It's time for Roller Derby...
A nostalgic look back at the skate
game that all of America loved

San Francisco Bay Bomber coach Charlie O'Connell (right) throws a jump block against John Parker during a 1970s Roller Derby contest. International Roller Skating League Photo
(This is the first of a series of articles I wrote on Roller Derby while working for a weekly paper in the Sacramento, California area. This appeared in print Aug. 14, 1991)

    While going through some old boxes the other night, I dug out an autograph book that brought back a lot of memories.
    Hand-painted on the cover with enamel model airplane paint in brown and orange letters it said - Bay Bombers (1971).
    Visions of the Memorial Auditorium in downtown Sacramento suddenly sprang into my head - of a banked skating track and wheeled warriors doing battle on roller skates.
    "It's time for Roller Derby..."
    Anyone who lived in Sacramento back in the 60s and 70s has to remember the Roller Derby.
    The San Francisco Bay Bombers, Eastern Red Devils, Northeast Braves, Midwest Pioneers, Ohio Jolters and several other teams that would appear and disappear as time went by.
    Of course, the Bay Bombers were our team.
    In their familiar orange and brown uniforms, the Bombers were the heroes of my youth, and adored by fans throughout the area.
    Coach Charlie O'Connell, Tony Roman, Larry Smith, Cliff Butler, Carol "Peanuts" Meyer, Francine Cochu and Joanie Weston were only a few of the fan favorites at the games played at the Memorial Auditorium.
    Of course, the Derby played all over Northern California, as well. And, during "our" off-season, toured the country, delighting fans from Denver to Chicago to New York.
    The original Roller Derby was created by Leo Seltzer back in the 1930s.
    The first-ever Derby "game" was skated on Aug. 13, 1935 in the Chicago Coliseum, with over 20,000 people watching.
    At that time, rather than a competitive game, the Derby was an endurance race. Male/female teams would switch off skating a race of 57,000 laps, which amounted to 4,000 miles - roughly the distance across the United States.
    A large map was displayed with markers showing where the teams would be if they were really skating across the country.
    The "modern" Roller Derby was born by accident only a few years later, as Seltzer was showing off his game to New York sportwriter Damon Runyan in Miami in 1938.
    During a "speed jam" a few of the players tangled up and Runyan suggested to Seltzer that contact should be part of the game. The next night it was.
     The Roller Derby had its ups and downs over the years, eventually migrating from east to west. In 1958, Seltzer's son Jerry took over the business - or what was left of it - and by the mid-1960s, Roller Derby was back on its feet.
    Roller Derby thrived in Northern California in the 1960s and 70s. The Bay Bombers, formed in 1954, became the team of choice, and the rest is history.
    Under Seltzer, the Roller Derby survived until its last official game in 1973.
    During the last two years of the Seltzer-owned Derby, the sport went nationwide with games being skated all over the country and teams adopting various cities as their "home" base. The Pioneers skated in the Chicago area, the Jolters in Cincinnati, the Chiefs in New York, and, of course, the Bombers in Northern California.
    For a brief period of time, the Bombers were replaced by the California Golden State Bay Area Chiefs (with O'Connell at the helm), but the ever-loyal Bomber fans didn't stand for this very long, and soon the Bombers (and O'Connell) returned to their familiar brown and orange uniforms.
    An unexpected enemy put an end to the Derby by 1973.
    Driving everywhere, Roller Derby soon succumbed to rising gas prices and transportation costs.
    Fans, at least for awhile, had to live with only their memories of the game.
    Some skaters scattered to other skating organizations, but disgruntled with the "style" of play, none lasted very long (by choice) with these groups.
    Seltzer, meanwhile, founded the successful BASS ticket service, while his uncle Oscar continued running the Roller Derby Skate Company.
    In 1977 David Lipschultz revived the Derby, bringing it back to some of its former glory in Northern California.
    Lipschultz had got involved in the Derby after skaters Charlie O'Connell, Mike Gammon and announcer Don Drewry made an attempt to bring the game back in 1976.
    A television producer at Channel 20 in the Bay Area, Lipschultz was interested in putting the Derby back on TV.
    On April 24, 1977, the first television game of the new International Roller Skating League was taped at Kezar Pavillion.
    Lipschultz eventually took complete control of the league and under the IRSL banner, signed many of the old Derby stars.
    Roller Derby was finally back in business.
    The new organization lasted until Dec. 12, 1987, when its last game was skated at Madison Square Garden in New York.
    Financial problems and involvement with partners who suddenly backed out, spelled an end to this version of the Derby.
    Left with no place to go, the skaters again tried other organizations, most notably the Southern California-based Roller Games. But again, unhappy with the pranks and showmanship involved with the "other outfit," many skaters opted for retirement rather than continuing on.
    Other promoters have tried to revive the Derby over the last few years in one form or another, but none have succeeded.
    Several skaters have put together "pick-up" games for charity recently, so while there is no organized Roller Derby league, Roller Derby still exists in the hearts of the skaters.
    June 29 in Burbank, 200 former Roller Derby stars dating back to the 1940s had a get together to relive old times and swap war stories.
    Roller Derby will always be more than a memory for them.

© 1991/2000 by Joe Blenkle
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