The Original Roller Derby
Few sports have captured the American imagination quite like the Transcontinental Roller Derby. While drawing upon earlier popular marathon events such as walkathons and bicycle races, the roller derby proved to be an exciting novelty. In addition to its uniqueness within the marathon fad, the fledgling sport further provided Americans with one of their first opportunities to witness women compete in a sport under the same rules of play as men.
Drawing on a restaurant tablecloth in Chicago’s Johnny Ricketts restaurant, sports promoter Leo A. Seltzer, came up with the idea of a roller marathon in the spring of 1935. By early August, 50 skaters had been selected to compete in 25 male-female teams. The first Transcontinental Roller Derby opened at noon on August 13, 1935. Twenty thousand Chicagoans filled the air-conditioned Chicago Coliseum to witness the 25 teams skate 3,000 miles around the track, a distance equal to that between San Diego and New York City. The winners would be the team to cover that distance in the shortest time. Each team had to travel a given number of miles in every 11 1/2 hour daily skating session. During the entire time allotted for the race, one of the two members had to skate or else the team risked disqualification.
A large electronic map measured the distance covered by the skaters. The skaters practically lived at the Coliseum. When not skating, the contestants slept on cots in the middle of the rink. Along with meals provided by Seltzer,the skaters received free medical attention. Despite safety measures, injuries and exhaustion felled many teams.
On Sunday, September 22, teammates Clarice Martin and Bernie McKay won the first roller derby (image at left, 88.22.3). Martin and McKay held the lead from September 11 on and were one of only 9 teams out of the original 25 to finish the month-long event.
Positive of the success of his roller derby, Seltzer began holding try-outs for the next derby he planned to take on the road. During the next 2 years, roller derby teams went on the road competing in front of crowds averaging 10,000 people each day.
In 1937, changes in the sport suggested by sportswriter Damon Runyon, increased the level of physical contact between the skaters. The roller derby evolved from an 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 at the end of the pack. With a certain roughness now permitted, skaters began pushing and shoving with gusto. And though largely exaggerated, physical activity and violence became hallmarks of the derby.
Fans went wild for the derby. Fan clubs sprung up across the United States and thousands of fans subscribed to Roller Derby News, which changed to RolleRage in the early 1940s, to keep up with their favorite skaters. The roller derby appeared in over 50 major cities in 1940, playing to more than five million spectators.
America’s entrance into World War II decimated the ranks of the roller derby when more than half the skaters eventually enlisted in the armed forces. The derby dwindled down to one team that primarily traveled to entertain troops. No longer able to fill the skaters positions nor the bleachers, the roller derby declined in popularity as American’s attention turned to the global conflict.
Copyright © 2004 National Museum of Roller Skating