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Sonoma’s king of the rink (w/video)

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Make ‘em Bleed

The Red Cross mobile blood bus will be parked outside Rohnert Park’s Cal Skate from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday for the second annual “Make ‘em Bleed” Roller Derby Blood Drive, a series of individual events that began Aug. 23 in Redwood City and will end in Rohnert Park. Athletes from Sonoma County’s two Roller Derby teams, Resurrection Roller Girls and Sonoma County Roller Derby, will be on hand to offer donors skate-shaped cookies, pose for photos, sign autographs, and hand out cool swag.

“People will be going in and out of Cal Skate all day long,” said Resurrection’s Sugar Snappy. “Roller Derby is an active, full contact sport, so it matches well with blood donations. We’ll be facilitating, not doing exhibition skating or anything like that.”

Last year the drives resulted in 220 pints, enough blood to save 660 lives. That total has already been exceeded this year, according to Hanna Malak, an account manager with the American Red Cross, with the goal of attracting 30 participants on Saturday.

The Roller Derby Blood Drive is sponsored by Brown Paper Tickets and the American Red Cross. Make an appointment at redcrossblood.org or (800) RED-CROSS. Walk-ins also are welcome.

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.

Make ‘em Bleed

The Red Cross mobile blood bus will be parked outside Rohnert Park’s Cal Skate from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday for the second annual “Make ‘em Bleed” Roller Derby Blood Drive, a series of individual events that began Aug. 23 in Redwood City and will end in Rohnert Park. Athletes from Sonoma County’s two Roller Derby teams, Resurrection Roller Girls and Sonoma County Roller Derby, will be on hand to offer donors skate-shaped cookies, pose for photos, sign autographs, and hand out cool swag.

“People will be going in and out of Cal Skate all day long,” said Resurrection’s Sugar Snappy. “Roller Derby is an active, full contact sport, so it matches well with blood donations. We’ll be facilitating, not doing exhibition skating or anything like that.”

Last year the drives resulted in 220 pints, enough blood to save 660 lives. That total has already been exceeded this year, according to Hanna Malak, an account manager with the American Red Cross, with the goal of attracting 30 participants on Saturday.

The Roller Derby Blood Drive is sponsored by Brown Paper Tickets and the American Red Cross. Make an appointment at redcrossblood.org or (800) RED-CROSS. Walk-ins also are welcome.

“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.

“I didn’t know anything,” he laughs, thinking back.

But the timing was perfect. Young, daring and spilling over with ideas, Jerry quickly brought the organization back to life. He forged deals to syndicate roller derby telecasts on more than 120 TV stations nationwide and in Canada, where they were wildly popular. He turned the San Francisco Bay Bombers into a legendary team with equally legendary stars such as “Golden Girl” Joan Weston, Ann Calvello and Charlie O’Connell. On tour around the U.S., live derby games filled arenas and broke attendance records.

By 1973, though, roller derby’s second life had run its course. High touring costs and decreasing attendance — exacerbated by the oil crisis, which caused people to stay home and shut down arenas around the country — brought an end to the league.

Seltzer moved on. He co-founded BASS Tickets and the Sonoma Valley Film Festival (now the Sonoma International Film Festival). For a decade he served as vice president of sales and marketing for Ticketmaster and produced two documentary films, “Derby” and “First Position.” He put on star-studded benefit concerts to fund causes he believed in, helped produce the 30th anniversary celebration of the Rev. Cecil Williams’ Glide Memorial Church and produced benefits for Thunder Road, an Oakland drug rehab center for teens.

Meanwhile, roller derby refused to die. A takeoff called RollerGames debuted in 1989 but went bankrupt after one year. A decade later, TNN TV (now Spike) came up with RollerJam; it lasted two seasons.

Then, in the early 21st century, amateur, self-organized, all-female roller derby leagues began popping up around the U.S., beginning in Austin, Texas. Today roller derby is an international sport dominated by all-female teams, although the number of male teams is growing.

“There are now almost 2,000 leagues with more than 100,000 players,” Seltzer said. “There are leagues in 49 countries. Not only that, but roller derby is being considered for the 2020 Olympics. That would have really made Leo happy. It was something he always wanted.”

Leo would also be happy to see that his son continues to play a role with the contemporary roller derby as an unofficial spokesman. He has been the honorary commissioner for roller derby since 2008, resulting in his nickname, “the Commish.”

“I’m a huge roller derby fan, and I’m very supportive,” Seltzer said. “I have absolutely no power.”

Many would disagree, including Red Cross manager Malak.

“Jerry has been an incredible liaison with the league,” he said. “He’s so respected. When I attend an event with him, everybody stops what they’re doing and asks for his autograph. I feel like a celebrity when I’m with him.”

Seltzer shrugs off the praise with a smile.

“I just do what I do,” he said. “I like people. I like humanity. You know, everybody has their own way, their own path, their own approach to living life. Me, I’m still kicking ass.”

Learn more about Jerry by visiting his blog, rollerderbyjesus.com. See a video about roller derby at vimeo.com/100729578.

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