Los Angeles Thunderbirds (aka: L.A. T-Birds)

Team History


The Los Angeles Thunderbirds are one of the most popular and well known teams in the history of banked track skating (Roller Derby). The legendary team was founded in 1960 by Herb Roberts and later acquired by Bill Griffiths and Jerry Hill in late 1961, with the first games being skated in 1961. Within just a few years, the T-Birds popularity rivaled that of the other major sports teams in Los Angeles; the Dodgers, Rams and Lakers. The red, white and blue T-Bird uniform and the stars that wore it are etched in the mind of Los Angeles sports fans forever. View pictorial history of T-Birds here.

 

Television and Dick Lane

During much of the 1960's and 70's, T-Bird games were broadcast in prime time by KTLA in Los Angeles and also shown in many other markets in the United States as well as internationally. Sunday night T-Bird games were one of the highest rated TV programs in the Los Angeles market for many years. The voice of the T-Birds was Dick Lane, who coined the phrase "whoa Nellie". Lane started his Roller Derby broadcasting career in 1951 and then joined KTLA and the T-Birds in the 60's. Many "Los Angelinos" place Lane alongside Vin Scully, Chick Hearn and Dick Enberg as the greatest announcers in the history of Los Angeles sports. Lane retired in 1972 and died in 1982 and will forever be missed.

 

Home of the Thunderbirds, the Olympic Auditorium

The home of the T-Birds was the 9000 seat Olympic Auditorium, which was routinely sold-out for T-Bird home games. The auditorium was built in 1924 for the 1932 Olympics. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s it was home to some of the biggest boxing, wrestling and roller derby events and has become somewhat of a landmark for boxing (and Roller Derby) history. Witnessing an event at the Olympic in the 1960's was unlike any other sports experience. Every seat was close to the action and because of the acoustics of the building, the crowd noise was quite possibly more intense than any auditorium in the country. T-Bird games often created a unique fan frenzy and occasionally pandemonium. For playoff and championship games, the Olympic was often not large enough so the team would hold these games as such venues as the Fabulous Forum (home of the NBA Lakers) or the L.A. Sports Arena. Over the years the T-Birds have skated at many of the largest arenas in the United States, including the venerable Madison Square Gardens. In 1972 the T-Birds set the all-time single game attendance record for Roller Derby as 51,000 fans jammed into White Sox park in Chicago to see the T-Birds in action.

 

Two Giant Leagues, Two Legendary Teams

There have been numerous Roller Derby leagues over the years but only two that gained national prominence; Roller Derby and Roller Games. The Los Angeles Thunderbirds were the dominate and most popular team in "Roller Games" and the Bay City Bombers were the most popular team in "Roller Derby". Unfortunately, the two leagues did not get along well and never hosted a "grand championship" that pitted the champions from each league against each-other. Occasionally, the T-Birds and Bay Bombers did skate head to head in exhibition games, and these rare events were highly anticipated by fans of both teams. Sadly, in 1972, the league that was founded in 1935 and started it all (Roller Derby) closed it's doors. Many of these Roller Derby skater had skated full-time for years and had few options for livelihood. T-Bird owner Bill Griffiths accepted many of the Roller Derby skaters into Roller Games. Not surprisingly, the skaters from the two leagues did not get along well. Both leagues had always had extremely talented, competitive skaters, but in the 1970's Roller Games began to focus more and more on theatrics and entertainment. This was frustrating and unacceptable to many of Jerry Seltzer's former Roller Derby skaters and many observers believe this may have been the cause of the demise of Roller Games in 1975.

 

Thunderbird Stars

During the heyday of the Thunderbirds, many of the teams biggest stars became household names in Southern California and known throughout the country. Undoubtedly the most popular T-Bird over the years was little Ralphie Valladares, who skated with the T-Birds for over 30 year. Ralphie was on the first squad in 1961 and skated in the final game of the Bill Griffiths era in 1993. He is the teams all-time scorer and holds many of T-Bird and Roller Games records, including; most game skated and most years skated. Besides Ralphie, the T-Birds have been the home of a long list of legendary, Hall of Fame skaters. Some of the notable skaters that spent the majority of their Roller Derby career in Los Angeles include: Danny Reilly, George Copeland, John Hall, Shirley Hardman, Gwen Miller, Honey Sanchez  Terri Lynch, Roberta Mitchell, Sally Vega, Richard Brown, Larry Lewis, Greg Robertson, Judy Sowinski, Julie Patrick, Liz Hernandez, Roger Schroeder, (former Olympian) Earlean Brown, Sam Washington, Billy Marshall, Carmen Thompson, Jim Terrigno, Ronnie Rains, Harold Jackson, Frankie Macedo, Patsy Delgato, Colleen Murrell, Debbie Heldon, John Johnson, Mike Flaningam, Darrell Davis and many more. Other Roller Derby stars that did short stints in a T-Bird uniform include Charlie O'Connell (the Bay Bombers all-time men's skater), Joanie Weston (the Bay Bombers all-time female skater), Ann Calvelo (legend), Ronnie Robinson (son of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), among others. Red Smart was the first coach of the team and guided them through much of the 1960's. Other noteable coaches and captains included John Hall, Ralphie Valladares and Terri Lynch. See the T-Bird Skaters page for additional skater tributes.

 

Brothers and Sisters

Along the way the T-Birds have had several siblings duo and one trio. In the 1960's, Danny and Jerry Reilly skated on strong T-Bird teams. The Kruse twins, Carolyn and Carol, spend time with the team in the late 60's and early 70's. In the late 1980's sisters Jennifer and Kristine Van Galder teamed up for a RollerGames revival. Leon & Harold Jackson, each skated as a T-Bird but never together. Leon skated in the 60's and early 70's, while Harold did brief stints with the T-Birds in the 70's and 80's. Harold eventually became one of the sports biggest stars, spending many years with the Chicago Hawks. A third brother, Bernie (who never skated with the T-Birds) is still an active skater as of this writing in 2007! All of the Jackson brothers were Roller Games All-Stars during their careers.

 

The 1960's - Glory Days

Los Angeles new team rapidly gained a large, loyal following which became larger every year. Red Smart lead the team to several championships as the T-Birds dominated. The skating on both men's and women's teams was fierce and fans were treated to Roller Derby at it's best. Almost all the games were carried on television and Dick Lane became the voice of the T-Birds. During the 1960's Roller Games experienced rapid growth and established teams in Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Florida, Hawaii, Canada, Mexico, Australia and Japan.

 

The 1970's - Up's and Downs

In the early 70's, the T-Birds soared to new heights as fans packed arenas in Los Angeles and across the country. The movie Kansas City Bomber, starring Rachel Welch increased the popularity of the sport greatly. Many T-Birds were hired to skate in the movie. In 1972 a rare inner league game between the T-Birds and Midwest Pioneers drew a record crowd of 52,000 to Chicago's Comiskey Park. In 1973, Roller Games absorbed many Roller Derby skaters into the league when that original league folded. Within two years, Roller Games also shut down operations (for a short time) due to financial difficulties and other problems. With the determined hard work of many skaters, especially John Hall and Ralph Valladares, the T-Birds fielded a team in 1975 and began rebuilding. John and Ralphie opened a T-Bird training facility in Pico Rivera (the T-Bird Rollerdrome) and thus began a new era for the T-Birds, Roller Games and the sport of Roller Derby. Gone were the lucrative TV contracts and prime time broadcasts, and player salaries were cut drastically. Some skaters bowed out and into retirement, while others pushed on. Many had to take second jobs to make ends meet. Instead of skating several times per week, the T-Birds now usually only skated once a week and did much less travel. Despite the challenges, training was intense and the quality of skating was still quite high. New T-Bird stars emerged from the wreckage such as Harold Jackson, Donna Young, Debbie Heldon while some younger veterans took their skating to new levels, most notably "Skinny Minnie" Gwen Miller & Sam Washington. Superstars Danny Reilly, Ralphie Valladares and Ronnie Rains stayed in the mix and provided the team with marquee star power carried over from the 60's. This new era for the T-Birds brought new uniforms and a drastic change of team colors. In 1978 the team dropped the traditional red, white and blue for brand new green and gold uniforms. By the late 1970's, the T-Birds were back on TV (Roller Superstars) and although the team was no longer selling out the newly named Grand Olympic, crowds were building steadily. In 1978, the Chicago Hawks, lead by former T-Bird Harold Jackson and his brother Bernie, went undefeated during the regular season, crushing the T-Birds in most of these games. The Hawks faced the T-Birds in a highly anticipated championship series which drew the largest crowds in several years to the Olympic as the T-Bird faithful witnessed their heroes overcome long odds to finally defeat the Hawks in a series that went the full seven games. The re-built T-Birds carried this success into the 1979 season as they now routinely packed the lower section of the Olympic Auditorium and skated to sold-out crowds at venues such as the San Diego Sports Arena. During this period of the late 1970's, the faithful fans at the Grand Olympic gravitated to a new hero, "Skinny Minnie" Gwen Miller. Gwen's skating talent and agility along with her longtime loyalty to the T-Birds endeared her to the fans. She was the unofficial Queen of RollerGames during this period. The very special connection that "Skinny Minnie" had with the fans was often overlooked and underplayed by management as the team began to focus attention on "model type" women skaters whose ability was often in question. Throughout the 1970's, Roller Games was the only league operating and kept banked track skating alive.

 

The 1980's - Hanging On

The momentum that was building in the late 70's continued into the early 80's. The T-Birds went "down under" to Australia for the first time in many years to the delight of Aussie fans. The team packed arenas throughout Mexico including several sell-outs at the 30,000 seat "Copper Dome" in Mexico City. The closing of the T-Bird training facility in 1985 may have been the single biggest blow to the organization in it's history. After that year skaters did not have a regular facility to train at. Talent slowly began to diminish and by the mid 80's many veteran stars retired and there were few talented newcomers to replace them. Many reserve or "pack" skaters became featured performers but just did not have the skills to attract fans. Mr. T-Bird, Ralphie Valladares, was forced to continue skating as he turned 50 in 1986. Even so, the T-Birds and Roller Games were still the only recognizable league in the country and as such were picked up by ESPN for the 1986 season. Games were televised nationally by the sports giant network and packed arena tours followed. The ESPN games were held in Las Vegas at the Showboat Casino. It seemed the T-Birds were back! Unfortunately, there were financial disagreements with ESPN and the two sides parted. Not long afterwards, Bill Griffiths shut down operations again. He retained rights to the names and held occasional matches in 1987 and 1988. It appeared to be the end of an amazing era. But, not surprisingly, Mr. Griffiths had one more trick up his sleeve. In 1989, two television producers David Sams and Mike Miller, worked with Griffiths to produce RollerGames, a U.S. television show that presented an even more theatrical variant of the sport for a national audience. It featured a steeply banked figure-eight track, an alligator pit, and a number of skaters who had been in the Roller Games league, as well as younger participants. It was broadcast for one season (1989–1990) before its distributor, Quintex Media, went bankrupt. The show actually had relatively good ratings and might well have continued if not for the fall of Quintex. The demise of this show put the nail in the T-Birds coffin. Or did it?

 

The 1990's - The End?

The league was revived as Roller Games International from 1990 to 1993. In 1990 the T-Birds skated two games in Canada. In 1991 & 1992 the team was idol for the first time in it's glorious existence. On February 6th, 1993, Griffiths and the T-Birds took one last gasp of air, and it was a big one. The T-Birds final game of the 1990's (and the Griffith's era) was skated in 1993 in Auburn Hills, Michigan (Detroit). With over 10,000 fans looking on, the T-Birds skated against the RGI All-Stars at Pontiac Arena. The crowd went wild, the T-Birds were victorious and it was a grand exit for Ralphie and the team. But was it really the end? T-Birds fans were left with only hopes and prayers. The team and the league was silent for the remainder of the 1990's and things did not look hopeful. Sadly, on November 13th, 1998, at the age of 62, the heart and soul of the Los Angeles Thunderbirds died. May Ralphie Valladares rest in peace.

 

The 2000's - A New Beginning

In the year 2000, Bill Griffiths Jr revived the T-Birds and Roller Games International, with little success. Former skater Lou Sanchez used the T-Bird name to host games in 2003. In 2005, Bob Sedillo purchased the team. One game was skated in 1985 with the T-Bird girls team skating against an up & coming new all-girls Roller Derby team loaded with young, well trained skaters. The T-Bird girls team had not skated (or trained) for years and was pieced together with older, out of shape veterans years out of their prime. The result was a lopsided victory for the opponent and a wake up call for the T-Birds. The following year, the full team (men and women) skated on July 26th, 2006 at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco against the once powerful Bay Bombers. The two teams were made up of mostly very old skaters and a few rookies. Like many of the games of the past 20 years, it would have been better billed as an "old-timers" game. The Bombers defeated the T-Birds 81-79. In 2007, the T-Birds are currently training new skaters under the guidance of Harold and Bernie Jackson and have held several games with more to come. There is much rebuilding to be done but there is renewed hope for T-Bird fans in Los Angeles and around the world!

 

Today's Roller Derby Revival

The past few years have seen a grassroots revival of the sport, especially among women. There are over 100 all-female league operating in the United States and the number is growing. The sudden growth in 2006 is attributed to the exposure the sport achieved from the Rollergirls reality television show, depicting portions of the lives of real skaters from the Austin-based banked-track league TXRD Lonestar Rollergirls. The show began broadcasting in January 2006, but was not picked up for a second season due to unsatisfactory ratings. The legendary T-Birds are the team that kept the sport of Roller Derby alive from the 1970's through the 90's. Many of today's young participants only exposure to Roller Derby was T-Birds action from the 1980's on the ESPN run in 86' or the TNT figure eight spectacle of 1989 and 1990. While this may not have been the "glory years" of the T-Birds, it was enough to inspire legions of new fans who are now turning into new skaters. Former T-Bird skaters have become trainers for many of the new leagues and there are just not enough of them to go around. It is too early to stay what role the current T-Bird organization will have in the new revival but don't bet against them. As it is plain to see by this teams history, you can never rule them out. Does this legendary RollerGames team have another comeback in store? Stay tuned!

 

Click here to see a pictorial history of the L.A. T-Birds teams.

The Original 1961 Thunderbirds

 

 

Dick Lane

Home of the T-Birds; The Olympic Auditorium

Ralphie Valladares in action

 

Sold out Comiskey Park, 1972

1972 Hit Movie, Kansas City Bomber

Fan favorite Skinny Minnie Miller

Sell Out Crowd in San Diego, 1979


 

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