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Don't tell your friends who won the series
Frank Deford
October 05, 1970
A lot of Roller Derby fans are happy to wait until the videotape turns up in their area to find out who the world champions are, so let's keep it a secret. Between us, here's what happened at San Francisco
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October 05, 1970

Don't Tell Your Friends Who Won The Series

A lot of Roller Derby fans are happy to wait until the videotape turns up in their area to find out who the world champions are, so let's keep it a secret. Between us, here's what happened at San Francisco

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In Oz the trick was to possess a firm belief in whatever one had hopes for—courage or sagacity or merely a trip back to Kansas. Nevertheless, while the Wizard himself was a well-intentioned sort of mountebank, it is not known whether he operated the Land at a profit, and nowadays that is certainly a prime requisite for success. Imagine, indeed, a new improved Oz, with all the regular joys of that old family favorite, yet with booming prosperity and security, too; with no wicked witches to threaten stability, and no little dogs to reveal the state secrets. What a place that would be—the new, improved Oz.

Luckily, there is such a place here on earth, although, of course, it is not easy to visit. In Tulsa, for instance, it is possible to go there only on Fridays at midnight; in Amarillo only on Saturday afternoons at half past one; 10:30 Sunday mornings in New York City; 12 o'clock Monday nights in Denver. Those are the only times you can get There from Here—the times when the Roller Derby is on television.

There are now more than 100 towns where the Derby is on TV; it also visits nearly all of them once or twice a year, live, in person. For the 20 million TV viewers, and the nearly three million who see it at an arena in the course of a year, the Roller Derby is a magic realm to which they can retreat whenever they have the opportunity. There they find simplicity and order, yet endless variety, old-fashioned utilitarian violence and people and action that still fit neatly into the proper cubbyholes. It is a great deal more comforting than the contradictory, shifting world they usually confront, particularly when the valiant Bay Bombers, led by Charlie O'Connell and Joanie Weston, whip the Midwest Pioneers or the Northwest Cardinals or the Northeast Braves or whatever other band of immoral scofflaws are about on skates.

The Derby has succeeded in packaging sport, entertainment and traditional values all into one handy take-home container, and the result is a revolutionary success. The parent company of today's version of the Derby was capitalized in 1960 for $500, and is now valued at $5 million.

Skating 21 weeks a year in its home territory around San Francisco Bay, the Derby manages to outdraw every pro team in the area except the second-place A's and, possibly, the Giants. On the off-season tour of the rest of America, demand is such that the beloved Bombers have had to be split in two—the Oakland Bay Bombers, with Joanie, playing half the country, and the San Francisco Bay Bombers, with Charlie, working the other half. Attendance is always high, usually a sellout, and the TV ratings top most other sports despite the fact that there is seldom any newspaper publicity. In fact, the fans are content to watch games that were videotaped long ago.

The World Series of the Derby was held last weekend at Oakland and San Francisco, and some stations will not receive the tape of the final between the Bombers and Pioneers until next spring. But the fans will endure the long winter with patience, waiting months to find out who became the world champion this fall. It seems almost unfair to report the results.

Yet if normal newspaper treatment is denied the Derby, it has suddenly been certified as a phenomenon, and as such has received searching coverage by a variety of publications from the Rolling Stone to The New Yorker. A full-length documentary movie about a young man leaving Dayton to join the Derby has been accepted for showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival this month, and for general release thereafter. Now Universal and Al Ruddy, producer of The Godfather, have begun work on a film, Black Comedy, about girl skaters. Janis Joplin is being considered for the lead role. There is so much skate film about that there may soon be a whole category—like Westerns—called Derbies. The entire enterprise is again reaching the point it achieved around 1950 when a nation suddenly discovered television and Toughie Brasuhn. TV consumed the Derby then through overexposure. Appropriately, it has returned to fashion because the incumbent Roller Derby magnate has learned how to use TV for his own purposes.

There are not many magnates left. The only other one that comes immediately to mind is Debbie Reynolds' husband, who is always identified in the press as "Debbie Reynolds' husband, Harry Karl, the shoe magnate." Jerry Seltzer, 38, the son of Leo Seltzer, the man who created the Derby in 1935, may be the last of the magnates. And a very different one, too. When he put a syndicate together recently to bid for the Oakland Seals hockey franchise, Lamar Hunt, for one, backed him. The National Hockey League old line, curdling at the thought of admitting a madman who promoted his events and shared profits with his athletes, chose Charles O. Finley instead.

Seltzer went back to his Derby and to needling Finley. For instance, once Finley scheduled a "Farmer's Day" for the A's, so Seltzer promptly announced the Derby would have "Farmer's Daughters Night" in the arena that adjoins the stadium. He nearly outdrew the baseball game.

A certain air of whimsy always pervades the opulent Bomber roof-garden offices, and Seltzer's attitude usually is a curious blend of the pragmatic and the humorous—which happens to be the same that prevails on the track. The skaters are never quite sure which comes first, competition or entertainment. For that matter, there is hardly a consensus in the Seltzer family councils. Leo Seltzer wants to see all the buffoonery eliminated and to have the Derby concentrate on being a sport. Jerry, while not wholly rejecting the idea, never forgets he is the benevolent despot of this new, improved Oz that is so meaningful to many, and so remunerative as well.

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