If you are of a certain age and a certain disposition, you remember Roller Derby. And if you remember it, odds are you recall it fondly.
What wasn’t to like? Two teams, divided into men’s and women’s squads. Ten skaters at a time slamming and banging one another as they circled a banked track. Blocks, jams, sucker punches, cheap shots and penalty boxes. A kick to the stomach. A chair banged over an unsuspecting head.
If that resonates with you, then you won’t be surprised that Roller Derby and the American Red Cross are teaming up for the fourth consecutive summer in a series of blood drives. Roller Derby, blood. If you’re of a certain age, the pairing makes all the sense in the world.
“What people don’t realize, Roller Derby is bigger now than ever,” said Sonoma’s Jerry Seltzer, whose father Leo founded Roller Derby in 1935. “There are 1,967 leagues, over a dozen in the Bay Area. Primarily women and on a flat track. All amateurs paying their own way. That’s how the blood drive came out of it. I’m the only living Roller Derby promoter, and in the 1980s I served on the Bay Area board of the American Red Cross.”
It’s called the “Make ’em Bleed” blood drive, and it has, over the past four years, collected 900 units of blood, enough to help save the lives of 2,700 people. Events are scheduled Aug. 18 in Livermore (Asbury United Methodist Church, time TBA) and Santa Cruz (9 a.m.-3 p.m. at Santa Cruz Strength, 151 Harvey West Blvd. Suite D), Aug. 25 in Santa Rosa (American Red Cross, 5297 Aero Drive, time TBA), and Dec. 2 in Antioch (place and time TBA).
Current skaters will be in attendance in uniform, available for photographs and distributing temporary tattoos. The events are tied to the first-ever World Roller Derby Week commemorating Leo Seltzer’s brainstorm. Psssst: Take my advice and attend the Santa Rosa event. That’s where you’ll find Jerry Seltzer, owner and operator of Roller Derby during its heyday, and keeper of its best stories.
Background for those of you late to the story: Roller Derby hit its stride when Jerry Seltzer moved it to the Bay Area in 1959. It was a hit with its unique combination of competition, camp and theatrics. The local team was the Bay Area Bombers with their twin pillars of strength and virtue, Charlie O’Connell and Joan Weston (the Blonde Amazon), who made the world safe from the likes of John “Porky” Parker, Ken Monte, Ann Calvello and Tuffy Brasuhn.
“It was fast, a lot of action,” Seltzer said. The Bombers skated all over the region, one year drawing more than 500,000 fans.
“We’d come to San Jose and play in the auditorium every Monday night until the weather got nice,” Seltzer said. “Then we’d go to the ballpark and skate there throughout the summer. Here’s the weird thing. Once the game started, the announcer would say, ‘At halftime, tickets will go on sale for next week’s game.’ The people in the audience – there were four periods in each half – starting in the second period they would go stand in line for the next week’s tickets. I thought that if we just cut out the games and have people stand in line for tickets it would cut the overhead.”
Bombers games were televised on KTVU when it was a small independent station. Seltzer sold game tapes to other markets for $35 each. It paid dividends when the Bombers went East in the fall.
“We sold out Madison Garden, Boston Garden.” Seltzer said. In Chicago’s Comiskey Park on Sept. 15, 1972, they drew more than 50,000 die-hards. Little more than a year later, the heyday was over.
“The gas crisis in 1973,” Seltzer said. “Our buildings were shutting down because they couldn’t keep them heated. In December 1973 I shut down Roller Derby.”
Now it’s back for the best of all reasons. Donate for the cause. You know Charlie O. and the Blonde Amazon would want it that way.
To schedule an appointment to donate, call 1-800-RED CROSS or visit redcrossblood.org and enter the sponsor code: DERBY. Walk-ups are welcome, but appointments are recommended.
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