Published on August 13th, 2015 | by Em Dash1
A Brief History of Roller Derby
In honor of the 80th anniversary of the birth of the sport of roller derby, we thought we’d publish a bit about the sport’s weird history.
In the early twentieth century, Americans were hungry for new forms of entertainment. Born from “an early-1920s, giddy, jazz-age fad for competitions such as flagpole sitting and six-day bicycle races,” dance marathons, also called walkathons, became popular spectacles of human endurance. Coed couples would dance together for hundreds of hours, sometimes over the course of a month or two. The last couple standing would earn prize money. As America sank into the Great Depression, these walkathons increased in popularity, providing the participants food, a temporary place to stay, and a chance to win some money. Spectators enjoyed the inexpensive form of entertainment, as they could watch a walkathon for as long as they wanted for just a quarter.
These walkathons (so named because social dancing was still considered slightly disreputable) were a mix of genuine endurance contests and staged spectacles with vaudeville roots. Nearly every American city of 50,000 people or more hosted at least one of these dance marathons.
A man named Leo Seltzer, who operated three movie theaters in Oregon, thought walkathons sounded like a great idea for bringing in spectators, and he decided to produce one. Once he got going, he ended up running walkathons all across the country for five years.
But a repetitive form of entertainment based on novelty can’t hold people’s interest forever. In 1935, on the heels of a disappointing turnout for a walkathon at the Chicago Coliseum, Seltzer began to brainstorm other ideas for events that would bring crowds to the huge venue.
The Transcontinental Roller Derby
Seltzer was inspired by a magazine article that mentioned that 97 percent of Americans had roller skated at some point, a pretty unbelievable statistic. Based on that, he decided to create a new type of endurance marathon on roller skates. He designed an event called the Transcontinental Roller Derby, in which coed pairs would attempt to be the first team to skate four thousand miles, or about 57,000 laps, meant to represent the distance between New York and San Diego. On August 13, 1935, Seltzer’s first roller skating marathon attracted 20,000 fans to the Chicago Coliseum.
Following this success, Seltzer took his attraction on the road. The crowd loved it when skaters “stole laps,” so he retooled the rules, phasing out the map showing skaters’ progress between two cities and instead granting skaters points for passing one another.
Seltzer also realized that skaters could go faster if the track slanted up on the outside, so he created the banked track that became synonymous with roller derby for most of the sport’s history. He continued to retool the rules to try to produce a sport that was most appealing to fans.
Another major change occurred in 1936, when skater Joe Laurey claimed, “I threw a couple of guys over the railing. They fined me $25 and disqualified me, so I threw my skates on the track and left. Everyone else was pushing, so I thought, ‘What the hell?’ People loved it.” Although roller derby eventually became known for its brutal hits, contact between skaters continued to be illegal until 1937, when during a particularly heated bout, Seltzer instructed the referees to stop penalizing pushing and hitting, to see what happened.
Damon Runyon, a popular sportswriter and essayist for the New Yorker, whose stories formed the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls, happened to be sitting in the crowd that night. Enthralled by the rough-and-tumble action on the track, Runyon later sat with Seltzer and helped create the rules that have, with some minor changes, continued to govern the sport ever since.
Each team would have five skaters on the track at a time. Jammers—the point scorers—would try to fight their way through the pack past blockers, who tried to hold them back or knock them down. On the jammers’ second lap through the pack, and any subsequent ones, they would score one point for each opponent they passed. The jammer that was in front, called the lead jammer, could call off the jam. Otherwise, the jam would run for a preset length of time (originally one minute); then a fresh set of skaters would take the track, and the next jam would begin.
Women in Roller Derby
From the very beginning of the sport, when it still consisted of teams of two skaters racking up laps with a long-distance goal, women were an equal part of it. Even as the rules changed, women still had their place. Each team included men and women, who would compete in alternating jams or periods, men against men and women against women. Jerry Seltzer said, “My father felt that women should be represented in the sport,” which might have helped account for the fact that even early on, audiences were at least half female. At that time, women had few opportunities to participate in any sports, let alone contact sports, which made roller derby unique.
According to Jerry, Leo Seltzer “was so criticized—and so was I. I had the men skaters come, especially when we were doing so well—and say ‘We don’t need the women anymore.’ I said, ‘You don’t.’ The women were part of roller derby, and they always would be, and that was pretty much it. “
The novelty of women playing a sport—and a contact sport, at that—fascinated some sportswriters. However, the inclusion of women and the theatricality of the sport caused other papers to cover it in the entertainment section rather than on the sports pages, a struggle that roller derby faces even to this day.
There was no doubt about how Leo Seltzer viewed roller derby. In his letters, he called it “a game which I think will be the greatest spectator sport of all.”
An excerpt from the book Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby by Em Dash (Gutpunch Press, 2015).
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