When Chicago sports promoter, Leo Seltzer invented the banked oval track sport of “Roller Derby” in 1930 he created a popular source of entertainment that competed with wrestling at the Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga for the attention of local sports fans.
During the 1930’s-1973 era competing teams from Chicago, California, and other parts of the country would fill the auditorium on a yearly tour that usually lasted a week at the local venue.
Joan Weston, known as the “Blonde Bomber”, “Blonde Amazon”, and “Golden Girl,” was the recognized queen of the Roller Derby during the era as a member of the San Francisco Bay Bombers.
A talented athlete in several sports, the 5 foot 10 inch, 165-pound blonde Weston loomed over the smaller participants and she was the recognized star on the roller derby circuit. She replaced Annie “Big Red” Jensen as the Bay Bombers captain in 1965.
Combining athletic skills with rough house tactics including tripping, hair pulling, and throwing opposing players over the ring rails surrounding the oval track the derby attracted contact-oriented fans in the traditions of wrestling and stock car racing.
The purported creation of bitter rivalries between star skaters such as Weston and villain, “Demon of the Derby”, Ann Calvello further stimulated fan interest. The feuds in the ring not only were bitter but they were also personal. Blue collar and beer drinking fans throughout the country made Roller Derby a leading spectator sport during the period.
Aroused audiences would retaliate against Calvello and other villains that were on each team by throwing objects at the skaters or attacking them as they left the ring. What Leo Seltzer envisioned being a relatively tame competition changed into a more violent sport when sports writer Damon Runyon helped Leo rewrite the rules that increased violence---and attendance.
Very few matches did not include illegal kicks and punches that sometimes exceeded the theatrical and resulted in serious injuries. Twisted arms, knee injuries, broken collarbones, and loss of teeth were all common occurrences.
Most of the female skaters had nicknames and the most prominent were Midge “Toughie” Brasham and Loretta “Little Iodine” Behrens.
Movie stars such as W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Cary Grant, George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Eddie Cantor held reserve box seats at Hollywood’s Pen Pacific Auditorium in 1953 and the Los Angeles Braves attracted a crowd of 60,000 fans in a match in the Rose Bowl.
A little known fact is that many Chattanoogans were represented in the roller derby by Betty “Little Red” Boyd and others as a member of the Jersey Jolters. In December, 1944, she participated in tryouts in Chattanooga along with future Hall of Fame member Mary Lou “Lulu” Palermo of Chicago. In 1946 she married fellow skater Bob Satterfield and they had a daughter Donna who at age 2 traveled with her mother to matches across the country.
In a recent telephone interview with Lulu she related that Chattanooga always opened the yearly Roller Derby season on Dec. 26. She surmised that the Scenic City was chosen because of its role as a railroad hub with lines to all points of the country. After Chattanooga the teams would travel by train to Houston and Fort Worth, Texas, and continue to Florida for the winter season.
According to Ms. Palermo several skaters were prominent in roller derby from Chattanooga including Red Smartt, Betty Boyd, June Brock, Robby Burns, Edith Branum, Peggy Smalley, Rita Bush, George Bolt, and Jack Wilson.
While many of the skaters have passed, the survivors still stay in touch with each other and have a yearly reunion each year in May in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Other recognized male stars in the sport were Ken Monte and William “Red” Smartt who joined the Roller Derby in Chattanooga in 1947 and two years later would be elevated to the position of captain of the Chicago Westerners. Smartt was crowned Roller Derby “King” in 1955 and was selected for the All Star Team from 1954-1959.
Roller Derby was one of the first sports to be televised in 1946 and, while black and white television helped to prolong the life of the bank track derby, it eventually succumbed to skaters’ strikes, the gasoline crisis in the 1970’s, and increased operational costs which eventually put the original Roller Derby league out of business after its last match on Dec. 3, 1973.
Prior to its demise Seltzer’s son, Jerry moved the Los Angeles team to the San Francisco Bay area and eventually syndicated the sport to 120 television stations throughout the nation.
Although the sport has received some rejuvenation with women flat track games it has not acquired the prominence that it once held in the days of the National Roller Derby. Chattanooga now has a women’s team, the Chattanooga Roller Girls. They play their home games at the Chattanooga Convention Center.
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