A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROLLER DERBY
“Roller derby — that campy ‘sport’ that filled low-rent arenas from the 1930s to the 1970s — is back, rowdier and more raucous than ever!” Kelley Shannon, Associated Press
- Today’s All-Girl Flat-Track Roller Derby is, along with Volleyball and Basketball, one of the only three modern team sports invented entirely from scratch right here in the good ol’ USA!
Created by Leo “Bromo” Seltzer in 1935, the fascinating history of Roller Derbyhas its roots in a Depression-era spectacle — a 3,000-mile roller skating marathon around a banked oval track, which were plentiful back then due to the enormous popularity of bicycle track racing at the time.
Vintage Roller Derby Program Covers
- In 1937, changes in the sport suggested by legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon increased the level of physical contact between the skaters, and thus Roller Derby evolved from a seemingly endless endurance race among several teams to one in which two teams of five players earned points by successfully circling the track and passing a member of the rival team. With a certain amount of “roughness” now permitted, skaters began pushing and shoving each other with gusto and, though largely exaggerated, physical hi-jinks and even some violence became hallmarks of the derby.
Fans went wild for the “new” Roller Derby. Fan clubs sprung up across the United States, and thousands of fans subscribed to Roller Derby News (later RolleRage Magazine) in the early 1940s, to keep up with the antics of their favorite skaters. Roller Derby appeared in over 50 major U.S. cities in 1940, and played to more than five million spectators!
- Since then, Roller Derby has survived quite a roller coaster ride — having peaked in popularity in the early 1940s, it was almost completely shut down by World War II, when virtually all the skaters enlisted in the armed forces!
- Post-war, in the very early days of television, when they had a lot of airtime to fill and not much programming to go around, Roller Derby was shown on black-&-white TV in the 1950s and even into the late-1960s.
Roller Derby then had a bit of a resurgence in the early-1970s due to cheesy movies like Raquel Welch’s “Kansas City Bomber,” James Caan’s sci-fi epic “Rollerball,” and legendary “schlock-meister” director Roger Corman’s “Unholy Rollers.”
(Click the pics to see ‘em bigger!)
- The “old-school” Roller Derby pretty-much stopped altogether in the 1980s, and had one last fling in the late-1990s with the pyrotechnics and spandex-clad bods of cable-TV shows like “Rollergirls” and also “Rollerjam,” which was created by none other than Jerry Seltzer, son of Roller Derby’s creator, Leo!
Today’s recent rebirth, or renaissance, if you will, of modern Roller Derby started in early-2000 with the Texas Roller-Girls, which is now one of 30+ leagues in the Women’s Flat-Track Derby Association (WFTDA). These new leagues are totally “DIY” (Do-It-Yourself) — skater-owned and skater-operated — and now, due to the valiant efforts of these grass-roots heroes, Roller Derby is once again the fastest-growing sport in the nation, some 50-plus years after its invention!