Roller derby pioneer Jerry Seltzer on the 75th anniversary of Transcontinental Roller Derby

Leo Seltzer never lived to see the realization of his dreams for the sport he invented, which most modern roller derby scholars trace back to his 1935 Transcontinental Roller Derby at the Chicago Coliseum.

Seltzer had Olympic ambitions for his roller guys and dolls, and he dared to dream of derby bouts going down in 6,500-seat venues like Broomfield's 1stBank Center well into the 21st century. Alas, the sport had pretty much fizzled out by the time he died in 1978.

His son Jerry figures dear old dad would have liked what he would see if he could have hung in there another 32 years to join him for this weekend's May 8 Denver Roller Dolls doubleheader (Bruising Altitude vs. Utah's O-Town Derby Dames, Mile High Club All-Star Team vs. Texas Rollergirls): On the cusp of its 75th anniversary (the first Transcontinental Roller Derby was held on August 13, 1935), roller derby is alive and well after all.

"We're working on some way to commemorate it," says Andrea "Kendra Blood" Hill, spokesperson for the Denver Roller Dolls. "As a marathoner, I love the idea of trying to hold a true endurance event like it used to be."

Full interview with Jerry Seltzer after the jump:

Jerry Seltzer was just three years old when it all started, but he grew up around the original Roller Derby league and eventually took over the family business in 1958. The successful promoter went on to found BASS Tickets in 1974 (now owned by Tickets.com) and later joined Ticketmaster as a VP; the original Roller Derby league floundered and collapsed in the late 70s.

Now that the Women's Flat Track Derby Association and leagues like the Denver Roller Dolls have given the sport new life, Seltzer's trying to help out anyway he can to keep his father's legacy jamming. He'll be in the house this Saturday, cheering louder than anybody.

"We're very excited to have Jerry visit us in our new venue and see how the sport his father created has been revived, and perhaps get a glimpse of where it's going," says Hill.

We got Jerry Seltzer on the phone to chat about his upcoming visit and the sport's 75th anniversary.

Westword: Roller derby has a big anniversary coming up. What are the plans for celebrating it?

Jerry Seltzer: August 13, 1935 was the date of the very first Transcontinental Roller Derby. In Chicago the WFTDA teams there and some of the old timers are working on something for August to commemorate it. When it's all together obviously everyone will be notified.

What were those first events like? Do you have any recollections of your own or from your father's stories?

Well, I wasn't there. I wasn't quite old enough. But what would you like to know? Admission was like 10 cents, and those early marathon events would last 30 or 40 days. It was very different than the game we know today. Basically it was a marathon on skates. A team consisted of a man and a woman, and there was a huge map of the United States. The object was to skate across the United States, you know, so many laps in a mile. Occasionally a team would break out and try to lap the field and get ahead. That became a principal of the game.

Was it a rough game like the one we know today?

There wasn't supposed to be any blocking or anything, and the officials tried to stop it, but the fans liked it so much that dad let it stay in to keep things exciting. Then in 1937 or '38 he took it to Coral Springs, Florida. Damon Runyon, the most famous sportswriter of his day (although now he's better known for having written Guys and Dolls) came and saw it, and over a period of five or six days he sat down with my father and together they devised the contact sport rules that were skated from then on: Five people on a team on the track at a time, points were cumulative, four 15-minute periods, the blocking rules were established, the jamming time was established, and that's pretty much how it stayed until the the 50s and 60s, when we went to what was called "the helmet game," where players became designated jammers, blockers, or pivot skaters. 

What do you make of everything going on these days with the WFTDA and the contemporary version of the sport?

I think it's astonishing. My father stopped promoting roller derby in 1957 and I promoted it from 1958 to 1973. Even that's 37 years ago. So to have the phoenix rising from the ashes now is truly inspiring. In our heyday we had six teams operating across the United States, 7 men and 7 women on a team. That meant there were a total of 84 active skaters. Well, now there are something like 13,000 women participating in 522 leagues in 15 countries. It's just unbelievable.

Would your dad have been surprised to learn that roller derby is alive and well in the 21st century?

I think so, given the state of it when he died, but he always wanted a game that would accepted by everybody, a 100 percent legitimate game that would be in the Olympics. That was always his dream. He died in 1978, but he would have been thrilled to see all these leagues thriving, and I think he'd be both shocked and delighted to learn that they're almost all women. I think he always thought if it ever was going to survive it would have to be all men, because it had gotten to be such a rough sport. I'm not sure what he would think of the garb and the tattoos and the personalities in the sport today - remember, he would have been 107 this year. But he was a pretty open-minded guy, and he'd just be delighted to see it still going.

What's your involvement in it all now?

I'm just trying to encourage these girls to keep carrying it forward. In 2000 I was contacted by these people who were starting Roller Jam, which was on TNN. They wanted to try to revive it as the original roller derby, but using online skates on a banked track that cost them a quarter million dollars to make. Well, you can understand how that went sour. When it didn't immediately get the ratings they wanted they brought in script writers and it became like the WWE, and I left. I don't have any formal relationship with the WFTDA or any of the leagues now, but I like the direction they're going in. I've got 1,500 friends on Facebook, and most of them are roller girls from around the world. That's about the extent of my involvement in it now, and I've also gone to RollerCon twice and will go again this summer. I'm honored that they'll let me say a few words, but I don't have any real role in promoting it other than to encourage the girls. They're the ones who are carrying it now, and they're doing it admirably. Whatever they're doing, it's working.

The Denver Roller Dolls are competing in a venue that seats 6,500, about the biggest capacity of any league in the country. I'm curious: How big was it in its heyday?

In 1959 we started taping our games in San Francisco and started placing them on stations across the country. Suddenly we were on 110 different stations and it really blew up bigger than we'd ever imagined. We would skate the summer in San Francisco, and then in the fall and winter we would tour the country. We sold out in Denver, sold out Madison Square Gardens, Boston Garden, Pittsburgh Civic Arena... We had 27,000 at Shay Stadium in New York, 35,000 at the Oakland Coliseum Stadium, and our largest crowd ever, in Chicago, September 1972, we had 50,000 people at White Sox Park. So it was extremely popular, but we kind of ran out of steam in 1973. I'd been doing it for 15 years, owning and operating the entire league, and I moved over to computerized ticketing and just kind of let it go. Well, now it's all coming back up, and in a much broader way. As you mentioned, the Denver Roller Dolls' venue seats 6,500. The last match in Seattle at Key Arena, they had 5,700 paid. The leagues in Chicago and Kansas City get over 4,000, and there's even a league in Brisbane, Australia that gets over 5,000. This is a worldwide thing now. It's probably one of the largest underground things going.

What do you think it would take to get to your dad's dream of seeing roller derby in the Olympics?

I'd like to see it happen in 2016, maybe 2020. What you're seeing in the modern flat track derby competitions is a true contest. It's not scripted, it's the real thing, and it's rough and athletic and exciting. The skating is getting much better, it's getting to be at a true national level of competition, and we're seeing very competitive leagues popping up around the world. But you can't force it: To get to the Olympics a sport has to grow and establish an international presence to the point where the IOC can't ignore it. I think it's definitely heading in a direction where it could be everything my father imagined.

What's the occasion for your visit to Denver this weekend? Just coming out as a fan?

Chuck Morris is an old friend. After I shut down roller derby in the 70s I opened BASS Tickets, one of the first computerized ticketing agencies, and one of the first places we opened was in Denver, back in 1974. The first club I signed up was Ebbets Field, and Chuck Morris was the owner at the time. Well, now he's president and CEO of AEG Live in the Rocky Mountain Region. There's only a couple of degrees of separation in anything anymore. He calls me up and he says, "Do you know what's going on in the 1st Bank Center? You'll never guess." I said, "I have no idea." He says, "The Roller Dolls are playing in the building. You have to see it." So I'm coming out to see it. As you can tell, I'm a big enthusiast. This weekend, my god, you have the Mile High Club, ranked 3rd in the nation at last year's national championship, and the Texas Roller Girls, ranked #2. If you haven't checked it out yet, this will be an excellent opportunity to see roller derby at its best.

For more on the local roller derby scene, check out Melanie Asmar's February 18 Westword cover story on rival leagues the Denver Roller Dolls and Rocky Mountain Roller Girls.

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