Roller Derby may have been born in the Chicago Coliseum in August 1935, but it was “99 percent a Bay Area thing,” says Roller Derby historian Keith Coppage.
After moves to New York and Los Angeles, founder Leo Seltzer enlisted son Jerry to help him move the Derby to the Bay Area in 1958. With the help of TV station KTVU, it flourished. By the ’70s, the Derby’s international broadcast reached an estimated 40 million.
Bay Area fans had it both ways: couchside or at a fairground nearby. But sometimes there were more skaters than spectators at sites like Napa. That’s when Jerry Seltzer knew to stick with Vallejo, Antioch, San Francisco and Oakland. Roller Derby ended in 1973. Here are the Bay Area connections:
_ Alameda: In an old auto garage on Buena Vista Avenue, the original training school tried out young hopefuls for $ 1 and ran the team members ragged.
_ Antioch: Coppage remembers the fairgrounds fondly as the site of his first Roller Derby game, but Jerry Seltzer was ready never to come back. “The fans were a lot more tentative,” Seltzer explains. Their passive spectatorship may have been affected by watching the sport on television.
_ Hayward: Blonde Bomber Joan Weston opened a training center here in the early 1980s in an effort to revive the game. For 18 months it lost money, before finally shutting down.
_ Oakland: KTVU filmed the 1958-’59 season at the original training center on 85th and East 14th streets, before the center moved to Alameda. Roller Derby and the Oakland television station helped establish one another’s presence. Venues included the old Oakland auditorium and the new Coliseum, where Derby celebrated the Fourth of July with the “Bay Bomber Bombastics.”
_ Richmond: During the racial tensions of the civil rights movement, the police requested two cancellations in 1969. However, like many of the fairgrounds, the Richmond Auditorium drew a family crowd.
_ San Jose: Between 50 and 100 people would start queuing up during the second or third period in front of the civic auditorium box office where tickets for the next week’s game were sold during half-time. “They’d miss this game to stand in line for the next week,” Seltzer recalls with amusement.
_ San Francisco: Television cameras captured the rough crowds at Kezar Pavilion, which sometimes required a police presence. The sport-oriented crowds knew the plays. The largest arena, and the only one where the track could be fully set up, was the Cow Palace.
_ San Mateo: After the Roller Derby’s move to Northern California in 1958, most of the Bay Area games were played here.
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(c) 1999, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).
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