeness at reading this entire post. a blog needs more readers like you. well done.)