February 4, 2010
By Edmund P. Klein
In a city where trains share the streets with cars, throngs of naked bicyclists swarm right through downtown at midnight every June and a defunct volcano hosts an annual soap box race, it’s not surprising that a couple thousand people converge to watch muscular, lusty women (flaunting a flurry of fashion from striped thigh-high stockings to tutus) knock the hell out of each other on a flat oval track in the flood plain of the Columbia River.
Rolling Back to the Past
This is roller derby in Portland, Oregon. But before we go there, a little history. Roller skating has been around since pre-Revolutionary days. But don’t believe the story on the web that four-wheeled skates were invented by Ben Franklin, though the time period is correct. The first recorded reference to roller skates (seen on a London stage) was in 1743, so Franklin surely knew of them during his 15 years there beginning in 1757.
Zoom ahead nearly two centuries to 1929 when a Portlander named Leo Seltzer felt anxious about the dwindling revenues from his small chain of local movie theaters. So he took a gamble on the nationwide craze called dance marathons, where couples vied for prizes given to whomever could stay on their feet the longest (one lasted 40 days). Seltzer’s “walkathons,” as he called them (to stave off the growing stigma of dance marathons’ exploitation), raged with success. From his first in 1930 to his last a couple of years later, he grossed $2 million, and then quit the business, saying it had become “vulgar.”
Seltzer held many of his walkathons at Portland’s Lotus Isle Amusement Park, located along with Jantzen Beach Amusement Park on Hayden Island. But in June 1930, shortly after Lotus Isle opened, a boy tragically fell from the roller coaster and drowned, driving the park’s owner to suicide two days later. A bull elephant named Tusko had run amok and destroyed several pavilions, and finally a fire swept through its fabled huge ballroom. The place closed in 1932. Soon after, Seltzer moved his family to Chicago and searched for a new business. He found the seeds of it from a statistic he read in a magazine article—93 percent of Americans had roller skated.
A Sport Is Born
Seltzer’s first roller derby, in Chicago’s Coliseum in 1935, was basically a dance marathon on skates, with man-woman teams skating 3,000 miles around a track for 11 1/2 hours a day. Although his Chicago pals called him Bromo Seltzer (after a popular antacid at the time), the event was billed as “Colonel Seltzer’s Transcontinental Roller Derby.” It lasted more than a month and drew 20,000 viewers, successful enough for the road. Seeing a roller derby was even glamorous, with celebrity spectators like Cary Grant, Eleanor Powell and Mickey Rooney.
Enter newspaperman and short-story writer Damon Runyon, exit glamor. Runyon attended a derby in the late 1930s and thought the most exciting parts were the collisions when opposing skaters tried to pass each other. He prodded Seltzer to change the rules to stir up mayhem. Skaters would score points when they passed, daring the opposition to stop them. Elbowing and slamming into each other were also encouraged. The fans loved it, and modern roller derby was born.
Over the years, roller derby’s popularity waxed and waned. World War II whittled Seltzer’s league down to just one team that skated mostly for soldiers. But by 1948, television reignited public interest and crowds returned for live bouts—five-day stands with 80,000 at New York’s Madison Square Garden and Seltzer earning $2.5 million, in 1949 and 1950. But it wouldn’t last.
In 1951, Seltzer lost TV exposure, and the crowds. No more bouts at Madison Square Garden and not even 200 showed up at San Francisco’s Cow Palace. The league, now under the direction of Seltzer’s son Jerry, resorted to videotaping matches in an empty parking garage. (A half century later, the Rose City Rollers, with no place else to practice when they first formed, did so on unforgiving concrete of the parking garage under the Grand Central bowling alley. Their training sessions began by vacuuming it.)
Rolling the Nation
Seltzer sent out his tapes to local TV stations around the country. One of them, in Portland, prompted an unexpected resurgence of wheeled mania here, and nationwide. Portlanders flooded Seltzer with 300 letters asking him to stage a live match here, and when he did, more than 9,000 fans turned out.The success of the Portland live-match follow-up led Seltzer to use it as a template: Spark interest with a videotape, follow up with a live event. By 1961 more than 40 cities had laced up. In 1969, TV roller derby viewers peaked at about 15 million, weekly.
But again, storms were on the horizon. With the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, touring costs had skyrocketed and Seltzer could no longer manage the overhead. Crowds declined, sponsors dried up. Roller derby’s image took a beating with the TV show, “Rollergames,” a hyped-up circus-like rendition of the sport. It lasted only one season, enough to cement the public’s view of roller derby as a cousin of pro wrestling.
If that wasn’t enough, the 1972 film “Kansas City Bomber,” starring Raquel Welch, portrayed the sport as corrupt, filled with fake stunts. Filmed in Portland, it showed some nice shots of the Multnomah Exposition Center and Raquel was surprisingly good on skates, but it shoved roller derby’s negative image deeper into the American mind.
Roller Derby In Its Own Right
More than 70 years from roller derby’s invention, rough-stuff drama still blazes in today’s rollergirls, but now it’s honest. The pro-wrestling-type fixed matches and savage slugfests of 1950s television roller derby have been ruled out by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association and other leagues. Now it’s a legitimate sport with genuine athletes. When The Oregonian newspaper asked readers in 2008, “Does roller derby belong in The Oregonian’s sports section?” 97 percent of 2,500 voters said yes.
Along with being bona fide athletes, rollergirls are also fourth-wave feminists, starting with claiming themselves as “girls.” No rollerwomen here, except in something official like this mission statement: “The Rose City Rollers are women of attitude, passion and athleticism playing a hard-hitting sport of speed and skill. We are pioneers in the rebirth of roller derby and continue to foster its growth. Our goals are to serve the community by empowering women, providing entertainment for our fans and supporting charitable causes.” In fact, the Rose City Rollers itself (now in its fifth season) is a charitable cause, registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. You can click “Donate” on its website and attend their benefits in local bars.
As much as the Rollers do good, the sport rages with defiance, something that footwear-on-wheels perhaps has carried from its start—in defying gravity, possible injury and even the slow-moving ground-bound mortals about them. Over the years, the image of rebelliousness has remained attached to people on wheels.Take today’s skateboarders, or the kids a century ago stealing apples or candy on getaway skates. Or go back to 1917 suffragettes picketing the White House for women’s right to vote, at least one wearing not only skates, but also a skirt so short you could almost see her knees. Now, skirts and shorts barely cover a rollergirl’s buttocks and defiance has busted into the forefront.
And into the language. “I hate those bitches,” says a Rose City skater about an opposing team, in the exhilarating documentary by Chip Mabry called “Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers.” Her angry words are probably not completely derby-caused. Others have said things like, “I needed an outlet, I needed a release . . . a physical contact sport.” “It’s really a good feeling to knock someone out.” “Everything . . . is balls-out and pretty badass.”
This is feminism? It is indeed, say feminist authors Jennifer Baumbardner and Amy Richards in their book, Manifesta: “We’re not doing feminism the same way that the seventies feminists did it. Being liberated doesn’t mean copying what came before but finding one’s own way—a way that is genuine to one’s own generation.” This means moving beyond the values of “NOW, Ms., women’s studies, and red-suited Congresswomen.”
For rollergirls today, it also means a heavy dose of punk, with its anti-authoritarianism (see defiance), do-it-yourself ethic (they drive their own trucks, set up their own rinks, negotiate their own deals), nonconformity (check out the “uniforms”), refusing to sell out, anarchism (at least in spirit), antiracism, antisexism and antihomophobia. “You can be whoever you want to be. You can be as aggressive as you want to be. You can be as feminine as you want to be,” says one Rose City Rollers skater. It’s clear that most of them want to be very aggressive, right down to rink names, such as Honey Hellfire, Penny Dreadful, KicKassedy, Smack Ya Sideways and—Fire Crotch?
Worshipers of the Wheel
The fans love it. The Rollers say their website gets over 1,500 hits, daily. Sell-out crowds of 2,800 show up for bouts at the Portland Expo Center and the city’s 500-seat Oaks Park rink. The league is probably the only Portland sports organization that provides a breakout of spectators’ sexual orientations—75 percent straight and 25 percent gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Many viewers call themselves “roller-moms,” “roller-dads” or other roller-relative of a rollergirl. They pay $20 for a guaranteed bleacher seat or $14 for a chance at a bleacher seat in another section, before they’re all taken.
The Rose City Rollers consists of more than 150 women and girls aged 13 to 60 (almost all of them in occupations, many as professionals) divided among four home teams, two all-star teams and a teen team called the Rosebuds. Rookies are “Fresh Meat.” They practice three hours a night, five nights a week (more for big matches against other cities). All are expected to help sell tickets. No one gets paid; in fact, everyone must pay dues and volunteer a certain number of hours to stay wheeled. The bulk of bout revenues goes toward venue rent, some to local charities and the rest to keeping roller derby rolling. If they don’t sell enough tickets, there’s no money to send teams to compete in other cities. Without that, the Rose City Rollers could lose their national standing, currently fifth out of 15 roller derby leagues in the West.
Back in Ben Franklin’s day, who could’ve imagined that a novelty stage act would evolve into an international sport attracting hundreds of thousands?“This is not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle,” says one rollergirl. And another: “It’s a sport, but everyone in it is larger than life.” Or what about this one? “It saved my soul. Roller derby saved my soul, for sure.”
© 2010 by Edmund P. Klein. All rights reserved.
The next Rose City Rollers bout will be on Saturday, February 13, 2010 at Oaks Amusement Park when the High Rollers face the Guns N’ Rollers. Doors open at 5:00 p.m. and the match begins at 6:00. Tickets are $14 and $20, available at www.rosecityrollers.com.
Photographer and former newspaper reporter and editor Ed Klein laced up, grabbed his Canon EOS 3 film camera and collected the above images from the Rose City Rollers Season 5 Opening Bout that he and I went to on January 16, 2010, at the Portland Expo Center. (Thanks to Sharkey and Mean, and all the rollergirls, for giving both of us access that night.)
For more of Ed, see his Eye on the Sky, here on the Velvet Sofa.