When Chicago sports promoter Leo Seltzer invented the banked oval track sport of Roller Derby in 1930, he created a popular source of entertainment that competed with wrestling for local sports fans.
From the 1930s to 1973, competing teams from Chicago, California and other parts of the country would fill Memorial Auditorium each year on their weekly tours.
Joan Weston, aka the "Blonde Bomber," "Blonde Amazon" and "Golden Girl," was a member of the San Francisco Bay Bombers and recognized queen of the Roller Derby during the era. A talented athlete in several sports, the 5 foot 10 inch, 165-pound blonde skater loomed over the smaller participants on the roller derby circuit. She replaced Annie "Big Red" Jensen as the Bay Bombers captain in 1965.
The racers mixed athletic skills with rough-house tactics including tripping, hair pulling and throwing opposing players over the ring rails of the oval track, attracting contact-oriented fans in the traditions of wrestling and stock car racing.
The bitter rivalries created among star skaters such as Weston and villain "Demon of the Derby" Ann Calvello further stimulated fan interest. The feuds in the ring often became personal. Blue-collar beer drinking fans throughout the country made Roller Derby a leading spectator sport.
Aroused audiences would retaliate against Calvello and other villains on both teams by throwing objects at the skaters during the contest and attacking them as they left the ring. What Seltzer invented as a relatively tame competition changed into a more violent sport when sports writer Damon Runyon helped rewrite the rules that increased violence — and attendance.
Most matches included illegal kicks and punches that sometimes exceeded the theatrical and resulted in serious injuries. Twisted arms, knee injuries, broken collarbones and loss of teeth were common.
Most of the female skaters had nicknames. The most prominent were Midge "Toughie" Brasham and Loretta "Little Iodine" Behrens.
W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Eddie Cantor were movie stars who held reserve box seats at Hollywood's Pen Pacific Auditorium in 1953. The Los Angeles Braves attracted a crowd of 60,000 fans in a Rose Bowl match.
Few know that Chattanooga was represented in the roller derby by Betty "Little Red" Boyd and others as a member of the Jersey Jolters. In December 1944, Boyd participated in tryouts in Chattanooga with future Hall of Fame member Mary Lou "Lulu" Palermo of Chicago, who in 1946 married fellow skater Bob Satterfield. Their daughter, Donna, at age 2, traveled with her mother to matches across the country.
Palermo recently related in a telephone interview that Chattanooga always opened the yearly Roller Derby season on Dec. 26. She surmised that the Scenic City was chosen because of its role as a railroad hub with lines to all points of the country. After Chattanooga the teams took the train to Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, and then to Florida for the winter season.
Palermo related that skaters prominent in roller derby from Chattanooga included Red Smartt, Betty Boyd, June Brock, Robby Burns, Edith Branum, Peggy Smalley, Rita Bush, George Bolt, and Jack Wilson.
Many of the skaters have passed, but survivors have a reunion each May in Las Vegas.
Recognized male stars joining the Roller Derby in Chattanooga in 1947 included Ken Monte and William "Red" Smart, who two years later became captain of the Chicago Westerners. He was crowned Roller Derby "King" in 1955 and skated in the All Star Team from 1954 to 1959.
Roller Derby in 1946 became one of the first sports to be televised. While black and white television helped to prolong the life of the bank track derby, the sport eventually succumbed to skater's strikes, the gasoline crisis in the 1970s and increased operational costs. The original Roller Derby league had its last match on Dec. 3, 1973.
Before the league's demise, Leo Seltzer's son Jerry moved the Los Angeles team to the San Francisco Bay area, where he later syndicated the sport to 120 television stations throughout the nation.
Although the sport has seen some rejuvenation with women's flat track games, it has failed to acquire the prominence that it held in the days of the National Roller Derby. Chattanooga now has a women's team, the Chattanooga Roller Girls, that practices two days a week at the Orange Grove Center on Derby Street and plays its home games at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
Jerry Summers is an attorney at Summers, Rufolo & Rodgers. For more visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org.