A Brief History of Roller Derby

28 Jan

Brown Paper Tickets loves roller derby! Derby coach and announcer Bob Noxious, our derby liaison told the Chicago Tribune: “A lot of us involved in derby find a certain level of acceptance inside this subculture.” Brown Paper Tickets is an integral part of the derby community, ticketing hundreds of derby events around the country every year. We even have a roller girl working in our Client Services call center. We call her Michelle but her derby name is Sunny Wytha Chansapain 100% – she rolls with the Tilted Thunder Rail Birds, the only banked track league in the Pacific Northwest.

While the past decade’s roller renaissance has exposed the sport to a whole new generation of folks there’s some who might not remember the earlier incarnations of the sport that existed in the ’70s and early ’80s. It didn’t have the same DIY punk aesthetic that you see today, but it was just as rough and tumble as today’s derby.

The term roller derby, which dates back to the early ’20s, was originally used to describe multi-day, flat-track roller skating races, but in the ’30s the competitions were modified and began to focus more on physical contact and teamwork. Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer is given credit for transforming these races into a sport; he trademarked the name “Roller Derby” on July 14, 1935. He also founded the Transcontinental Roller Derby league in 1935, initially a touring, co-ed marathon racing troupe that performed on a banked track, which is an oval shaped track with pitched or angled curves.

While the League’s premiere race in Chicago was a success, with twenty thousand spectators filling the Chicago Coliseum, other engagements around the country proved nowhere near as successful. The press at the time didn’t take the sport seriously, seeing it more as a sideshow attraction because of its inclusion of female athletes. One exception was sports writer Damon Runyon, who saw Seltzer’s organization in Miami and suggested adding more game structure and physical contact. This new version of the sport continued to evolve and grow until November 1948 when the first televised roller derby match was broadcast from New York’s 69th Regiment Armory, and the sport captured the nation’s imagination.

In the 50’s Seltzer moved his headquarters to the West Coast and his son Jerry took over the operation of the league. Roller derby matches featuring the San Francisco Bay Bombers aired on 120 TV stations nationwide, bringing even more popularity to the sport. By 1969, the Bombers were split into three units and saw major success across the country until 1973 when Jerry sold the family business. The last game of the original roller derby league was on December 8, 1973.

Various incarnations of roller derby appeared throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s including TV-only shows like RollerGames and RollerJam, but it never again the saw the level of success it achieved in the early ’70s until the grassroots revival of the sport began to take off in the early 2000s. The majority of modern roller derby leagues today are all-female, grassroots organizations. Modern roller derby has close ties with punk and DIY, with punk bands often performing at matches and players adopting names like Skid’n Nancy, Hard Cora, and Vik Timizer. With Brown Paper Tickets selling tickets for derby bouts from Schenectady, New York to Bakersfield, California, it seems like every town has their own league. This bad-assery shows no sign of stopping soon so get out there, catch some bouts and support your local derby league.

Posted by Jimmy

Vintage Roller Girl image borrowed from The Selvedge Yard

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Posted by on January 28, 2011 in Roller Derby



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