The Revival of the Roller Derby

In 1935, a roller skating fad arose and walkathon promoter Leo Seltzer decided to combine the two concepts and call it the Transcontinental Roller Derby. The event was more than a month long and held at the Chicago Coliseum. Twenty-five two-person teams skated 11½ hours a day, to cover 3,000 miles. Both members being off the track during skating times resulted in that teams disqualification. Injuries or exhaustion led to only nine teams completing the race with the winning team consisting of Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay who held the lead for the last 11 days of the derby.

Over the next two years, Seltzer held Transcontinental Roller Derby’s throughout the U.S. for daily crowds averaging 10,000 in number using a portable track. Sportswriter Damon Runyon noticed the most exciting part was when collisions and crashes occurred as skaters tried to lap those who were ahead of them. Runyon went on to encourage Seltzer to change the game to maximize physical contact between the skaters. Seltzer carefully made changes and the derby evolved into a sport involving two teams of five skaters, with a team scoring points when its members lapped members of the other team, which is the basic premise of roller derby to this day.

In 1941, World War II interrupted the sport’s growth, crowds dwindled and only one team remained skating mainly for the entertainment of soldiers. After the war’s end in 1945, Seltzer continued building the sport and in 1947, Roller Derby debuted on the ABC television network. By 1949, Roller Derby games were being televised live throughout the U.S., and the National Roller Derby League was formed, the season playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for a week. In 1950, Roller Derby could be seen on ABC several times a week but sadly by 1951 it was off television due to overexposure and declining ratings. In 1958, Leo Seltzer handed control to his son Jerry Seltzer, who syndicated Roller Derby to 120 television stations, and changed some of the rules. Skaters were now required to wear helmets, and Jerry made the game more TV-friendly by making jammers’ helmets easier to identify. Several rival organizations began to spring up but to the media, there was only one Roller Derby. From Jerry Seltzer’s takeover in the late 50’s the game reached new heights of popularity and continued breaking attendance records which topped off in 1972 with 50,000 at Comiskey Park in Chicago. Because all good things must come to an end, in 1973, Jerry Seltzer chose to shut down the organization. Several attempts were made in the late 1970’s and 1980’s to revive the sport, but its former glory was proven to be unattainable.

After two decades in obscurity, a grassroots revival was born, with amateur all-female leagues forming in urban centers across North America. By February 2006 more than 80 leagues had formed. Rollergirls reality television show is attributed to the sudden growth in 2006. In 2004, several leagues banded together to form the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA), which coordinates and sets the rules that govern inter-league competition among its members. Luckily, here in Portland is one such league called the Rose City Rollers which I got the opportunity to see up close and personal.

In August I attended my very first roller derby at the Oregon Expo Center. The bleachers were packed and the crowd seemed really into the impending game. From a quick glance at the rules I gather that they vary and I found myself very confused when the bout began. Luckily, seated next to me was a friendly young lady named Larissa who was kind enough to explain the action that was unfolding before me.

The rules vary between leagues but generally two teams of five skaters take up positions alongside each other in a pack formation. Skating is performed counterclockwise on a small, narrow, flat track. A jam starts with blockers skating at the first signal. A second signal is given to launch the jammers, who must catch up to the rear of the pack. Jammers navigate through or around, then lap around the back. The first jammer to get through the pack legally is called the lead jammer and may call off the jam at any time. Some blockers are pivots; they play a key role in determining the pace and are the last line of defense for their respective teams. They act as blockers and assist their jammer while attempting to prevent the opposing jammer from leaving the pack.

Scoring commences when the jammers lap around the back of the pack and go through for a second time. One point is scored for each member of the opposing team passed by an inbound jammer. Blockers try to stop the opposing jammer from passing them, while defending their own jammer, whom they can assist by pushing or whipping in an attempt to advance them through. The jam concludes after a fixed period of time or when the lead jammer calls off the jam. Until then, both jammers are free to lap the pack again and again. A game is composed of three 20-minute periods played between two teams; the team with the most points is deemed the winner.

The Rose City Rollers consists of four teams and the bout I attended included Breakneck Betties vs. High Rollers and Heartless Heathers vs. Guns N’ Rollers. The Breakneck Betties topped the High Rollers with a final score of 63 to 51 and the Guns N’ Rollers broke a current winning streak of the Heartless Heathers with a close final score of 59 to 56.

I had a great time and found this experience very entertaining, although I did expect a bit more violence. Will the roller derby make a full come back and eventually pack arenas? I guess only time will tell, but I can say based on what I saw at this event, the sport has a good start doing just that. Learn more about the Rose City Rollers at www.rosecityrollers.com

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