Sonoma’s king of the rink (w/video)
Sugar Snappy, Rosie Road Rash and other members of the Resurrection Roller Girls will be out for blood on Saturday, but not in the roller derby ring. Between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. they will be stumping for donors as part of the league’s Make ‘Em Bleed blood drive.
The man behind the idea is longtime Sonoma resident Jerry Seltzer, who has always loved shining a spotlight on roller derby. After all, his father, Leo, invented it back in 1935.
“We wouldn’t have had half as many donations without his vision,” said Hanna Malak, an account manager with the American Red Cross. “Jerry found out a couple of years ago that we’d done one blood drive in Santa Cruz with a derby league there. He called me up and said he wanted to do this all over the Bay Area. So last year was the start. I’m already excited to think about doing the third one next year.”
A sports and entertainment consultant and a master promoter, Seltzer has served as a board member for Bay Area Red Cross, is the community outreach representative with Brown Paper Tickets and a contributor to the company’s Doer Program, which employs a roller derby representative. He also serves as roller derby’s unofficial spokesman, a role that would make his father proud.
Born in 1903, Leo Seltzer’s entrepreneurial drive was apparent in his early teens. By 17, he was the youngest film salesman at Universal Films. A few years later, he and a partner owned and operated three movie theaters in Portland, Ore. His first big solo success was sparked by the late 1920s craze of dance marathons or “walkathons” - endurance contests in which dancers stayed on their feet for many hours at a time, hoping to win fame and money.
Beginning in 1931, Leo organized and promoted 23 walkathons that proved popular with the public (future stars Red Skelton, Frankie Laine and Lord Richard Buckley were among his masters of ceremony). Ultimately, Leo’s walkathons grossed more than $20 million.
From the start, Leo believed in sharing the spoils and treating people who worked with him well, an attitude that he passed on to his son.
“Leo took care of people,” Jerry said. “He knew that dancers were badly treated by other marathon operators, and he made sure that ‘his walkers’ were given proper meals and rest periods. He also started an association of marathon promoters and established standards for them to uphold. Leo was always above-board. I took all that in. He never sat down and told me, ‘This is how you treat people.’ I learned by a sort of osmosis.”
In 1935, when Jerry was 3, Leo read a magazine article about the popularity of roller skating and soon founded the Transcontinental Roller Derby. Featuring male/female teams skating 3,000 miles on a banked track, it simulated a fictitious monthlong cross-country marathon skating race. Each team skated 11½ hours each day, while a large electronic map of the U. S. charted their progress. The daily paying audience averaged a respectable 10,000, and Leo took the derby on a nationwide tour with moderate success.
Two years later, Leo met the famous sports and short story writer Damon Runyon, author of “Guys & Dolls,” who convinced him that increased skater contact would add more excitement to roller derby. The two men reworked and toughened the game’s rules, changing it from a leisurely skating marathon into a fast-action, bone-breaking sport in which two five-person teams competed ruthlessly on the track.
“Damon Runyon and Leo created the five-on-five game,” Seltzer said. “There were four teams altogether, with men and women alternating periods, and that lasted throughout roller derby’s existence.”
The game’s combination of speed-driven, heart-stopping excitement and charismatic athletes in colorful uniforms propelled roller derby’s popularity skyward. In 1940, roller derby played in more than 50 U.S. cities, with a total audience exceeding 5 million. In the late 1940s, when the derby began appearing on early TV, it attained full status as a national sensation. For years to come, when roller derby hit town, even huge venues such as Madison Square Garden were completely sold out.
But the fickle touch of fame rarely stays for long. Roller derby gradually lost its luster, the crowds diminished and, by the late 1950s, Leo was ready to pack it in.
Enter Jerry Seltzer, who was 26 when he took over operation of roller derby in 1959. He had a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University, had served two years in the Army and was recently married. His previous jobs included one that introduced outdoor skates with shoes built onto them, but he hadn’t yet settled into a career.