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.
Joanie Weston, the Bomber star and, really, the essence of the Derby, went along with Seltzer recently when he attended a convention of arena managers in Atlanta. She was amazed at the homage paid the Derby. On the plane back, she asked him: "Do you ever feel, Jerry, that you've created a monster, that sometimes you really don't know where it's going anymore?" He turned to her, and with a sheepish grin nodded his head and said, "Yeah."
Joanie is one of the skaters who looks forward particularly to the World Series, for it is the only time in the course of the year when, as Bomber Larry Smith says, "We don't have to sell anything." Joanie adds, "This is the way we should skate all year." Of course, even the series would never be mistaken for the Olympic 1,600-meter relay. Not all the skaters could resist falling into a few of their more popular routines, and Ann Calvello, resident villain on the Pioneers, came in polka-dot hair.
The semifinals produced the best skating of the year. The Bombers and Braves went into the last jam tied, but Charlie O'Connell blasted a path through two of the biggest Brave blockers, and the high scorer of the series, Cliff Butler, burst after him for the winning points. Against the favored Cardinals, the Pioneers had an even stickier time, since they were behind much of the last half and came into the final jam behind, at 34-33. Then Eddie Krebs, lanky and bearded, got off on the jam for the Pioneers. Behind him came the Cardinals' Ronald Turbin. Skaters glided around the turns, with Krebs watching the refs. When he caught them looking the other way, he lashed out with what he calls his "kickback." The skate hit Turbin in the thigh and he crashed down. Krebs now could move to the pack unmolested, and when his teammate Bill Groll drove Cardinal star Ken Monte high into the rail, Krebs shot through the opening, cut past a startled Mike Gammon and won it, 35-34, for the Pioneers.
The next night, however, they were never a threat to the Bombers, especially in the women's play. The Pioneers had some hope when O'Connell took a header off the track on a curve and crashed, mouth first, onto a table. But he returned to action after missing only one jam. Stressing defense, and holding onto the big leads the women built up, O'Connell led the Bombers home 40-38.
The fans cascaded from their seats. The Bombers had lost in the finals to the Braves last year, and now all was put right again. But this was only an anticlimax, really. The most important moment had come the night before when awards were presented at halftime of the second game—All-Stars, Most Valuables, Rookies-of-the-Year, Roller Derby King and Roller Derby Queen. Each name brought a burst of surprise and approbation. The players, beautifully attired in party dress if they were not skating in the game, cried out aghast if they won or deliriously if their friends did, and they hugged and kissed each other joyously. "Oh, Carolyn," "Wonderful, Cliff!" "Tony, it's you!" As each was named, he posed for a photographer. In the stands, the fans, all the blood gone temporarily from their voices, stood like happy parents at a high school graduation. Only the wrist corsages were missing. The arena was heavy with pride and joy and a warm breath of community and a very special love for everyone who was part of this world.
At a time when so many of our "respectable" games are tossed by dissension and pretension, the supreme irony of the Roller Derby is that, for all its shenanigans, there are moments when it ranks as pure sport.
TAKING TWO BRAVES WITH HIM, BOMBER CHARLIE O'CONNELL (40) HITS THE TRACK
POLKA-DOT ANNIE, a featured skater for 22 years, hugs Derby impresario Jerry Seltzer.